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.