title: Viva Voce author: ear1grey post_id: 721 created: 2007/06/01 14:07:51 created_gmt: 2007/06/01 14:07:51 comment_status: open post_name: viva-voce status: publish post_type: post —

Viva Voce

In Britain, the process of finishing a PhD involves the submission of a written thesis, followed by an oral examination called a viva voce (the literal Latin translation is “live voice”). The “viva”, as it’s commonly known, is an in-depth discussion into all aspects of the thesis which typically lasts between 90 and 180 minutes. It is conducted by a specially convened examination board, with both internal and external examiners, who typically have have four weeks to digest the thesis beforehand. In the viva, the PhD candidate must defend their thesis: if the defence is successful, the candidate is awarded the degree (usually with a handy list of all the spelling, punctuation and grammar corrections that the examiners have noticed, as well as requests to clarify or rewrite bits).

PhD-level research is very specialised but (as my esteemed supervisor pointed out) most of the content should be comprehensible to anyone capable of reading a daily newspaper, because the more accessible the writing, the more useful it will be to other people (who may not speak English as a first language) and that’s the whole point of the PhD, it’s not just personal advancement, it’s another small step for the research topic, for scientific method and human kind. The thesis is marked and reviewed by respected academics, but the average person is the target audience, so they shouldn’t need to keep a dictionary handy to grasp the majority of the content. Obviously some parts of any field will require specialised knowledge in order to interpret plots or equations, but the majority should be accessible to all. When discussing the work, there are no plots and equations, there are only words. This is why the viva voce is such a powerful tool for final examination.

On numerous occasions however, I’ve observed an odd response from the average person when they learn that my research is about “building models that help us understand what happened when very large computer systems go wrong”. It’s the natural evolution of the “I can’t work the video” discussion: once computers are mentioned then within 3 sentences I’m told about how their child/grandchild/neice/nephew etc (usually aged between aged 2 and 6) can use a mouse already, and how this is in contrast with everyone else in their family. There are probably similar variations on this discussion for every non-computing field, and this is why the viva, in reality, is really enjoyable. It’s great to be able to talk to people who’ve read the thesis, understood it, and want to talk about the details. This is something that my old buddy Gethin (who got his PhD long ago) predicted for me beforehand, and he was spot on.

My viva voce was this Tuesday, and (for the benefit of anyone with a viva approaching) the whole thing was enjoyable.