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4th July


directions for the candidate's work. At its best the viva voce is a live engagement with the ideas of the student. Like the young geographer, some find it, while nerve-racking, an intellectually stimulating and even enjoyable experience. The viva voce should not be a trial by ordeal. However, there are cases when examiners behave badly and these stories fuel postgraduate trepidation about the viva as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. In my experience there have been a handful of occasions when I have witnessed such professional misbehaviour. I think there are certain kinds of personality types that students and supervisors should avoid inviting to the viva conversation. The first of these is the intellectual narcissist - the kind of examiner who is prone to scour the bibliography for references to their own published work or even ask, "...but where am I in the thesis?" Such people can have a distorted self-consciousness about making intellectual judgments: "What will people think of me if I pass this?" Or, they look at the pages of the thesis as if it were a mirror in which they only see themselves reflected, offering the pretext to go on and on about their own intellectual preoccupations and priorities. The second is the type I would characterise as the time-ruthless academic superstar. The student's thesis is something to be read at speed and judged - sometimes harshly and unfairly - on the run: "I only have 45 minutes for the viva because I have got to catch a plane to my book launch in New York tomorrow."

 


Many world-renowned and respected academics make fantastic examiners but for others the PhD thesis is a lowbrow read to be perfunctorily scanned. The last kind of examiner to avoid is the member of the discipline police. Here the concern is usually less about what the thesis has to say than how it can be categorised: "Is this really sociology?" A PhD student might ask understandably: "How do I know if the eminent person I want to nominate on my exam entry form falls into one of these categories?" The best indicator of the quality of any given examiner is how they have behaved in previous PhD examinations.

The ideal examiner for a thesis is someone who will read the work in its own terms, be fair and intellectually open-minded and at the same time searching and critical. Probably 90% of all the people I have examined with have demonstrated these qualities. In the midst of the scaremongering that surrounds the viva voce it is important to realise that the weight of bureaucracy is for once on the student's side: it's much more time-consuming for examiners in terms of paperwork to fail or refer a thesis than it is to pass it. Difficult examiners can be chastened by the realisation that their brilliant critical dissection might mean more time will be taken up reading the revised thesis and so keep them away longer from their own work.

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