Survey Update 3: Focus

A different sort of update on the survey that I’m doing – which at the time of writing you can find at – as I want to talk a little more about the focus of the survey, why I’m doing what I’m doing and what I’m looking to explore when the data has come in and I shift into analysis mode. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a little while now, but was really prompted to pull my finger out after a great tweet I received last week from Dr Pooky Knightsmith:

Which is a brilliant question to be asked!

First of all, I wanted the survey to be short: I didn’t want someone to say “OMG, look at all those questions, who has the time?!” I’ve only asked seven questions because I need as many of the ~200,000 PhD graduates from the time period that I’m interested in to respond. Design-wise I wanted to aim at the form being complete-able in a few minutes, and I also didn’t want to have so much data to analyse that I couldn’t do it justice.

In terms of the design, I think that asking for data from people who didn’t pass would have to open a conditionality to things: “if you passed your viva you get these questions, if you failed your viva you get these questions.” This again would have added to the analysis work after all of the data collection. Having this common parameter (“passing”) means that I can use that as something that all respondents have in common, and given that all respondents have passed the viva I can start to look and see what patterns stand out.

An article in an issue of THE from last year (that I was interviewed for) claimed that around 10% of vivas end with the candidate not passing. In all of the work that I have done in the last four years on viva preparation, and in all of the conversations that I have had, I’ve not come across – even anecdotally – suggestions that the number is as high as that. Assuming for a moment though that 10% is right though, it is still a minority of cases overall. I wanted to focus on the experiences of people who pass to see what those are like.

The survey is a snapshot: these seven questions cannot paint a picture that shows the rich diversity of experience that occurs in the PhD viva. Your viva will not be like my viva: it’s a 100% custom exam. But that doesn’t mean that real trends and commonalities don’t exist in candidates’ experiences. From four years of conversations about the viva I have some hypotheses: this survey is aiming at confirming or disproving them, and maybe finding more patterns.

So if you can help with this survey, if you are in a position to answer it or share it, then it can be found at Your response will make a difference and help to uncover what the PhD viva experience is like at UK universities.

Thank you! Please email me or tweet me if you have any questions, comments or thoughts!

Nathan (on Twitter as @DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

PS: respondent update! At time of writing: 233 responses!