In January 2015 I had the privilege to be invited as external examiner for a Viva Voce (PhD thesis defense) at the Brunel Business School of the University of Brunel in the UK. The thesis was on sustainability communication and strategic ambiguity. Although the terms differed from how I use these in my work and research, the PhD it self was a great effort to gain knowledge on how professionals in the food and related industries are dealing with the growing demands of stakeholders to care more for the environment, well being and health of consumers.
The differences between a PhD defense in the UK and in the Netherlands are remarkable. In the Netherlands it is common that opponents (professors and doctors) will function as committee. Most of them will receive the final PhD thesis and have to indicate whether they think the thesis will be defendable. At some Universities the PhD candidate might bring some changes based on the comments made by one of the opponents, and then the PhD thesis is being made final in the form of a book. It might be that the final committee during the public defense is bigger than the ‘reading’ committee. Formally the defense is part of the verdict whether the PhD will be rewarded, but it would be awkward not to reward this, since all colleagues, family and friends of the candidate can and will attend the public defense.
This is contrary to the UK. First of all there is no public defense. There is a chair, an internal examiner and one or two external examiners, besides the PhD student and his or her supervisor. This is held in a small room. Than the questioning will start. Questions concerning all elements of the PhD will follow, as an examiner you need to prepare at least 30 minutes of debate, since there is no ‘hora est’, no time limit of 45 minutes. The viva voce at Brunel U. took almost two hours. Then the candidate left the room, contrary to the NL, where the committee is leaving the room, and we discussed the defense with the chair. The outcome is very strange from a Dutch perspective.
Our verdict concluded that the PhD needed to revise the thesis (minor revisions): revision were needed on several points, needs to clarify on methodology, but also conceptual points and needs to reshape the conclusions. In the Netherlands this result would have been awful, since the PhD is not (yet) rewarded. At Brunel this outcome was celebrated as if the viva voce was successful. The candidate received congratulations and they already used the doctors’ title to address her.
This is unthinkable in the Netherlands. Why the viva voces in the UK are organized like this, I do not know. It might have to do with the growing numbers of PhD’s, might be to do with the relative high costs involved in a public defense (although in the Netherlands most costs are being paid by the candidate, including a fee for use of the wardrobe). But most certain it will lead to a decrease in the quality of PhD thesis and defenses. The thesis could have been improved before submitting this, references were not complete or were not in the correct format, besides the more conceptual and methodological issues we raised during the viva. I am almost certain that the supervisor in the Netherlands would have prevented these. It might have been the system that supervisors do not feel the obligation to be very careful in the final parts of the PhD thesis. It seems, that because of the non-public defense, the supervisor and PhD accept that the thesis does not have to be perfect at the time of defense. Maybe the fact that the thesis is not in book format, might contribute to this as well. You will check a book and proofs a dozen times, before sending it back to the publisher. With enabling the option of revisions, the option will be used more frequent. As a conclusion, I do like the Dutch system.