The Problem With Pass Or Fail

“Pass or fail” is too simple a story for the viva. Two outcomes plants the idea that both have equal likelihood. Even when a candidate knows that’s not the case, having a binary outcome allows for one (the negative one, of course!) to rest heavily in the mind.

There are many outcomes – minor corrections, major corrections, resubmission, no corrections… If we tell the story that the viva is pass or fail, the real outcomes confuses the matter. I’ve had many candidates ask me “Is major corrections a pass or not?” because they think the viva is only pass or fail.

Check the outcomes at your institution. Check what they mean. Focus on the fact that most people get some corrections to do, and that’s not a problem. They’ve not failed.

“Pass or fail” is a nice, simple story, but it’s not accurate. There are many outcomes, not just two, and most of them are a pass. There are conditions to the pass, and there are reasons why candidates get those outcomes. Find out why. Learn more. Understand the situation.

Not “pass or fail” but “pass and why”

Non-Zero

The probability of failure in the viva is not 0. We know this because despite the many thousands of candidates who pass their viva every year, a handful of people don’t. A couple of universities have told me the odds are less than one in a thousand.

So, statistically, the probability is non-zero.

It could happen, but why should it happen to you? For any candidate thinking, “It could be me!” let me ask, “Why?! Why would it be you?”

The chances of succeeding are far, far, far greater than the probability of failing.

Your success isn’t “chance” of course. Your success in the viva is another victory, the latest, the greatest since you started on the path to being a PhD.

What If I Fail?

Why might I fail? What happens if I fail? What is the process for failing the viva like?

I am asked questions like this all the time. Some people do fail the viva. The vast majority don’t.

What makes you think you would?

If you’re thinking about failure, seriously thinking about failure… Why? What has tripped that thought for you? There’s a real difference between wanting to pass and thinking you might fail. If you’re concerned about your examiners, read some of their papers, ask around about them. If you’re worried about remembering “everything” then read your thesis carefully and make some notes. If you worry about answering questions under pressure then have a mock viva, or get friends to practise with you.

If you’re really troubled by the thought of failure, do something about it.