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Dissertation and Viva

Marking and feedback of the research project dissertation

All dissertations are marked independently by two project assessors, and assessed by viva voce examination between the student and both assessors. The examination will take place in late August/early September (exact date to be arranged). In the case of a significant difference of opinion between the two assessors, or in the case of a borderline mark (i.e. pass/fail) the assessors will usually ask for a third, independent report. The mark given for a dissertation is then determined by the assessors on the basis of all the marks received and, where appropriate, of their own readings of the dissertation. The dissertation reports will be released to candidates in due time.

The primary purpose of the viva voce examination is to assess the student’s depth of understanding of the subject area and interpretation of the results obtained. If a student is unable to explain the concepts or thinking underlying the text of the dissertation, the mark awarded for the research project is likely to be substantially reduced.

Criteria for the Marking of Dissertations and Viva Voce Examinations

In their dissertation and viva, the student should demonstrate the following:

  1. An awareness of the basic background science underlying their project work and an awareness and critical understanding of the literature which is relevant to their project work, particularly where that literature may impact on their analysis of data or their conclusions.
  2. An understanding of the computational techniques they have employed, including the limitations of those techniques and how these limitations might impact on their understanding or analysis of their data.
  3. An ability to accurately describe and interpret computational results.
  4. An awareness of errors and ambiguities arising in computational techniques, and, where appropriate, an ability to quantify those errors.
  5. An ability to draw convincing conclusions based on the evidence presented.
  6. An ability to present their findings appropriately. This should include:
  • Providing a clear outline of the research problem and/or the goals of the research undertaken.
  • Writing a well-structured, concise dissertation of appropriate length.
  • Choosing appropriate illustrations and presenting them clearly with suitable annotations and legends.
  • Selecting references carefully, and presenting them in a consistent and appropriate form.

Additionally, the assessor is asked to assess to what extent the project work makes a fair contribution to the subject, and if it contains elements of originality. To pass the research project component of the MPhil course, the student should broadly meet criteria 1 - 6 described above. To achieve a "Distinction" the student should fully meet all criteria. Additionally, to achieve a "Distinction", the research presented should represent a genuine and useful original contribution to the field of study, and the dissertation as a whole should approach the quality expected of reports in reputable scientific journals.

Notes for the Viva Voce Examinations

Viva voce examinations normally take place in the last week of August/first two weeks of September, on dates arranged by the Course Administrator on the basis of the availability of external and internal assessors. The examination lasts for about 1.5 hours, during which the student and two assessors discuss the project work in a closed session (no one else is admitted).

The purpose of a viva voce examination is to:

  • check that the dissertation is the candidate's own work.
  • confirm that the candidate understands what he or she has written.
  • investigate the candidate's awareness of where his or her original work sits in relation to the wider research field.
  • provide the candidate with an opportunity to justify their arguments and conclusions.
  • establish whether the dissertation is of sufficiently high standard to merit the award of the MPhil degree.

All viva voce examinations are different. The assessors will have read your dissertation in detail, and can choose to ask you about any aspect of your written work, or the background science theory which relates directly to your dissertation. (We would not expect questions to be asked about background science or theory which is unrelated to the dissertation.) However, various types of questions are quite common. For instance:

  • At the beginning of the viva, you may be asked to summarise your dissertation, or describe the main achievements of your project work.
  • You will probably be asked some questions about the background science theory in your introduction. These questions may require depth or breadth of thinking about these topics, rather than a simple factual response.
  • You will probably be asked some questions about the methods or techniques you have used. The assessors may want to check that you have understood the technique properly, as a way of confirming that you actually did the work described in the dissertation yourself. They may also want to check that you have understood any limitations of the techniques you have used, and any sources of error.
  • You may also be asked questions about any quantitative analysis you have done. The assessors may want to check that you have understood the quantification procedure, rather than, for example, just pressing buttons on some software, with no understanding of what the software does to your data.
  • The assessors may ask you to justify elements of your discussion and conclusion, or to look at your data from an alternative viewpoint, and consider whether this alternative viewpoint impacts on the validity of your conclusions.

The assessors won't expect you to have an instant answer to every question they ask. It is fine to take some time to think about the question, or to ask for clarification. If you really have no idea how to answer a question, then you can tell the assessors this. They will usually be willing to give you some hints to help you think about their question. Occasionally, the assessors may even misunderstand an element of your dissertation, and if you think this has happened, so that the questions you are being asked appear to be addressing topics which are not relevant to your dissertation, you may wish to politely ask the assessors to explain the relevance of their questions.

The assessors are trying to give you an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge, not to catch you out. If you have worked hard on your project and written it up carefully, the viva should be an enjoyable experience, since it gives you the opportunity to talk in detail about the work you have done, and perhaps discuss some new ideas arising from that work.