Horrible external examiner-viva ruined my life


Hey everyone,

I come here looking for advice and/or support. I had my viva last year and got a revise and resubmit, something that was traumatising on its own. However, on top of that, the lady who was the external examiner was incredibly unfriendly and rude. She came from a different field of social sciences and wanted me to take the approach that would fit HER field. At the end of the viva, she told everyone she sees no contribution and disconnected (it was done online). The written comments were equally nasty and again repeated how her field should be at the centre of my studies, on top of including unnecessary personal attacks. This naturally meant redoing a massive chunk of my PhD. The thing is, while I have made lots of effort, I am sure she will fail me regardless. My PhD is never suddenly going to turn into a thesis suitable for a different field. This person has also acted like she absolutely hates me (my supervisor confirmed this impression). I am already prepared that I will need to appeal once she fails me.

I am not sure what my approach should be. The previous viva gave me PTSD. I was already suffering and still am suffering from depression. My mental health is really poor as it is and I am not sure if I can handle yet another abusive viva, let alone the outcome that is already clear before she even reads it. I was struggling for weeks after the previous viva.
What is even worse is that I already have a lecturership. Revise and resubmit already put me in an awkward place, but a fail will probably cost me all future job opportunities. Based on what I read, a solicitor can't do anything other than help me appeal the outcome? Can I somehow tackle the verbal attack thing without the risk of retaliation? I am honestly lost as to what to do.


Your approach to an appeal is best focused on process and procedure, not academic judgement. If she cut off the viva early without warning, that's a clear grounds for appeal, because it's a breach of process. If any comments can objectively be put before a committee and argued as personal, biased, etc., that's also grounds, but you need to be careful of coming across as arguing that her opinion is wrong. Not that it's right, but it's often much, much easier to get a re-viva on the grounds some bit of paperwork was missed, than it is to try to argue the examiner was wrong with complex theory X, and you'll always be on the back foot doing so since you'll be perceived as the novice and they the expert. The problem in general with attempting to academically argue someone was wrong post-viva, is Universities will be keen to shut that down, since if it becomes common practice, everyone that gets an undesirable outcome will start wanting a drawn out, abstract theoretical debate they'll only walk away from when they win. A procedural failing is often unarguable, though, and a solicitor can help with that.

She may not fail you, though. Some academics are incredibly bad at interpersonal skills, but more rational and reasonable on the page. Nobody ever really gets meaningful training on how to examine a PhD (I got a sum total of 30 minutes for the first one I chaired, and 0 for the ones I examined before that). Most of us draw from our own personal experience, which for most people is very cordial, a bit scary, but ultimately fulfilling, but for some - like yourself - is sadly horrendous. Some examiners are of the perspective it's in the students' best interests to completely shred them, then accept the corrections, because it helps the student in the long run (after all, it did seem she made you make lots of effort!). This is changing as there's a more appreciation of mental health these days, but, particularly if she was an older examiner - or an inexperienced one - she may have approached it with this mindset.

Wait for the result. If it's a fail, look procedurally at the viva, consulting a solicitor if helpful. I can say, it's rare these days examiners behave like this, and highly likely you'll have a much better experience should you have to do another with a different examiner. This doesn't mean it won't be rigorous, though, and there's no 'pass by appeal' for a PhD - a successful complaint will not let you avoid a future viva.

[Edit - why do edits remove paragraph spacing! :( ]