Viva Voce

Just back from a flying visit to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, where I was involved in the examination of a PhD candidate at the Institute for Astronomy, which is housed on the site of the Royal Observatory.

For those of you not familiar with how this works, a PhD involves doing research into a particular topic and then writing up what you’ve done in a thesis. The thesis is a substantial piece of work, often in the region of 100,000 words (200 pages or so), which is then assessed by two examiners (one internal to the university at which the research was done, and one external). They read copies of the thesis and then the candidate has to defend it in an oral examination, which was what happened today, after which they make a recommendation to the university about whether the degree should be awarded.

At most universities the supervisor does not attend the oral examination, but is not normally required to go into hiding for the day, which is what seemed to happen in this case…

There aren’t many rules for how a viva voce examination should be conducted or how long it should last, but the can be as short as, say, 2 hours and can be as long as 5 hours or more. The examiners usually ask a mixture of questions, some about the details of the work presented and some about the general background. The unpredictable content of a viva voce examination makes it very difficult to prepare for, and it can be difficult and stressful for the candidate (as well as just tiring, as it can drag on for a long time). However, call me old-fashioned but I think if you’re going to get to call youself Doctor of Philosophy you should expect to have to work for it. Some might disagree.

As it happens, my own PhD examination 20 years ago was quite long (about 4hrs 30 minutes) and my external examiner was John Peacock, who happened to be the supervisor of today’s candidate Berian James. It wasn’t a deliberate consequence of me wanting to take vicarious revenge as external examiner on John’s student, but this turned out to be a long examination too. We did break twice (once, briefly, for the remembrance day silence and then for a longer period for lunch), but it was still a lengthy affair.

Obviously I can’t give details of what went on in the examination except that it was long primarily because the thesis was very interesting and gave us lots to discuss. In the end internal examiner Philip Best and I agreed to recommend the award of a PhD. Berian then went off to celebrate while we completed the necessary paperwork. At Edinburgh as in most UK universities, the examiners simply make a recommendation to a higher authority (e.g. Board of Graduate Studies) to formally award the degree, but in the overwhelming majority of cases they follow the recommendation.

After doing the paperwork I still had time to join the party for a glass or two of fizzy. At the do and at various points during the day I had the chance to say hello to some old friends, including Andy Taylor, Bob Mann, and Alan Heavens who all work at the ROE and Richard Nelson who was there for a meeting that I hadn’t known about when we arranged the date and time of the viva.

All in all, it was a very pleasant trip. Although I had to dash around to and from airports a bit getting to and from Scotland, all the planes went on time and since it’s less than an hour flying time from Cardiff to Edinburgh, it was all remarkably hassle-free.

Just before I left to get a taxi to the airport I had a quick chat with one of the PhD students, Alina Kiessling, who joked that I must be rushing off to write about the day on my blog. I never had time to read blogs when I was a PhD student (but  they hadn’t been invented then).

Perhaps I should start charging people to put their name in lights on In the Dark


17 Responses to “Viva Voce”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    More to the point Phillip, it seems that you can get away with saying you have a PhD when you don’t at some places…

  2. telescoper Says:


    It does indeed vary from country to country, but less so from university to university within the UK. I think the business of external examiners is to ensure that standards are comparable regardless of the host institution, and I think that’s pretty much true. Some theses are better than others of course, but the threshold for a pass is fairly uniform, I think.

    The examiners have to choose a recommendation from a sort of menu, including a range of options from outright pass to outright fail. The most common outcome is that the candidate should pass after completing some minor amendments discussed in the viva. Sometimes the candidate is required to resubmit after adding more substantial bits to the thesis, but this is relatively rare. The outright fail option is really quite uncommon, but does happen from time to time. The supervisor should not really allow a candidate to submit a thesis that is below par, but sometimes the student ignores this advice and goes ahead anyway. In such circumstances a fail is a definite possibility.

    I’m aware that in many other countries a PhD takes longer than in the UK. Even here the standard time is increasing to 4 years rather than 3. I finished mine and wrote it up within 3 years, but that would be unusual these days. I had my doctorate when I was 24 (3 year Bachelors + 3 year PhD) which meant I got started in research when I was very young. This fast-track system however denied me the chance to get the broader education in advanced techniques that colleagues abroad had from their longer training period.

    I think it’s my own experiences that convinced me that the UK needs a different system. I think we produce too many PhDs with too narrowly defined skills. I think we should produce more Masters and fewer Doctors, more in line with other European countries.


  3. Mr Physicist (PhD) Says:

    Name in lights? Charging?

    There was me thinking it worked the other way round – my bill is in the post.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have to say that 40000 words seems more typical for the length of a PhD thesis in astronomy these days (even mine was not 100000 words long, and 100000 words was the limit on the length of a PhD thesis under the University of Wales regulations). The duration of a viva seems now to be typically 1.5 to 2.5 hours.

    Peter’s experience of going straight from a batchelor’s degree to study for a PhD was the standard route in Britain for people holding a good (1st or 2ii) batchelor’s degree 15 years ago and more. The system changed in the 1990s in Britain to one which normally requires a master’s degree before progressing to research for a PhD, either requiring a 4-year undergraduate master’s degree (MSci, MPhys or whatever) or a 3-year batchelor’s degree + 1-year MSc (for the sciences). This was partly a response to the changes in the content and rigour of undergraduate courses following the slimming down of the A-level syllabus in pre-university education.

    A central issue in all this is the Bologna process for standardising university degree systems across the European Union. The intention is to move to a uniform 3-year BSc + 2-year MSc + 3-year PhD system (at least for science: substitute BA, MA, etc. for other subjects). This would allow students to move more freely from one country to another for the next stage in their education. Some European countries have already taken action to adopt this system. And as for Britain, the United Kingdom has taken the same action as it has for the common currency and the Schengen system for movement across borders (i.e. nothing).

    Adopting the Bologna system would achieve the system Peter argued for: it could produce large numbers of people with research MSc degrees who have the research, computational and numerical skills that industry needs, without the problem we have today of having considerable numbers of people with PhDs who are considered “over-qualified” or “over-specialised” by industry. The chances of people with PhDs being able to pursue careers in academic research would then not be as tiny as they are today.

  5. P.S. Apologies for spelling bachelor incorrectly.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bryn: When Peter and I got our PhDs, a “Masters” meant what you got as a consolation prize if your doctoral research supervisor decided after that you weren’t flourishing and asked you to write up what you had done, to be handed in after one year. That of course would have been a M.Phil (MhD meaning magnetohydrodynamics…) The situation in England was complicated by the fact that Oxford and Cambridge automatically upgraded their degrees, all of which were BA (not BSc, because these universities were founded before modern science was invented), to MA after some time had passed without any further study. I think Oxbridge were doing that before most other universities existed, so complaints from the moderns were ignored; but I suspect that they weren’t doing it far back in their own history, since in mediaeval times you were a “Master” after you had completed the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, which were preceded by the ‘trivium’ of grammar, logic and rhetoric – which I guess comprised the Bachelors. Does anybody reading this know the history of Oxbridge degree categories?

    As for standardisation of degrees: what chance of having it Euro-wide when it does not exist in any country? We all know that some degrees from some institutions are worth more than others, and provided that an academic taking on a research student has that knowledge it doesn’t matter. What is much more acutely needed is for institutions to take pride in the degrees they give, but – despite much lip-service to the concept – that aspiration has been unintentionally subverted by government policy, beginning under John Major as I recall, in which government money follows the student. That led to an inevitable dumbing down. I know personally a department head at one of the better polytechnics-upgraded-to-unis who, in response to a meeting of department heads convened by the VC and asked “What does it take to get a degree at *****?”, murmured “A pulse and tha ability to sign a cheque.” Half of the room laughed and nodded, and the pompous and deluded were deeply shocked.

    It was laudable of a PM who never went to university to want to expand the opportunity for others, but it has changed the face of higher education, not always for the better. One problem is the divorce of theory and practice that it has fostered: how soon will hairdressing (for example) be a graduate-entry profession, in which your mind is filled with questionable political doctrine for several years before you ever pick up a pair of scissors? Whereas real learning, in any field whatsoever, proceeds by a generalised ‘apprenticeship system’.

    You mentioned the Euro and Schengen as models of standardisation. I think that this country is in a bad enough state without losing the freedom to choose our own economic policy and border controls. To assert that Brussels would run us better than our own government is a counsel of despair; whether true or not, we would be unable to kick them out at an election, unlike our own governments. Let’s clean up our own politics and retain our own mechanisms of accountability.


    • Anton: I don’t quite agree with you. There were (and are) many stand-alone taught postgraduate Masters qualifications. These usually have a very specific aim, usually as conversion courses into very specialised fields. There still are taught Masters in astrophysics and astronomy in a few places, but way back when the SERC (as it was) decided not to fund taught postgraduate qualifications and put the money instead into PhDs. I would say, however, that an MPhil is universally acknowledged to be a sort of consolation prize, like kind of Crackerjack Pencil.

      Phillip: I think if we did go to 3+2+3 then the question in the UK would be one of money. Who would fund the middle two-year Masters? I suspect that the Higher Education funders would control the Bachelors, but the additional years would go to research councils. I think the need to fund five years instead of three would reduce the total number of places, and you would in any case want to fund more Masters than PhDs because not all will go on. I think a reduction in the number of PhDs would be inevitable.


  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: The last sentence of your first para is really what I meant; thanks – Anton

  8. Anton Garrett Says:


    I should have been clearer by posting the relevant sentence as “real expertise, in any field whatsoever, is learned by a generalised “apprenticeship system”, but you got what I meant. Much of our knowledge is picked up by being close to experts and observing them at work rather than by bookwork (although in academe the latter is vital too). Philosophers call the former “tacit knowledge,” and Michael Polanyi, a central European research chemist who became a philosopher at U Manchester, publicised the concept extensively.

    “Maybe the state of the UK is bad BECAUSE it isn’t part of the single currency.” Maybe… but maybe not. Supposing you are referring only to the state of the economy, rather than social policy, our exchange rate for buying Euros has degenerated in this recession because our government has messed things up worse than the rest of Europe; but without the safety valve of the exchange rate the strain would have been taken in other, arguably worse, ways for our economy.

    I am glad that you acknowledge the problems of the EU system but am mystified that most Europeans want to go ahead anyway in the full knowledge of them. (Did you know that Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of Eurofederalism even before World War 2, is documented as stating that the peoples of Europe would have to be intentionally deceived about the true federalist aims of the project?) Most people in Britain don’t want to go with this project, however – including many of the workers whose rights might theoretically be improved. I think the core of it is that there is a longstanding tradition of individual freedom relative to the State in Britain, compared to continental Europe (this was first commented upon by Voltaire), and although that freedom is rapidly dwindling Britons are still aware of this tradition. Unhappily we in Britain today have a government that cares little about personal liberties – I am prepared to suggest that many of them share a mindset that would have their opponents locked up, but for the constitutional safeguards (put in place by better men) that they have yet to dismember.


  9. Anton Garrett Says:


    I think the great problem is that a political class has developed – in Britain as well as continental countries – that has its own agenda, so that the people do not feel that their governments represent them in any realistic way. Much of the drive for European union has been due to an understandable desire to make another major European war impossible, but we are now heading toward something resembling the Soviet Union except with a higher material standard of living. There was, of course, peace inside the Soviet Union, but is that really what we want?


  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m not sure whether the political class is more disconnected in UK and I’m not really interested in arguing that one; the results of some referendums suggest significant disconnection all over Europe. In Britain we don’t have a 2-party “system,” by the way (except perhaps in the layout of the House of Commons), we simply have two dominant parties by will of the electorate.

    I didn’t actually say that the EU was currently comparable to the Soviet Union, but that “we are now heading toward something resembling the Soviet Union except with a higher material standard of living”. I stand by that extrapolation, although I hope I am wrong.

    Liberty or bread? I want both. I have been lucky enough to have had both for most of my life, and I don’t see why it should be either/or, which is why I am unhappy with politicians, whether in Westminster or Brussels, who are progressively taking away my freedoms.


  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes we certainly have a first-past-the-post system in Britain (although that is not the same as a 2-party system, for there are plenty of political parties here, and some extremist ones are currently gaining ground because the political class that dominates the big parties are not engaging with legitimate concerns of the electorate). As to whether first-past-the-post is a better system than PR: there are arguments for and against each, but none that are decisive IMHO. Certain of the desiderata of a democratic voting system have been mathematically proven to be incompatible, after all (Arrow’s theorem).


  12. Bryn Jones Says:

    To respond to Anton’s points, yes, I meant master’s degree in the sense that most universities use the term, not in the Oxbridge sense where the M.A. is essentially a B.A. plus a 15 pound (or whatever) fee. And Anton is right to point to the character of the M.Phil., which can often be awarded for research of some merit that took a few years’ work (often done while registered for a Ph.D.).

    My reference to the euro and Schengen border-control system in relation to the Bolgna process was as examples of European harmonisation not occurring throughout the European Union. The point was that the same may happen to the Bologna process: it is possible that not all countries will adopt the system (i.e. the U.K. plus one or two others will stand outside, as usual).

  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: First-past-the-post appears to lead in practice to a system in which there are two large parties, but (1) so what; Arrow’s theorem still applies; (2) a two-large-party system is distinctly not the same as a “2-party system” because the existence of smaller parties, even if they never get elected, forces the big parties to address the issues likely to divert votes to those smaller parties – Anton

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: OK, let’s recreate Arrow’s theorem. What do you mean by “democratic in any real sense”?

    The point of the British system is to elect a person who represents you at Westminster. Whereas continentals think Party and State, Brits think Individual (and hooray for that). In that difference lies my basic objection to PR. Unhappily, the ever-increasing strength of the party system has subverted the ideal of representation at Westminster to the point that most MPs are now mere lobby fodder for their party leaders. If I could think of a way of outlawing that without banning the free association of MPs then I would. Ideas anyone?


  15. […] observed it, in Physics and Astronomy. And I’ve done quite a few over the years; see, e.g., here. For a start, it’s extremely rare for a student to spend five years doing a PhD in my field […]

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