Viva Zoom!

They say that there’s a first time for everything and this morning I conducted my first ever viva voce examination as an External Examiner via Zoom. Given the Covid-19 restrictions it was inevitable that I’d have to do this at some point! As it turned out candidate in question happened to be at University College London.

For those of you not familiar with how this sort of examination usually works, at least in the UK and Ireland, 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 write preliminary reports assessing its suitability. Then the candidate has to defend the thesis in an oral examination, which was what happened today, after which the examiners make a final recommendation to the university about whether the degree should be awarded.

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 yourself Doctor of Philosophy you should expect to have to work for it.

As it happens, my own PhD examination (almost 30 years ago!)  was quite long (about 4hrs 30 minutes) and my external examiner was John Peacock. Today’s was a bit shorter – around three hours – and the internal examiner was Andrew Pontzen. Obviously I can’t give details of what went on in the examination except that the internal examiner Andrew Pontzen and I agreed to recommend the award of a PhD to the candidate, Krishna Naidoo. Although it was slightly strange doing this over Zoom instead of in person, it worked out OK. The only thing really missing was a blackboard or whiteboard. I also found it a bit awkward having the PDF thesis and videoconference on the same screen, but that was my fault for not appropriating a spare monitor.

At UCL as in most UK universities, the PhD examiners simply make a recommendation to a higher authority (e.g. Board of Graduate Studies) to formally award the degree, but only in very rare and peculiar circumstances do they not follow the recommendation.

The sad thing about these times of social distancing is that not being there in person I couldn’t shake the hand of the candidate at the end of the examination nor could I join him and his friends and colleagues for a drink afterwards. I’m sure they’ll find a way of celebrating. I couldn’t even join them remotely as I had another Zoom call to make. ..

P.S. If you want an idea of what is in  Krishna’s thesis you could have a look at one of the papers to come from it.

2 Responses to “Viva Zoom!”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Your description applies to (at least) the UK. While the written theses are more or less the same, the accompanying oral exam varies quite a bit from country to country.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    An appropriately charged 3D printer could resolve the issue of having a drink together afterwards.

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