Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Vivas - examiners' perspectives

Back in May, we drew up a list of questions to be put to Professor Elaine Toms when she attended the discussion group in June.  By a stroke of good fortune, the iSchool was being visited by Professor Wildemuth, Associate Dean of the iSchool at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  She was able to bring another perspective to the questions

What training is available at the iSchool to help students prepare for their vivas?
Currently the iSchool does not offer formal training, though  there have been discussions about introducing more formal training.

How does an upgrade viva compare with a PhD viva?
The two are very similar and both provide an opportunity for the candidate to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of their chosen research topic.

Candidates should provide evidence of systematic study, and.should satisfy examiners that they have made an addition to knowledge.  This is important at both upgrade and PhD level.  

What sort of scene setting is there at the start of a viva?
Both Elaine and Barbara agreed that it was important for students to set the scene by giving the background to their research.  In some places this is done through a formal presentation, though this is not general practice in Sheffield.

To help with scene setting candidates were recommended to take a well labelled copy of the thesis so that they could quickly and easily find parts they wished to refer to.

How long should a viva last?
Recent experiences from Angharad Roberts, Joanne Bates, Rita Wan-chik and Robinah Namuleme all took around two hours, but all of these were relatively trouble free.  If there are serious issues, vivas may last longer.

Who sits on a viva panel? What are their roles?
A PhD viva has an external and an internal examiner on the panel.  Both are vetted by the university.  A key part of their job is to make sure the student is comfortable: they are not there to catch him/her out.  The two examiners should reach agreement, but it is the job of the internal examiner to ensure that university rules are followed.  The supervisor may sit on the panel but should not say anything

An upgrade viva also has a chairman to keep the process on track and to ensure that the student’s knowledge has been properly tested.

What are the possible outcomes of a viva?
PhD viva - Possible results are:
  • No amendments (rare);
  • Minor amendments, no resubmission needed - 3 months;
  • Resubmission without viva - 12 months;
  • Resubmission with viva - 12 months;
  • Re-examination without amendment to the thesis (very rare - only where the thesis is AOK but the performance at viva was unsatisfactory.);
  • Award of MPhil without amendments or re-examination (very rare);
  • Degree not awarded - re-submit for MPhil with/without re-examination;
  • Degree not awarded.
Upgrade viva - Possible results are :
  • Confirmation of PhD status
  • Deferral (6 months to resubmit)
  • 2nd attempt (pass / fail)
How often do people fail their viva?  What sort of things cause them to fail?
Very rarely.  Failure may be for the following reasons:
  • Poor time management
  • Not taking advice from supervisor
  • Not enough evidence of reading
  • Poor organisation of information (eg, bibliography).
Can you give an example of something that impressed you in a viva?
  • Clearly expressed research questions, well explored.
  • Enthusiams
Elaine and Barbara suggested some questions to prepare for:
  • What is your hypothesis?
  • You say your main finding was X.  So what?
  • Why was your research worth the money?
  • Why didn’t you use a particular research method? (Often the examiner's favourite method!)