The Thesis and the Viva:Addressing student concernsDr Dorothy Faulkner – Research School Academic Coordinator
What we sometimes forget!• The thesis is only one of the formal elements of the MPhil/PhD/EdD examination• Defending the thesis and ‘passing’ the Viva is the second.
OU criteria for the award of the degreeMPhil – The thesis must:• be of good presentation and style• show evidence of the student’s proficiency in the methods and techniques of research,• demonstrate an adequate knowledge and discussion of the literature in a specific field of study• show initiative, independence of thought and must be a distinct contribution to scholarship.PhD – The thesis must:• be of good presentation and style• show evidence of being a significant contribution to knowledge• demonstrate student’s capacity to pursue further research without supervision• contain a significant amount of material worthy of publication.
What experienced examiners look for• Evidence of potential to be an independent researcher• Evidence of a repertoire of technical, intellectual and personal skills necessary to identify and tackle research problems• Good presentation and style• An original or creative approach to the topic• Clarity and signposting in relation to the structure of the argument• A coherent account of the theoretical and methodological perspectives• A strong narrative• Evidence of critical self-assessment by the student
Expectations and concernsDiscuss with the person next to you or in your group:Any positive anticipations and feelings you have aboutyour viva and/or stories you have heard about otherpeople’s experiences.
Students expectations and concerns• One is likely to know more about the topic than anyone else but the examiners may looking for weak points – how to prepare for this.• Concerns about the ability to defend the thesis verbally – getting one’s points across and being able to express oneself clearly• We expect it to be difficult but are hoping for very good feedback from the examiners who are experts but independent 3rd parties• It’s your opportunity to be the centre of attention and really showcase your work.• You will be entering the viva with the confidence of your supervisor.
Expectations and concernsDiscuss with the person next to you or in your group:Any negative anticipations/feelings you have about theviva and/or stories you have heard about other people’sexperiences.
Students expectations and concerns• The two examiners might have an argument with each other although this could be positive as it shows they are taking your work seriously.• Just before your viva you realise that you have submitted the penultimate draft for examination• Doing a poor defence and not having confidence in your own work.• Having to defend your work and making convincing arguments in English (from an International student).
Both novice and experienced examiners:Go about the assessment process in the same wayUse much the same criteriaAre impressed or put off by the same things early in theprocess (Kiley & Mullins, 2004; Mullins & Killey, 2002)
Experienced examiners expect a thesisto pass and see the viva as formative!Questions they have in mind • How would they have tackled the problem set out in the abstract & title? • What questions would they like answers to? • Do the conclusions follow on from the introduction? • How well does candidate explain what • s/he is doing? • Bibliography – comprehensive & current? • Are the results worthwhile? • How much work has actually been done? • Intellectual depth & rigour? • Is this actually research – is there an argument?
Novice Examiners• Are more concerned with the summative dimension• Pay more attention to institutional guidelines• Tend to be uncertain about benchmarking/boundaries of good versus poor theses• Have less supervisory experience and tend to draw on their own experience
First impressions count• Examiners decide very early on in the assessment process whether a thesis is likely to be hard work or enjoyable;• The initial impression of quality is usually formed by the end of the second or third chapter;• Across all disciplines the most common descriptor of a poor thesis is ‘Sloppiness’ (at all levels)
Some benchmarks of good & poor theses Poor Outstanding• Lack of coherence; • Elegant design, synthesis and• Lack of theoretical execution of the research; understanding; • Very well written and• Lack of organised; confidence/defensiveness; • Exhibits command and• Researches an inappropriate authority over the material problem; • Has strong, confident,• Mixed/confused theoretical independent voice; and methodological • Argument is focused, logical perspectives; and rigorous;• Not able to explain at the end • Uses new tools, methods, of thesis what had actually and/or analyses; been argued in the thesis. • Conclusion ties whole thing together.
Three components of a viva• Skills• Content• Conduct
Skills – what you can do to prepare foracademic verbal exchange:• Look for opportunities to participate in appropriate academic/disciplinary research cultures by: Attending conferences Attending internal and external seminars Giving presentations Setting up journal clubs/reading circles either f2f or virtual• Engage in academic debate with your supervisors during supervisions - remember when your supervisors question your work, they are expecting you to defend/justify your ideas!
Before the viva: knowing and navigating thecontentWhat you can do:Re-read the thesis before the vivaPrepare a ‘road map’ of the thesis (one page summary of each chapter; aconcept map relating key arguments to chapters and chapter sections etc.)Write a one page summary of the key arguments, findings and conclusions.Ask yourself (and rehearse) long, medium & short answers to the questions:What is your thesis’s central argument/finding?What contribution does it make?How does the research approach and/research findings differ from those ofother key players in the field?Where could you go from here?What are the key strengths and weaknesses? What might have been donedifferently?How have you developed as a researcher; what have you learnt about theresearch process?A mock viva can be a useful dress rehearsal.
Understanding how vivas are conducted Its not an interrogation! • Approx. 6 months before go through the Research Degree Examination Guidelines and agree a schedule • Discuss the selection of examiners and ask for experienced examiners if possible • Read the penultimate draft as if you were the examiner – check 1st & last chapter for coherence; • Ask your supervisors to explain the examination process (what will happen at beginning of the viva, how long it is likely to last, how to handle questions, what the range of outcomes mean etc.); • Have a mock viva/dress rehearsal.
Vitae Viva Preparation checklist• I know my thesis thoroughly• I have written a one-page summary of each chapter• I have continued to work with my thesis after submission or have begun to prepare a conference paper or publication• I am able to explain how my thesis fits into the big picture• I have kept up to date with relevant literature• I know what the implications of my research are to both theory and practice• I have had a mock viva with my main supervisor• I have asked my peers to quiz and challenge me about my thesis• I have explained my thesis to friends and family who are not familiar with it• I have investigated the backgrounds and publications of my examiners• I have looked at my institutions guidelines for vivas• I have produced a list of likely questions• I have identified areas of my thesis that are likely to be challenged• I have marked up my thesis to help me refer to it in the viva.
OU resources for students• Research Degrees Skills website http://phdskills.open.ac.uk/ Doing Postgraduate Research ( U501) – chapter 11 and DVD (Potter, S. (2006) 2nd Edition, London: Sage) Postgraduate Research Skills in Science, Technology, Maths & Computing (STM895) – online module (see unit on ‘Discourse’ Doctoral training workshop: Preparing for the Probation, PhD and MRes Viva (usually held in May each year)
Other resources for students & supervisors• The Good Viva video : see ‘Resources for Supervisors’ on http://phdskills.open.ac.uk/• Vitae website for postgraduate researchers http://www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers/1218/Postgraduate-resea• Vitae website for supervisors http://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy-practice/1389/Supervisors--man
Dorothy FaulknerResearch School Academic CoordinatorThe Open UniversityWalton HallMilton KeynesMK7 6AAwww.open.ac.uk