The viva voce (sometimes called an oral examination, thesis defence or oral defence) was added to the PhD examination process at UWA to enable PhD candidates to talk to experts in their field about their thesis, and possibly ask for advice on publishing or potential career options. This examination marks the end point of the research training journey - a time for celebration with supervisors, family and friends. Introduction of the viva voce was recently approved by the UWA Academic Board with official approval of rule changes by the UWA Academic Council.
Proposed viva voce process for PhD candidates
UWA is still refining the details of the viva voce process. While many countries have a public viva voce, the UWA viva voce will be a private conversation between candidate and examiners. A number of successful pilot viva voce examinations have been undertaken and it is likely they will be similar to the model described below:
Two examiners are nominated to examine the written thesis
Nomination of these two examiners follows the usual rules with regard to expertise and conflict of interest. Supervisors check the examiners were willing and able to examine the thesis and attend the viva voce, either in person or via videoconferencing.
Examiners mark the thesis and the examiner reports are sent to the Board of the Graduate Research School
After the two examiners provide their reports and classification recommendations, the Board approves the examination to proceed to the viva voce stage of examination. If the examiner reports are negative, the candidate is likely to be required to revise the thesis before proceeding to the viva.
Supervisors are provided with a copy of the examiner’s reports
Provision of the examiner reports to the supervisors and candidate enables candidates to develop, with their supervisors, their responses to any difficult questions in advance of the viva voce.
Viva voce takes place ~8-12 weeks after thesis submission
The viva voces is conducted in a dedicated room in the Reid Library about 8-12 weeks after the candidate submits the thesis for examination. The candidate meets with their examiners for about 2 hours. Also present at the viva voce is an examination chair - a UWA staff member appointed by the Dean of the GRS - who ensures the examination is conducted respectfully and fairly. Supervisors are not present at the viva voce.
Commonly asked viva voce questions and answers
How will examiners be chosen for the viva voce?
Nomination of examiners for candidates who participate in a viva voce will follow the normal nomination process, although only 2 examiners will be required instead of 3. The usual considerations will need to be taken into account, including expertise, experience, familiarity with the Australian doctoral program, timeliness, availability, willingness to examine, and actual or perceived conflicts of interest. When examiners are contacted inviting them to examine a thesis, they will be asked whether they are willing to attend the viva voce in person or by video conferencing.
In 2016 the Graduate Research School surveyed over 650 past examiners – over 95% indicated that they would be willing to participate in a viva voce at UWA. This suggests that the viva voce is unlikely to influence whether a potential examiner agrees to examine a UWA doctoral thesis or not.
Do both examiners need to attend the viva voce in person?
Examiners can choose to attend the viva voce in person or by video conferencing using Zoom. The Graduate Research School will cover the flight and accommodation costs of the examiners if they choose to participate in person (economy flights and two nights accommodation). If the examiners choose to video conference, they will be provided with instructions on how to use Zoom for video conferencing – they will not be required to download any specific software to video conference with UWA.
What happens if examiners choose to participate in the viva voce by video conference but their time zones are different to Perth?
If the time zone of one or more of the examiners is very different to Perth, there will be a discussion between all parties to determine a time that is best for the examiners, but also takes into account what is best for the chair and candidate. It is likely that this will require some viva voce exams to take place outside of normal working hours.
The viva voce is compulsory for candidates enrolling in the PhD after Jan 1 2018 but voluntary for PhD candidates who enrolled before this time. How long before submission do PhD candidates need to volunteer for a viva voce?
At the time that supervisors and candidates begin the examiner selection process, it would be useful to inform the Graduate Research School of the intent of the candidate to request a viva voce. Once the Graduate Research School has approved the request, examiners can be contacted following the normal processes.
Examiners who are unable to attend in person can participate in the viva voce by video conference. Can PhD candidates also choose to participate by video conference?
PhD candidates will be expected to attend their viva voce in person. However, there may be some exceptional circumstances in which a candidate may request to participate in their viva voce by video conference. Each request will be assessed and approved or rejected on a case-by-case basis.
PhD candidates will be provided with their examiners’ reports prior to the viva voce. Will the examiners expect to see the revised thesis before the viva voce?
There is no need for candidates to make changes to their thesis before the viva voce. During the viva voce, the candidate will be asked respond to the issues raised in the report and the examiners will detail any changes that need to be made to the thesis. Candidates can then make the required changes and submit the final corrected version of the thesis to the Graduate Research School.
Will the viva voce involve any fees payable by the PhD candidate?
There will be no direct cost to the PhD candidate to attend the viva voce, and candidates do not incur tuition fees during the examination period. However, candidates will be responsible for their own costs, if any, of attending the viva voce. The viva voce is planned for 8-12 weeks after submission of the thesis for examination. Candidates should make advance plans to be present in Perth over this period. International students should discuss with Immigration any extensions to their student visa if their visa expires during the anticipated examination period.
What role will supervisors play in the viva voce?
While supervisors will not be present at their student’s viva voce, they nominate the examiners and receive a copy of these examiners’ reports prior to the exam. Provision of the reports prior to the viva voce will allow PhD candidates and supervisors to discuss the examiners’ concerns with the thesis and prepare an appropriate response. As most PhD candidates will be told of the outcome of their exam shortly after the viva voce, supervisors are encouraged to celebrate with their student at the end of the exam.
What is the role of the examination chair in the viva voce and who will be chosen to be chair?
The viva voce examination chair will be chosen by the Graduate Research School and will be a senior academic from a discipline area related to the candidate's thesis topic. The role of the chair is to ensure the viva voce process runs smoothly, take notes during the exam and in rare cases may intervene if necessary to refocus the conversation. The chair will also provide a report with a summary of how the candidate performed during the viva voce and any issues that need to be addressed in the thesis.
What happens if the student’s examiner reports indicate serious problems with the thesis?
As normal, if a candidate has any adverse reports from an examiner, these reports are taken to a full meeting of the Board of the Graduate Research School for consideration. If the Board considers that the candidate is not ready to proceed to their viva voce, they may require the student to make changes to the thesis before proceeding to the viva voce.
Will the viva voce be recorded?
Currently the viva voce is not recorded and there are no plans to record them in the future. All chairs will take notes during the viva voce and these will be used as the official record of the event.
What happens if a student is very nervous during the viva voce?
It is expected that many PhD candidates will be nervous in the lead up to, and in the early stages of, the viva voce. However, the chair and examiners will be aware of this, will be sympathetic, and will endeavour to put all candidates at ease. Most students who have had a viva voce at UWA have reported being extremely nervous in the very first stage of the exam, but that they have settled quickly and found the exam enjoyable overall.
Can students fail the viva voce?
As with any examination, there is the potential to fail the viva voce. If PhD candidates are unable to answer questions about their research, the examiners have the option to recommend the student fail despite having earlier recommended a pass for the thesis. The chair’s report of the viva voce and the examiner's reports will then be considered at a meeting of the Graduate Research School Board to make the final decision on the classification for the student. Students who are overly concerned about failing should be reassured that they will be given the opportunity to prepare for the viva voce in advance, with the guidance of their supervisors by referring to the examiners’ thesis reports and, if they are extremely nervous, will be supported to relax in the viva voce itself.
How long after the viva voce does graduation occur?
As normal, once the PhD candidate has addressed any revisions required by the examiners, met any other condition set by the Board of the Graduate Research School, and submitted the final version of the corrected thesis to the Graduate Research School, they can then graduate at an upcoming graduation ceremony.
Viva voce for PhD candidates enrolled before 2018If you enrolled before 1 JAN 2018 and you would like to have a viva voce as part of your examination, you should first speak to your supervisors to make sure they are supportive. You can then make an appointment for you and your supervisors to speak to the Dean of the Graduate Research School or one of the Graduate Education Officers.
If you withdrew prior to 1 JAN 2018, have subsequently been approved to return to candidature, and will submit your thesis within six months of re-enrolment, you will not be required to undertake a viva voce as part of your examination but will have the option to do so if you wish.
More information about thesis examination at UWA is available here.
Oral examination pilotIn July 2017, Gundula Winter participated in the first oral examination at UWA. Both of her examiners, Prof Karin Bryan from Waikato University and Prof Tom Baldock from the University of Queensland, were able to attend the oral exam and also took part in a number of additional activities whilst on campus.
After successfully completing the oral exam, Gundula said, I volunteered because I knew it would be a great learning experience and a nice end point to my PhD. I was able to showcase all of my research, even the parts that didn’t make my thesis. Having a two-way conversation with experts in your field is an opportunity too good to miss. My examiners were so supportive and I know I can connect with them in the future to share ideas or even collaborate.
Oral examination consultationPrior to inclusion of the oral exam within the PhD rules, the GRS consulted widely about the proposed oral examination. Concerns raised, included:
- Number of external examiners
- Willingness of examiners to participate
- Ability of international students to attend
- Additional workload in arranging oral examinations
- Financial burden
A survey was also sent to all individuals who examined a UWA thesis in 2016. Most examiners responded (n=652; 70% response rate) and indicated they would be prepared to attend a UWA oral in person and/or by teleconference (97%). The survey results are available here: