Doctoral vivas and marks

Daniel Gile

October 31, 2007


Writing a doctoral dissertation is long, hard work. In some countries, completed dissertations are submitted to examiners to be studied at leisure; the outcome is announced after such examination is completed. In other countries, there is a public defence or viva which can be seen at various points along a continuum going from examinations in the strict sense to initiation rites with a predictable outcome. One reason is that in some countries, a high mark (très honorable in France, sobresaliente in Spain) is virtually a standard, and any lower mark can be interpreted as failure and jeopardize the new doctor’s chances of applying successfully for an academic job. Since in most cases, doctoral candidates have supervisors, granting a lower than the standard high mark to the candidate is tantamount to criticizing the supervisor. Moreover, in most cases, members of doctoral committees are (unpaid) volunteers who have been asked to participate by the supervisor or by someone else from the same academic department or faculty as a favour. In a way, they participate in a celebration ceremony.

Clearly, such arrangements are not the best to ensure objectivity and truthfulness in public statements. What may happen on site is an exchange of critical opinions between members of the committee in private followed by much softer and even laudatory statements in front of the audience. Even when public statements by members of the committee are critical (this is painful to everyone, including members of the committee who feel it is their duty to point out weaknesses in the dissertation and yet do not enjoy spoiling the atmosphere and generating disappointment and sometimes hostility from the audience), the final mark awarded can be high. It may not be the highest (mention très honorable à l’unanimité in France or sobresaliente cum laude in Spain), but still hover high above the mark the majority of members feel the work really deserves. In TS, cases where the standard high mark has been awarded whereas most members of the doctoral committee actually felt that the work was not up to doctoral level are far from rare.

It is difficult to fight social factors which bring about such situations. Even the French pré-rapporteur system, whereby two external examiners must give the go-ahead before the candidate is allowed to proceed to the viva, is not very efficient because the pré-rapporteurs are submitted to the same social factors as members of the doctoral committee present at the viva - though presumably to a lesser extent. Anonymous examining would probably be best from the docimological viewpoint, but does docimology matter as much as the rite of passage which celebrates the coming of age of a new member of the scholarly community? The new doctor’s future work will be submitted to peer-reviewing throughout his/her academic life, meaning that s/he is not let loose without further quality control. It may make sense to just accept doctoral vivas as welcome rites and take the marks with a grain of salt.