Failing your viva is every doctoral student’s worst nightmare, and for a small minority it’s a reality: major revisions, a resubmission, another viva, and a year to do it all. The finish line was right in front of you, you’re at the end of your reserves of energy, and the light at the end of the tunnel has suddenly gone very dark again. Bloody hell. Major revisions are pretty rare, but how can it come to this? My most visited blog is about passing the viva, and I thought the flipside would be an interesting and salutary thing to write about. I’ve done a bit of research around doctorates, supervision, and the viva, and also (obviously) know quite a few people who’ve done a doctorate, and have heard a range of interesting, funny – and extremely unfunny – stories.
One of the reasons why falling flat on your face at the viva is rare is because of the supporting supervision system. You have at least one experienced academic who guides you through the process, and they should have a good sense when you’ve gone far enough. At least you’d hope so. Even seasoned veterans who’ve supervised scores of students can still get it wrong. Your supervisor can’t definitively know what other academics will want to discuss or pick on. There are the more or less expected questions, but your supervisor is very close to your project and may not have seen certain things that a fresh pair of eyes might. This happened to me at two (non-critical, thankfully) points in my doctorate. The issues weren’t catastrophes by any stretch of the imagination, either, but they were things that we hadn’t thought of. You also get some students who think they know better; you’re entitled to disagree with your supervisors and this isn’t a bad thing in itself if you can justify your perspective. Sometimes, though, a student reaches the end of their time allowance and they’re not engaging with the advice they’ve been given. The only remaining option can be to let them attend and fail their their viva, and then they have to incorporate those things as part of their corrections. This assumes that the examiners flag the things that the supervisor was worried about: the student could still pass with flying colours – you never know!
At many universities you have two supervisors. This gives an extra perspective on your project and they hopefully each bring something different and complementary to the table. Mine, for example, worked well together, being similar in some ways – and liking each other – but one leant more towards methodological concerns and the other had a heavier theoretical interest. But what happens if your supervisors don’t fit together academically and/or personally? It could turn into a battle between them – through you – and this can be particularly damaging early in your doctorate, at what is often a period of real intellectual vulnerability. Such a ‘supervisor-off’ should never happen, and your department should try to pair people up appropriately. It may not be easy, though, if there aren’t enough people who know about your topic, or if potentially suitable people simply don’t have the capacity. You can change supervisors, but this isn’t always simple, for capacity or less palatable reasons. University departments are political spaces and dropping one senior academic for another can ruffle feathers. But if you leave a bad situation for too long, you might be the one who loses out the most; it could have set your PhD back at least a couple of months – or perhaps even killed it altogether.
Let’s say, and this is probably the most common occurrence, that your supervision has been positive and functioned well, and you’ve wrestled and shaped your good thesis through to submission. You hand the thing in and rope in two academics to grill you on it, usually one internal member of staff and one external. Picking suitable ones is crucial, both for your viva and potentially post-viva. You want someone who you know is going to give you a bit of a hard time but be simultaneously constructive – it would be an anti-climax if it was too easy, right?! You don’t want to be pulverised, but at least reasonably roughed up! You have to remember that academic fields are diverse places, and you need to find people who work and apply concepts in similar enough ways to you. If you disagree on something major, unless you can argue your point well and they’re ‘adult enough’ to agree to disagree, you’re in trouble. So don’t go for someone whose work you might be panning, or pick a fight with one of your examiners, for heaven’s sake! Who examines you can go on your CV, and if they’re big names, this can reflect well on you – but don’t just pick them because they’re famous, they have to fit. Also, very few people will ever read and consider your thesis in its entirety (sorry to disappoint you), and it can be a bit of a strategic move to try and get examiners who might be useful contacts in the future. Ah-ha…that familiar and slightly unpleasant whiff of instrumentalism.
Underlying your doctorate is a sense of shared responsibility, but at the end of it all, it is your project and what’s in it is 99% down to you. This is not to say that the university and its staff don’t have a duty to support you, they certainly do. It’s a supervised independent project, after all. Your supervisors are there to help, advise, cajole and push you, and stick you back together when you lose the threads or sometimes even the whole plot. Having good supervision can be the difference between hard-but-fun and painful-and-ultimately-impossible. But they’re not the ones sitting in the hot seat when the Academic Inquisition comes calling at viva time. So pick your supervisors well, listen to them, and take care when looking for examiners.
It’s probably worth mentioning that the doctoral completion process is very different around the world. In Australia, for example, you hand in your thesis and it gets marked by a handful of academics who then pass it and/or suggest changes. In the Netherlands you have to publish papers from your doctorate before it can be awarded, and in many countries the defence is open to the public. You’ll already have passed, there’s no such thing as corrections (it goes through an academic panel first) and the public show is more a celebration of your work than a trial by ordeal. It’s a pretty varied landscape out there.