The viva voce examination is an integral part of the examination process for all doctoral candidates who, in accordance with the generic attributes of their degree, are expected to be able to defend and discuss their research.
So far your focus has been on writing and submitting your thesis; the submission of your thesis for examination is a massive achievement and the first step in the final stage of your doctorate.
Your attention will now turn to the viva component of the examination process. The viva might feel like a whole new challenge but you have probably done more preparation than you think. For example, presenting work at a conference, speaking at a seminar in your School/Department, or simply explaining your research to a friend, supervisor or family member have all been good preparatory exercises.
The next few pages will hopefully take away some of the mystery and fear associated with the viva. You will find advice to assist with your preparations and to help you feel in control when it comes to this important milestone. You are encouraged to look forward to the defence of your thesis as a positive experience – an opportunity to engage with experts who have read your research thoroughly.
Viva voce literally means ‘with the living voice’, by word of mouth, as opposed to writing. So in the graduate research context, the viva examination is where you provide a verbal defence of your thesis, in other words, where you and the Examiners discuss your thesis.
Put simply, you should think of it as a verbal counterpart to your written thesis. Your thesis demonstrates your skill at presenting your research in writing. In the viva examination, you will demonstrate your ability to participate in academic discussion with research colleagues.
The purpose of the viva examination is to:
All viva examinations are different, so it is not possible to describe exactly what will happen, but some general points can be made:
Your Head of School will have nominated examiners, normally internationally recognised experts in your field of research, in consultation with your supervisors prior to your written thesis being examined; these nominations were then approved by the Dean Graduate Research. You will usually have your work examined by 2-3 examiners. And once your thesis has been given a pass grade by a majority (2-3) of examiners you will progress to the viva.
The Viva Voce Examination Committee (Examination Committee) will usually be comprised of 2 (and rarely 3) examiners, an independent Chair person and a supervisor or nominee. The Chair is there to ensure the examination is conducted fairly and in line with University regulations. They are not there to examine your thesis. The Chair will usually be a senior member of academic staff. The supervisor or nominee is there to provide support to you (they are not to be engaged as legal counsel), but may at some point be invited by the Chair to respond to a question/s during the viva.
You will be notified about who your examiners are prior to the viva as it is important that you are familiar with their work and any particular approach they may take when examining your thesis..
The purpose of the viva is to establish that your work is of a sufficiently high standard to merit the award of the degree for which it is submitted. In order to be awarded a doctoral degree, the thesis should demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge and contain work which is deemed worthy of publication - though not necessarily in the form presented.
Examiners will assess whether the thesis complies with the University's guidelines regarding length, presentation, relevance, and style. It is expected that the thesis has been clearly and concisely written, well argued, and show a satisfactory knowledge of primary and secondary sources. There should be a full bibliography/references and, where appropriate, a description of the methodology employed. In order to do this, examiners may:
Your thesis will have strengths and weaknesses and the examiners will want to discuss both of these. It is positive, indeed essential, that you can discuss both the strengths and the weaknesses of your research. Think of discussion on any weaknesses as an opportunity to demonstrate your skill at critical appraisal. Remember that examiners seek to find and discuss weaknesses in all theses - you should not interpret criticism as an indication that the viva is not going well.
Of course, different examiners have different personalities, styles, and levels of experience. The viva is not designed to be a confrontational experience, however, some personalities are more prone to such an approach. If faced with this sort of examination style, it is important not to take offence. A relaxed, thoughtful, and non-confrontational response from you will help the discussion about your research proceed in a positive way. Murray (2003:105) suggests the following are ways NOT TO respond to a challenge of a weakness in your research.
After the viva discussion, you will be asked to leave the examination room while the Committee discusses how the examination went. In most cases the Chair will be able to advise you soon after of the Committee recommendation that will be submitted to the Dean for approval.
On occasion, the Chair may need to seek clarification from the Dean on questions or matters which arose during the viva (for example, whether appropriate ethics approvals were obtained) before advising of a recommendation. In any case, you will usually be advised of your final viva outcome by the Graduate Research Office within a matter of days.
The best of luck!.
Authorised by the Dean of Graduate Research
17 October, 2011