Surviving the terror of the PhD Viva

Receiving this academic badge of distinction comes with a dose of societal unease

Purchase Surviving the terror of the PhD Viva

Contact Mike

VANCOUVER, BC, Apr 12, 2015/ Troy Media/ -What is it about PhDs that creates so much gentle mockery, humour, and even tension? Sure, there is a healthy measure of respect for expertise, but more often than not when I bring the topic up amongst colleagues and friends the joking starts.

“PhD – permanent head damage!” “Piled higher and deeper!” “You mean Pender Harbour Diesel. They have great hats with PhD on them!” “You’re not a proper medical doctor; your just an egg-head one!”

And so it goes. It seems this academic badge of distinction comes with a dose of societal unease. As in, “Wow, you must be really smart.” The humour serves to push back, maybe to equalize the situation when a doctor is in close proximity.

PhD Viva as old as the British university system

This is all pretty close to home now, because my daughter just became Dr. Robinson. I went to England to support her through the final rite of academic passage: the PhD Viva (as in oral exam, or more properly the viva voce).

The Viva is as old as the British university system, and comes with four possible outcomes: clear pass (hardly ever awarded), pass with minor revisions, pass with major revisions (which normally require a further year of repair work), and fail. The fail is a disaster, because there is no possible reparative action. A fail means that all is lost; the topic cannot be re-defended. As I walked with my daughter to the examination hall in London, I couldn’t help but notice her stoic demeanour, her professional and stylish dress, and her resolve. She was prepared.

The PhD Viva is probably as close as you can get to knowing how the condemned feel as they walk towards their death

“Dad, this is probably as close as you can get to knowing how the condemned feel as they walk towards their death!” I walked on beside her, trying to be the fatherly essence of stability and strength.

I was awash in pride, wishing for success, and suppressing hard all other thoughts. Soon we were at the building’s front door. I hugged her and wandered off to visit the British Museum. Three hours later, I got a cell phone call: “Dad – it’s a pass with minor revisions. I’m just going off for tea with my committee members. See you in about an hour.” The words were spoken calmly and with authority. That was it. I was now father of Dr. Robinson.

An emotional rush proceeded to overcome my rational self. Smiling, I found a wine bar and went in for a drink. When I told the server that I was celebrating a successful Viva, she said, “This drink is on the house.” Later, my daughter and I gathered with other members of her PhD cohort in a boutique hotel dining room for champagne. The champagne flowed, and congratulatory toasts and stories followed.

Looking back on this important day, I am struck by the interpersonal kindness of all the doctoral candidates, their expectations of success for their fellows, and the focus they brought to their studies. PhD work definitely hones focus. It also strictly guides the use of unstructured time. And for most of those who pursue it, it provides an opportunity to delineate, think, rethink, and understand some aspect of knowledge that no one else has studied.

For many in the social sciences it brings the opportunity for years of field work, coupled with proficiency in a new language. It also comes wrapped in the universal ritual of the Viva. It permanently separates the initiated from the rest. Many who later on describe the ritual say it is like the most probing of legal cross-examinations. It focuses on your own thoughts, your unique intellectual contributions, and your self-defined research topic. It is perhaps the hardest form of personal criticism an individual should have to bare. And within the ritual, many say there is an embedded element of personal humiliation.

A proud father

The next day, my daughter and I went up to Oxford for lunch with another PhD success. “Dad, it’s going to be very awkward when Moizza joins us for lunch today. You’ll be the least qualified person at the table,” she said with enjoyment and humour.

I know, and I was proud to be invited.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. He currently writes for a broad range of Canadian media, and consults to the boards of start-up NGOs.

Read more Mike Robinson

Follow Mike via RSS

// Widgets

Troy Media Marketplace © 2015 – All Rights Reserved
Trusted editorial content provider to media outlets across Canada

Click here to report a typo or inaccuracy

Submit a Letter to the Editor

Purchase this PREMIUM content for your publication or website.

Unlimited Access for one low monthly fee Price based on circulation/ unique visitors
Account holder?
to open in Word
Login or Join Us to download


One Response to "Surviving the terror of the PhD Viva"

  1. Avatar
    newdale   April 13, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    I read your post with relish MIke and felt as if I was with you at the wine bar. Congratulations Dad of PhD.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login