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PhD Oral Exam
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Wed, 01-Nov-2006
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PhD Oral Exam. Article by Student Learning Centre, University of Auckland, New Zealand

All PhD candidates have to undergo an 'oral examination', sometimes called the 'defence' or the 'viva'. The examination is organised once your two external examiners have read your submitted thesis and forwarded written reports on its contents.

Who will be there?

You will be the central figure and you should dress up for the occasion: look professional, since this is also an initiation into a profession. With an independent Chair (an academic from a different faculty) overseeing the conduct of the exam, you will be questioned about your thesis by a single examiner and a "Head of Department Nominee" who will normally be a staff member of the University, and who will discuss your thesis with you, who represents the Examination committee, but is not technically an examiner. The HoD Nominee is obliged to read the two external examiner's report and may choose to read your thesis. They are likely to have skim-read your work. The examiner won't be from this university, and nor can they be anyone who has been involved in your thesis. If you are subject to the 2003 Statute for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, your supervisor may attend the exam, but may only participate in discussion according to the jurisdiction of the Chair, and is not acting as an examiner. (Under the earlier Statute the supervisor attended and acted as one of the examiners. The ambivalent position that this incurred has been rectified by the new statute.)

How long will it take?

The examination can vary in length between one to three hours. You should try to make the most of this time, when you have the undivided attention of two experts in your field, so the chance to talk about your work to interested and informed people. Don't let the ritualistic nature of the moment -- this is a transition of initiation -- detract from the richness of the experience. Full details of the exact process are available in the handbook "Statute for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy" and on the Postgraduate Services website.

Preparing for the exam

It makes sense to have a verbal summary prepared of what your thesis is about, and what its main conclusions are. Make sure that this tells a good story!

Presenting at conferences and departmental seminars are useful ways to prepare for your oral exam. You may also want to try and publish as much as you can along the way as this way you'll be used to receiving criticism on your work. However, do not let this detract you from the important task of completing your thesis in a timely manner.

By this point it will probably be pretty obvious as to what some of the questions will be. Rehearse answers to these beforehand (without making them sound rehearsed). Ask others who have read your thesis to ask you questions, perhaps another PhD candidate (you can promise to do the same for them). Also keep in mind that your supervisor will have been training you for this by asking tricky questions in your supervision meetings!

Getting in the right 'mind-set'

Do your best not to get too anxious before your exam, as this is likely to impair your performance. If you think you are likely to get yourself into a state, make an effort to learn some relaxation strategies beforehand.

While the thought of your oral exam can be daunting, keep in mind that however well informed your examiners are, you know your thesis topic better than anyone else alive. You are the expert. Also keep in mind that your examiners are not 'out to get you'. Examiners tend to be genuinely interested in the topic and will wish you to do well.

In the exam

Don't rush into answering. It's OK to pause and think before answering. Remember that what seems like a pause of incredibly long proportions to you, will probably not even be noticed by the examiners. If you need a few seconds to think, don't underestimate the usefulness of phrases such as "That is an excellent question".

Don't interrupt the examiners before they've finished asking you the questions as this can considered bad form! Be friendly towards the examiners - taking care not to appear over-confident or too deferential. Endeavour to make eye contact.

If you do not know or cannot think of the answer to a question, keep calm and provide the best answer you can based on what you know. Phrases such as "I am sorry, I have not considered that aspect before, but I do know that " or "Based on the experimental findings, I think there are indications that " can be useful. If you are not sure what a question means, do not hesitate to either ask your examiners to repeat or rephrase the question. Do not forget that when appropriate you can ask questions back.

Keep in mind that you don't have to agree with your examiners. All you have to do is be able to defend your position.

After the exam

At the conclusion of the oral examination you will be asked to leave for a few minutes while the panel confers. Then you return and are told the outcome of the examination. For most students they are informed that they have passed subject to specified corrections being made to the thesis. However, there are several possible other outcomes - outright pass, student having to re-submit the thesis with major revisions by a specified date or fail. Candidates should check the official regulations to ensure that they are familiar with the process. It is also important to note that the examiners' decision on the day is a recommendation to the University, which has to be confirmed at a later date.

Thanks to the following staff and ex-students who gave their advice for this resource: Professor John Hattie (School of Education), Dr Emmanuel Manalo (Student Learning Centre), Dr Ian Brailsford (History), Dr Neville Hudson (Geology), Dr Cybele Locke (History), Dr Steve Matthewman (Sociology), Dr Kirsten Zemke-White (Anthropology).

Copyright for this article belongs to Student Learning Centre, University of Auckland, New Zealand

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Dr Emmanuel Manalo. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.slc.auckland.ac.nz/resources/for_postgraduates/oral_exam.php

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