Archive for viva voce

Viva Zoom!

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 13, 2020 by telescoper

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.

Viva Elsewhere…

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on December 18, 2013 by telescoper

I just came back from a meeting of the Heads of  the science Schools here at the University of Sussex where, among other things, we discussed PhD completion rates across the University. I sat there smugly because ours in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences are pretty good. The meeting started at 10am which also happens to have been the starting time for a PhD examination in at Cardiff University involving my (former) student Ian Harrison. I would have liked to have been there, but unfortunately I have several appointments today in Sussex so couldn’t make it.

It’s not normal practice for the supervisor of a PhD to be present at the examination of the candidate. The rules allow for it – usually at the request of the student – but the supervisor must remain silent unless and until invited to comment by the examiners. I think it’s a very bad idea for both student and supervisor, and the one example that I can recall of a supervisor attending the PhD examination of his student was a very uncomfortable experience.

I always feel nervous when a student of mine is having their viva voce examination, probably because I’m a bit protective and such an occasion always brings back painful memories of the similar ordeal I went through twenty-odd years ago. Although I have every confidence in Ian, I can’t help  sitting in my office wondering how it is 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. Usually, of course, I would be there for the event (if not actually present in the examination room), but now I’m a considerable distance away it feels a bit strange.

I’ve actually blogged about a paper of Ian’s already. He finished his thesis well within the usual three-year limit and has moved to the Midlands (Manchester, to be precise) to take up a postdoctoral research position there.  He’s not technically allowed to call himself Doctor Harrison yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. In the words of Miss Jean Brodie, my students are, without doubt, la crème de la crème.

It’s now 11.45. Fingers crossed for some news soon…

UPDATE: 13.00. Still no news…

UPDATE: 13.07. Congratulations, Dr Harrison!


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!

The End of the Viva

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on June 13, 2012 by telescoper

I’m stuck at home today, waiting for UPS to come and collect a defective printer. Any time between 9am and 7pm, they said. Very helpful. Anyway, I’ve got plenty to do while I’m here, catching up on STFC Astronomy Grant Panel business that I’ve been too busy to attend to. Also, this week’s Private Eye has just arrived in the post, so I’ll take a break at some point to do the crossword by Cyclops. It’s a lovely day. Pity I can’t sit in the garden. I’d miss the doorbell when the carrier arrives.

Anyway, the past two days have been largely given over to the business of examinations in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. The External Examiners spent a big slice of Monday doing viva voce examinations of selected candidates; not just those on borderlines, but also some others for “calibration”. I wasn’t involved in them this year, but have taken part in the past as External in various places. Obviously these examinations are very stressful for the students, and also quite difficult to conduct fairly, but sometimes provide useful insights in the cases where a student’s marks put them on a knife-edge between two degree classifications (or even between pass and fail).

Anyway, in its infinite wisdom Cardiff University has decided to scrap the viva voce examination after next year. From 2014 onwards we’ll just have to apply a formula to deal with borderline cases; the algorithm involves counting how many modules were passed at the higher level, etc. Actually, I probably agree with this for the purposes of classifying degrees. Twenty minutes’ questioning under stress can hardly be expected to yield much objective  information about a candidate’s knowledge of the subject that dozens of written papers and other assessments. Often, in my experience, students (especially the shy ones) are so nervous that the shutters come down almost straight away.  I would  prefer a system which is algorithmic as possible, so everyone knows what the rules are, rather than relying on subjective judgements.

As external, I always found the viva examinations a useful way of getting feedback from the students on their course which can be fed back – either usefully or not – to the department. In losing the viva  for drawing up the classification lists, I hope that we can find another way for the externals to talk to students in some other context to get some feedback about the course. Perhaps they could attend for project talks, or something like that?

Yesterday, the entire Board of Examiners (including Externals) gathered to go through all the individual cases and draw up the Honours List. I was delighted when I saw all the consolidated marks in advance of the meeting, to see how well how many of our students had done. There were one or two difficult cases, but in the end we produce the lists. As I went back to my office, students were already gathering in the corridor by the noticeboard where it is always placed as soon as the definitive final version has been prepared, shortly after the meeting closed.

Soon I heard whoops of joy and laughter and had a quick look to see the students congratulating one another. As always on such occasions, I was tempted to go along and chat to a few of them but, as always, I resisted doing so. It’s a time for them, the students, not us, the staff.

Anyway, congratulations to all those who had good news yesterday!

I hope your hangovers aren’t too bad…

The Final Analysis

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on June 14, 2011 by telescoper

It’s that time of year again. The annual meeting of the Board of Examiners of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University met this afternoon to consider the marks for students due to graduate this year and to draw up recommendations for the final degree classifications.

This year’s meeting was actually quite interesting and, at just over two hours, somewhat shorter than some we’ve had in previous years.  A group of students has already gathered in the foyer waiting for the dreaded list to be posted, and many will no doubt be celebrating or drowning their sorrows in local hostelries shortly after their fate is revealed.

Cardiff is a little old-fashioned in the way the final examiners’ meetings are conducted. For a start we still have a system of viva voce examinations for borderline candidates; they happened yesterday, in fact. Many universities have dispensed with this aspect of the process, but I still think they’re worthwhile. The Board of Examiners, including the two External Examiners,  also still has some discretion in how it arrives at the degree boundaries (which are nominally at 70% for a first, 60% for a 2.1, 50% for a 2.2, and 40% for a 3rd).

The tide is turning against this very traditional approach, however, and there are moves here to dispense with the viva examinations and with academic discretion. I’m not sure when this will happen, but it’s likely to be sooner rather than later. I think the main reason for this is to make the system more automatic so there’s less chance of legal challenge. In any case there doesn’t seem to me that there can be any educational reason for it.

The one thing that strikes me about the system we have is that it’s the whole business of classifying degrees into broad categories which is where the problem lies.  It was suggested some time ago that we should dispense with, e.g., the “Desmond” (2.2) and the “Thora Hird” (3rd) and instead simply give each student a transcript containing details of the entire spectrum of their academic performance. It’s been suggested again just recently too. That would seem to me to make much more sense than the current system of classifying degrees which involves (a) trying to condense a huge amout of information – examination marks, coursework, project assignments and the like – into a single number and then (b) drawing boundaries based on this number precisely where the distribution is most densely peaked. However, years have passed and nothing concrete has happened. The academic world is good at inertia.

Anyway, this isn’t the time or the place for a lengthy diatribe about the ins-and-outs of degree classifications. I’ve got to go back to marking my 1st year examination papers shortly in fact; these are considered by a separate meeting of the Board of Examiners.

It is time, however, for me to congratulate all our graduating students on their success. It’s the first group of Cardiff MPhys students that I’ve seen all the way through from entry  to graduation. I’ll be sad to see them go, but wish them all the best as they venture forth into the real world. At least I hope to see them back next month for graduation.  Until then, however, all I’ll  say is