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PhD Viva - The Examiner UK Edition

Too often when UK academics in higher education speak about the 'PhD Viva' we think of how gruelling the experience can be for the candidate/student, and this is evidenced by the sea of scholarship, which publicly champions survival tips and tricks for candidates about preparing for (and surviving) their PhD Viva. Back in 1994, political scientist Peter Burnham stated the PhD viva is 'one of the best kept secrets of British higher education' and to this date there is a weighty truth held in that statement, though what's left out is that its seemingly kept a secret from other academics as well. In other words, for academics who are Early Career Researchers (ECR) there is limited reliable material about preparing to be an 'examiner' for assessing this degree.

For scholars, like me, who have completed all of their post-graduate degrees and training overseas (in this sense outside of the UK, or more generally beyond the borders of the Higher Education Institution where you are currently employed) you might find it even more challenging to understand the culture and expectations of awarding PhD degrees in academic climates that are foreign to your own experience. While colleagues can easily assume that the starting point when invited to be an examiner is firstly relating back to your own experience of the viva, for many academics (myself included) with doctorates awarded at overseas universities where there was a different assessment criteria for PhD submissions, there can be a gap in relating to, or understanding the rite of the viva passage.

Graduation Ceremonial Academic Procession (University of Roehampton, Southbank Centre London, 2019)

How to prepare as an examiner?

As you would with most academic texts, it goes without saying 'read it cover to cover'. For some academics going through an 80,000-100,000 word monograph needs to be done through several sittings and while this is one means of preparing, others might prefer to do a reading marathon and go through it all in one sitting. As the monograph needs to be internalised and understood well enough to inspire critical reflection and engagement, the first recommendation would be to devise a reading plan that works to your advantage in the time period you are allocated.

Personally, I found one dedicated session of reading it in continuity was quite helpful in carrying the momentum of the research aims and questions, this took me one day (approximately 8-10 hours of reading and note making). Aside from reading, an effective note taking process is necessary, for instance I found that making a evaluative assessment of each chapter a helpful process to digest the content but also one which inspires me to identify the sections or points where I might need some further clarification from the candidate. These notes are generally used to build a preliminary question bank for the viva.

In the first reading, the questions which are immediately triggered are usually to seek clarification, in some instances these are often clarified in later chapters in the thesis, but in other instances they can help contextualise the more vague parts of the thesis that are not clearly justified. After the full reading (cover to cover), I generally find the post reflection process helps me express the wider conceptual and methodological questions that would help me compose questions to assess the candidate's rigour regarding their research design and mode of data collection and analysis.

The Graduate Office at the awarding institution, usually sends out accompanying forms for you to complete as part of your examination process which is shared with your co-examiners before the viva date. It is helpful if you write your report without interference of the views or discussions with other examiners on the panel, in other words write your reflections and critique before reading the reviews from other panellists. The distribution of these reports helps consolidate views of the panel and can aide in your assessment of the areas and types of questions you want to focus on for the viva. In my experience, and from what I have heard from examiners with decades of experience, there is generally some overlap with views and comments though this is not a general aim of the panel. A healthy amount of different views, even if there is disagreement amongst panel members, is expected from examiners who would have been chosen based on their expertise and experience, and these views or comments can help enrich the diverse range of questions for the viva.

One of the challenges with preparing questions, especially with an academic who is new to examining PhDs, can be getting the pitch right when commenting on the thesis. For instance, a seasoned academic finds it easier to dive into more philosophical critique of work and if they have experience being a peer reviewer for journals or grant-awarding committees they might find that the cut-throat criteria of academic reviews can be unforgiving. Though, as a PhD examiner extra considerations need to be taken into account to consider the view of the candidate. In other words, getting the pitch right might also include knowing how to differentiate between inaccuracies in the work that perhaps need to be addressed versus comments on academic style or preferences you might have for how the work can be expressed.

Years ago, a former Dean at ANU mentioned "a PhD thesis in the hindsight of academic experience is usually one of the worst pieces of writing a candidate would have done", and if there is any truth to this then we must consider that despite all efforts of the supervisory team there are often flaws in the project and more so in the written articulation of the work. With this knowledge in mind, I found that one of the critical questions I keep coming back to in my reflection of reading the monograph is often - 'is this work enough for a PhD?' If you find yourself in a panel that might be locking horns over particular issues a good means to disarm and reassess the purpose of the examination is to ask this question it will examiners step outside of the project and into the process of assessment.

Preparing Questions

Reading the thesis from the view of the candidate is a helpful next step in the preparation of your questions to adjust your range of questions, as often candidates present a bit of themselves in the narrative of the monograph and you can appreciate meeting them at their intellectual academic interests before personally (or virtually) interacting with them at the viva. The aim of viewing it from the candidate's perspective is not to overlook the academic flaws in the piece but to try and walk in their shoes to see where they might have missed certain steps. Understanding their stance through the monograph also helps you present your critique in a way that can be more clearly understood by the candidate.

That being said, the questions in a viva are not meant to only confirm the views and the position of the candidate, but they are meant to seek clarification and justification for certain decisions and statements defended in the monograph. As candidates are often nervous and have not seen your questions beforehand, I have found that it is helpful and kind to have some prompts ready especially for those questions that might seem a bit more challenging. A viva is not an academic game of flexing brilliance and expertise, it is a process of assessment and if (for a range of reasons) a question is not understood by the candidate or clearly answered it is important to rephrase and seek clarification using different means of approaching the question.

Defend or Defensive?

For my first PhD viva it was extremely beneficial to have worked with a more experienced examiner who was able to professionally challenge the candidate to defend certain claims being articulated in their defence. In our private examiner deliberations (post-viva) I inquired about the general expectation at viva's to push the boundaries on the questioning to the extent where the student might need to more robustly defend the integrity of their work. The examiner pointed out the PhD grants the candidate the 'license' to conduct research and it is our duty as examiners to sometimes ask the difficult questions, especially if the work gets published the candidate might eventually be asked to defend certain claims in their work.

Personally, I believe not all academics might have the gumption to rise to this level of challenging the candidate especially at a viva, but it certainly helped widen my understanding of the extent to which candidates can be pushed to defend their work, especially if well prepared by their supervisory panel. Again, it is perhaps important to say the aim of the viva is by no means about being deliberately forceful or intimidating towards the candidate, but certainly a healthy viva helps the student rise to the challenge of defending their work without being defensive of the questions being asked. Do not be afraid to engage students in the challenge, it is a rite of passage and while you do not want the experience to be negative, it should be a meaningful one.

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