Archive for October 25, 2012

Rubbishing the Viva

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by telescoper

There’s a strange article today in the Times Higher that claims that the UK’s system of examining PhD students is “a scandal” and that it is “way behind the rest of the world”. These comments are from a chap called Ron Barnett (an emeritus professor at the Institute for Education, who explains

“Students can spend five years doing their PhD, present their thesis and come up against the maverick view of an independent examiner and in effect be rubbished,” he commented.

“I’ve seen it happen far too many times,” he told a Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on the future of postgraduate education, held in London on 17 October.

I have to say I find it hard to reconcile such remarks with the business of examining PhDs as I’ve 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 – the Research Councils put extremely strong pressure on departments to ensure that students submit within four years, and most research students take less time than this to produce their thesis.

But it’s the idea that a maverick external examiner can sabotage a PhD that I find hardest to recognize. If that looks like happening the internal examiner should stand up for the candidate. In fact, here in Cardiff we have an additional safeguard against this sort of eventuality: each viva has a Chair as well as the two examiners. The Chair is just there to ensure fair play and that proper procedure is followed, but is rarely (if ever) called upon to intervene in practice.

I can’t speak for other fields, of course, and it may indeed be more of a problem in other disciplines. Curiously, Prof. Barnett says that he has seen it happen “far too many times”. I wonder how? As internal examiner? In which case he should have stepped in to stop it? If not as internal then in what capacity was he privy to the conduct of a PhD viva? I’m confused.

Anyway, in a couple of weeks I’ll be participating in a PhD examination in another country (Denmark). There the defence is public, and it involves two external “opponents”, but I don’t know whether it is easier or harder for the candidate than the British system so I won’t comment on whether it’s fairer or more rigorous than what we have in the UK. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works, actually.

In my opinion, if there is a “scandal” in the system of UK PhD examinations, at least in science disciplines, it’s not the one Prof. Barnett describes. It’s that we produce far too many low-quality PhDs based on dull, incremental research and that, if anything, externals are not tough enough.

There, I’ve said it. No doubt you’ll have a go at me through the comments box!

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