PhD failure


I had a very similar experience during my first viva. I had fallen out with my supervisor, a very senior person in a very small field of research (although the supervision amounted to 7 meetings over three an a half years, after which he left the university). Anyway, the department I worked in appointed an Internal examiner, who then contacted my absent supervisor about choosing an External. He recommended someone based in Germany, an ex-Ph.D student of his who I later discovered was known as my supervisor's protege; unfortunately, I wasn't told about the appointment until after the forms had been sent off.

During my viva, my internal starting questioning me about a range of experimental techniques I supposedly should have used, and not really about my thesis at all. After a couple of hours, I was offered an MPhil with minor corrections. I refused to accept an M.Phil, which caused a few blank looks, after which I was told that they could possibly come up with a programme of work to bring the thesis up to standard, but that I still probably wouldn't have enough to even warrent a re-viva. Anyway, after another eighteen months, I had a second viva with new examiners, who went though my (extensively rewritten) thesis bit by bit, and passed me with major corrections.

Fortunately, the students union at the uni I attended employed a well qualified student welfare advisor, who was able to explain the best course of action to take after my first viva; this included attending meetings with the head of department and postgraduate tutor as a witness. The best advice I could give to anyone in my situation would be to contact the students union as soon as possible after the viva examination, to see if they have a similar system in place.



Dave B - your story sounds rough!


Thanks, the department I worked in had quite a bad track record, and I knew of three or four cases similar to mine, and ten or so that were not quite as serious. I've just sent in an official complaint to the university, so I'll have to see what happens. One of the problems is that bad practice within the universities is allowed to continue because no one ever complains because of the fear they will be ruining their career propspects. Fortunately, mine have already been ruined, so I don't have anything to worry about !


I'm very shocked and sorry to hear these stories, so was wondering if I could ask practical advice for trying to preempt these viva issues. I suppose theoretical approaches might be more flexible for social sciences than methodologies for science (? - I'm the former by the way), but I was wondering how much you should theoretically 'suck up' to your viva examiners. If you know that their approaches differ from yours, should you modify your thesis accordingly? Especially if the examiners are very well established academics, whose line you are not towing? Or at least throw in some more of their work? Or might this annoy examiners? Thanks!


Kiwi, I've not done my viva yet, but after reading these stories (and I sympathise with all you guys) there seems to be a general trait that the candidate did not collaborate with their supervisor in the choice of their examiners and/or there was a general failing in the department involved (may it be the supervisor leaving, or general incompetence in the department).

I'd cover one's back in two respects:

First, make sure you are fully involved in the choice of your examiners. You have this right in most universities. If you don't like an examiner suggested by your supervisor, then veto that choice. Don't choose a very young examiner, they'll be interested in impressing the other examiner to your detriment, and don't choose an examiner that has not been used by your department before.

Second, and linked to the above, make sure you choose examiners whose work you have not criticised in your thesis. If you must choose an examiner whose work you have criticised, then make your you have a cast iron argument for doing so. Also ensure that examiner has the type of personality to take criticism on the chin and engage in constructive argument, rather than attempting to fail you. If the criticism isn't key to your thesis, then just remove it or significantly soften it.

Also read the work of your examiners so you know their interests and how they approach argument etc....even if this is not related to your own work.


Kiwifruit, I've been wondering about similar things myself.

I've just had my examiners confirmed and mentioned that I was a bit anxious about the viva to my supervisors. I was reassured that apart from being appropriate academically for my thesis, the examiners were actually genuinely interested in my work which is apparently a bonus, as it is less likely to be a chore for them to read and examine. Plus they are all established academics rather than 'young turks' with something to prove to others present during the viva, so theoretically my lot should be fair rather than tough for the sake of proving themselves. I was also told it would be a good idea to cite their work more often throughout my thesis than I actually have done so far - not in an obviously smarmy sucking-up way, but when it's relevant to the argument. Luckily my thesis doesn't contradict them theoretically but extends their work, but I'm dreading having to re-read all their work in depth for the viva prep as they're rather prolific, so I really need to check before I submit that I haven't accidentally misquoted them.

I know one potential examiner was rejected ages ago because of her abrasive personality. There's nothing to say examiners deemed 'nice' won't turn into rottweilers during a viva, but I feel that my supervisors have done all they can to pre-empt any obvious problems up to this point in the process. I was thinking maybe it would be a good idea to get a very 'challenging' panel for my mock viva as preparation, but I'll see what they say when the time comes.


Thanks Rubyw and Missspacey,
That's all really helpful. One of my examiners is also very prolific, so just as I thought I was nearing the end of the thesis, I find I have a lot of reading to do!
I think they are both nice people, so touch wood they won't be nasty for the sake of it.
In fact, if my thesis is OK and I'm feeling confident, I think I should almost enjoy a viva with those two!
I've probably spoken too soon...
Thanks again.


Hi everyone, thought I 'd give an update on my situation. Around a month ago i was notified that I actually WON my appeal! The graduate school has realized there was an unfair and biased assessment on the part of the examiners and therefore I will get another viva, probably early 2009. That is a massive weight off my shoulders even though I am starting to be very stressed about the second viva. I will have new examiners obviously and a new chair person. My supervisors have suggested two external examiners who are well established in my field. So hopefully this time things will work out !


Excellent news, well done for your persistence Frenchiemarie