Viva Experience Research, Part 5: Drawing Threads Together

So Far

On Monday I introduced the research I set in motion earlier this year, a series of seven questions I asked PhD graduates about their viva experiences. On Tuesday and Wednesday I shared the basic quantitative results that I have found through analysing the responses I received, and yesterday I shared some of the qualitative responses that people gave, and offered a few thoughts on this.

What do all of these results say?

Vivas are not as long – on the whole – as stories about vivas lead us to believe; the vast majority of candidates who pass do so with minor corrections or no corrections; it seems a greater than previously believed proportion of candidates are told at the start of their viva that they have passed – and this is especially pronounced in ASH disciplines (Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities). Far more graduates think of their viva as being positive rather than negative, although almost a quarter of the respondents associated their viva with stress.

It’s important to add some caveats to everything I’ve been sharing over the last few days:

  • These results are based on one survey, given over a two month period.
  • Respondents came mostly via Twitter, which may have a possible biasing effect (see below).
  • Respondents had had their vivas over a fifteen year time period (1999-2014), and while the majority were from the last five years, it may be that this does not give an accurate picture of the “state of the viva”.
  • I received 302 responses, which are taken from a total of approximately 250,000 PhD graduates in that 15 year period; statistically this isn’t enough to hit a 95% confidence level for a population of that size; it is not far off however.

Twitter was great for sharing the survey widely – some tweets opened floodgates, adding tens of responses in the space of a few hours. It is possible though, that Person A who responds to the survey tells Person B who had a similar experience, who then tells Person C… Their experiences are real, and their responses are true, but they draw the data like a magnet pulls the needle on a compass.

This may have happened, and may have skewed the data. Or it may not – or at least, it has not skewed the data all that much. More data will help, and future research might clarify things. My gut feeling tells me that if it has skewed things it is not by a lot.

What do I think the results mean?

I cheekily dodged this question yesterday! I think that these results can be really helpful to a number of different groups. First and foremost, for PhD candidates, who have the viva in their future:

  • The viva is a big deal, but it is not terrible. Most vivas are a manageable length of time and end with the candidate being told that they have passed with minor corrections or no corrections at all.
  • Some people have bad experiences with their viva, but most have quite positive experiences.
  • Taking different factors together, the research suggests that over 50% of all PhD candidates who pass have a viva of three hours or less, and are told at the end that they have minor corrections.

I think that the results could also be beneficial to researcher developers and those supporting PhD candidates. First, fears can be allayed, by showing that the general picture of the viva is positive. Second, by identifying what PhD candidates experience in the viva, some steps to help future candidates prepare can be put into place. Broadly, I think two questions are suggested: what can we do to minimise the “negative” experiences? What can we do to increase the “positive” aspects of the viva? This is not simply about targeting preparation strategies at postgraduate researchers, but about informing candidates, supervisors and examiners about expectations and experiences.

What Next?

Thank you for reading these posts; this has been a fun but challenging project this year and of course it’s not over. It is, at this point though, great to have something to share, even if it is not the full picture. Over these five posts:

  • I’ve not shared my dataset;
  • I’ve not talked about the choices I made (a big one being, why not ask for people who failed their viva as well?);
  • I’ve not gone into whether there was any significance to the times that vivas were taken (although there was a skewing towards November and December as viva months);
  • and I’ve not presented all of the results I’ve found so far.

I’ve presented the highlights, and I’ve offered some thoughts. I hope to edit these posts into a pdf which summarises the key findings, plus a few other results I have not had an opportunity to share. What next?

Probably more research. I think the data that I have so far shows some strong evidence for an answer to the question “What is the PhD viva in the UK like?” Any answer to that question will always be incomplete, but perhaps the answer I offer is now less incomplete than what was known before… I hope so!

I am going to take some time to gather up what I have in a more complete form, perhaps look to see if anyone wants to work on this together; then there are more questions to be asked, and hopefully more respondents to be found. I think I have found some interesting answers from my seven questions. What do you think? Please ask questions, leave comments and so on and do let me know what you think. If anything is unclear, let me know and I will try to explain things better.

This has been Viva Experience Research Week, thanks for reading! On Monday, something different 🙂

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)