Viva Experience Research, Part 3: Forming An Outline

The Story So Far

In yesterday’s post I shared some results from my survey about

  • the length of vivas;
  • the percentage of graduates that get minor corrections;
  • the discovery that 20.9% of PhD graduates are told at the start of their viva that they have passed.

These results get more interesting when we take into account research disciplines of respondents.

It is difficult to form impressions of individual subject areas, because of low numbers of particular areas. I decided to group respondents based on whether the discipline could broadly be considered Science and Engineering (SCI) or Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (ASH); I used these to check for differences between viva experiences, starting with the simple areas of data that I talked about yesterday.

SCI Vivas

For SCI vivas (204 out of 302 respondents) the average viva length is 2 hours and 39 minutes; however, this doesn’t really mean all that much without some other analysis of the numbers. A closer examination shows:

  • 76% of SCI vivas were three hours or less; just over 5% were an hour or less.
  • Around 6% were more than four hours.
  • The most common viva length was still two hours (however there was a greater variety of longer vivas).

While SCI vivas are longer than ASH vivas (we’ll see the comparison shortly), these results show that most SCI vivas are not all that long  – nearly 95% are four hours or less.

The types of award made for SCI vivas were broadly consistent with the results I shared yesterday, slightly higher on minor corrections but overall ~93% being awarded no corrections or minor corrections. In analysing the SCI vivas as a subset, we find that ~88% of candidates were told their result at the end of the viva; I would be really interested to know how this compares to wider perceptions – particularly when combined with the results for ASH vivas, which I will share now.

ASH Vivas

Around a third of the 302 responses I received were from ASH disciplines; this could mean that there is a greater chance of variability in the real world (we could be less confident about the results), but the results I do have show some clear trends.

The average viva length for ASH graduates was 1 hour and 50 minutes, but this result sits in the following context:

  • 78.6% of ASH vivas were two hours or less, and 94.9% of ASH vivas were three hours or less.
  • I received only one ASH respondent who had a viva of more than four hours.
  • The most common time reported was two hours; around 15% of ASH vivas reported were an hour or less.

There was a slight increase in major corrections compared to the results already shared, but still ~93% of ASH respondents were awarded no corrections or minor corrections. The big difference here is that ~16% were awarded no corrections at all. Also, my data suggested that ~39.8% of ASH PhD candidates are told at the start of their viva that they have passed. In the conversations that I have had with researcher developers, Graduate School staff and examiners in the last three months this has seemed incredible. While it would be inadvisable to tell ASH PhD candidates to expect they be told at the start, it seems like a real trend. I think this is definitely an area for further study.

(more responses from ASH candidates might “dilute” that figure, more responses from SCI candidates might show that being told at the start is more common all around… I don’t know!)

What does all of this mean?

Or rather, what do I think this means?

Based solely on the information and analysis I have shared, I think that ALL PhD candidates must be able to see that there are real, practical expectations to have about the viva, and which they can use in preparation.

  • It is right to expect that the viva will take at least two to three hours.
  • It’s right to expect that your work will be to such a standard as to make major corrections unneccessary.
  • It’s right to expect to have a viva which ends with being told the result, rather than being told at the start.

These three simple factors – length, type of award and the timing when the candidate is told they have passed – give some expectations, but show real differences between ASH and SCI candidates’ experiences. These three factors do not tell us everything that happens in vivas.

If we had a blank canvas before, now we have an outline sketched. Tomorrow I will draw on the answers given in response to my request for three words to describe a PhD graduate’s viva; these will provide us with something of the qualities of PhD vivas in the UK, and of candidates’ experiences.

Thanks for reading – if you have questions or comments, please let me know!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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