series viva

Commons Qs About The Viva: What If My Mind Goes Blank?

When did your mind last go blank?

The first time for me was in Mr R’s chemistry class in high school. Like a real swot I sat on the front row, even though Mr R was intimidating and had a habit of randomly picking people to answer his questions.

One day, I was really focussing as he talked about the concentration of substances in a solvent when he suddenly said, “…and the answer is… Ryder?” and turned his piercing gaze on me. My mind crashed and I lost the last ten seconds of what he had said: deleted, file error, 404 response. I had no idea what he said, even though I had been listening and all I could do was say “Uh, not sure sir,” to which he smirked, “Not listening, eh?! Bowness, how about you?”

(the answer incidentally was “2” and the question amounted to “what is 4 divided by 2?”)

(the irony that I would go on to get a PhD in maths is not lost on me)


A Balancing Act

On Monday I shared my estimation of how much time I spent on my PhD; this got me thinking about three different topics. On Tuesday I thought about the distinction between shallow and deep work, which I think have some bearing on time and the PhD. Yesterday I mused on how habits are important to productivity; I’m still turning this over and have a feeling that habits are key to supporting both shallow and deep work, though the latter requires a great degree of focus too.

Today’s post is a little different from the previous two, but I think there are common threads running through them all.


Focus and Habits

I started this little series by estimating how much time I spent working on my PhD; after admitting that this was probably not the most valuable estimation, in yesterday’s post I mused on a couple of concepts that I’ve encountered recently. I think these have some bearing on time and the PhD. This was the first of three topics; in today’s post I want to think about how shallow and deep work might have some bearing on productivity for PhDs.

Second Topic: Productivity = Focus + Habits

There are systems like Getting Things Done, and ideas like the Pomodoro technique for making progress – in fact if simply Google around you will find thousands of links and tips, ideas and promises that “X will work for YOU!” But when it all comes down to it, I think the non-revolutionary idea of productivity is that it boils down to focus and habits.


Measuring Time and Work

I started yesterday by estimating how long I spent on my PhD. I want to spend the next three days reflecting on three topics to see ideas come up. As I go along, it would be great to hear from you in the comments to see what you think; if I have time on Friday and there is significant discussion I’ll see if I can gather discussion in another post.


Time & The PhD

I was thinking

One day, I got a piece of paper and tried to figure out how long I spent on my PhD. This was because of the oft-repeated idea of the 10,000 hour rule that people attribute to Malcolm Gladwell, i.e., to truly become an expert you have to spend 10,000 hours of practice at it. Having completed a PhD, was I now an expert? If I could figure out how many hours I spent on the PhD, then perhaps I would have an answer!

I wasn’t being entirely serious, but it was interesting to me. So I got a piece of paper and started doing maths.

series viva

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.

series viva

Viva Experience Research, Part 4: What People Say

“What three words come to mind when you think of your viva?”

This question was the most challenging part of my research in to the viva to date, and also one of the most interesting. The quantitative answers that I found – explored in Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s posts – were interesting, and I think have a lot to offer people who are trying to set their expectations for the viva.

They are also a little…soul-less. Yes or No. True or False. This number or that number. Where is the feeling? Where is the emotion? The viva is not just about research, there is a real person involved. The candidate – the graduate! – is the PhD, not the research, not the thesis. If you’ve passed, what three words come to mind when you think of your viva?

Can you see any of them in the following Wordle?

A basic Wordle showing common words expressed about the viva.
A basic Wordle showing common words expressed about the viva.
series viva

Viva Experience Research, Part 2: Some Statistics

How long is the average viva?

Top of my list of questions, I wanted to know how long vivas were. I added up all of the lengths and divided by the number of participants and arrived at 2 hours and 23 minutes.

So now we know.


That’s not very helpful is it? We need to know how that relates to the various lengths reported. Is this skewed by one person with a twelve hour viva? (thankfully no!) This average gives us a smile I think, but not much more. So let’s look closer:

Generated by Wordle, the common viva times reported in terms of minutes. Size indicates relative frequency.
Generated by Wordle, the common viva times reported in terms of minutes. Size indicates relative frequency.

This image shows times concentrated around a range from 120 to 180 minutes. In fact, in my data:

  • 82.1% of respondents reported a viva of three hours or less, and almost 50% had a viva of two hours of less.
  • Less than 5% had a viva of more than four hours.
  • The most commonly reported time was 2 hours.

This is good news – and I think does a lot to debunk urban legends that get circulated. This data was collected from respondents who had their viva between 1999 and 2014, but almost two thirds of the responses were from 2010/14; when the set is restricted to responses from this period the results hold more or less true, with only a slight increase in longer vivas.

series viva

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.


KISS – Complex ≠ Awesome

Today’s post is the last in my series on acronyms and ideas that have really helped me – and that I’ve seen help others. It will also be shorter than the other seven in this series. My hope is that these posts have been clear, and that they are straight forward for people to apply.

You can use INTRO to start a talk or think through your work, set objectives with SMART and use 5W1H to dig into problems. DRC is a simple process for generating ideas and PMI is great for critiquing them. STAR is an effective tool for thinking about and communicating your strengths and BOOST helps people give feedback that others can base future actions and development on.

All of these can help, and I don’t think they are difficult ideas to pick up. You will have heard of other great concepts and useful tools, and in coming months I’m planning to review a book each month that I think has some great ideas or techniques. There are tons of blogs and people and products and services that aim to take the load off, or give you a way to get something done.


Above all else, whatever you do, KISSKeep It Simple, Stupid. Make any system, tool, resolution, goal, task, interaction related to your work as simple as it can be (without impairing it). Engaging or completing anything is a function of will, time and work – the simpler the expression, the easier it is to do. Life is complex, and it is easy to take a simple idea and spin a web of confusion around it. Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)