Gertjan obtained his doctoral degree in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter in March this year, after successfully passing his Viva in one of the first examinations that entirely took place digitally because of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the first three years of his Doctoral studies, Gertjan was a beneficiary of a studentship of the Centre of Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter. He is currently residing in the Netherlands, where he is a lecturer in the Middle East Department at the University of Groningen. Previously, Gertjan taught at Durham University as a Teaching Fellow in Middle East Politics and at the University of Exeter as a Post-Graduate Teaching Assistant. In 2011, Gertjan earned his M.A in Gulf Studies from the University of Exeter,  while two years earlier he earned a M.Sc. in Political Science from the University of Amsterdam.

Following the submission of my PhD thesis, the day of my Viva had been set on the 27th of March. I was very excited about it, as my supervisor Professor Marc Valeri had assembled an excellent examination panel and I was looking forward to return to Exeter to defend my PhD in front of them.  However, things would go differently as originally envisioned. Following the announcement of the closure of the universities in the country I am currently residing, the Netherlands, I decided to contact my supervisor to discuss the opportunity for an online Viva. Soon it became clear in the following week that an online Viva was the only viable option.  Thankfully, the examiners and the chair agreed to this.

As the examination policy had to be revised by the Doctoral College to make a virtual Viva possible it took a bit time before we received the green light. But thanks to the determination and very hard work of my supervisor and Natalie Bartram of the Post-Graduate Research Administration Office the Viva could eventually take place on the original date. In advance Natalie kindly provided me with all the necessary information about how to set up my laptop by attaching it to the modem through an Internet cable (going back to the old days) and instructed me how to test that the Internet connection at home was suitable for the online Viva.

On the day itself it felt very weird to prepare for the Viva in my own house knowing that such a big day in my academic life would take place. When it was time to log into Skype, I sat in a messy office/storage room behind my laptop, hoping the examiners would not  anticipate the presence of a professional bookcase in the background. Thankfully, the chair and examiners did a very good at putting me at ease, while to my great relief the connection was fine and everybody could hear and see each other well.

The Viva itself was challenging but at the same time an unique opportunity to gain feedback on my work. When I was asked to leave our Skype conversation I had mixed feelings about my own performance, but was very pleased about the excellent feedback I had received on my PhD from the examiners. After the official examination, the (psychologically) long wait started until I received after approximately 15 minutes a Skype call through which I could return to the Viva. To my big delight the chair and examiners congratulated me and announced their decision that I had passed the Viva without corrections.

The moment after passing the Viva was surreal, celebrating it in my own living room. Thankfully my parents were able to join me quickly in my celebrations and we opened the usual bottle of champagne to rejoice. I missed my friends and all the wonderful persons at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Institute who had supported me throughout the years of PhD, but thanks to the technology I could video call them to tell them the good news.

Although the experience of a virtual Viva was slightly odd and not what I had envisioned when I started my PhD, I am very pleased that I opted for it in order to avoid further delay to the completion of my doctoral degree. Because of this, I am very grateful to have been granted this opportunity thanks to the support of my supervisor, the Doctoral College and the members of my examination committee.


Written by: Gertjan Hoetjes