Hot on the heels of the ArchaeoDeath Diet, I have further dietary advice. This time, I want to outline key ingredients of how to be a superb external examiner of a doctoral thesis: the Viva-Day Diet.

I have just been up to Durham University – venue for one of Britain’s biggest and most prestigious archaeology departments. I was visiting to serve as an External Examiner for a doctoral thesis. Let me explain this to those who don’t know.

In UK academia, doctoral theses are usually examined by one internal academic, who was not on the supervisory panel of the student, and one external examiner, who has some specialist knowledge of the thesis (or some dimension of the thesis). Together the two examiners read the book-length document in detail, write extensive appraisals of the work, meet together and discuss in detail the work and then there is a lengthy viva voce examination, which in this case lasted c. 2.5 hours of detailed Q & A and debate regarding the thesis’ contents. In other words, unlike elsewhere, viva examinations are conducted behind closed doors so students cannot attend those of their peers and see how it all works. Students can fail or have to conduct all manner of changes to their work following the result of the viva, so there is a lot to play for.

To prepare for this, students get ridiculous amounts of advice these days and even mock-vivas with supervisors. Examiners also get advice. As external examiner, I get guidance on how to best conduct myself. We have to be constructive and positive. We are not allowed to be insulting, personal, argumentative, dogmatic and for some reason we are not allowed to physically assault the doctoral candidate.

However, Durham, like so many HE institutions, failed to outline the real advice necessary for External Examiners. The real secret to being a great Exeternal Examiner is diet. Not just any diet, and certainly not the Archaeodeath Diet. Instead, I refer to the world-famous Viva-Day Diet. Ideally there are 6 stages, but sometimes only 3 or 4 are possible. At Durham however, I went through the full 6 as follows. Please pay attention to the details, there is little room for variation. It is tough, rigorous and must be followed to the letter:

  1. Vivas often involve an early morning train ride. If you don’t have time to have breakfast before you leave the house, or even if you do, it is essential to purchase a hot bacon bap, washed down with tea (not coffee or a cold drink) at the first opportunity on your journey. Vegetarians might struggle with this requirement, but they will simply have to try! Fortunately, I was able to find the required bap and drink on Wrexham General railway station before my 7am train departure. This was a good start for my Viva-Day Diet.
  2. The viva can involve multiple train journeys. My experience of yesterday involved four. The Viva-Day Diet stipulates that it is important not to get dehydrated on account of the over-heated carriages and the exhausting psychological preparations, medications and exclamations that the build-up to the thesis entails. The Viva-Day Diet specifies the consumption, on the second or third train of the journey, of a four-finger Kit-Kat (no other chocolate will do on the train journey) and a second cup of tea. Mine was delivered with glacial slowness on the train from Manchester to York.
  3. After four exhausting train journeys and one taxi-ride from Durham railway station to the University, together taking nearly 5 hours, I reached the Department of Archaeology. The pre-viva discussions with the internal examiner inevitably threatened to drain my energies further and so don’t feel you can go into the viva without proper dietary intake. In this case, we moved to a University canteen that looked expensive and was, but fortunately the internal picked up the tab. There were sandwiches and salads, but only a poor external examiner would head down that lunchtime route. Instead, following the Viva-Day Diet, I went for the full roast-dinner. Thus far, these three Viva Diet steps took me up to the viva examination itself fully-charged but not bloated, just nicely full.
  4. After the viva, it is usual (apart from at some tragic universities that I won’t mention) for supervisors, other staff, candidates and other PGRs to all have a bit of a drink with the external examiner (if s/he has time before going back home). I had time, and so a pub was acquired. Following the Viva-Day Diet, multiple pints (halves won’t do) of dark beer were consumed (lager is not permitted) and multiple packets of crisps were also gorged to help soak up the booze. The Viva-Day Diet was exceeded in this instance, and the venue had a coal-fire and friendly supervisor but these are not essential for the Viva-Day Diet to be maintained.
  5. An evening meal is perhaps the most important part of the Viva-Day Diet, and so, so often it is overlooked by novice examiners and poor hosts. This is because even the fittest and most intellectually vibrant examiner will be mentally drained by the travel, discussions and the viva itself, and the beer-consumption that followed. This can have serious repercussions if food is not consumed in just the right quantities and qualities.  Fortunately, the internal examiner, the successful candidate and another pgr student joined me for high-quality pub grub. There was the option to avoid the starter, this is not allowed in the Viva-Day Diet. There were ‘light bites’ for main course, but this is the route of the fool. A burger was the only option to fulfill the Viva-Day Diet. No-one else had desert, but the external examiner needs to consider the long journey home the following morning. Not just any desert will do: sticky toffee pudding was the only option.
  6. So I got my Viva-Day! But that wasn’t all. The next morning after a stay at a pleasant hostelry, I was drained and famished. With a 5 hour journey ahead of me back to North Wales, I came down to breakfast and saw I could get away with juice and cereal. But then I remembered the Viva-Day Diet morning-after advice: ‘Full English only for the morning after’, it says. So I had the works, including black pudding.

Ok, so those are the 6 steps of a successful Viva-Day Diet – the only route for a good external examiner. I strongly believe this was the only reason the candidate passed and I survived the ordeal.