The virtual viva in the midst of a pandemic

My name is Robert McQuade. In January of this year, I undertook my PhD viva online. In this article, I will share some practical tips from my experience of a Zoom viva. The following insights are based on the UK viva format, involving only the PhD student under examination, the convenor of the session, and an internal and external examiner. This differs from the European viva which is largely open to the public. I do, however, hope that many of the points raised here are applicable to all students facing a virtual viva.


DON’T PANIC TOO MUCH ABOUT TECHNICAL ASPECTS


Aside from the obvious nerves that come with any examination, some of my biggest worries about the online viva were technical in nature. What if my Wi-Fi fails? What if there is a power cut? Such catastrophes are unlikely, but in that pre-viva-heightened-state-of-panic - where you simply cannot see life beyond the next few hours – it is difficult to silence one’s anxieties. As someone who has recently been through the online viva experience, however, I hereby offer some suggestions and reassurance:


-> A few weeks prior to the viva, ensure you have had contact with someone at the university about the videoconferencing tools that will be used. In my case, I received a link to the prearranged Zoom meeting direct to my inbox from my (extremely helpful!) convenor. Familiarise yourself with the platform preferred by your institution (typically Zoom, Skype for Business, or Microsoft Teams) by practicing with friends and/or work colleagues, checking that all is in order for the big day.


-> On the day of the viva, simply click that meeting link, and you will then be taken to a virtual waiting room. My viva started slightly later than scheduled as my examiners needed extra time to get connected, discuss my work, and finalise the viva’s main talking points. I used this extra time to glance over my abstract once more.


-> Upon entering the meeting room, the convenor took note of my phone number in the event that there were problems with my connection. I recommend that this exchange of information takes place at the start of the viva. For extra peace of mind, I also downloaded the Zoom app onto my phone so that I could rely on my mobile network in the worst-case scenario. For me, this was essential in feeling as prepared as I could possibly be. P.S. Remember to keep your phone in silent mode!


-> Keep your setup simple. Rather than having my thesis – and masses of accompanying notes – displayed on screen, my laptop was used for the sole purpose of running Zoom. As the owner of a more mature piece of equipment, I found this to be the most sensible decision in avoiding unnecessary crashes. Instead, I adopted the ‘old-fashioned’ approach, consulting a printed copy of my thesis, supplemented with my hand-written notes, highlighted text, and many sticky notes. If like me you have limited desk space at home, I found it helpful to divide my thesis chapters into individual piles across my bed, so that I had easy access to all sections of my thesis when necessary. I also found my physical engagement with the printed thesis facilitated a more naturalistic sense of interaction, in that the examiners could see when I was reading the document - or looking for a particular piece of information - as opposed to staring blankly at the screen, or having to constantly talk through my actions.




MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR BREAK(S)


My examiners assured me that I could request a break from the viva whenever necessary. We also planned a specific break point. In reality, with each of us becoming so engrossed in conversation – and without the usual in-person prompts – no such requests were made, and we ran past our ‘fixed’ break by almost one hour!


-> When break time does comes along, as much as it is tempting to (frantically) read through your thesis notes for the 100th time that week, don’t. Turn off your camera, step out of the examination space, and make yourself a coffee. Take a few minutes to compose yourself; to give your mind (and mouth!) a quick rest. In the intensity of the viva, you will lose all concept of time. These precious moments of ‘no-viva’ (however brief) massively reenergised me for that last part of the exam.

-> One of the biggest benefits of online viva-ing is the immediate sense of comfort that comes with being at home. This meant that I had the luxury of cuddles with my puppy (of whom was kept at a safe distance from the strictly bark-free-viva-zone). · Removing yourself from the formality of being examined is crucial, especially in vivas which span the entire day (as a point of reference, my viva lasted almost four hours).



-Arrange an online meetup with your colleagues as they too will be eager to know the ins and outs of your viva. I actually felt the need to confide in my academic family before notifying my own family of my news. No one knows your research – and the gravity of the viva – quite like your academic peers, and I really needed that immediate sense of understanding post-viva. It was so lovely to be able to share this moment with them, even though we could not be with each other in person.



NOT ‘JUST ANOTHER NORMAL DAY’

Unfortunately, with the online viva, there is no substitute for the post-examination celebratory dinner; that opportunity to mingle with your examiners in a more relaxed setting, and to be amongst those who have supported you in your PhD journey from the beginning. In this way, the finale of the online viva can be somewhat anticlimactic. I was exhausted, and it would have been easy to slip into my usual ‘at home’ routine; to close over my laptop, and retire to the couch after another day of online duties. But you must not treat this as just another day, as it is so far from it!


-> Arrange for your supervisor(s) to pop into the viva just before things come to an end. Not only will you welcome the sight of a familiar face after a day of dissecting your research, this is an opportunity for your examiners and supervisor(s) to meet. Also bear in mind that it will be a couple of weeks before you receive the written viva report, so having your supervisor(s) listen in as your examiners provide their feedback on the outcome of the viva can be extremely beneficial. By the end of the viva, I was on such an adrenaline high that I could no longer process any information that was directed my way, meaning that only half an hour later – and in a slightly calmer state – my supervisor had to reiterate many of the major points my examiners had just made.

-> Arrange an online meetup with your colleagues as they too will be eager to know the ins and outs of your viva. I actually felt the need to confide in my academic family before notifying my own family of my news. No one knows your research – and the gravity of the viva – quite like your academic peers, and I really needed that immediate sense of understanding post-viva. It was so lovely to be able to share this moment with them, even though we could not be with each other in person.


DOES THE ONLINE VIVA WORK?


Overall, my experience of viva-ing online was a success. I feel that, whilst it will not replace the face-to-face format altogether, it is here to stay, even beyond the pandemic. However, nothing replaces the beauty of being in the company of others, so I fully intend on graduating in person, and having that celebratory meal… whenever that may be.


On a more general note, whilst I too was familiar with the viva horror stories, it really can be an enjoyable experience. Rather than tearing your work to shreds, your examiners want to help you to develop your research. In fact, my examiners specifically told me to be less apologetic; to be surer of my knowledge, and the work that I had dedicated years of my life to. I think this provides a take home message that is relevant to all PhD students.


ABOUT ME


Robert McQuade is an associate tutor in psychology and education at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He served as the ESPLAT student representative from 2017-2019. In 2021, Robert completed his PhD at the University of Strathclyde: a conversation analytic study of university students’ interactional strategies for self-managing the social tensions (e.g. knowledge disagreements and social loafing) that often come with group work (e.g. within the problem-based learning setting). In a