how long will my viva be?

This is a guest post from Dr Paul Spencer. Paul is a Researcher Development Manager at the University of the West of England, Bristol (UWE). His own successful PhD viva in oral microbiology took a shade over 4 hours!

So how long will my viva be? This is a question I get asked regularly whenever I run a workshop on preparing for the final viva voce examination. The short answer to this question is “it depends”…

In my experience, there is a lot of variation between disciplines. Vivas in science/technical subjects tend to take longer which is perhaps surprising given that the thesis word constraints for these tend to be half that than in humanities and social science disciplines. I also think that examiners adhering to evolved disciplinary norms conduct vivas in a variety of ways going beyond what might be considered examination. Taken together these factors contribute to the variation in viva length and, more often than not, it does not follow that the longer a viva takes, the more likely it is to indicate a negative outcome.

Yet to delve into this question properly, we need to take a step back and first ask a different question, “What is the viva voce examination for?” The purpose of the viva, taken with the preliminary assessment of the submitted thesis, is to give the examiners an opportunity to establish whether the candidate has met the criteria of a doctoral award. These criteria, in the UK, are derived from a common set of descriptors set out by the Quality Assurance Agency in the appendix of the publication Doctoral Degree Characteristics (September 2011). The majority of universities will have these descriptors, or something very close to it, in their research degree regulations.

I’ll paraphrase my own institutional doctoral descriptors to illustrate:

1. An original contribution to knowledge as shown by scholarly review by recognised scholars in the field
2. A critical understanding of the current state of knowledge in the field
3. Ability to conceptualise, design and implement a project capable of delivering an original contribution to knowledge
4. A critical understanding of the methodology of enquiry
5. Has developed independent judgement of issues and ideas in the field of research and is able to communicate that
6. Can critically reflect on the work and evaluate strengths and weaknesses

I think it important to unpack these criteria in order to understand what is “doctorateness”. When writing about this in their book “Stepping Stones to achieving your doctorate”, Trafford and Leshem advocate starting with the end in mind to inform how you would write your thesis. I always remind doctoral students that the purpose of your thesis is to convince your examiners that you meet the criteria for the doctorate especially as examiners tend to base their opinions about satisfying the criteria on the thesis (Tinkler & Jackson, 2001).

The first is what most recognise as being the primary objective of a doctorate but note it is dependent on satisfying scholarly review by the examiners. This is why the examiners are often portrayed as gatekeepers to the academy (Tinkler & Jackson 2000).

The second of the criteria is about making sure the candidate understands where their work starts and others’ finishes, it is difficult to make a claim of originality without this. At doctoral level this means going beyond listing published literature, something that Pat Thomson explored more fully here.

The third and the fourth descriptors are related concepts and are important to justify in both the written thesis and in the viva itself. They are different and to quote another of Pat’s blog titles that look at this in more detail, Methodology isn’t methods.

The fifth of these descriptors is about confirmation of authorship of the thesis, the ideas and the justification. This is oft stated as a key function of the viva voce (latin for ‘live voice’) examination, to reassure examiners that it was the work of the candidate. It is also about the voice of the candidate, their opinions, thoughts and perspectives not that of their supervisors, colleagues or peers.

Lastly, the fifth descriptor is about the limitations of the research, the positives of the research, the roads left untraveled, possibilities of where the research could go. This has potential to form a long discussion in some vivas.

If the role of examiners were to simply ensure that the doctoral criteria were met, then vivas would always be straightforward and undertaken in a short time span. The fact that sometimes they aren’t suggests other factors are at play. Here’s what I think they are:

• Strength of the thesis – well written? A poorly written thesis will take longer to examine – the candidate will need to spend more time defending their position in order to demonstrate doctorateness. Here’s some thoughts from Professor Gina Wisker on that theme.
• Intellectual battle? Some doctoral candidates wish to be examined by ‘the most recognized scholar in their field’.
• An opportunity to explore issues and debates in the broader context of the field?
• Potential collaborator? – some examiners are selected because of the potential to form future collaborations (either with the candidate or their supervisors). I think this is why many science/technical vivas go on for a long time, many research collaborations are formed as a result.

So, let’s return to the question, “how long will my viva be?” It depends… on who your examiners are, why they were selected, how well written your thesis is, how well you can demonstrate ownership, how much you want to engage in debate/discussion about the context of your work and where/how far do you want to take your research with a new found collaborator?

Penny Tinkler & Carolyn Jackson (2000) Examining the Doctorate: Institutional policy and the PhD examination process in Britain, Studies in Higher Education, 25:2, 167-180, DOI: 10.1080/713696136
Carolyn Jackson & Penny Tinkler (2001) Back to Basics: A consideration of the purposes of the PhD viva, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26:4, 355-366, DOI: 10.1080/02602930120063501
Trafford, V., & Leshem, S. (2008). Stepping Stones To Achieving Your Doctorate: By Focusing On Your Viva From The Start: McGraw-Hill Education.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in doctoral award, doctorateness, examination criteria, examiner, viva and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to how long will my viva be?

  1. SheriO says:

    J H Watts’ (2012) abstract for Preparing doctoral candidates for the viva:issues for students and supervisors criticizes the lack of rigour in the viva. There are many issues with the exam. Here is the abstract from the article:
    The PhD viva has been described as mysterious (Burnham 1994; Morley et al. 2002), unpredictable (Rugg & Petre 2004) and potentially frightening for students (Delamont et al. 2004), with its form and duration a function of the predilections of individual examiners as well as a function of differences across disciplines. Despite its myriad manifestations, the PhD viva voce (live voice), as oral examination of the doctoral thesis, constitutes the final ‘test’ of the PhD
    endeavour. In the UK, this is a private event, though in some countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, the viva is conducted in a public arena (Delamont et al. 2004). Although there is no standard or prescribed format, students across all disciplines can expect to defend their thesis through a process involving questioning, clarification and discussion of key elements. This critical commentary discusses a number of issues that inform the preparation of students, focusing on the role of the internal and external examiner, the viva voce process, guidance for students and some practical suggestions for supervisors and students, particularly the value of full role-play in building students’ confidence. The extent to which the doctoral viva, in its current ‘secret’ form, can be seen as a fully accountable and independently rigorous process is taken up in the conclusion that highlights the phenomenon of ‘cosy’ reciprocal examining arrangements, the spectre of litigation when things go wrong and the need to consider a fundamental review of both the purpose and conduct of the viva. Journal of Higher Education, (36) 3, pp 371-381.

    • pat thomson says:

      Diana Leonard, Louise Morley and Miriam David studied vivas in the early 2000s and raised these issues. They’re rather oddly cited above in the abstract. See the original on They make the argument about quality much as is made here in conclusion, and they do need to be credited with raising the whole viva quality question.

      • SheriO says:

        Thank you so much for the reference. The Leonard, Morley and David article from the early 2000s takes on a less crisis-driven tone than the Watts’ piece. Nonetheless, many of the concerns raised overlap in the two pieces even though more than a decade divides them. If Watts’ abstract rings less lucid to you, it shows that the ‘standard’ varies in the quality of abstract writing amongst academics. Indeed, it does.
        From the Watts’ article I got the idea that the viva voce appears to be a carryover from a time when universities housed scholar-eccentrics, like something out of Harry Potter. The viva voce represents an initiation right, a torture test,an inquisition, a David and Goliath contest to get past the gatekeeper-ogres all in one. It is the price to become a member of the club. This cartoon captures the potential absurdity of the viva voce. Sorry I couldn’t paste it directly into this comment.

  2. hannahpitt says:

    However long it is at the time it will feel too long, afterwards you’ll feel it was not long enough.

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