The V-word

Every single country seems to examine PhDs differently, so I thought I’d just explain how it works in the UK, and what happened for me, in case anyone’s interested. (And because it was a big big day and I want a record of it!) I left my camera in Norway, otherwise I’d intersperse all these thoughts with photos of the fat sunny green trees along the canal. Although, from my window I can also see a rather large man waiting at the bus-stop with no shirt on, eating crisps, which is not such a pretty sight. Anyway…

So, in the UK, you submit your thesis, and then a few months later you’re called in for a viva. Usually this is a couple of months later, but sometimes it’s longer. The viva is an interview with your examiners – one internal examiner from your own institution (but who has not directly supervised you in any way), and one external examiner from another institution. They ask you all sorts of awkward questions, and then at the end of it all they tell you whether you’ve passed or not. These are the possible outcomes: if it’s not good enough for a PhD they can give you an MPhil; if it’s not good enough but they think you are capable of getting there in the end you can get ‘referred’, and given an extra year to work on it; you can pass with ‘minor deficiencies’, if there are small things you have missed out or they want you to change, and you have three months for this; you can pass with ‘minor corrections’, in which case you get four weeks to do this; or you can pass with ‘no corrections’ if they think it’s set to go.

At the beginning they tell you that the viva is an active part of the examination process. It is a form of exam. According to my supervisors, this is especially important if there are weaknesses or inconsistencies in your thesis. Although the viva is in many ways a ‘defense’, there is no point defending the indefensible. They both had stories of examining theses that needed changing, but the defendants were so stuck on defending what they had written that they came across as incapable of reworking the thesis to the required standard. So they failed.

When I handed in my thesis my supervisors assured me that I would have nothing to worry about, so for the most part of the two months I hardly thought about the viva. I think the concept of a viva is quite nice – you actually get to talk to experts in detail about your own work, which doesn’t happen every day. I think this is much nicer than the way it works in Australia, where, for the most part, the examiners are anonymous, there is no viva, and you just receive reports in the mail.

But still. The week before, the days before my viva were quite nerve-wracking. Who was it that said you can’t send a poem out into the world with a tag on it saying ‘this is a good poem’? I’m quite happy with that state of affairs. But in a viva – and, I guess, in an academic career – you’re in it together. You stand beside your work, claim it as your own, and are judged accordingly. So I was a little nervous, sitting in the hallway, waiting to be called in.

Agh, this post is too long already, will finish it in a follow up post! Stay tuned…

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6 thoughts on “The V-word

  1. Oh Bugger, just when you were getting to the good bit!

    I am on an official ‘blog break’ while I attack the last six months of mine. But the dastardly flu has a hole on me, and I am spending the day in bed as I have brain mush, or is that mush brain? Whatever.

    Yours was the first to pop up in my reader. Now it is back to feeling sorry for myself.

  2. michelle – blogs are great for brain mush aren’t they!! hope you feel better soon.

    tee hee – sorry to leave you all hanging on a cliff, but the post was going on forever…

    and cristy – you should check with your department. most of my contacts in Australia say they don’t do vivas any more, but my contacts are mainly in English literature…

  3. Well I’ve read the whole lot now. I was with you every step of the way, and the questions, well some of them were quite tricky but obviously you engaged in suitable academic discussion and passed. It sounds like a very testing afternoon, but a great evening in the pub afterwards. The post-grad community at Leeds sounds very supportive and you’ve made some great friends there.
    What next Mel?

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