This is a guest post from Dr Paul Spencer. Paul is a Researcher Development Manager at the University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE). His own successful PhD viva in oral microbiology took a shade over 4 hours!
So how long will my viva be? This is a question I get asked regularly whenever I run a workshop on preparing for the final viva voce examination. The short answer to this question is “it depends”…
In my experience, there is a lot of variation between disciplines. Vivas in science/technical subjects tend to take longer which is perhaps surprising given that the thesis word constraints for these tend to be half that than in humanities and social science disciplines. I also think that examiners adhering to evolved disciplinary norms conduct vivas in a variety of ways going beyond what might be considered examination. Taken together these factors contribute to the variation in viva length and, more often than not, it does not follow that the longer a viva takes, the more likely it is to indicate a negative outcome.
Yet to delve into this question properly, we need to take a step back and first ask a different question, “What is the viva voce examination for?” The purpose of the viva, taken with the preliminary assessment of the submitted thesis, is to give the examiners an opportunity to establish whether the candidate has met the criteria of a doctoral award. These criteria, in the UK, are derived from a common set of descriptors set out by the Quality Assurance Agency in the appendix of the publication Doctoral Degree Characteristics (September 2011). The majority of universities will have these descriptors, or something very close to it, in their research degree regulations.
I’ll paraphrase my own institutional doctoral descriptors to illustrate:
1. An original contribution to knowledge as shown by scholarly review by recognised scholars in the field
2. A critical understanding of the current state of knowledge in the field
3. Ability to conceptualise, design and implement a project capable of delivering an original contribution to knowledge
4. A critical understanding of the methodology of enquiry
5. Has developed independent judgement of issues and ideas in the field of research and is able to communicate that
6. Can critically reflect on the work and evaluate strengths and weaknesses
I think it important to unpack these criteria in order to understand what is “doctorateness”. When writing about this in their book “Stepping Stones to achieving your doctorate”, Trafford and Leshem advocate starting with the end in mind to inform how you would write your thesis. I always remind doctoral students that the purpose of your thesis is to convince your examiners that you meet the criteria for the doctorate especially as examiners tend to base their opinions about satisfying the criteria on the thesis (Tinkler & Jackson, 2001).
The first is what most recognise as being the primary objective of a doctorate but note it is dependent on satisfying scholarly review by the examiners. This is why the examiners are often portrayed as gatekeepers to the academy (Tinkler & Jackson 2000).
The second of the criteria is about making sure the candidate understands where their work starts and others’ finishes, it is difficult to make a claim of originality without this. At doctoral level this means going beyond listing published literature, something that Pat Thomson explored more fully here.
The third and the fourth descriptors are related concepts and are important to justify in both the written thesis and in the viva itself. They are different and to quote another of Pat’s blog titles that look at this in more detail, Methodology isn’t methods.
The fifth of these descriptors is about confirmation of authorship of the thesis, the ideas and the justification. This is oft stated as a key function of the viva voce (latin for ‘live voice’) examination, to reassure examiners that it was the work of the candidate. It is also about the voice of the candidate, their opinions, thoughts and perspectives not that of their supervisors, colleagues or peers.
Lastly, the fifth descriptor is about the limitations of the research, the positives of the research, the roads left untraveled, possibilities of where the research could go. This has potential to form a long discussion in some vivas.
If the role of examiners were to simply ensure that the doctoral criteria were met, then vivas would always be straightforward and undertaken in a short time span. The fact that sometimes they aren’t suggests other factors are at play. Here’s what I think they are:
• Strength of the thesis – well written? A poorly written thesis will take longer to examine – the candidate will need to spend more time defending their position in order to demonstrate doctorateness. Here’s some thoughts from Professor Gina Wisker on that theme.
• Intellectual battle? Some doctoral candidates wish to be examined by ‘the most recognized scholar in their field’.
• An opportunity to explore issues and debates in the broader context of the field?
• Potential collaborator? – some examiners are selected because of the potential to form future collaborations (either with the candidate or their supervisors). I think this is why many science/technical vivas go on for a long time, many research collaborations are formed as a result.
So, let’s return to the question, “how long will my viva be?” It depends… on who your examiners are, why they were selected, how well written your thesis is, how well you can demonstrate ownership, how much you want to engage in debate/discussion about the context of your work and where/how far do you want to take your research with a new found collaborator?
Penny Tinkler & Carolyn Jackson (2000) Examining the Doctorate: Institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain, Studies in Higher Education, 25:2, 167-180, DOI: 10.1080/713696136
Carolyn Jackson & Penny Tinkler (2001) Back to Basics: A consideration of the purposes of the PhD viva, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26:4, 355-366, DOI: 10.1080/02602930120063501
Trafford, V., & Leshem, S. (2008). Stepping Stones To Achieving Your Doctorate: By Focusing On Your Viva From The Start: McGraw-Hill Education.