So how do you pass a PhD?

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Years of work designing a study, collecting data, analysing the results and writing up a doctoral thesis isn’t the end of the story – the final hurdle is the ‘viva’. This oral exam basically checks that the candidate wrote the thesis and understands what went into it, so the viva is literally a ‘live’ performance.

Vivas take many forms in different countries, sometimes a mere formality to showcase the project as a public presentation, or a formal ‘disputation’ with an external examiner. In the UK, doctoral candidates sit their viva in private, examined by two academics (one internal to the candidates department, one external) who are skilled enough in the subject area to scrutinise the thesis.

Legendary tales abound of seven-hour grillings, inflated egos and heated arguments (often between examiners!), but most vivas take two or three hours to explore the work of the thesis, its wider impact in its field and possible future directions. The focus is very much on engaging the candidate to show their worth.

Today Matt acted as external examiner for a PhD viva at Aberdeen University, on “Small-scale geographic variation in genetics and morphology in an island population of European starlings”, and no horror stories here! The candidate, Jess Walkup, had combined field ornithology, molecular genetics and some sophisticated statistical analyses to examine variation within the population on Fair Isle, a small island between Shetland and Orkney where starlings have been studied intensively for many years.

Variation is the raw material of evolution itself, and although Fair Isle is tiny and starlings can move easily around the island, some clear differences in genetics and morphology were apparent. It was fascinating to hear about what might be the first faltering steps of microevolution, quite unexpected at a microgeographic scale.

You’ll have to read Jess’s papers (next step after the thesis corrections!) to find out why this microevolution might be taking place, further work might be another great PhD project.

So I’d call that a good PhD viva – an interesting thesis and a robust bit of scientific knockabout between Matt (right) Jess (centre) and the internal examiner, Prof Stuart Piertney (left). Also great to catch up with Jess’s supervisor, Dr Jane Reid.

Congratulations Dr Walkup! (Well, almost…)

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