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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

What is a viva?

A viva – a shortened form of the Latin viva voce – is the most common way in which you will be examined at the end of a research degree. In its simplest form, a viva is a conversation between yourself and at least two examiners – one ‘external’ to the University, and the other ‘internal’ – that takes place after your examiners have read your submitted thesis. In this section, we will look at two main aspects of the viva: what it measures (and why a viva is necessary when a written thesis has already been submitted for examination), and some standards and norms on how the viva is conducted, including the roles of each of the examiners.

Listen: Michelle Bolduc outlines the value of the viva as a conversation with experts. You can also download a transcript of this recording

This document allows you to to look at the assessment criteria in more detail, and to start mapping your thesis against each one in turn. Spend around five minutes thinking about each one of the assessment criteria, and try to make your answers as specific as possible.

The viva fulfils two key purposes in the examination process in that it provides an opportunity for the Board of Examiners to determine whether the thesis: a) is the work of the candidate, by assessing the thoroughness of the candidate’s understanding of the thesis (as submitted in written form) and the candidate’s ability to justify the thesis b) meets the assessment criteria for the award in question, by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the thesis and its justification, as well as the candidate’s knowledge of the relevant academic discipline, field of study or area of professional practice, and understanding of relevant theories, concepts and research techniques. 

Handbook for the Examination of Postgraduate Research Degree Programmes, Sections 7.2.1-7.2.2

It’s often overlooked that the primary purpose of the viva is very straightforward: to ensure that you did indeed write the thesis that was submitted in your name. After upwards of three years’ work on the thesis, you will have developed an intimate familiarity with it, and so it is highly unlikely that the examiners have any concerns by the end of the viva surrounding your thesis’ authorship. Of far more concern for most PGRs approaching their viva is the possibility that their work  does not meet the ‘standard’ necessary for a research degree – i.e., is it good enough? This can in turn lead feelings of imposter syndrome and concerns of being ‘found out’ in a viva situation. There’s nothing secret about these ‘standards’, and that they are in fact available for all to see in the University’s Regulations Governing the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

  • the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research or other advanced scholarship, of a quality to satisfy peer review, extend the forefront of the discipline, and merit publication;
  • a systematic acquisition and understanding of a substantial body of knowledge which is at the forefront of an academic discipline or area of professional practice;
  • the general ability to conceptualise, design and implement a project for the generation of new knowledge, applications or understanding at the forefront of the discipline, and to adjust the project design in the light of unforeseen problems;
  • a detailed understanding of applicable techniques and advanced academic enquiry;
  • a satisfactory level of literary presentation.

In reality, you will have been working towards the assessment criteria since the start of your research, even if you weren’t consciously aware of them. It is therefore unlikely that you have not been thinking about these questions (at least subconsciously) for several years. Nevertheless, it can be worth thinking about these criteria more explicitly, and the activity below will help you to do this.

The viva is most commonly carried out as a series of questions, but regardless of the precise fashion in which it takes place, the examiners are bound by strict rules on how exactly they will judge a candidate. The criteria (outlined in the previous section ‘What does the viva measure?’) are set out in the University’s Handbook for the Examination of Postgraduate Programmes, and they inform every judgement made during a viva.

Listen: Michelle Bolduc outlines the criteria against which examiners will assess a thesis. You can also download a transcript of this recording.

The viva is also the culmination of a long process one which, for the examiners, begins well before the viva itself. Both the Internal and the External Examiner will produce a report prior to the viva, and it is this report that will form the basis for discussion between the two examiners, and eventually the viva itself.

Listen: Bice Maiguashca discusses how examiners discuss a thesis prior to examination.  You can also download a transcript of this recording.

Listen: Jon Blount provides an overview of the contents of examiners’ preliminary and post-viva reports. You can also download a transcript of this recording.

Listen: Bice Maiguashca explains the roles of the Internal and External Examiner, as well as the Non-Examining Independent Chair. You can also download a transcript of this recording.

One key characteristic of UK vivas is that they are usually private and closed affairs – unlike the public vivas conducted by colleagues in mainland Europe. The University’s Handbook for Examination of Postgraduate Degree Programmes sets out some strict guidance on who must (or may) attend during a viva, aside from the candidate:

  • The External Examiner should be at least a Senior Lecturer (or equivalent) at a research-intensive organisation, and should be an expert in the field of study of the thesis being examined. They may be an Emeritus Professor, provided that they are still research-active. They should not be based at the University of Exeter, or at any other institution where the candidate is currently being supervised.
  • The Internal Examiner should currently be employed by the University of Exeter. They need not be an expert in the field of study of the thesis, but should be an expert in the broader disciplinary field. They may have previously sat on the candidate’s upgrade committee. Neither the Internal nor the External Examiner should have worked closely with the candidate in the past.
  • The Non-Examining Independent Chair (NEIC) should not have read the candidate’s thesis prior to the viva. Their role is to ensure that the University’s standards are followed throughout the process. A NEIC may not always be necessary, but will be appointed in a variety of different circumstances, such as if one or both of the examiners are relatively inexperienced.
  • Candidates are allowed to invite one member of their supervisory team to attend the viva, although they must not speak or intervene in the outcome (in virtual vivas, this usually entails turning off video and audio). The purpose of a supervisor’s attendance is to ensure that they are able to support the candidate through any revisions that may be required in the wake of the viva.

To a certain extent, preparation for the viva is something that you do throughout your PhD: whether it’s speaking to other people about your research or simply deciding on an order for your chapters, we’re working towards the viva from day one. Nevertheless, there are some specific things that you can do between the thesis hand-in and the viva itself.

As I was preparing for my own viva, I kept a diary during the process. You can download this diary for an insight into what happens once you make the step to submission …

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