The PhD Viva
Today I spoke to a young geographer about his PhD viva. We were having dinner after a political event about racism in Europe and he started to tell me about his thesis defence. "The best advice my supervisor gave me was to think of the viva not as a threat but an opportunity," he said. The post-graduate self-help literature describes the viva as an ordeal to be 'survived'. Traumatic viva tales reinforce the apocalyptic image of what happens in the context of this unusual oral form of examination. All varieties of PhD viva have a basic structure - ie, examiners read the thesis and form an independent judgement about it then ask the candidate questions in the context of 'live talk' which is the literal translation of the Latin phrase viva voce. The stage in which this live talk takes place varies considerably across the world. In places like Norway and Sweden it is a public affair that takes place in front of academic peers but also friends and family, but in these cases the candidate's performance in the viva has little impact on the outcome. In this sense, the viva is a mock defence and symbolises the arrival of another intellectual player in the field and not part of determining whether or not the thesis is to be passed. In the UK the event takes place behind closed doors usually with two examiners - one external to the University and the other internal - sometimes with an academic chairing the discussion and/or with the supervisor present. There is more at stake because the viva is a real
examination and can be taken into consideration with regard to the final outcome. A candidate who has written a good thesis will not fail if they give a poor or even non-existent defence. However, the flaws or weaknesses in a thesis can be mitigated if the candidate offers a robust and eloquent understanding of how they would attend to them. There is a lot to play for in the give and take of the viva where the author of the thesis comes face to face with two readers who have read it carefully and also have to substantiate their criticisms. In this sense, the viva for the student is a rare opportunity to talk in detail for one to two hours about their work with two people who have subjected it to a close reading.
It would be wrong to minimise what is at stake. My young colleague described the viva as "a bit like gambling at cards". What is being played for? The outcome of the viva can vary from a pass without any amendments to minor corrections that can be made within a few weeks to a referral in which major corrections are asked for, taking 18 months and requiring re-examination of the thesis. In most cases the outcome is minor corrections; extended corrections and unblemished passes are both rare. I have lost track of how many PhD theses I have examined but it must now be close to a hundred. In all those projects probably five were passed without any amendments and a similar number were given extended referrals, sometimes not resulting in resubmission. The viva is far from a foregone conclusion but I think it is some