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The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors

Book Review

Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson, Maidenhead, Open University Press, 2004, 228pp, paperback, £24.99, ISBN 0 335 21305 7

How to prepare for your Viva? Arrange lots of mock-Vivas? Try practice lots of test questions? Memorise your thesis cover to cover? Forget about it until the day? Do nothing? Cry? All of the above?  Thankfully for the expectant Viva candidate, Tinkler and Jackson’s book provides an over-view of all the above approaches and offers advice and reassurance which de-mystifies this most unpredictable of assessments.

Aimed at PhD candidates, their supervisors and examiners, this book is presented in a series of 13 chapters, each concerning a distinct area of the Viva and traces the process from beginning to end. Starting with an overview of the purposes of the Doctoral Viva, through to what to do when the Viva is finished, and providing a range of advice on how to select examiners, whether or not your supervisor should sit in on the exam, what to do in the five minutes before you enter the room and how to appeal or complain about a decision in a Viva, this book offers a thorough overview of all features of the examination.    And though it is arranged in this linear fashion, each chapter begins with a summary of the content and a scale indicating how useful it is for students, examiners or supervisors.   As such it can be used as a handbook, as the title suggests, and invites the reader to dip in an out of interesting parts without losing the meaning of the book as a whole.

The authors suggest short-term preparation to do once a thesis is submitted and long-term preparation that should be started whilst the thesis is still being researched.  As such, this book ought to be read before submission, as well as used in the post-submission, pre-viva maelstrom.  Though I have not come to this book all that early in my thesis-writing, my anguish at not having started preparing for the Viva from day one, as Tinkler and Jackson suggest, was allayed by gaining an awareness of knowledge that I should be looking out for and ‘banking’ it as reassuring preparation for the Viva.

One of the more engaging features of this book is that the advice given is punctuated throughout with vignettes or case studies from previous PhD students and examiners who talk about their experience of the Viva pre-, during and post- exam.   These real-life case studies reassuringly confirm the variety and unpredictability of the Viva exam as well as illustrating the fact that Vivas can be as challenging for examiners as they are for the candidates. They also add to the ‘trustworthiness’ of the advice. Indeed, one quality of this book, that makes it more than a run-of-the-mill study guide, is that the content is informed by the findings of a study conducted over 4 years with 20 UK universities, which investigated the experiences and qualities of good and bad examinations and preparations for examinations. As such, as the reader is advised on exercises to do and questions to think about, there is a sense that this advice is grounded in experience and observation, and that, in addition to this being helpful advice to follow, it would, in fact, be foolhardy to ignore it.

Ordinarily I would be suspicious of a book that purported to help all students with all Vivas, however, this book draws on Viva experiences from an array interdisciplinary directions; natural and physical sciences, psychology, social science, the humanities and medicine are some of those represented in this book.  This broad disciplinary attention is a rare quality in a book that presents itself as disciplinarily generic, and, this, added to the fact that the findings are rooted in empirical enquiry, afford this book an added legitimacy as a useful tool in Viva preparation.

As the title suggests, this is a handbook suitable for examiners and supervisors, but especially for pre-Viva students and pre-submission students.  I would also suggest that PhD students in their first few years have a look at chapters on long-term Viva preparations in order to get the most out of conferences, reading groups and so on.  The fact that there contains advice for examiners also puts the Viva process into perspective, as a challenge for everybody in the Viva, not just the candidate.

Nonetheless in spite of its broad reach, one limitation of this book is that it is aimed at students doing straightforward research degrees. Practice-based PhDs, PhDs by publication or new route PhDs are not dealt with explicitly in this book, though some of the principles will still be of interest to such candidates. Naturally, a further test of this book will be in whether, having followed it, the Viva process is anymore straightforward or any less daunting for candidates.   I can say, as a PhD student in the social sciences who is currently three months from submission, that having read the book I feel more prepared for preparing for the Viva. I will certainly be using the book again as I hurtle inevitably towards submission. However, the worth of the book will be evidenced by my feelings after the Viva; in preparing for the unexpected, as this book suggests, did the Viva go as I expected? The proof will be in the examination, but for now, I feel comforted that I have in my hand the right tools with which to navigate into this unknown.  I would recommend this book to fellow voyagers at all stages of their Doctoral journey.

Reviewed by: Alex Fanghanel, University of Leeds

At the time of writing, Alex Fanghanel was a final year PhD student in the Department of Geography at the University of Leeds.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of FindAPhD.

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