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PhD Defenses around the world: a Viva in the United Kingdom

Today, I have invited Kath Atkinson to discuss her viva in a guest post. Kath recently completed a Doctor of Social Sciences (DSocSci) at the University of Leicester in the UK. Her research area is the employment and workplace learning of older workers. At present, she ism working on disseminating the findings from her thesis research. She also intends to continue researching the ageing workforce.

My area is social sciences. I studied at a UK university (University of Leicester) but with a few differences to many doctoral students. I had a full time job outside academia and was studying part time. I was also a distance learning student and therefore not required to regularly visit the university. Work was done at home on my own. References were sourced and read online and supervision was also conducted mostly online.

Publication of papers and attending conferences were not a compulsory part of the degree. If they occur it is usually after completion. This is probably due to the majority of candidates studying part time and not having sufficient time to publish/present as well as complete their thesis.
Despite these differences, the viva is definitely a major element of the degree.

Prior to the viva I submitted a completed version of the thesis, formally printed and soft bound, for each examiner to read. The examiners were not randomly ‘imposed’ on me. As I neared completion, my supervisor and I discussed who would be appropriate. She then approached them and a date was formally set that suited us all.

The viva took the form of an interview behind closed doors. One interviewer was ‘internal‘ (from my department) and the other one was ‘external‘ (from another UK university). Each was an expert in one of the main aspects of my research and both appeared in my bibliography. I knew the ‘internal’ by sight but had not met the ‘external’ one before.

My supervisor, who was not present in the viva itself, had kindly made herself available so I had someone to talk to before and after. Her office was used as an informal waiting and recovery room!

The viva was very formal with the examiners one side of a large table and me the other. Some water and glasses sat between us. They kindly poured me a glass before we started! Like a job interview the questions began at an easy level (what made you decide on this area of research?) and quickly warmed up to more probing questions such as my reasons for not using a particular analytical method or why I had decided to include a certain piece of evidence in my argument and how much did it contribute. There were also questions about specific parts of the text, so we all had to refer to our respective copies. From the questioning it was clear both examiners had read the thesis. However, I realised some information in the appendices had been overlooked as I was questioned as if I had not considered it. This proved I should really have placed it in the body of the thesis! Throughout, the questions were clear, very probing and relentless.

I felt a strange enjoyment at being challenged and making my brain bounce around all the information in my head and draw it together to create a response. ‘Exhilaration’ is probably too strong a word but it certainly made me feel ‘alive’.

There is no set time limit for a viva but after about 1 hour and 45 minutes it was brought to a close. I was asked to leave the room. I returned to my supervisor’s office until the internal examiner came to collect me a few minutes later. We returned to the examination room.

Once back inside with the door closed and everyone seated again, the outcome (amendments) was revealed. The areas requiring amendment were verbally explained plus the time I would be given to complete them all. The points had been covered in our earlier discussions so nothing was a great surprise. A few days later I received a formal record of the amendments plus an assessment of how I had performed in the viva.

I duly attended to the amendments and emailed a new version to the internal examiner as required, along with a note explaining what I had done to address each point and where to find the relevant sections. The next day he emailed to informally let me know all was fine and I would be officially recommended for the degree. Again, formal notification followed.

Before the degree could be awarded a hard bound copy of the (now improved) thesis had to be deposited in the university library and also a soft copy for their archives.

The actual degree ceremony was rather formal. It required us to file past the university chancellor. He shook our hand and congratulated us. Academics wore their respective academic gowns and hood whilst graduands wore the academic dress of the degree just obtained. Dignitaries from the local area attended in official dress. These can sometimes be based on what was worn several hundred years ago. It certainly made for a spectacular display of ceremonial garments and a memorable conclusion to the degree!

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