My Ph.D. viva didn’t go according to plan. What’s next? 

A viva experience to forget has left me reeling.

At higher education institutions across the world the pinnacle of academic recognition is the Ph.D. Taking a minimum of three years – and often far longer – to complete, writing a thesis is a labour of love that culminates in the bliss of those three post-nominal letters and a much-desired career in research.

For postgraduates the world over, a Ph.D. can only be awarded after one passes the dreaded viva. Known as a thesis defence outside of the U.K., a viva is that last hurdle on the path to doctorship.

At least that how it’s supposed to work.

There are four outcomes to a viva, an outright pass, meaning that the student’s work is acceptable in the eyes of examiners and a Ph.D. can be awarded immediately; a pass with minor corrections in which candidates are asked to make some small changes to their work before it is ready for publication; a pass with major corrections, whereby one may spend up to twelve months making significant changes to large swathes of their work before it is deemed to be of the right standard; and a fail, usually only given in instances of extreme plagiarism.  

I didn’t go into my viva expecting an outright pass. But after working on my thesis for years I was confident that I could come out with only minor changes being required for me to finally earn my doctorate. Having reread my thesis, completed two mock vivas with my supervisory team and prepared responses to over a dozen likely questions I felt anxious but prepared going into my viva.

I was shocked then, when I was told that my thesis required major corrections, meaning another year of work on an already four-year-old project.

My immediate reaction was numbness. If a hole in ground could have swallowed me up at that point I would have gladly let it. All I could think was that I failed, that I would have to spend another year of time and money before getting my degree. I sat in silence, nodding, agreeing politely while my examiners reeled off a list of corrections that needed to be made. I felt awful.

This is a feeling that is still with me today.

In the days following the viva when I had returned to my routine and began to reestablish some form of normality my numbness turned to confused and frustration. After my two examiners had spent forty minutes deliberating over the outcome of my work I was told that, despite the major changes that needed to be made I had done incredibly well in the viva.

If anything, being told this only made things worse. An outright fail would have made sense, a poor thesis and a poor viva would equate to failure, but to be told that I had done well and yet still not done enough to walk away with my doctorate felt cruel. To have come so close and yet still not reached the desired outcome was unbearable.

In the weeks since, my mental health has suffered greatly. To have finally let my thesis go after years of research only to be dragged back to it feels limiting, to be told that my research was not of a high enough standard made me question my intellectual capabilities and to have to go back to all those people expecting me to pass, head in hands, telling them I had been unsuccessful has been nothing short of embarrassing.

With that being said, learning that corrections were needed was not that hard to hear. I was under no illusion that I would probably have to make some form of change to my work. But the nature of my corrections was what hurt the most and it highlights are more widespread problem with U.K. viva system.

One of my examiners, an expert in film, explained that my thesis – in the field on English literature – needed to have a more in-depth discussion of film adaptations of my chosen topic.

 This just did not sit well with me or my supervisors, both of who have since agreed that my an analysis of film was simply not necessary to my research.

Across the world a thesis defence is given in front a large committee which can rise to as many as twenty people. In some countries such as the U.S. family members and friends are even invited to sit on these committees. Having such a large number of examiners lessens the chance of unfair outcomes with assessors having the ability to scrutinise the gradings of others.

This is not the case in the U.K. Here, there are only two examiners, both experts in the candidates field of study. One is an internal examiner who works at the university where the student is a researcher while the other is external and requested by the supervisory team. Thirdly there is an independent chair whose role is to oversee proceedings. This means that for students across Britain the outcomes of their research – and what often feels like our lives – are in the hands of a select few.

A glaring issue with this system is that each examiner – already an established academic in their own right – will have their own interests and beliefs in what can take a thesis forward. These suggestions lead to minor or major corrections in a thesis; and are often subjective and leave hopeful postgraduates at the mercy of their examiner’s interests.

It is this fault in the system that I fell victim to. My external examiner, an expert in film studies, suggested that my thesis could do with a more extensive discussion of film. This despite my abstract and introduction clearly stating that the thesis would focus on literature, not film. I felt that I was being told what to implement not for the good of my research, but to satisfy the whims of my examiner.

With that being said, I’m willing to admit that my thesis was not perfect and could do with some changes. But to be told I must put in more of an element I never found relevant to my work was frustrating.

I’m currently awaiting the official report of my examiners which will detail in writing what the corrections that I need to make are. From the date that I receive this I will have twelve months to comply with their demands or face graduating with an MPhil.

While I’m trying to approach these next few steps with optimism in the hope that this will be truly be the final step in my journey, I can’t help but feel that my experience has not been entirely fair.

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