I read with some incredulity an article in The Times Higher Education Supplement of 25 April 2013 by Elizabeth Gibney which painted a picture of PhD external examiners as anachronistic sadistic ogres out to fail the candidate at any excuse.
She further suggested that an alternative to our current system could be one similar to the European system where essentially the thesis is a bind-up of published papers, usually at least three and sometimes up to seven. To be fair, she did, however, outline some of the shortcomings of the European system. Her description of the UK system is totally at odds with anything I have experienced in a 35 year-career as examinee and examiner, both external and internal.
To date, 52 of my students have been examined and received their PhDs. Most have had minor revisions, a couple had major revisions, and not one has failed. In all cases, they were treated with courtesy and respect, even the candidate who when asked why she had repeated an experiment that had been done twenty years previously, replied that it was because the original experiment was deeply flawed, seemingly unaware that her external examiner was the experimenter in question. I have to admit that I almost gasped out loud, especially as the external in question had, many years before, been my supervisor. He, however, took it in stride, smiled and passed her with minor revisions. This does not seem to be an example of the vindictive ogres painted by Elizabeth Gibney.
My own PhD viva, took just under two hours and was conducted in a very friendly manner with plenty of opportunities to put my own views across. At no time did I feel threatened or under pressure. In fact I felt that I was having the opportunity of life-time in that I was able to discuss what I had been doing for the previous three years with someone who seemed to have a genuine interest in how and why I had done what I did.
I don’t see a PhD viva as a gladiatorial contest; rather a friendly, but searching discussion of the methods used, a critical discussion of the analysis of the results obtained and an opportunity to understand how and why they interpreted the results as they did. I always begin by telling the candidate how much I enjoyed reading their thesis and tell them not to worry unduly about the Post-it notes festooning the sides of my copy of their thesis, most are usually typos and many are in the references section where students seem to become incredibly careless.
As I tell them if you can’t be bothered to format your references properly, what message am I to take home about your experimental procedures?
I always ask the candidate what they did before and why they ended up doing the PhD that I am examining. I try to make the discussion a mixture of general wider-reaching issues and consideration of the material in each chapter. At all times, even if I feel that there is a fault, I approach the matter in a supportive and advisory role. This is characteristic of all the external and internal examiners that I have observed over the years. I feel that my role as an external examiner is a) to make sure that the PhD and candidate are up to scratch and b) that the material presented has the best chance of seeing the light of day by being published. I think it is a terrible waste of three years’ work to leave it to languish in a thesis that is likely to be unread after it is placed on the university library shelves or electronic archive. I thus always ask them where they intend to publish, if they have not already submitted some of the work. I will also suggest what I think would be suitable journals for them to submit their work to, and which chapters will be likely to be publishable. Many students including my own try to have at least one paper in press or published before they submit. I consider this a very good strategy, both for improving their employment prospects and ensuring an even smoother ride through the viva process.
Yes a candidate may be nervous and a bit apprehensive before their viva, but the job of the supervisor and progress review panels is to make sure that candidates should enter the examination room with a very reasonable expectation of passing with only minor revisions. It is in no one’s interest to allow candidates with little chance of passing to get as far as the viva. As far as I am concerned the system works well and is not broken, but perhaps it is different in other disciplines?
Today (7th May 2013) I conducted my 50th face to face UK PhD viva (21 external, 29 internal). Reader, we passed him with minor corrections.
Ogre, I hope not!
To those of you who have not yet had your viva. First, do discuss the choice of external examiner with your supervisor. Most supervisors like to give their students some choice in the matter. You may have a particular preference, but your supervisor will know if they have any particular quirks that may not make them the best choice for your thesis. Once you know who the external is, make sure you include some of his/her references in your thesis. It may seem petty, but it helps get you off on the right foot.
When you get to the viva, be confident, but don’t go in as if you owned the world. Remember you have spent at least three years researching your particular subject, but your examiner will have spent many years researching the general area. In terms of detail you should be pretty much the world expert. You do, however, need to be able to put your knowledge in a wider context and that is the added extra that the examiner is looking for. Work hard, think hard, embrace the wider picture, make sure those references are formatted correctly and don’t waffle. Good luck.