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Viva online? No problem!

Foreword from Dr Katryna Kalawsky

With the change in working practices at the moment, many of our doctoral researchers are facing the prospect of conducting their viva examinations online; something that might be hard to imagine especially after spending time over the last few years envisaging what your face-to-face viva will be like! But it will be OK and there are lots of benefits that you may not have considered about conducting your viva at home AND there are a few things that you can put in place to help you prepare and ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible. Don’t believe me? Then hopefully the following two blog posts written by recently successful viva candidates Dr Leila Wilmers and Dr Thais Sarda (huge congratulations both!) will convince you 🙂

My online viva experienceby Dr Leila Wilmers

The circumstances of having an online viva during lockdown are similar for everyone in some ways, but also personal to each of us. Due to the fact that I moved to the US during the final year of my PhD, I had been looking forward to coming back to Loughborough for my viva not only for the experience and the occasion in itself, but as a chance to mark this milestone together with family, friends and colleagues who I had not seen for some time. In spite of the disappointment when I realised that the trip back was no longer going to be possible, I was glad at least for the chance to go ahead with my viva at the end of April. This was particularly important to me as I am due to have a baby in 2 months’ time. More generally, having worked hard to finish and submit the thesis, I was glad to be able to carry this momentum into the final stage.

The prospect of an online viva led me to wonder what the experience would be like. A practice run with my supervisors was immensely helpful. I liked the idea of this anyway as I wanted to have a feel for how it would go, but it was especially reassuring to know I could sit at my laptop at home, seeing myself on camera, and still answer challenging questions about my thesis on the spot. Other preparations I was glad I made nearer the time were to tidy my desk the night before so I could feel that the space was already prepared when I got up in the morning, and dressing up on the day! This helped me feel ready, but it’s a personal choice.

Technical glitches are a possible snag unique to the online viva experience. Anticipating this likelihood and understanding that the examiners did too meant that I was not put out by the few minor ones that came up in the course of the two hours.  At one point the internet connection broke down as I was about to start answering a question, but we just restarted the call and carried on.

One thing I really appreciated was that my examiners acknowledged the unusual situation of the online viva but still emphasised the significance of this milestone in the PhD journey. It made me realise that for everyone involved it was a meaningful event, as every viva is. Although we didn’t have a more extended informal chat at the end that might have been possible in person, they made me feel comfortable and confident in my work, and I felt we had got to know each other through the process. In these and other ways, it remains the experience that I had hoped the viva would be.

The adrenaline rush and lots of celebratory video calls with family, friends and my supervisors afterwards all helped to make it a memorable day, not to mention a spectacular Russian cake baked by my husband (can you spot the ‘DR’?)!

My Zoom viva! – by Dr Thais Sarda

It is clear that the current situation is requiring most of us in Academia (and everywhere) to adapt and do things in new and different ways. As I always try to be a positive person, I see the current situation as an opportunity to learn new strategies as well as value things that for a long time we took for granted. Who knew that for so many weeks we would not be able to go to work everyday, have a coffee with friends or walk to a park without distancing restrictions and fear? When my supervisors confirmed that my Viva would be done via Zoom, I saw myself in one of these situations, and I tried to see the glass half full. But everything looked so weird. Then my supervisors reassured me saying that it would be weird not to feel weird. So, I embraced the weirdness of the situation and saw my Zoom-Viva as an opportunity. As many other PhD students are going through the same situation, I am sharing some strategies that worked for me and hopefully will help you to have the nice experience that you deserve.

  • Have an online mock Viva: this was really important to me, because it gave me the experience of the Viva, of course, but in an online environment. As we get use to replying to questions about our research face-to-face in conferences and meetings, conducting an online mock-Viva helps to see what happens when this dynamic is screen-to-screen.
  • Test the equipment beforehand: when I depend on technology for important things, like a job interview, I always want to make sure that everything is working and that I have a plan B. I tested my Zoom before the meeting to see if camera and audio were working properly. Additionally, I had a spare set of headphones at the table in case mine stopped working. And I also left my smartphone on charge in case the internet stopped working and I had to use the device as a hotspot.
  • Take an advantage of the situation: at the end of the day, you will have your Viva at home, which is probably the place where you feel most comfortable in the whole world. So, use this in your favour: choose your favourite spot around the house, be seated on your favourite chair, prepare that perfect cup of tea.
  • Relax, you are at home: another point is that you can just do whatever you want to relax before your Viva, you don’t need to drive to the university or be waiting in your office for a couple of hours. For instance, I was watching my favourite TV show until 15 minutes before my Viva so I could relax and laugh a bit.
  • “Be comfortable” as a dress code was never so true: having a Zoom-Viva you don’t need to worry too much about the dress code, for instance. You basically need a professional top but this is all everyone can see. I actually had my Viva while wearing flip flops and no one would ever know if it wasn’t for my honesty in this post.
  • Remember to have a celebration: before Covid-19, I had all this plan in my mind — having a bit of chit-chat with my supervisors to calm me down before the Viva; taking everyone for a celebratory lunch afterwards; gathering my friends for a coffee and cake; and ending the day with a family dinner. Well, I had to adapt my celebration: getting my favourite take-away for dinner and chatting to my family and friends on WhatsApp and Skype.
  • Don’t forget that it’s okay not to be okay – there are a range of services internal and external to the university that offer support (visit the Student Services web pages and the ‘Doctoral Wellbeing’ section of the Doctoral College’s Online Development Hub for more information).

A viva is that final important moment of our doctoral experience, something that we wait three or four years (or longer if part-time) for, so it is already situation that can be stressful for some. As the circumstances change, like going through a pandemic, surely we can feel even more overwhelmed. So my general advice is to prepare yourself for this situation as well as you can but also be nice to yourself. Soon this will all be done.

Good luck!

*****

If you are a final year doctoral researcher at Loughborough University who is close to submitting their thesis or who has their viva date scheduled, visit the Doctoral College’s Online Development Hub to access our ‘Preparing for the viva’ workshop.

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