Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Viva Outcome

The doctoral viva or oral defense is one of those events that consistently hangs over students throughout the length of the PhD. And as we get closer and closer to submission, the realities of the viva becomes clearer and panic sets in. From the moment we find out the date of our viva, the next x number of weeks are fraught with furious re-reading, head-banging on the table when you find another typo, and role-playing the potential viva questions and answers again and again and again, resulting in either sleepless nights or viva re-enactments in our dreams.

Yet, we focus so much on the questions and answers, and the potential to fail, that many doctoral students go into the viva process slightly unaware of what the results can mean, and certainly the implications for future plans. I can only speak for the arrangements in my own institution, but I will generalize them as best I can.


  • You've passed, yay! With no corrections! Yay, your thesis is perfect and you can just deposit that baby in the library and be on your merry way into life beyond the doctorate! (sorry peeps, this almost never happens!)

Pass (Minor Corrections)

  • You've passed. yay! Well, you may have to fix a typo here, a footnote there, but really these are niggly little points that are done in less than one month! You are a hop and skip away from finishing the doctorate! One month, email your corrections to your internal, they get approved, and bingo-bango you are a doctor! Congratulations!

Pass (Major Corrections)

  • You've passed, yay? The question mark is deliberate because major corrections are so hard to understand. You walk out thinking, "did I pass? I think I did, but I can't be sure. Ah, I'll check the exam regulations. Hmmm, they are confusing, but I *think* I've passed!"
  • Yes, you have passed but it may not feel that way, and it is difficult to explain to others. I have a sneaky suspicion that there is many a student out there who doesn't want to admit to major corrections. But it doesn't matter in the end. You have 6 months to address the examiners concerns and once they approve them, you should be golden.
  • But wait! You have 6 months to submit your corrections, but it has to be a hard copy, not electronic. So, you submit and it gets sent out to both examiners, who have to read it, coordinate with each other, and decide the next step - which could include more minor corrections or even a second viva. So 6 months may become 8-9 months. All the while, the poor doctoral student is shelling out more money to hang around and wait for the result. And, our job applications may get delayed, we may miss out on the dream job, and are generally stuck waiting for our lives to more on.
  • But one thing I will say about major corrections that is positive is that your thesis will likely be better for it. The revisions are not meant to torture you or be a punishment; rather, it will make your thesis more defensible and publishable,

There are other outcomes, of course, more extreme than those listed above. A resubmit can take up to another year, a referral may mean that you are offered a lesser degree, such as an MLitt, or there is the potential for an outright fail - but I have never heard of that happening. Universities *should* have safeguards in place to monitor your progress along the way. But inevitably, there are exceptions to rule. Go to forums (or even the pub) and people will be willing to tell horrid viva stories, but no one talks about the process afterwards. It is frustrating to not have an outright pass, but usually there are valid reasons for not getting it.

Reflect on the examiners comments, create a plan of action with your supervisor, and implement them as fast and conscientiously as you can. Remember, a pass is a pass is a pass, and your thesis will be better for it.

My one request is for more transparency from universities about the meaning of each outcome, and a awareness of the stress that certain results place on students, both emotional, psychological, and financial. A greater support system post-viva would certainly help to alleviate some of the disappointment and anxiety students feel when the viva doesn't go quite to plan!

If you have any stories or advice to share, please do leave a comment!

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