Hannah Littler is a final year PhD researcher in Biosciences funded by NERC GW4+ and Cefas; and recently completed her viva online. She is an ecotoxicologist studying how exposure history can alter the tolerance of fish to environmental chemicals through non-genetic mechanisms. She is interested in epigenetics, physiology, experimental design and environmental protection; and has recently taken up a post managing the zebrafish unit in Geoffrey Pope. Outside of work, her interests include korfball, cycling and exploring nature.

When I began my PhD, I didn’t think I’d be finishing it in the midst of a pandemic discussing my thesis through a computer screen with academics halfway across the country. I was initially worried about having an online viva, but it turned out to be a great experience with its own benefits over a traditional in-person viva. For anyone else worrying about the prospect of an online viva, I hope that I can offer some reassurance about what to expect and give you a few tips that helped me.

Don’t put it off.

When I submitted my thesis, I was offered the choice between an online viva or postponing until an in-person meeting was possible. Do what is best for your situation, but don’t be put off because it is online. I think having a little break after submitting but getting the viva done while all the information is still fresh in your head is much better than putting it off and having to work harder to pick things up again many months down the line.

Practice with your supervisor.

I would highly recommend having a practice viva with your supervisor(s), not only to practice for the type of questions you will get, but also answering them over videocall. I had built up the viva in my head, but practicing with my supervisor put all my worries into perspective and helped me readjust my expectations, allowing me to go into my viva feeling confident.

Print out your thesis.

Even though you will be sat at a computer, keep it simple. You don’t want to be switching between tabs or trying to dual screen during your viva. Having your thesis printed out so that you can flick to the relevant sections as you discuss and make notes is the best option.

Find a quiet and comfortable space.

Try to find a quiet, comfortable space and let anyone you live with know when you’ll be having your viva so you won’t be disturbed. If possible, do it at a desk or table, not on the sofa, so you have space to organise any notes and you won’t be fidgeting.

If your living situation could make this difficult, I would recommend talking to PGR support to help you sort one out. Your viva could take a few hours, so you need to be comfortable.

Have someone there to support you.

You can choose to spend those nervous hours before the viva on your own if you prefer, or with a friend, partner or family member from your social bubble. However, I would highly recommend that you have someone in the house but out of earshot when you do your viva, in case you need any support.

Dress the part.

I would recommend dressing comfortably but formally, similar to what you would have done in person. This will get you in the right mental zone.

It wasn’t awkward at all.

I was concerned that being unable to meet my external examiner in person would make the viva awkward. But as part of an online viva, you will have a pre-viva meeting a few days before the real thing so that everyone can be introduced to each other and you can work out any technical difficulties in advance. This really calmed my nerves and made the viva much less intimidating. With just you and your two examiners on the call, plus a convener in the background ready to deal with any issues that arise, the conversation flowed naturally, and the time flew by.

I was less nervous.

Having met my examiners a few days before, and with the whole thing taking place from the comfort of my own home, I found it less stressful than an in-person viva would have been. It meant no sitting nervously outside a meeting room on campus, sticking out in your suit, feeling like all eyes are on you. It also meant no worrying about the prospect of facing your friends and colleagues afterwards waiting outside to hear the result. I knew the vast majority of vivas go well, but removing this pressure was still a great relief.

Enjoy it.

I was told by so many people that I would enjoy my viva, and I didn’t believe any of them. It turns out they were right! It’s one of the few occasions (or possibly the only occasion!) when you will meet up with two experts in your field who are there just to discuss your work. Nobody knows more about your thesis than you. Look at the viva as an opportunity to show off what you’ve achieved and get some useful feedback to make it even better before you put it out into the world.

Find a way to celebrate.

The one real downside of an online viva is missing out on the normal post-viva celebrations you might have had. Covid-19 might stop you from meeting up with your friends and having some well-earned drinks at the pub; but it shouldn’t stop you from marking the occasion. Even if it’s just a nice dinner with your bubble, or a zoom call with your friends; find a way to mark this huge milestone until you’re able to meet up and do it in person. You will have earned it!

Be proud of yourself!

If you’re having an online viva, you likely finished writing up during the pandemic as well. Finishing a PhD is an enormous achievement at any time, never-mind during a pandemic when your usual support networks and outlets might not be available. You should be hugely proud of yourself!

Written by: Hannah Littler