A Short Viva

I’m asked about short vivas in almost every Viva Survivor session:

  • What can I do to have a short viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour?

They’re not from a place of not wanting to be in the viva. It’s just simple worry. Nerves and anxiety running wild. I don’t blame people for these questions, but they are the wrong questions to ask about the viva experience. There really isn’t much one could do to dictate the length of the viva, or steer examiners away from questions.

But what could you do?

You could prepare. You could practise. You could decide to engage with your examiners and do your best.

Maybe we could simply change our questions:

  • What can I do to have a short viva? What can I do to have a good viva?
  • How can I steer my examiners to ask fewer questions? How can I best engage with my examiners’ questions?
  • How could I make my viva be less than an hour? How can I prepare to be at my best however long the viva is?

So what will you do?


Survival Time

Have you heard of the “rules of three” for surviving in extreme conditions?

  • You can survive three minutes without oxygen.
  • You can survive three hours without shelter/warmth.
  • You can survive three days without water.
  • You can survive three weeks without food.

People survive in extreme conditions, but only just.

I’ve heard PhD candidates wonder how they might survive in a potential three hour viva. That’s not extreme conditions, even relative to the viva! Most candidates could expect to be finished within three hours. It’s difficult to imagine what an extreme viva might be. There are challenges inherent in the process, but they’re not all or nothing, do or die.

PhD candidates survive the challenges of the viva – they manage to keep going in difficult circumstances – because of the challenges they’ve already faced in the three or more years of doing research.

The years help with the hours.

Answers To “How Long Will My Viva Be?”

One of the most common concerns of PhD candidates is how long their viva will be. It’s a question that I can give no definite answer to for any particular candidate, but one that generally has many relevant answers:

  1. About two to three hours in many cases.
  2. As long as is needed.
  3. Typically less time than you worry it will be.
  4. Typically more time than it actually feels like on the day.
  5. Rarely less than one hour; rarely more than four.
  6. Several orders of magnitude shorter than everything you’ve done so far for your research.
  7. It doesn’t matter.

That’s the big picture: it doesn’t matter. Maybe it feels important, but it’s more important to focus on being prepared, feeling ready and approaching the viva with as much confidence as you can, rather than spend time concerned about how long it will take.

There are lots of answers to “How long will my viva be?” – including the most honest one, “You’ll find out.”

There are far more interesting questions to spend time unpicking and answering.

Under An Hour?

Some vivas are less than an hour in length. The shortest I’ve ever heard of was 42 minutes. This lead one participant at a Viva Survivor session to ask, “What can we do to make our vivas under an hour?”

The short answer: nothing.

The slightly longer answer: there are lots of factors in play that determine the eventual length of a viva. They range from the size of the thesis to the questions the examiners need to ask, and the way a candidate answers to the kinds of corrections that need to be considered. These all interact. It’s difficult to say what one could do for the best in order to reduce the length of the viva and still pass.

(of course, you could refuse to answer questions and your viva will be over very quickly…)

The better answer I should have given, by asking another question: why would you want your viva to be finished within an hour?

Time And The Viva

How long will the viva be? How long should it be? If it’s long – or short – is that bad?

There are norms – two to three hours is quite common – but you can’t know in advance. It could be less, it could be more. Many candidates, I think the majority, feel like their viva passes in the blink of an eye.

The length doesn’t indicate something good or bad. There’s no correlation between the length of the viva and the outcome.

A successful viva is not a function of how long it takes. The time isn’t as important as you are.

Hours & Hours & Hours

There’s lots of hours spent on a PhD, but different ranges depending on the stage you’re at:

  • Five to six thousand to do a PhD.
  • Twenty to thirty in prep for the viva.
  • Two to three for a viva is quite common.

Each of these matters.

Your research and your talent develops over a long period; after that it doesn’t take much to get ready to defend your thesis.

And not too long at all to discuss the important things with your examiners.