Viva Voce

V couldn’t really be anything else, but Viva Voce, the literal meaning of which is “with living voice”. The viva is the culmination of everything. All the time spent researching, looking up references (and waiting for obscure ones to be ordered and arrive), collecting data, analysing data and finally writing it all up so that it makes sense, correcting it, correcting it again and finally binding it, gives you a thesis. Which you then have to hand over to a number of people who, no matter how friendly, have been tasked with finding all the flaws and giving you a hard time.

The purpose of the viva is three-fold:
i) to prove that the work is original;
ii) to prove that you are the person who did the work; and
iii) to prove that you understand what the work you’ve done actually means.
Different countries do things in different ways. Another name for the viva is ‘the Defence’, and some countries take this to heart with a panel of examiners called the Jury, or with a single questioner (in front of a panel of assessors) who acts in an almost prosecutorial manner.

Whatever the route, most systems recognise three main outcomes (sometimes with sub-categories): Pass, no corrections; Pass with corrections, Fail. The latter does happen, but is very rare – I’d have difficulty putting a number to it, but I would imagine that 90-99% of all fails occur because the student ignored their supervisor and submitted their thesis before it was ready. One hears all sorts of anecdotes, particularly from older colleagues, some of which really are hair-raising: one is inclined to suspect that they are the academic equivalent of ghost stories i.e. designed to send a chill down your spine, but with little if any basis in fact. Still, there was that time…but that’s another story.

Pass with no corrections is not as rare as an outright fail, but they are pretty rare. Most examiners want their fingerprints on the thesis, for one thing. Finally in the middle there is the pass with corrections. This is the category which is most likely to be broken down into more detailed sub-sections, with something that is basically the correction of typos, through the addition/movement of substantial amounts of text, all the way through to further experimentation required.

In these more enlightened/corporate times, there is a much more consistent approach to things – every candidate should feel that they have been viva’d and should realise why they have got the outcome they have, but a bad candidate shouldn’t be left to suffer on and there is no point lingering with a good candidate (although of course it might be a mutually interesting, two-way conversation). So a viva will typically last 2-3 hours, local customs aside.

But, I hear you say, if the viva comes after you’ve bound the thesis, what has this got to do with a sequence of posts on writing a thesis? I’m not a keen sportsman (by any stretch of the imagination), but I’m vaguely familiar with the concept, and it’s not going to stop me from make a sporting analogy. Your viva is like any sporting event, particularly one like a marathon where you are going to be committed to the event for a significant length of time. You have to be mentally limber and you need to really know your stuff. Part of the preparation for this is writing the thesis. Going over and over the information again and again, you should know exactly where everything is – so that when an examiner says “In Figure 4.7…” or “…and on page 132, you say…” you know, or can at least make an educated guess, what is coming next.

The more cynical coach, sorry, supervisor, may suggest leaving in ‘hooks’ with which to capture the examiners’ attention. This may be indicative of a lack of confidence in either the candidate or their thesis, or a lack of respect for the examiners. The theory goes that if you give the examiners something to latch on to, something that the candidate can answer easily, this will distract them from something more critical that would be more difficult to answer. In reality, such an approach requires a level of skill which is likely to be beyond most candidates – not only to you have to write such hooks in a believable way, but you need to make sure that you don’t look like a total idiot for having made such an obvious mistake.

I suppose the final take home message for today is to aim for the moon and you should get to the top of the tree. The chances are quite high that you’ll be required to make corrections, but you can minimise the extent of these, and perhaps even that chance by making sure that your writing is high quality, intelligible and thoroughly proof-read, preferably by a non-expert as well as your supervisors. And if you go into it assuming that you’re going to get corrections, and hence there is no point in trying to make the thesis as good as possible, well, then, you won’t be disappointed – but you’ll probably get more to do than you expect.


2 thoughts on “Viva Voce

  1. So, clearly I’ve *never* written a thesis and so the Viva aspect has remained an unknown. My first reaction was one of horror and then, well, if you are the world expert, this should hold no fear. Guess I need to find myself world expert in something first …


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