More than seventy observers, including family, medical colleagues and friends attended when Sven-Erik Stangerup, a noted ear, nose and throat specialist from Denmark, recently defended his doctoral thesis at Copenhagen University.  Dr Stangerup mentioned this during a recent visit to Aotearoa New Zealand with his wife, Maja, who is my cousin.  Sven-Erik married into my mother's side of the family and he and my cousin are nearing a half century of marriage.  They were at school together, went to medical school together and now they intend to retire together although research will remain high on the agenda for Sven-Erik at least.

During their visit Sven-Erik confirmed that following his February oral examination, he has now had his Doctorate in Medical Science affirmed for conferment at the next graduation of the university.  Dr Stangerup noted that examiners (there were three in all but only two attended his Viva) were entitled to 'interrogate' the candidate for up to two hours each.  He also said that when they had finished, members of the audience were able to ask questions or comment on any aspect of the thesis defence.  In his case, however, the whole process lasted for only about two hours and afterwards, a party was held at the medical school.      

This approach of mass participation is quite different to the far more closed approach that prevails in (mainly) English speaking countries.  In Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Canada and the US, the Viva often involves only the examiners, an independent examination chair, the candidate (of course) and (ex-officio) the principal supervisor.  The amount of time an examination takes seems to vary considerably and failures are rare.  Instead, discussions tend to concentrate on emendations, options for future research and theoretical as well as methodological matters.  The process, even though it's called an examination, is more akin to a conversation between peers about an argument, a proposition, a thesis of interest.     

There are, however, exceptions to the Viva.  In some Australian universities, notably the University of New England (UNE), there is no oral exam.  Convening examiners for the Viva was found to be too costly so the regulations for doctoral studies simply did not include a Viva.  However, with modern technologies being readily available, bridging distances and convening teleconferenced examinations should not really present a challenge for universities such as UNE.  I'd argue, therefore, that there would be considerable scholastic merit in them introducing the Viva for doctorates, especially given that most of their 'business' is based on teaching and assessing learning outcomes via distance education modes.  Fundamentally, the oral exam, the Viva Voce, should represent a culmination and celebration of a major opus - probably - next to raising a family - the sternest task a person is ever likely to tackle.  So where possible, family, friends and peers should be able to be involved as was the case with Sven-Erik.  And that could even happen via distance bridging technologies.

I've contemplated these matters for a while and in 2009 I wrote about the wisdom of possibly extending the Viva so that family and friends could celebrate success after horse trading about revisions had occurred.  About a year later, I also critiqued graduation ceremonies noting that the Massey University event was well done, not only because it endorsed the work completed by successful candidates but also because it recognised the importance of family and collegial support.  

More recently, I commended the pre-viva processes developed by the Auckland University of Technology because it provides feedback to candidates prior to their oral examination.  I've even, in 2010, been a more than a tad critical of the manner in which bureaucrats from the largest university in Aotearoa New Zealand quite unjustly treated a doctoral candidate who had recently completed his thesis. (To be fair, though, that same university went to some lengths to atone for that injustice.)  

So it's very clear that there are a range of approaches used for interrogating doctoral candidates.  There are also a variety of ways in which awarding institutions can and do celebrate doctoral success.  And so they should as long as the emphasis is on the student rather than the faculty. 

At the Woodhill Park Research Retreat, aside from congratulating Sven-Erik Stangerup, we also want to acknowledge two other people, friends, colleagues, whom we have helped over time.  They have worked very hard for long periods on achieving their doctorates and we sincerely congratulate them.

First, we want to congratulate Sarah Mooney who has been told that, subject to minor emendations, her professional doctorate in health sciences will be awarded.  Second, we want to acknowledge the relief that Anna-Jo Perry felt when her thesis was submitted for examination.  Like pretty well all doctoral candidates, Anna-Jo went through a grieving process when it, the thesis was finally delivered.  It is now being examined and she is in the wings, waiting to be called for her Viva...