PhD Vivas in the UK | Guest Blog by Professor Gary Browning
Completing one’s doctorate is a wonderful feeling. A PhD is a project that takes a long time, three years and counting, and now it has come to an end. But what is the end? The writing might have stopped, but the examination remains. It looms large as soon as the thesis is completed. The examination consists in a critical reading of the thesis by at least two examiners, one internal and another external, though occasionally there might be two externals. How do they examine the thesis? Well, they undertake close readings of the thesis, and make initial reports on its quality. They will be looking for coherence, originality and arguments that stand up, supported by evidence, citations, and logical reasoning. Substantively, examiners will be looking for an original contribution to the field of knowledge. Having completed initial reports, they compare notes on the day of the oral examination. They then conduct an oral examination, asking questions of the candidate to ascertain how well they can support the claims made in the body of their thesis. Examining processes are not the same across the world. Below, I spell out some key aspects of how they operate within the UK.
Examiners write preliminary reports on theses. Generally, they indicate the main flow of the argument and highlight strengths and weaknesses. Both types of comment are important. Probing weaknesses will be of consequence in the viva, but if there are problems, then strengths will be a countervailing force. Questions that are raised in the reports will be followed up in the oral examination. For instance, is there evidence to support claims? When acting as an external examiner, I tend to pose questions in the oral examination that have been signposted in my initial report. It economises on time, and allows the internal examiner to know what I am thinking, and where I am going in the questions. Two examiners working in concert helps the student.
The Viva Voce
How does the oral examination go? Typically, the internal examiner chairs the event, setting the scene and signposting the direction of travel. Candidates are neither to assume friendliness and smiles, nor take their absence to be a portent of failure. Some examiners are stiff and formal, even when trying to be informal and agreeable. In opening proceedings, outcomes are not usually anticipated explicitly, so the candidate tends not to be to be told that they have passed. The oral examination is part of the process, and so the final result cannot be delivered until it is over. In any event, outcomes are complicated and varied. A candidate can pass without corrections, or with minor, or major corrections, and sometimes they can be invited to resubmit. Failure is a possibility, even if it is relatively unlikely.
External examiners usually ask questions that explore the candidate’s ideas, and they want to find out why certain themes appear important to the candidate. They want to hear how candidates see their theses, and how theses fit into the wider web of scholarship. At the outset, the candidate is also usually informed of the length of the viva, which is often approximately 90 minutes. The opening question tends to be straightforward, inquiring about what is central to the thesis and how it makes an original contribution to knowledge.
How are examiners to be regarded? Should they be put on a pedestal? Should a candidate be prepared for a fight? On the whole, it is good for candidates to show respect for their examiners, but not to be cowed by them. I recall meeting my own external examiner, Professor. Bob Berki. He seemed to be a huge bear of a man, with a booming voice, and a determination to argue to the death. Some years later, I met him again. He was small, reserved, and respectful. My nervousness at the viva had inflated his stature, and it is worth bearing in mind that our perspective on things is often distorted when we are up against it, and desperate to pass an examination.
Given that a doctoral candidate is likely to be anxious, it is helpful if they can minimise their nervousness. How can that be done? A supervisor may sit in on the viva to support the candidate. I sometimes counsel against this as sometimes it puts more pressure on the candidate, and, on occasion, supervisors find it tough. Either way, I recommend requesting a ‘mock’ viva, ideally with someone other than your supervisor asking some of the questions.
I would also advise that the candidate adopts an attitude whereby they defend their thesis carefully, but not aggressively. Occasionally, a candidate will let fly at the drop of a hat or a suggestion of criticism. Conversely, some candidates roll over at the first hint of trouble. I was external to two theses in a month a while back, and in each case I planned to ask a question that was somewhat challenging after about 10 minutes, calling on the candidates to justify their approaches. On both occasions, the candidates rolled over, and confessed weakness. They said something like, ‘Yes, that’s a weak spot, I will change it when I have to do revisions’. In fact, on both occasions, I was not planning to call for revisions. Candidates should avoid this sort of thing. Hence, I strongly advise that they should undertake preparation, and have mock oral examinations, where they can try out responses. The object is to listen carefully to the examiners’ questions and respond with relevant information and respectful reasoning.
At the end of the oral, the candidate hopefully feels relieved. They are told that the examiners will be conferring and, in the meantime, the candidate should leave the room and return once one of the examiners opens the door, usually after a few minutes, although candidates should not panic if it takes longer. I recall that, at my own viva voce, I was asked to leave the room, but without a time of return specified. I followed instructions emphatically. Leaving the room, the building, and indeed the remit of LSE, heading out to a number of London pubs with my girlfriend. Nobody had said that I should return to the room. It was only in the early hours of the next morning that my flatmate told me the that examiners had been ringing, desperate to let me know that I had passed without revisions!
It is essential to pay close attention to what is said when you are called back into the room. While any revisions will be specified in the final report, this is the moment where the candidate can best discern the spirit in which they are being asked to make changes. It is also an opportunity to get some advice from the external on what comes next. If the external examiner does not volunteer some advice on publications, then it might be helpful to ask their advice on how you might develop future publications. Some of my students have been advised to publish their theses and they have received excellent, specific advice on which series editors to approach.
The oral examination of a PhD is demanding, but enjoyable for all concerned, and especially for the student. It is good to enjoy it. To this end, mock examinations may be crucial in enabling the examinee to make the actual oral examination a positive experience.
While the verdict is typically conveyed orally soon after the end of the viva, a final report must be completed jointly by both examiners and filed soon after the examination. This is where any requested corrections are to be specified and you must take note of what is being requested and ensure that the final version meets all of the examiners’ demands. In the case of minor corrections, these are normally only assessed by the internal examiner. But major corrections go back to the external and it is vital that they feel the candidate has taken them seriously and successfully completed the required tasks.
I have been involved in calling for major revisions once or twice, and have been impressed on both occasions at how well the candidate has responded to the comments of the examiners. I have assessed 28 PhDs and I have neither asked for a resubmission nor failed a thesis. Given that candidates work closely with supervisors right until submission, major problems ought not crop up. Unfortunately, some supervisors are more conscientious than others. Ultimately, it is the candidate’s responsibility to ensure that the submitted version of their thesis meets all of the required criteria.
Professor Gary Browning has to date examined 28 PhDs in Politics, History, Philosophy, English Literature, French, and Business. He has also supervised 11 PhD students to completion and is currently supervising three others. Browning was a member of the REF Panel for Politics and International Studies in 2021 and has been a member of the executive of the Britain and Ireland Association for Political Thought for the past 10 years. He has published 15 books, including A History of Modern Political Thought- The Question of Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Why Iris Murdoch Matters (Bloomsbury, 2018).
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