The way PhDs in the UK are examined and awarded, at least in my experience, is as follows:
When you're getting towards the final stages of your PhD — the point at which you can see that finishing it is a real possibility and a concrete draft submission date is likely, you and your supervisor discuss potential examiners and nominate people. You generally have two examiners — one 'internal' (i.e. a member of faculty in your own university, or, as in my case, someone who either received a PhD from your university or held a postdoc there but was not a current member of faculty), and one 'external' (i.e. a member of faculty from another academic institution). Generally the internal examiner works in a related field (they might be the only other medieval literature specialist in your faculty besides your PhD supervisor, but work on slightly earlier material), and the external examiner is an expert in closely-related material to the subject of your own PhD — my PhD focused on five texts, and my external examiner had published an edition of one of them and had written book chapters and articles on all of them at some point in his career.
Once your selected examiners agree to do examiner your PhD, it's up to you to finish it, submit the draft, and wait for a suitable time for the three of you to meet up for the viva, which is an oral examination where the two examiners, having read your submitted PhD, grill you about it for several hours. They bring up points of disagreement, areas of weakness, recommendations for secondary reading you might not have read or cited, and aspects of your research in which you have advanced scholarship in your field — basically, whatever they want to talk about. It's pretty stressful, because you're basically defending three/four years' worth of your time, energy and intellectual capabilities to experts in your field who have the power to decide whether you're worthy of joining their number. On the basis of their opinions of your submitted PhD, and how you handled yourself in the viva, the examiners can make one of the following recommendations:
Pass without corrections: they saw no flaws in your PhD, and you can submit a bound version/digital version (whatever is required by your institution) without a single change.
Pass with minor corrections: you have a set amount of time (usually three months) to make some fairly minimal changes (usually fix typos, correct errors in citation style, or include a reference to some key work that they think you've missed), and once these changes have made, you can submit a bound/digital corrected version and will receive your doctorate.
Pass with major corrections: you have a set amount of time (usually six months) to make some more substantial changes (usually changes in argument, more extensive references to works they think are necessary, substantial changes to translations, making a conclusion seem more 'conclusive'), and once these changes have been made, you can submit a bound/digital corrected version and will receive your doctorate.
Revise and resubmit: they have serious concerns about whether your work constitutes a PhD, so you have a set amount of time (usually a year) to make extensive changes, resubmit your work with these changes, have a new viva, and, if they are satisfied after this point, you can submit a bound/digital corrected version and will receive your doctorate.
Fail: what it sounds like. Sometimes examiners will give you the opportunity to receive a lower degree like M.Litt, but basically they don't think your work constitutes a PhD and don't think a year would be enough time to make the changes necessary for it to do so.
Generally a supervisor wouldn't let you submit your thesis and go through a viva if they didn't think you were going to fall into at least the third category or above, but the process is still extremely nerve-wracking and I wouldn't wish it on anyone!
I wake up almost every day grateful for the fact that I never have to do another viva again. Some examiners will tell you before you get started that you've passed, although they're not technically supposed to (Matthias' external examiner wanted everything done by the book, so he left the room not knowing if he'd passed or failed). Mine tried to tell me without saying so directly — they said something like, 'before we get started, we want to say that we do have some concerns, but you have nothing to worry about. Now let's talk about your PhD,' which helped a bit, but didn't do much to make the experience any more pleasant. Some friends have told me they enjoyed their vivas, but to this day (and I say this as someone who has had some pretty awful things happen to her), that viva remains the worst two hours of my entire life. A few weeks before it happened, I dreamt that the process would involve lying on a rooftop while two senior Celticist academics shot at me with sniper rifles, just to give you some indication of the state of my mind...
Anyway, you get the idea. I passed, and although I couldn't look at my PhD or my examiners' reports for at least two months after the viva was over, the corrections themselves only took about a week of my time, and I got my PhD, graduated, and got on with a life outside academia. But because I still live in Cambridge, and still have a lot of friends within medieval studies, and because my former department is extremely sociable, I tend to come back from time to time to local conferences, free annual guest lectures, alumni events and so on. And because medieval studies is such a small world (and Celtic Studies an even smaller world within it), I tend to run into my examiners when I least expect it. And, inevitably, I bumped into my internal examiner at a guest lecture late last year. We fell to talking about my viva, and he told me something I found both hilarious, and a great source of perspective.
The entire time that I had been in a state of extreme anxiety and panic, feeling besieged and terrified, he had been in such awe of my external examiner (who, for some reason, he had never met in person before) that he had reacted by being extremely formal, and more critical than he perhaps intended, because he wanted to make a good impression on his fellow examiner. It's odd, but it's nice to know I wasn't the only one in that room feeling scared and overwhelmed!
Anyway, academia. It's a weird little universe.
This entry was originally posted at http://dolorosa-12.dreamwidth.org/234335.h