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.


Goals for 2015

On Monday I shared some of my highlights for 2014, but of course a New Year is not all about looking back, it’s about thinking and planning ahead too. I’ve written about setting objectives and goals before, so I’ll try and follow my own advice when it comes to thinking about my year ahead! Some of these are objectives, some are announcements, some are hopes and dreams for 2015.

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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.

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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).
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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.

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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.