The Day After…

Yesterday was a memorable day for more reasons than the outbreak of Higgs-teria I blogged about. The main event was in fact the PhD examination of my student Jo Short. Being the supervisor, I didn’t actually attend the examination in person but did get to have lunch with the Chair and other examiners, including external examiner Andrew Jaffe from Imperial College, who blogs at Leaves on the Line.

After lunch the Examiners, Chair and candidate disappeared into the special room we keep for such occasions (complete with thumbscrews, etc) and I went back to my office to wait it out while Jo was grilled. I always feel a bit protective towards my PhD students, and a viva voce examination always brings back painful memories of the similar ordeal I went through twenty-odd years ago. Although I had every confidence in Jo, I was a bit nervous sitting in my office wondering how it was going. However, this is something a PhD candidate has to go through on their own, a sort of rite of passage during which the supervisor has to stand aside and let them stand up for their own work.

About 90 minutes after the viva started I remembered that I had to pick up some medication from a chemist, so braved the inclement weather to do that.  Yesterday, incidentally, threw an extraordinary range of weather at us: hail, thunder, gales and dark apocalyptic clouds. When I returned the examination was already over; Jo passed with minimal corrections to be made. My nerves clearly weren’t justified. Congratulations Dr Short!

Caught on the hop by the fact that the viva finished in just over 2 hours, I then had to mobilize the obligatory champagne which was chilling in a fridge belonging to the Astronomy Instrumentation Group. Worse, a team of PhD students which had been dispatched to buy celebratory gifts hadn’t returned with the goodies by the time we opened the bubbly. Nevertheless, an appropriate celebration was eventually held in the department, followed – so I’m told – by an evening of revelry in the town. I didn’t go to the latter, as I’m far too old for that sort of thing.

By the way, Jo’s thesis is partly about the analysis of the pattern of temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background and partly about modelling galaxy clustering revealed by the Herschel Space Observatory and she’s staying on at Cardiff on a research fellowship.

P.S. Our genial external was last seen getting into a taxi to get to the station and thence back to London. I assume he got home safely…

P.P.S. For the sake of complete disclosure I should admit that I wrote this blog post while chairing another viva…

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15 Responses to “The Day After…”

  1. Say hello to the second viva candidate then!

  2. i’m intrigued how you justify having a dedicated viva room to your departmental space committee (or indeed university estates)…

    i assume the specialist kit (thumbscrews/etc) is actually more significant (rack?) or else it could easily be moved to make way for a tutorial group – or to fit in a couple of PDRA desks…

    • telescoper Says:

      The room is called the Committee Room. It’s not just used for vivas, but it is generally the room we use for them. Yesterday I chaired another viva but the Committee Room was in use, so we had the viva in my office.

  3. Don’t you mean a rite of passage? Congratulations to your student.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Why is it called a viva, the Latin word for life?

    • The literal meaning of “viva voce” is “by a living voice”; it’s a mediaeval latin phrase.

      In fact, viva is the ablative case of the feminine singular of the adjective “vivus”, meaning living; voce is feminine. The latin noun meaning “life” is vita.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Thank you! BTW, what do you think of the continental system whereby in principle anybody is free to come in off the street and grill the candidate on the subject?

      • I’m not sure what you mean by “continental system”. (In another blog today, I posted this chart to demonstrate some of the various meanings of “Europe” (even though it leaves out both ESO and the EBU).) In some countries, the so-called disputation is public, but no more nor less than a colloquium talk. Friends and family sometimes attend. There is still a chairman, though, so I don’t think anyone has a right to speak, though it is perhaps possible in some places. The systems vary quite a bit from country to country. Some have an “opponent” (who, here, is more like a devil’s advocate) and the whole thing is more like a debate.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Ha! None of the above (re definitions of Europe). Europe existed as a cultural entity before the Common Market/EEC/EC/EU or whatever it will call itself next year existed, and it will exist after…

        A few years ago someone I know sent a trial postcard to a friend living in Paris, with the last two lines of the address

        75056 Paris
        Grossdeutschland

        and he was mildly perturbed to find it got there.

      • “Europe existed as a cultural entity before the Common Market/EEC/EC/EU or whatever it will call itself next year existed, and it will exist after…”

        Right. To me, it is primarily a well defined subcontinent.

  5. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: sorry you found/find your own viva painful. We were just trying to make you feel you’d earned your PhD; I always think it’s a pity when a good thesis gets disposed of in a couple of hours without the candidate getting a proper chance to show off all they did.

    But there is one piece of genuine pain, since you remind me that the other examiner, Mike Penston, is alas no longer with us. I remember him fondly – not least as a forerunner of Jon Snow, with his stylish fluorescent socks.

    • My viva wasn’t at all painful in the sense of being excessively confrontational or aggressively conducted, which is something that the Cardiff system of having an independent Chair is designed to prevent. What I found painful was being made to realise how little I actually knew but there’s no doubt that was a valuable learning experience, however exhausting it was at the time.

      I was surprised when I found out that Mike Penston was my internal, as I’d hardly ever seen him before. He was based at the RGO in Herstmonceux and didn’t come that often to Falmer. After I got my PhD I had the opportunity to chat with him a few times, and grew to like him enormously. I regret not having had the chance to know him better. He died in 1990, just a couple of years after my viva.

  6. Hi Peter-

    Safe and sound — in Madrid! (It was a long cab ride.)

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