In March 2020, I was getting close to finishing my PhD thesis in drug development. As social distancing measures were rolled out, I felt my productivity plummet. But when the UK lockdown was announced, I knew my viva wasn’t going to happen in the way I had imagined it would for the past few years.
PhD students at my university were encouraged to delay their viva if they could but being so close to the end, my supervisor and I didn’t want to wait. So, we started to make preparations to have a virtual viva.
There was a period of mourning as I tried to forget images of handing in three thick tomes to the research office, giving a pre-viva seminar to my friends and colleagues, and toasting my hypothetical pass in the office after the private grilling. These are moments I had visualised in my mind many times to keep myself motivated, and now I had to get myself over the line in the current circumstances.
The pandemic definitely affected my productivity. I handed in a few weeks later than I expected to, but I was still within my funding deadline. To keep me motivated, my supervisor decided to press on with our original viva date, which was now two weeks away! Normally people get at least a month or so between their submission and viva.
With such a short gap, I didn’t have time to have the usually advised break from the thesis. That said, I did take a day or two to chill after submitting. I also had a week or so “off” so to speak when I waited for final feedback from my supervisor before handing in.
Before the viva
Beyond this point, I’m not sure how I would have prepared differently for my viva. While I was worried about the lack of time, when I searched online for other experiences, it seems like most people spent a maximum of two weeks preparing for their viva regardless of how much time they had.
These stories were reassuring. I just had to prevent panic setting in when moments of stress bubbled up. I reminded myself I had finished the hardest bit – the thesis. Now I just had to prove I had done the work and that I had gained specialised knowledge of my subject area.
In terms of practical things I did over these two weeks, I dedicated the first week to pouring over my thesis again to annotate it. I learned very quickly that you could have too many page markers. So, I reserved those for designating chapters and key sub-chapter headings instead of highlighting every typo!
I added extra info to paragraphs that lacked clarity about why I made a particular decision, and I tried to identify key papers from reading the bibliography to make sure I knew why every article I referenced was in there. I re-read those key papers as well as the last few years of work published by my two examiners and paid close attention to their papers that overlapped with my research.
Another aspect of “stalking” my examiners involved looking up their career path and reaching out to current/former PhD students of theirs for advice on what they’d most likely pick up on. I found this particularly helpful for focusing my revision of undergraduate theory that underpinned my research – something that surprises a lot of viva candidates when they’re asked about it.
I made sure that I could explain how each reaction and method worked and, specific to chemistry, could explain and draw any abbreviated chemical structures. It was useful to make one-page summaries of each chapter and time myself talking about all or some of the project for varying lengths of time.
One day to go
The day before, I had a final skim through the thesis to check I hadn’t missed anything important and then focused on setting up my laptop and other equipment. I asked my parents, who I was living with during lockdown, to leave the living room free from 5 pm onwards so I could set up everything and leave it overnight.
I stacked my laptop on a few textbooks on the coffee table, laid out my thesis and notes, and set up a music stand and mini tripod for holding my phone camera to capture any drawing I needed to do. Then, I had a chilled evening with my parents and took part in my usual Monday night virtual choir rehearsal to keep me distracted.
The day of the viva
On the morning of the viva, I was surprisingly calm. I think that was because I had prepared sensibly and I wasn’t surrounded by colleagues asking how I was feeling. It was just my parents and me in very familiar surroundings.
I had a couple of issues with my headphones before my pre-viva webinar for the department, but it otherwise went as well as I think it could have. Between the webinar and private viva, I used my daily exercise allowance (as was the policy in Scotland at the time) to go for a walk to clear my head. Then, I joined another call with my laptop and phone to go over the thesis in more detail with my examiners.
It’s cliché, but my two-hour viva really did fly by and felt more like a discussion than a grilling. I was asked some questions I didn’t know, but also a lot that I did know. Being put into a breakout room to await my result felt very strange, but they didn’t leave me in suspense for too long, and I passed with minor corrections.
It’s a shame I never got to shake hands with my examiners or thank my supervisor and colleagues in person, but I’m glad I still ploughed on to finish sooner rather than later. If you find yourself in this situation because of the current circumstances, I can recommend going ahead with a virtual viva. Better to be #PhDone even during a pandemic!
My top five tips for preparing for your virtual viva:
- Acknowledge and process any feelings associated with the change in circumstances
- As much as you can, prepare how you would have done so otherwise
- Keep communicating regularly with your supervisor, internal examiner and viva chair
- Have a practise call with your set-up to make sure everything works
- Set everything up the night before
Congratulations Dr Fiona Scott!
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Have you had to do your viva virtually? How did you prepare? Share your tips in the comments below.
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