The PhD viva: Supervisory misery



One of my PhD students is having her viva today and this means a day of extraordinary tension and non-productivity for me. I will spend today pacing the room, making more and more coffee, web surfing and generally fretting.

Past experience doesn’t help. I have had around 20 students go through this process and they’ve all made it to their PhDs. Every viva is equally tortuous though. These people have trusted me to guide them to their doctorates and have invested so many years and so much effort in the process. What if, just what if I have fouled up somehow? Even when the examiners are smiling and reassuring to me and strongly convey the message that all will be well, the uneasiness remains.

The really nerve-wracking element of the PhD viva is the open-ended nature of it. Nobody knows how long it will last, so as the person who waits anxiously outside the tension is exacerbated with every passing hour. I’ve been involved in a lot of viva’s as both internal and external examiner and they have varied from 1 hour to 8 hours and I work on the assumption that if my student hasn’t emerged after about 2 ½ hours things might be getting sticky. Or maybe they’ve finished and are just having a jolly post-viva chat. And then there is the wide range of decisions that the examiners can make- everything from pass with no corrections through to a full rewrite and resubmission, or worse. Will I have a happy student at the end of this, or will there be pieces to pick up, recrimination to face?

To be honest I would much rather go into the room and do the viva for them, but I suppose that defeats the object. I often think that the European norm of having an open defence is so much better. At least then the supervisor can see what is unfolding. Often those happen with all of the candidate’s family and friends present, so it is hard for the examiners to be too harsh.

Nothing can prepare the student for the viva either. The examiners can ask anything, at any level, about anything in the thesis or remotely related to the subject matter. The students just have to be at the doctoral level and need to be able to think on their feet. As supervisor I’ve given some of my students a mock viva before the real event and the feedback tends to be that I am horrible and the real examiner was much nicer. I’ve tried not bothering with that and telling the students to just relax and enjoy an intellectual discussion between equals. Then I worry that I’ve short-changed them and possibly sent them to their doom unprepared.

So- we are now into the second hour of this viva. How much longer? Are we nearly there yet?

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