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Impartiality versus coaching for the viva/oral examination

What balance should I, as a PhD supervisor*, strike between working with my students to help them impress examiners and remaining detached and impartial?

This question can be relied upon to raise heated discussion among supervisors. It seems to engage their deeply seated values of what a research degree means and implies, with opposing viewpoints being stated and defended aggressively and emotionally.

Some supervisors take the view that for any qualification to be worth the paper it is written on, nothing must occur which could be construed as collusion - a view which relates to how far supervisors should be involved in the production of the thesis or dissertation.

Other supervisors argue that, by the time their students are examined, they are ready, and so steps must be taken to prevent quirks of any sort contaminating the result. Mock oral examinations/vivas seem to be common practice. (There is advice for students on the oral examination is in the students' section of this website.)

A better articulation of these views might be that students have the right to be examined fairly, and supervisors have a duty to ensure that they are - which is not collusion.

Selecting external examiners

A related issue must be how to go about selecting a suitable external examiner. Regulations on this vary across institutions. However, supervisors usually have some form of input to the selection and it is generally agreed that supervisors' minimal responsibility is to identify potential examiners:

General information

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer


* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.