Doctoral examination – What works?

Last week I gave a talk to members of the Society for Research into Higher Education in London. The talk was titled “Consistency and Disjunction between the Assumptions about and Reality of the Doctorate: Examining the examination process and the question of the viva”.

It reports on findings of three Australian Research Council funded projects concerned with doctoral examination, conducted with colleagues Professor Sid Bourke and project leader Professor Allyson Holbrook. The first project began in 2003 and the final one is in the wash-up stage.

The first two projects focussed mainly on the Australian doctoral examination process that, unlike most Western-based processes, does not include a viva of any kind.

The thesis is sent out to two or three external examiners – that is, external to the home university – who write individual reports together with a recommendation chosen from between four to nine options, including ‘pass without corrections’ at one end and ‘fail’ at the other end.

The recommendations and reports are then dealt with through an internal university process of calibrating a final result, one that does not involve the candidate other than in exceptional cases.

The final decision-making body is normally a centralised committee made up of faculty or school representatives and chaired by a senior academic – a dean of graduate studies, pro vice-chancellor for research etc.


The investigations have uncovered a number of issues that have potential to challenge the current practice.

They include the non-standard ways in which Australian universities organise the process, the idiosyncratic ways in which examiners respond to the task of examination and the lack of opportunity for examiners to moderate their individual reports and calibrate them for a group report, as would be the norm where a viva is included as part of the process.

Even with the absence of such moderation, on the whole the findings indicated a high level of consistency between examiners on a given thesis.

Other issues that were indirectly appraised concern the greater difficulty of finding suitable examiners as the PhD has transformed from being an elite degree to a more mainstream one and the issue of satisfactory closure for candidates when they are unable to respond in person to examiner comments and feedback.

The range of issues gave rise to some interest in investigating the viva, a move that New Zealand has recently made. Previously, New Zealand followed the Australian process.

As a result, the latest ARC project focussed on the viva, especially as it functions in the United Kingdom and New Zealand to see if it clearly makes a difference and might address some of the issues of concern in the Australian process.

UK and New Zealand examiners have been interviewed, together with Australian examiners who had experience of the viva and so could make comparisons.

Viva – Good or bad?

Results were mixed, with most UK examiners suggesting that the viva is a good thing to do, especially in terms of providing for candidate closure and satisfaction.

Most believed it was a far more preferable process to the Australian one, some even suggesting they would refuse to examine for an Australian PhD because they could not imagine a process functioning without a viva. This comment related both to the need for examiner moderation and calibration and the desirability of candidates experiencing closure.

At the same time, when asked whether they could identify an instance where the viva component had actually changed their mind about the final result, most were unable to do so. Some identified times when the viva had confirmed their initial judgement or clarified some queries they had, but not actually changed their mind about the quality of the thesis.

In other words, the initial reading of the thesis tended to be definitive, in the same way as is the case necessarily in the Australian process.

A small number of UK examiners actually noted some problems in the viva process, owing mainly to the added difficulty of assembling adequate panels where extra time and travel were involved. As with Australian findings, this problem has been exacerbated by the far greater number of PhD completions compared with the past.

Some spoke of the delays that this can cause in finalising results and a small number actually felt that a move to the Australian process might relieve some of this pressure.

There was also some concern expressed that examiners might not always do the thorough reading of the thesis that is ideal, granted that they know their report will merely feed into the wider process of the viva and not be subject to the same public scrutiny that applies in the Australian process.

The investigators are coming to the view that some combination of the Australian and UK processes, perhaps represented in the new New Zealand one, seemed to comprise a process that maximised the benefits of both processes.

On the one hand, a definitive and publicly available report would be required from each examiner while, on the other hand, the viva would offer the opportunity for discussion between examiners with a view to any necessary moderation and-or calibration, as well as offering candidates the opportunity to experience a more complete sense of closure.

* Professor Terence Lovat is emeritus professor at the University of Newcastle in Australia, and senior research fellow at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. He gave a lecture to members of the Society for Research into Higher Education, or SRHE, in London on 30 October.


Personally I would like to see a proper thesis defence here in Australia.

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page

Nothing short of current practice, Mr Weir.

Rao Ogbemudia on the University World News Facebook page

The thesis is the defining output of the research for people who will not be able to question the author. Thus the most important stage is to determine if it is clear enough (and correct) for anyone calling for a copy, perhaps in many years time. One purpose of the viva is to check on some of the things which are written, especially experimental conditions and methods. If the examiner has misunderstood, then a corrected version should be produced to make it clear - minor corrections.
A second and fundamental purpose of the viva is to check if the person being interviewed has actually written the thesis and carried out the work claimed. Sadly, there are cases, sometimes very serious, where this is not true.

Where the thesis does not meet the requirement, then a viva can be used (in the best cases) to determine that the candidate could, if helped, produce a satisfactory one, possibly involving some re-writing and/or extra experiments or other work. In other cases, it becomes clear that they do not have the depth of understanding for this to be feasible, and the award of a master's (MPhil) may be appropriate.

Martin J Pitt on the University World News Facebook page