‘Smile and Nod’ or More? Reassessing the Role of the Silent Supervisor in the Doctoral Viva

Vijay Kumar, Amrita Kaur, Sharon Sharmini, Mohammad Noman
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 17  •  2022  •  pp. 263-277

The study examines the perspectives of convenors, examiners, supervisors, and candidates to gather their views on the presence of the supervisor in oral examinations (doctoral viva) and to reassess the role of the mainly silent supervisor in the doctoral viva.

Supervisors are central to candidates’ doctoral journey, and their roles have been well documented. However, supervisors’ role in the doctoral viva remains elusive, insignificant, and misunderstood.

The study adopts a qualitative survey method and qualitative interviews to examine the perspectives of 94 participants, including conveners, examiners, supervisors, and candidates. Data were collected through in-depth interviews and an open-ended survey and was later analyzed using a qualitative approach.

The findings have implications for the doctoral viva and policies that seek to make it a collegial and equitable practice.

The findings offer two main explanations that warrant supervisors’ physical presence in oral examinations: psycho-emotional support and procedural/regulatory purposes. Supervisors’ voices serve psycho-emotional and technical purposes and aid in dialogue and knowledge construction.

It is recommended that practitioners need to move on from the customary ‘smile and nod’ role of supervisors to allowing their voices to be heard, perhaps at the end of the viva. This would not only facilitate candidates’ performance by offering affirmation and assurance through psychological and moral support but also provide an opportunity for discussion.

This study furthers our understanding of the ‘anatomy of a doctoral viva’ and examines a comprehensive picture of the supervisor’s role in a doctoral oral exam from all stakeholders’ perspectives.

The role of supervisors in the doctoral viva, beginning from the medieval period, has consistently evolved. The research provides a fresh outlook on supervision where the supervisor is not only recommended to be present during the viva, but also to play an active role.

Future research should include diverse cultural, institutional, and disciplinary contexts to advance our understanding of the supervisor’s role during oral exams. Also, whether supervisors should have a more active role independent of what a convenor may desire should be investigated.

doctoral viva, higher education, assessment, supervisors’ voice, PhD
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