PhD Defenses around the world: The textbook pantomine villain? An external examiner’s view
Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Arnoud van Vliet in the “Defenses around the world” series to share the point of view of the examiner. Arnoud is a senior lecturer in microbiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Surrey, UK. He obtained his PhD in 1995 from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and has since then worked in the UK and the Netherlands. He has supervised or co-supervised >10 PhD students in the Netherlands and in the UK, and has been external examiner of PhD students in the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. He has also been Postgraduate Research Director for 3 years, overseeing PhD student recruitment, examination and other procedures.
The background story
Some traditions are transnational: once the PhD defense (viva) of a PhD student is near, those “in the know” start scaring the candidate with horror stories about viva lasting 6 hours, external examiners with OCD discussing every comma, colon and semicolon, or the student being grilled about secondary school biology or chemistry that they have forgotten about long ago. Of course, once the candidate is sufficiently scared, they will get more soothing examples and insights, but it is good to make sure they are not complacent. Failure is rare with PhD viva (if a candidate isn’t ready they should not reach that stage), but they still need to perform on the day.
The first time I was external examiner in the UK was in 2005, which was exciting and sort of scary; like the candidate, I hadn’t done it before and so both of us were learning as we were going along. Having done quite a few since in different countries, I now feel much more confident doing these, and enjoy them, even though they can be hard work and not always fun.
It starts with the invite which normally comes from the primary or secondary supervisor, followed by the submission of a CV which is scrutinised to avoid any conflict of interest between the examiner and supervisor/institute/student. Once this is signed off (together with the internal examiner), then we wait for the thesis submission, agreement on a viva date etc.
The PhD thesis
So once I receive the thesis, I start reading it. I recommend supplying the examiners with a pdf version as well: especially in countries like the UK where the thesis is a phonebook size and weight, and I don’t want to carry that around! It may be a courtesy but certainly appreciated. One of the things I look for in a thesis is accessibility: is it easy to understand, is the presentation aimed at making the work accessible, and is it easy to read? I once had a thesis where all figures were grouped, meaning I sometimes had to go back 50 pages to see a figure – very inconvenient. It is important to realise that the viva is confidential, but the thesis will become available. So the only thing that people can view to see what is required for a PhD degree at that university, is the PhD thesis. So the thesis should be of high quality, well presented, as proof that the degrees are earned and not given away easily. Hence comes the need to do a good job, and potential revisions! When I read a thesis, I check whether it gives a good insight in the subject matter, is up to date with the literature, does not look at the data in isolation but also adds context and understanding, and where possible contains a level of speculation/new hypotheses, i.e. takes some risks as well. It is not just a report, it needs to be much more than that. Examiners usually have to write a pre-viva report, which is the last chance to delay/stop the viva if there are significant issues detected. There needs to be sufficient content, it needs to be of publishable quality, and in the viva it needs to be checked whether the student did the work themselves, and if not, whether that is appropriately indicated.
Once the big day is there, usually the examiners and supervisor(s) have lunch or coffee, then the examiners have a pre-viva meeting, and then it is examination time. This is “freeform”, i.e. the examiners have a lot of freedom to do it the way they want. As I understand that the candidate may be nervous, I usually like them to give me a 5 minute or so presentation (no powerpoint!) of the highlights of their work. This is to get the student talking, so they may get over the anxious feelings they may have. One of the things I try to do in the viva is to push them to give me their views, and get them to speculate. My view is that they can speculate as much as they want, I am more interested in the reasoning used to get to their viewpoint, less in the viewpoint itself. If they want to claim that the moon is made of cheese, that’s fine as long as they can come up with a convincing rationale. I also ask them to be critical of their own work, for instance by asking them to reflect what they would do differently if they had to do it again. And what I want to know is why they would do things differently. Also, standard questions are things like “if we would give you 3 years of funding to continue this project, what would you do, what are the opportunities and why?”, again pushing them out of the comfort zone and not just g=have them talk about what they have done. I want to see the academic capability and development, check their ability to take different viewpoints, show they have taken ownership of the work and were not just “workhorses”, and in a way, show pride in their achievements! Naturally there will be questions about the work itself, things to clarify, questions about the interpretation of results, etc etc.
I always tell my own students to try and enjoy the discussion. The examiners are giving the candidate a chance to discuss their work with experts, who have taken the time and effort to study their work, and are at their availability for debate and hopefully learning. It would be great if the candidate comes out of the viva with new knowledge and insights, in addition to the blood, sweat and tears!
After the viva, the student leaves, examiners discuss and write a report and then usually student and supervisor(s) are asked to come back, and the outcome is reported. Often there will be revisions, which can be anything from typos, changes in presentation or the need to add sections. Usually these revisions will be checked by the internal examiner. And then the anticlimax, as officially the candidate is not yet a PhD (revisions), will not get the diploma yet, and there may be a up to a year between the viva and the final award ceremony. This is the part I dislike of the Anglosaxon system; the Dutch system where it is all done on one day has its advantages! Well, except for the dresscode…
Pantomime Villain or not?
Every external examiner does it differently, and every candidate experiences their viva differently. Some examiners are very thorough and are very detailed in their revisions, other focus more in the big picture, some are more friendly than others. Of course, sometimes examiner(s) and student don’t get along, students may freeze or become really nervous, or sometimes don’t know when to defend and when it is best to back down. But that is not different from other meetings, discussions etc. In the end, it is important to realise that these examiners sacrifice time and effort, to give the candidates the chance to earn their degree. Even if we are not nice, let’s appreciate the effort and remember these things once you become an examiner yourself!