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.

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.

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).
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.


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)


BOOST – The Best Feedback


What’s worse: giving or receiving feedback? Does it make a difference in either case if you know that the feedback is going to be positive or negative? No-one likes to be the bearer of “bad” news, and negative feedback could always be taken that way, even if we want to frame it as constructive. If we are receiving feedback we want it to be in a form that means we can do something with it (whether it is positive or constructive). Hopefully if you have to deliver feedback you want it to be something that the other person can then do something with. In either case then…

What does effective feedback look like?


STAR – Evaluate Your Strengths

Does anyone reading this like being interviewed?

How many times have you sat in an interview and not known what to say? On the few occasions when I have been in an interview, I felt uncomfortable when I was asked “about a time that I worked well in a team,” or “showed leadership” or “solved a problem”. I knew of times that I had been in those situations, but didn’t know what to say about them really… Something good, that shows me in a good light – but what?

Or have you ever been in a situation where you’ve wanted to be part of a project but not known how to convince others that you’re the one for them?

STAR is for you.


PMI – Evaluating Ideas Easily

Previously, on this blog…

I finished last week’s series of posts with DRCDreamer, Realist, Critic. It’s easy, I think to be a Critic, but much harder to be a Critic in a rigorous or fair way. Today’s acronym gives a way to do that. PMI or Plus, Minus, Interesting is a thinking tool made popular by Edward de Bono. One can think of it as an improvement to Pros & Cons lists that people make when they’re trying to make a decision.

I’ve used it a lot over the last few years, because it is a neat and simple approach to getting information for evaluating ideas. Simply, it delivers three lists of points about factors that people find positive (Plus), negative (Minus) and things that people find Interesting, or find curious in some way. For example, an idea that I have heard about recently is that of scheduling specific times when I read and write email, rather than be open to it through the day (which is how I generally engage).

I am trying to decide about whether or not to practice this behaviour now, so it makes for a good example.


DRC – Directing Reliable Creativity

That’s not what it stands for

In the first post next week I want to share a great concept for evaluating ideas; to round out this week’s posts I thought I would share something that has had a profound impact on the way I approach creativity over the last few years. I’ve heard feedback from lots of people who say that this simple process has transformed the way they look for ideas.

DRC stands for Dreamer, Realist, Critic: it came from research by Robert Dilts, who was looking at the practices of companies that succeed. At Disney he found that there were three steps – three deliberate steps – taken to ideas and creativity.