The Viva (Oral Examination)

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The Viva (Oral Examination)

Giving Notice of Submission
The Appointment of Examiners
Preparing for the Viva
Presenting Findings in a Conference
The Viva Itself
The Outcome of the Viva

Giving Notice of Submission

Normally, university regulations require you to give a notice of submission before you are actually allowed to submit two or three soft-bound copies of the thesis. There is usually also a specific time slot in which to give the notice and when you are allowed to submit the thesis. The actual times vary from university to university, so it would be best to check with the university that you are registered with.

Now you feel that you have done all that you can do. It's been more than four years already. Enough is enough, you say to yourself. But what your supervisor says is probably more important. You normally give the notice after your supervisor has agreed that you have written your thesis (save some minor typographical errors) to a standard required of a PhD. The question that arises is whether you can submit your thesis without the support of your supervisor, i.e. if he feels that there are certain errors and omissions in your thesis. At the Manchester Business School, technically speaking, students may submit their theses against their supervisors' advice. However, I would strongly advise against it. If your supervisor does not think that your thesis is up to the standard, then you are most probably going to have a very tough time in your viva. When I say tough, it means that your examiner will probably ask you to do major corrections, the same corrections that your supervisor has asked you to do, and probably more (if they don't fail you altogether).

The Appointment of Examiners

After you have given a notice of submission, the university's formal procedures are set in motion for the appointment of examiners. However, practically speaking, the informal process of appointing examiners has been decided long before that, around six months before submission of the thesis. There are normally two examiners (one internal and one external). The internal examiner is usually another lecturer in the same university (usually in the same faculty but sometimes from another faculty). In addition to the internal examiner, there is usually another examiner from another university. The rationale behind this is to avoid the appearance of bias or collusion (the assumption here is that the external examiner, who is not the supervisor's work colleague, would be able to exercise more objective and independent judgement than the internal examiner). Another possible reason for having an external examiner is that he is probably more experienced and knowledgeable than the internal examiner and/or the supervisor. The choice of examiners is often made by the supervisor. Although at first glance this seems like collusion, there is a simple rationale for this. There is much disagreement between academics, especially at the doctoral level. One lecturer may belong to a particular camp and prefer to follow the teachings of a particular guru, whereas another lecturer may belong to an opposing camp and prefer a different guru. Also there may be different orientations as to the nature in which the research was conducted. Some prefer quantitative methods whereas some others may prefer qualitative techniques. A supervisor would obviously try to choose an examiner whom he believes thinks along the same lines as he does. If not, it can spell disaster for the PhD student who can fail, despite having done research up to a standard befitting a PhD. However, it does not necessarily follow that all students would pass if the examiners belong to the same camp as the supervisor, especially if the research work is not up to the required standard.

In the University of Malaya, the Board is presided by the chairman of the PhD committee, the dean of the faculty, a representative from the Senate, two external examiners and one internal examiner—a full battalion, you might say. However, it is common for at least one of the external examiners to submit a written report and not be present personally during the viva. This leaves much of the examination to be conducted by the internal examiner. My role as chairman is usually to make sure that there is no collusion between the internal examiner and the student at one extreme, or unfair harassment at the other. Frankly, I have yet to come across either situation.

Preparing for the Viva

When I was preparing for my viva, I was given some advice by an associate professor. He said that usually, if the supervisor allows a student to submit a thesis and says that you are ready for the viva, nothing much else can affect the outcome of your viva. What he was trying to say was, I was assured of either a pass or a pass subject to corrections, rather than an outright fail. Normally, if the thesis is woefully inadequate, the supervisor will not recommend submission of the same.

Still, that doesn't mean that you should be complacent. Start your preparation a few weeks before the viva. Aim to read the whole thesis in about four days. Once completed, repeat the cycle . Do this until your viva. At the same time, play the role of a devil's advocate. Think of all the possible questions that your examiners can ask and prepare your replies.

You should go through the checklist in Chapter 5 (pp. 90–92) again to prepare yourself for the viva. In addition, you should also prepare yourself for the following questions:

  1. What motivated you to do this research?
  2. To what extent is this your research idea as opposed to your supervisor's?
  3. Who set the parameters of this research?
  4. Which paper has been most influential in your work? In what ways are your research better?
  5. In what ways do the findings in your research contradict previous research? Can you explain why?
  6. What do you feel are your major contributions (theoretical and practical)?
  7. What are your suggestions for future research? Where do you think the future direction of research in this area will point to? 8. What statistical tests did you use and why?
  8. If you can do your research all over again, would you have done things differently? Were there things that you could have done but did not, and things which you did but should not?

Presenting Findings in a Conference

If you are an academic, you should always present your thesis (or part thereof) in a conference after successfully completing your viva. The question that remains is whether you should present your findings in a conference prior to a viva. My advice is that you should present at least once but not more than three times. There are several advantages of doing so.

Advantages of presenting before the viva

  • Helps spot mistakes in your thesis and gives you an opportunity to correct them.
  • Gives you practice in answering questions, criticisms and objections.
  • Adds to your credibility during the viva, especially if the conference paper is accepted for publication in a journal.

Disadvantages of presenting before the viva

  • Time consuming. You will have to set aside time to prepare for the conference, hence the PhD might take longer to complete.
  • It may distract you from completing your thesis. This is particularly so where the conference paper concerns issues that are not central to the thesis.
  • If presented to an audience unfamiliar with the subject area, the audience will make objections and recommendations that will lead the student astray. I experienced this when I was presenting my PhD thesis on applied psychology at work. The audience consisted mostly of mainstream managerial researchers who were not well versed with psychological theory. I was criticised by a member of an audience who said that he did not believe that there is such a thing as personality! How do you respond to that? If there is no such thing as personality, then perhaps all the psychologists in the world should resign from their professions, and The British Psychological Society, the American Psychological Association, and all other psychological associations should be dissolved. In another presentation, a member of the audience recommended that I should simply look at the relationship between personality and satisfaction instead of what I proposed, which was, the interactive effects of environment on the relationship between personality and satisfaction. Clearly, what I proposed was more sophisticated. My supervisor also suggested that I should not follow that person's recommendation. I had no problems following my supervisor's advice and until today, I am glad that I did.

The Viva Itself

You may or may not have to make a formal presentation of your thesis. Much would depend on the university in which you enrolled. However, be prepared to be ‘grilled’ or cross-examined by the examiner, who will go through your thesis chapter by chapter. Do not take this personally as it is part of the process. The idea is to build humility in the candidate. The examiner is also testing you to see how well you are able to defend your position and justify your actions. Do not be too defensive and closed-minded. The general rules are:

  • Be assertive yet modest.
  • Don't be too defensive.
  • Keep an open mind and be open to new ideas and suggestions.

Do accept certain suggestions of the examiners gracefully. That will immediately soften their ‘attack’ on you. So, when do you defend your viewpoint and when do you accept the examiner's viewpoint? Easy—whenever you defend your viewpoint, and the debate goes on for more than five minutes on the same topic, you accept the examiner's viewpoint. During my own viva, I accepted the proposition by the external examiner even though he was wrong. He subsequently realised his mistake and apologised to me! Imagine the leverage that I had over him subsequently! Do not underestimate the power of being humble when appropriate. If, on the other hand, the examiner is indeed correct, then all the more reason for you to accept his opinion.

The Outcome of the Viva

According to the Manchester University's regulations, there are eight possible outcomes of the viva.

  • Award
    1. With no corrections.
    2. Subject to minor corrections being made to the satisfaction of the internal examiner.
  • Refer
    1. Permitting submission of a revised thesis without further research and without further oral examination.
    2. Permitting submission of a revised thesis without further research but with a further oral examination.
    3. Permitting submission of a revised thesis with further research and with a further oral examination.
  • Reject
    1. But award the master's degree.
    2. Advising that the thesis be submitted for examination, with revision, for the master's degree.
    3. Not permitting re-submission.

Minor corrections referred to in A (ii) are corrections that can be done within a day. These usually involve typographical errors, grammatical errors and very minor changes here and there. However, I have come across students who have been awarded this category, whose corrections took as long as three days. The most common category, I would say, is B (i) where some changes need to be made to the thesis but there is no further oral examination. However, you will still need to check with the examiners that you have made the corrections to their satisfaction. Such corrections may take from three days to just over a month. You have to hope and pray that you do not fall under categories B (ii) or B (iii) as this means that you have to go through a second oral examination. Students who have to go through a second viva probably did really badly in their first.

A student would be awarded a category C (i) if the examiners feel that the work cannot be raised to the standard required of a PhD—when they feel it is something of a lost cause. This may happen if the supervisor did not really know what is required of a PhD (this may sound strange but it is not impossible) and was not able to guide or warn the student from the beginning. However, one cannot automatically blame the supervisor if his student has been awarded this category. It may well be that the supervisor had warned the student that the research that he proposed was of insufficient merit for him to be awarded a PhD but the student went on regardless. The student may have chosen to ignore the supervisor if he was simply obstinate, or felt that his supervisor was wrong, or felt that his motivations were too great or, due to some personal dispute, could no longer communicate effectively with his supervisor. It is a sad day for the student, when, after three years of study, he is only able to get a MPhil when his initial objective of embarking on the research programme was to get a PhD.

Categories C (ii) and C (iii) are rare to my knowledge. I think that students who end up in that categories were probably doomed from the start. That is why I always insist that students must get it right from the beginning before I agree to supervise them formally. When I say get it right from the beginning, I do not mean, get it all right and perfect from the beginning. That would be extremely rare. The PhD research that one eventually writes up is often slightly different from the one originally proposed. However, what I mean is that the student must be sufficiently clear at the outset on the constructs that he wishes to examine, the relationship between the constructs that he hypothesised and the instruments that he wishes to use. This does not mean, however, that he cannot refine his hypotheses or opt for more appropriate research instruments as he goes along. The improvement on what was originally planned must always be welcomed and never hindered. My point is that the student must be clear on what he wants to investigate and how he is going to go about it from the very start . Until he is able to demonstrate that, I will decline to accept him as a student. It is important to stress that the above position taken is mine only.

In fact, some of my colleagues have disagreed with me on this issue. They feel that it is better to have the student formally registered with the university and the supervisor formally appointed. In this way, the university will know of the supervisor's workload, i.e. that supervisor A has X number of PhD students. However, I feel that it is my moral duty to only encourage the student to register for a PhD and pay fees to the university when I can see that there is a good chance of success. If other supervisors shared my view, perhaps the attrition rate of PhD students would be lower. There have been some students who briefly told me what they wanted to do, and after listening to them, I could see a potential PhD. And there were others who described to me in detail or gave me a written research proposal, but I still failed to see how they could be awarded a PhD based on what they were trying to do.