The Thesis and the Viva:Addressing student concernsDr Dorothy Faulkner – Research School Academic Coordinator
What we sometimes forget!• The thesis is only one ofthe formal elements ofthe MPhil/PhD/EdDexamination• Defending the thesis and‘passing’ the Viva is thesecond.
OU criteria for the award of the degreeEdD– The thesis must:• good style and presentation• demonstrate reflection on the relationship between theory and practice ineducation• make a significant contribution to the theory and practice of education• show an ability to select and apply appropriate research methods• exhibit a high level of critical analysis.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 withoutsupervision• contain a significant amount of material worthy of publication.
Recommendations examiners can make• Award the degree• Corrections and modifications (2 months)• Substantial amendment (6 months)• Major revision and resubmission for re-examination(12 months)
What experienced examiners look for• Evidence of potential to be an independent researcher• Evidence of a repertoire of technical, intellectual and personalskills 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 methodologicalperspectives• 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.
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.
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 theproblem set out in the abstract & title?• What questions would they like answersto?• Do the conclusions follow on from theintroduction?• How well does candidate explain what• s/he is doing?• Bibliography – comprehensive ¤t?• Are the results worthwhile?• How much work has actually beendone?• Intellectual depth & rigour?• Is this actually research – is there anargument?
Novice Examiners• Are more concerned with thesummative dimension• Pay more attention toinstitutional guidelines• Tend to be uncertain aboutbenchmarking/boundaries ofgood versus poor theses• Have less supervisoryexperience and tend to drawon their own experience
First impressions count• Examiners decide very early on in the assessmentprocess whether a thesis is likely to be hard work orenjoyable;• The initial impression of quality is usually formed by theend of the second or third chapter;• Across all disciplines the most common descriptor of apoor thesis is ‘Sloppiness’ (at all levels)
Benchmarks and the Examiners’ report• Group discussion of benchmarksIn groups of 3 or 4 first read the two sample reports.Identify some of the characteristics of a good and poorthesis from the two sample reports an/or from your ownexperience.Make lists of the key characteristics you have identified toreport back.
Some benchmarks of good & poor thesesPoor• Lack of coherence;• Lack of theoreticalunderstanding;• Lack ofconfidence/defensiveness;• Researches an inappropriateproblem;• Mixed/confused theoreticaland methodologicalperspectives;• Not able to explain at the endof thesis what had actuallybeen argued in the thesis.Outstanding• Elegant design, synthesis andexecution of the research;• Very well written andorganised;• Exhibits command andauthority over the material• Has strong, confident,independent voice;• Argument is focused, logicaland rigorous;• Uses new tools, methods,and/or analyses;• Conclusion ties whole thingtogether.
Three components of a viva• Skills• Content• Conduct
Skills – what you can do to prepare foracademic verbal exchange:• Look for opportunities to participate in appropriateacademic/disciplinary research cultures by:Attending conferencesAttending internal and external seminarsGiving presentationsSetting up journal clubs/reading circles either f2f or virtual• Engage in academic debate with your supervisors duringsupervisions - remember when your supervisors questionyour work, they are expecting you to defend/justify yourideas!
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 conductedIts not an interrogation! • Approx. 6 months before gothrough the Research DegreeExamination Guidelines and agreea schedule• Discuss the selection of examinersand ask for experienced examinersif possible• Read the penultimate draft as if youwere the examiner – check 1st &last chapter for coherence;• Ask your supervisors to explain theexamination process (what willhappen at beginning of the viva,how long it is likely to last, how tohandle questions, what the range ofoutcomes 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 toprepare 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 websitehttp://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, PhDand MRes Viva (usually held in May each year)
Other resources for students & supervisors• The Good Viva video : see ‘Resources forSupervisors’ on http://phdskills.open.ac.uk/• Vitae website for postgraduate researchershttp://www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers/1218/Postgraduate-researchers.html• Vitae website for supervisorshttp://www.vitae.ac.uk/policy-practice/1389/Supervisors--managers.html
Dorothy FaulknerResearch School Academic CoordinatorThe Open UniversityWalton HallMilton KeynesMK7 6AAwww.open.ac.uk
Students expectations and concerns(group1)• One is likely to know more about the topic than anyoneelse 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 expressoneself clearly• We expect it to be difficult but are hoping for very goodfeedback from the examiners who are experts butindependent 3rd parties• It’s your opportunity to be the centre of attention andreally showcase your work.• You will be entering the viva with the confidence of yoursupervisor.
Students expectations and concerns (group1)• The two examiners might have an argument with eachother although this could be positive as it shows theyare taking your work seriously.• Just before your viva you realise that you havesubmitted the penultimate draft for examination• Doing a poor defence and not having confidence inyour own work.
Positive feelings – OU supervisors’ vivaexperiences• Feelings of closure, personal development and increased selfesteem• Relief that the end is in sight• Sense of personal esteem relating to one’s ability to meet andinteract with respected, expert examiners in one’s field• Anticipating publications from the research and thesis• Looking forward to the opportunity to refine and improve the thesis• Feelings of confidence – looking forward to the viva• Recognition that this is the only time in ones academic careerwhen one is able to have 2 – 3 hours of uninterrupted (quality)time discussing one’s own research with acknowledged expertsin the field.• Being able to give a good, robust defence and challengedull/pedestrian questions from examiners.
Negative feelings – OU supervisors’ vivaexperiences• Anxiety about the process; no idea what to expect; viva acompletely unknown experience• Lack of understanding/information about the process, particularlyamongst part-time students• Fear of experiencing personal rejection: this is more than just fearof ‘failing’ the PhD. Given the huge intellectual and personalinvestment in the research and thesis, it is a fear of rejection at alllevels• Anxiety about one’s personal ‘performance’, being afraid of notbeing able to answer the examiners’ questions and also notknowing which areas of the research they will focus on• Fear of failing completely – not knowing whether the work is goodenough• Uncertainty about the time scales involved [for corrections] andhearing ‘horror stories’ about the process and its aftermath frompeers and colleagues.