PhD oral exams: is the system still fit for purpose?

The UK system for PhD examining is very much on my mind at the moment; I chaired a viva at Keele on Friday, and I am external examiner for vivas at Sheffield and Trinity College Dublin (which operates the same system as in the UK) in the near future. In the past, as well as being internal and external examiner for PhD exams in the UK and Ireland, I have been involved in PhD exams in Brazil and South Africa. As a result I have a wide experience of the UK system, but have also seen how some other countries do the same thing but in very different ways.

The traditional system that operates in the UK is to have an external and internal examiner. There can be minor variations where the candidate is a staff member at the institution (sometimes 2 externals are appointed in this case), and at Keele all vivas have an Independent Chair (more of which later), But all of these have in common the basic idea that the candidate is questioned by two examiners, at least one of whom is (hopefully) an expert in the subject of the PhD. Some institutions specify a maximum length for the viva, and some stipulate that there should be a break after a certain time has passed, e.g. 2 hours, but the basic idea is the same.

I have two concerns about this system. The first is that it can be hard to find a suitably qualified external examiner who is willing to put the time into reading the thesis and preparing questions, etc for the viva. OK, if it is exactly in your field, then maybe this isn’t a problem, but if it is only partially related to your research, and isn’t directly what you do on a day to day basis, then preparing for the viva can be both difficult and time-consuming. But I always feel that it is unfair to the candidate if you don’t put the effort in to this (and I am sure most examiners feel this way). After all, the candidate has worked hard to do the research and write the thesis! The problem, as I see it, is that as the time commitments on academic staff increase, particularly in teaching and administration, there may come a time when potential external examiners are hard to find. Basically the system currently runs on good will, and Universities don’t (to my knowledge anyway) explicitly recognise the time their staff spend on PhD examining.

My second concern is the fairness and relative comparability of the system, both within the UK and internationally. When I was an examiner for a PhD in Brazil, I was on a panel of 5, and I know similar systems operate in some other European countries. How can you compare the experience of a student examined in that way with one going through our system? Keele introduced the idea of an Independent Chair to try to ensure vivas were run comparably across the faculties, but in practice I’m not convinced it does anything more than make the process more bureaucratic! More generally, is it time to review our two-examiner system for PhD examining?

I don’t believe that doing nothing is an option. My first concern, which relates to finding suitable examiners, will, I am sure, become a serious issue in the years to come. And the second concern is relevant as our courses become more internationalised, and PhD students may do their research in more than one country.

Comments, as always, are most welcome!


2 thoughts on “PhD oral exams: is the system still fit for purpose?”

  1. Hi Rob,

    Interesting points – we are having changes in UCC to the viva. First change is that the supervisor is no longer part of the examining board, but can still sit in the exam if invited to. Thus, the external and the head of dept are the two examiners, but this is still being looked at.
    We now have all students working under a thesis committee with 4 members, each with a different role and they are reviewed every 6 months, which helps a lot in keeping things on track, that by the time we get to the viva, they are well prepared.
    The university wants to scrap our policy of a public presentation as part of the exam and have only the private exam. We are against this as it is a great opportunity for the candidate to talk about their work, something they should do at every chance.
    A practical difficulty is still finding suitable external examiners – my problem is that the most suitable are those who I would work with, given the relative size of the field!

    Still a lot of discussion on this topic to come, especially now with these structured PhDs and their emphasis on courses and non-research training.



  2. Hi Mick

    Thanks for your response. It’s interesting that the system you have been operating at UCC has been quite different from ours. We don’t encourage the supervisor to be present, although they can be with the consent of the internal examiner and candidate. Personally I think the supervisor should _never be present. I once did a viva at which the supervisor was present, and I found it quite off-putting as at the time I was relative inexperienced!

    We’ve never had the public presentation, but I think that’s a good idea. I did a viva in Brazil where the student gave a 15 minute talk (in Portuguese (:). There was a good sized audience, and I think that is a useful part of the examination experience. Of course, you’ve no doubt heard the stories of public vivas in Spain/Italy, where grandmothers of the candidate have attacked the examiner(s) for being too hard on their precious grandchildren!

    The independent Chair system we have at Keele is really a waste of time. Effectively it means that there are three examiners, but one just sits there and does nothing once the viva has started. In theory they are there to make sure everything goes smoothly, but in practice, things have always taken care of themselves in my experience.

    Anyway, nice to hear from you and to connect on LinkedIn. Hope to see you at a conference some time!

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