quick thought

Hard To Find A Gap In A Chasm

I remember reading somewhere once, I don’t know if it’s true or not though, that if the Earth was the size of a golf ball it would be almost entirely smooth. Holding it in one’s hand we would not notice any mountains, the Grand Canyon would be indistinguishable and so would the deepest ocean trenches.

Seen from a great distance or a different scale, the massive seems inconsequential. Yet from inside the Grand Canyon, you’re dwarfed by what’s around you. On a workshop once, a postgraduate researcher shared with me that they loved their research field, but that they were struggling to find something to focus on.

“After all,” they said, “It’s hard to find a gap in a chasm.”


Viva Research 2015

Last year I asked seven questions about the viva, got 302 responses to them, and used the results to start to get an idea of what the viva in the UK is like. I did this because I’m passionate about helping PhD candidates prepare for the viva, and I thought that I could:

  • find out more information to help them have reasonable expectations;
  • see if there were negative aspects in the experiences, then find ways to overcome them for future candidates;
  • see what positives were emphasised, and share these to help people prepare better.

As my previous series of posts showed, I think that there are some interesting results in the data, and I know that in my work personally – both on the Viva Survivors Podcast and on the viva preparation courses that I run – this has had a huge impact in terms of helping people. At the same time, I view last year’s survey as a starting point. This is the beginning, and not the conclusion of my research into the viva experience.


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.

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.