Viva voce

March 27th, 2011

My viva was on Friday afternoon. This is the traditional conclusion to a PhD, when the candidate is examined orally by two or more examiners about the work that they’ve done. The examiners also give their opinions on the candidate’s thesis. At most universities, one examiner comes from your own university and another (the “external” examiner) is a senior academic at another university brought in to ensure that the work is of a sufficient standard.

I wasn’t especially nervous about my viva, as there’s not a whole lot that you can do about it in advance. When it finally began (at 2pm on a Friday, which is rarely a time when anyone is at their best), it quickly became clear that the two examiners were going concentrate their attention on the physics aspect of my thesis, which is my weakest subject. In the initial conversation it was pretty clear that they did not think there was enough weight to my thesis, which rankled somewhat as I’d been specifically told by one of my supervisors to keep the length down to around 20,000 words (out of a possible 30,000).

There were several embarrassing moments when the examiners went through the introductory physics chapter of my thesis – particularly when it was pointed out that I had completely mis-explained the key physics of how radio waves are reflected by the ionosphere, a lot of which is GCSE-level physics! Oh well.

It therefore wasn’t surprising that the two examiners (both of which are engineers but with a very strong maths/physics bias to their own work) felt that my thesis required significant further work.

I was offered the choice between a “pass with major corrections” or a “referral”. The former means that you are awarded your PhD subject to producing a revised thesis within six months to the internal examiner’s satisfaction. Failure to achieve this results in a total loss of the PhD. A “referral” kicks your PhD into the long grass, giving you twelve months to produce a revised thesis, whereupon you have to resubmit the thesis formally, pay a re-examination fee and potentially have another viva. I chose to take the major corrections route.

I’ll receive the formal list of corrections from the examiners this week. The major items are two pieces of analysis work – one based on the use of propagation prediction software, and one based on analysing some data that I had not had time to work on during the main part of my PhD.

I may be curtailing my social life somewhat until it’s done. Sorry about that.

Thanks to everyone who helped me get this far. Somehow I feel that I’ve neither passed nor failed, but been assigned to a special form of graduate student purgatory… oh well.