Online viva – Reflections and advice from the front line
In this blog, we hear from Gemma Bridge and Debbie Smith who recently delivered their online viva.
Their reflections and insights can help reduce the worries of PhD students preparing for their online vivas in these unusual times.
So many changes have happened because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Restaurants have closed, holidays have become distant memories and we’ve all forgotten what day it is. But, for final year PhD students, one thing has remained constant: the oral examination (viva voce or viva).
The viva is one of the most stressful moments in the doctoral journey. But it is an important one as it allows students to defend their thesis. The viva also gives examiners the chance to decide whether the student has met the requirements for their degree.
PhDs usually defend their thesis on university grounds, in the same room with their examiners. But because of university closures and the need for social distancing, vivas have moved online. This is an unknown for most students and their examiners, making the online viva an even more stressful experience than the face to face alternative.
However, this doesn’t have to be the case. I had my viva online this week via Microsoft Teams. In this blog post I share my experience to help reduce the worries of other PhD students preparing for their unusual online vivas. These insights and advice should also be useful for those who plan to undertake a viva online for other reasons, post-pandemic.
1. Before the online viva
‘Reflect on ways of working that enabled you to be efficient when writing your thesis, and apply these to your revision.’ Debbie Smith, Leeds Beckett University
1.1. Read and re-read your thesis
The viva is an important part of the PhD process and students must prepare carefully. Preparing for an online viva is just the same. The student must know their thesis inside out, so that means reading, highlighting and adding notes to a printed thesis. Doing this is as important for an online viva as it is for the face to face interaction.
1.2. Practice answering questions
It is also important to practice answering ‘viva-like’ questions. A couple of weeks before my viva, I started practicing answering questions. I searched online for examples and day by day worked my way through them all.
Examples of viva-like questions include: Can you start by summarising your thesis? Now, can you summarise it in one sentence? What is the idea that binds your thesis together?
I also practiced answering questions in the same online environment that we used for my viva (via Teams). I had two practice question sessions with friends and a ‘mock viva’ 10 days before my real viva.
These practice sessions were invaluable. I practiced answering viva-like questions and got used to the online platform and its features. I also dealt with any technicalities like checking that my microphone and camera worked well.
My friend, Alex Christiansen, who also recently completed her viva online had this top tip to share:
‘Practice speaking and using the online platform. It changes how you interact and takes some practice to get used to.’ Alex Christiansen, Leeds Beckett University
2. During the online viva
2.1. Decide if you want your supervisors on the call
It’s not usually common for supervisors to sit in on a final viva because they could affect the student’s answers or distract the examiners. For an online viva, it doesn’t make a big difference if the supervisors sit in or not (as long as the student and examiners are happy for them to do so).
My supervisors sat in on my viva, but their mics and cameras were off. Of course, everyone is different, but in my case, I was a bit more relaxed knowing that my supervisors were on the call. They also took some notes and listened to the examiners’ comments. This helped a lot and took the pressure off me from having to write things down whilst being examined.
2.2. Be prepared to sit and talk for up to three hours
The length of the viva is largely dependent on the examiners (unless the University has guidelines for how long the viva should be). Online vivas are no different. My viva lasted just over 2 hours with a 5-minute break in the middle. Sitting still for 2 hours would normally be difficult for me, but time went by quickly.
I would recommend that PhD students prepping for their online viva think about their sitting and desk arrangements. Two-three hours is a long time to sit still in the same place. I played around with different arrangements until I found a set up I was comfortable with. I also made sure to have some paper and working pens, my marked-up viva and a bottle of water. Moreover, I had my mobile nearby (on silent of course), just in case I experienced any technical issues.
3. After the online viva
After a normal viva, the examiners discuss the outcome after the examination. Typically, this lasts between 20 minutes and an hour. After their discussion, they normally call the student and the supervisory team back into the meeting room for the outcome. In an online context, this is no different as they bring the student back on the call.
For my viva, we finished the exam at 12:15pm and came together for the outcome decision at 1pm. This gap gave the examiners some time for discussion and a well-deserved comfort break. It also gave me time to have a quick chat with my supervisor and get some lunch. However, it may not take this long, my friend was called back with her outcome after only 15 minutes. So, for those preparing for their viva, don’t leave your computer and be prepared to come back to the call at any point.
The outcome I received was not quite what I had hoped for. The examiners gave me lots of helpful comments (that I’ll take forward with my research) and complimented my oral defence. Yet, I do have to make some amends to the thesis and resubmit the document before I’m officially a doctor. I’m confident it won’t be long.
Following the outcome session, we had some time to chat and I asked my examiners questions about their research and their advice for progressing mine. I would advise any future PhD students to do the same, as it’s a rare opportunity to be one on one with experts in your field.
‘Make sure you have someone to talk to after your viva. Have a video call with your supervisors and/or friends and family to reflect on the process.’ Debbie Smith, Leeds Beckett University
4. Reflections on having an online viva
On reflection, the online viva was not as scary or strange as I was expecting. Not being able to see the examiners meant I couldn’t read their body language, and at times, I could not hear every word. Having said that, the overall experience was positive. In fact, I was able to relax at home, especially since I could wear my slippers.
Now hear from Debbie Smith and her experience, before, during and after her viva:
‘The thought of an online PhD viva all seemed quite surreal, and in all honesty, it wasn’t until the hour before that I started to feel like I was about to sum up my last 6 years of research virtually!
I went on a quick walk for a change of scenery to clear my mind having spent the morning reading through my revision notes. I changed into smarter clothes and spoke to my incredibly supportive supervisory team (virtually).
The research admin office was well organised to ensure everything was in place. All I had to do was wait for the call to click the link and virtually start the defence of my PhD. The fantastic chair enabled the smooth running of the viva and made sure that I was happy throughout, given that we were unable to rely on body language.
The amazing contributions of everyone made the daunting situation seem like ‘normal practice’. I actually enjoyed the experience – something I never thought I’d hear myself say!
In the week leading up to my PhD viva, I used a “Shut Up & Revise” strategy, originally brought to Leeds Beckett University as “Shut Up & Write” by Professor Jim McKenna. I repeated 80-minute blocks of revision, with a 20-minute break between each one, setting myself goals for each day. This highly productive method enabled me to revise efficiently without going down rabbit holes and over-revising!
Regular contact with supervisors in the lead up to the viva, practicing responses to potential questions while using the same online technology, and their frequent WhatsApp video calls just to chat on the day made me feel at ease.
Finally, having my husband and son waiting in the garden for a little “stay at home” celebration allowed me to feel a sense of achievement, which could have easily passed by under these strange circumstances.’
Many thanks to Gemma Bridge (@glbridge1), Debbie Smith (@DebbieRuthSmith) and Alex Christiansen (@alchristensen12) for contributing to this blog post. Please comment below with any other tips or advice you have!
P.S. Gemma has previously contributed to our blog with a 3-part series on doing an internship alongside her PhD.