PhD vivas are unfair and I am paying the price

I sent my thesis for examination with the approval of my supervisors, both of whom are professors in their disciplines. Since then, it has been examined twice and has been awarded an MPhil with minor corrections and an MPhil with major corrections (an MPhil is an in-between qualification, considered to be twice as much work as a master’s but half that of a PhD). A final decision has still not been made, and the university is considering my appeal and formal complaint.

Like most postgraduates, I’m hugely emotionally invested in my PhD. One of the most hurtful things I’ve been told during this process is that I am not “intellectually capable” of completing it. That kind of comment – along with the ongoing anguish over the result – has damaged my sense of self and my confidence, and the stress has caused problems in my personal relationships.

All I can do is cross my fingers that it will all work out for the best. With such discrepancies in opinions of my examiners, it is difficult to see the process as anything more than luck.

It seems wrong that a PhD is judged on an examination that only takes a few hours, with just two examiners having the final say on whether a contribution merits the qualification. Most candidates pass with minor corrections, being instructed to fix typographical errors, for example. Failure may sound implausible, but it can and does happen.

Although this situation can never be prevented entirely, the British system could look to other parts of Europe, Canada and the US to make the viva process fairer.

Candidates in those countries are examined in front of an audience of their friends, family and colleagues, several of whom will also have read the thesis. This is known as the public defence system and can reduce the likelihood of examiners abusing the protection of a closed exam.

The greatest advantage of this is the potential for public scrutiny. It also gives candidates more confidence to challenge examiners when they are incorrect or focusing on irrelevant information.

Public defences usually have a greater number of examiners, including an independent chair and one of the candidate’s supervisors. The presence of a supervisor who believes that the thesis should pass can provide support and encouragement to the candidate. And an independent chair, who knows very little about the subject of the thesis, is better placed to examine the logic of the argument and the strength of the evidence.

The current system means that the academic judgement of examiners cannot be challenged. This allows examiners the freedom to make a decision based purely on the merit of the thesis, but it also means that they can make mistakes. A career in academia does not make one infallible.

There is the possibility of achieving a PhD by publication in the UK, allowing peer-review to partly take the place of examination. But this rarely used and once a thesis has been submitted through the traditional method, the possibility of a PhD through publication is removed.

Instead, a thesis that has been failed based on academic judgement should be presented to the scholarly community as a whole. The written testimonials of a number of internationally respected researchers who have read the thesis and judged it to have reached doctoral level should be able to overrule the academic judgement of the examiners. A PhD is, after all, a contribution to knowledge, not a piece of work designed to placate an examiner.

We need to make the viva system more balanced and PhD examiners more accountable. We need to look again at a system that allows students to study for four years, pass all preliminary checks, and yet leave without any qualification.

Reform is both necessary and urgent – to reassure candidates that their futures are not subject to the whims of examiners and to maintain the international standard of the British PhD qualification in an increasingly globalised university system. My experience is just one example of what an unaccountable viva system can mean, and it isn’t good.


higher education network

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