Viva Experience Research, Part 1: Background

To Begin With

My viva was four hours long, and I was stood in front of a chalkboard for the entire duration.

Yeah: I know.

After my PhD, I started work as a skills trainer with postgraduate researchers, and I began delivering sessions on viva preparation. I could tell people about my viva, and about other vivas I had heard about, but I realised very quickly that:

  1. My viva was not typical, and while it was fine to talk about, it didn’t necessarily help people feel OK;
  2. I knew a lot about vivas anecdotally, but I didn’t know for sure what the general experience was like.

So I started the Viva Survivors Podcast – by the way, there’s a brand new episode up there today! – I wanted to share stories that would help people feel that the viva was not a terrible thing, and also see that there were things that could be done to prepare for it. By showing a variety of disciplines, postgraduate researchers would see that it was OK – and hopefully see that whatever differences individual vivas have, they also have a lot in common.

About two years later I realised that it was helping, but it wasn’t enough, not by itself.

So I asked seven questions.

Enter the Research

I created a short survey and pitched it at PhD graduates who had researched at UK institutions. The original Google Docs form that I used is here, but in summary the questions were:

  • When was your viva?
  • What university did you do your research at?
  • What was your research field?
  • How long was your viva?
  • What kind of pass did you get? (No corrections, Minor corrections, Major corrections)
  • Were you had told that you had passed at the start or the end of the viva? (Start, End)
  • What three words come to mind when you think of your viva?

I also asked if people wished to provide a Twitter name or email address to be notified of results.

I ran the survey from the March 4th 2014 until the end of April; through Twitter, a regular shout out from me and the generosity of people retweeting, I received 302 responses to the survey (not counting identical duplicates that Google Docs created). I’ve spent the months since then using the data captured to try and see what these responses tell us about the viva in the UK.

There were several areas that I wanted to look at to begin with, and also some questions that I had – these were formed from my experiences helping others prepare for their viva, and from the questions that they often asked.

First up was to examine the length of vivas. This is the first question I get asked at every workshop! I wanted to see what the “average” viva length was, and also see if there was a difference between researchers from different discipline backgrounds. I wanted to check the assumption that I had about the types of pass that researchers achieved: my assumption was that most passed with minor corrections. And I also wanted to explore the language that graduates used to describe their vivas: was it positive or negative? What did people say?

Over the next few days I’ll describe my findings, what I think they mean and what I’m thinking of exploring next. These posts have been drafted in advance of publication, but I really welcome comments and questions, so if you want to know anything then do let me know – I may be able to update posts in light of questions, or at least address queries in the comments.

Thanks for reading – and thank you to everyone who submitted a response to the survey, or who has listened to me talk about the research or the results in private; you’ve helped me a lot, and now I hope that this research can help others too!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)