Increasingly, institutions offer courses to Ph D students in skills such as teamwork, management and research ethics, but these skills aren't usually assessed formally.The viva would be one opportunity to do so, perhaps by seeing how students react to various scenarios.The accompanying oral examination — also called a viva voce or defence — can be a public lecture, a private discussion or not happen at all.
“If you have worked on a collaborative dissertation, a potential employer might struggle to see whether you really are an independent thinker or could you read a lead a research project,” says Ortega.
There is another matter to wrestle with — the fact that half of science Ph D graduates in the United States are choosing careers outside of academia, according to the National Science Foundation's 2014 Survey of Earned Doctorates.
One way to better reflect the team-based nature of science would be to write a joint thesis, an approach that has been used in arts and humanities graduate education in the past.
However, this can make it difficult to assign credit.
That could be because students are analysing more complex questions, performing longer literature reviews and using increasingly complicated methods that require lengthier explanations (see 'The expanding thesis').
“It's unnecessary to have such a long thesis,” says Farrar, who recently assessed one such tome.
A lot was at stake: this oral examination would determine whether he passed or failed.
“At the one-hour mark someone came in, banged a stick on the floor and said 'hora est',” says Marshall — the ceremonial call that his time was up. I had enjoyed the whole experience far too much, and ended up talking for a few extra minutes.” Marshall's elaborate, public Ph D assessment is very different from that faced by Kelsie Long, an Earth-sciences Ph D candidate at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.
This isn't necessarily a problem in itself, but some researchers worry that the decades-old doctoral assessment system is showing strain.
Time-pressured examiners sometimes lack training and preparation for Ph D assessments, which can lead to lack of rigour.