This article breaks down the steps you can go through to prepare yourself for a successful viva on Zoom!
One of the last steps a Ph.D. candidate goes through before becoming a Doctor is the PhD viva, short for viva voce. The viva is the oral examination of the Ph.D. dissertation. The examiners have read your dissertation, and are now ready to put your work to the test. Depending on the outcome of your viva, you may still need to make corrections to your dissertation – that would be the very last step in your doctoral journey.
The Ph.D. viva is shrouded in mystery. In the UK, the traditional form of the viva is for the candidate to be alone with two examiners. In some newer formats, your supervisor may also be present at the viva, to watch your viva and take notes, and sometimes a Chair is appointed who makes sure the viva follows the university rules.
What happens in the little room between candidates and examiners can be exaggerated and turned into academic urban legends. It’s understandable that many Ph.D. candidates are anxious before their viva. Now add in the additional uncertainty of defending through a videoconference, and you may be completely at loss.
Shedding light on the viva
The viva is an integral part of the assessment of a Ph.D. The examiners receive your thesis, and they will go through it carefully (often multiple times) in preparation for the viva. Depending on the requirements of your university, they may need to write an assessment report prior to the viva as well. Yet, the viva is when they decide on the outcome of the assessment of your Ph.D.: no corrections, minor corrections, major corrections, defer to MPhil instead or fail. Performing well during your viva may sway the examiners from major to minor revisions. Failing a student only happens when there are ethical concerns with regard to the research, or when it is found out that the thesis contains plagiarism.
Based on a survey from the UK, it was found that 84% of the candidates pass with minor corrections, 7% with major corrections, and over 9% without any corrections. The number of those passing with no or minor corrections is slightly higher in STEM than in HASS fields. In a poll that I did with international respondents, the numbers are quite similar. We can draw one major conclusion from these numbers: it is very likely that you will pass your viva, and will only need to make no or minor corrections to your thesis.
The style of the viva depends on the examiners: some examiners will want to go through your dissertation on a page-by-page basis, whereas others prefer to address your research more holistically. For the latter case, the examiners may start with some easier questions to warm up, and then move to gradually more difficult questions.
How to prepare for your viva: a few weeks in advance
The main elements of preparing for your viva in pandemic times are the same as preparing for it under normal circumstances. Here are the things to consider when you prepare for your viva:
- Read your thesis, and read it again. Pay special attention to the potential weaknesses in your thesis that your examiners may want to pick at.
- Practice viva preparation questions. You can also get yourself a deck of viva cards to practice questions.
- Get to know more about your examiners. If their identity is known to you, read their recent research, and try to get to know more about their background. Having a good idea of who your examiners are as researchers will help you understand the background to some of their questions, as well as have a better idea of the type of questions they may ask.
- Have a mock viva. Mock vivas work best when they mimic the situation of the real viva as close as possible. Don’t look for cosy arrangements for your mock viva, but try instead to follow the same procedures as during the real thing.
Technical Zoom tips
Preparing for your viva in COVID-19 times requires you to spend some time mastering the technicalities of the video conferencing software that you will use. Here are a number of things to consider to make your Zoom viva a success:
- Make sure you are using a good microphone. Your laptop microphone may not properly pick up your voice when you move your head. Use your phone’s earbuds and microphone, or obtain a headset to make sure your examiners can hear you clearly.
- Check your internet speed and connectivity. If your video freezes constantly because the bandwidth of your home internet is insufficient, you may want to hotspot your phone instead, or even try and find a place elsewhere that has more stable internet.
- Find a quiet place to defend. It may be hard to be undisturbed when working from home, especially at times when schools are closed, but for these one or two hours for your viva, find a place where you can fully concentrate.
- Make eye contact with the camera. If you have your thesis on your second screen, you may be showing the side of your face a lot while you answer. Try to look into the camera instead to have better contact with your examiners.
- Get to know the videoconferencing software you will use during your viva. How do you share the screen? How do you annotate? How do you let examiners annotate on a whiteboard?
The last days before the viva on Zoom
Treat your viva the way you would treat a sports competition: rest in advance, and try to get yourself into optimal mental shape. In pandemic times, it may be hard to find the headspace you need, but think about what you can do to support yourself as much as possible in the days before your viva. Lean on all the support your family, friends, peers, supervisor, and university can offer. See, for example, if you can get somebody from IT at your university on speed dial on your big day in case you run into technical issues.
Prepare your outfit for your viva just as you would for an in-person defence. You may also want to figure out where in your house you will sit for your viva (bandwidth permitting) and try out what the background looks like on camera. You may want to use a videoconferencing background as well to make the image less cluttered. Check the light as well, to make sure your face is visible and well-lit on camera.
Passing your viva with flying colours
The best way to pass your viva with flying colours is to be confident and trust that you know your work. Answer the questions in a calm and composed way. If you need some time to think, take a sip of water, make some notes, and rephrase the question to confirm its contents with the examiner. Remember as well that it is perfectly fine to be unable to answer some questions, as long as you can show the examiners that you are the author of your work, that you are able to carry out research independently, that you can place your work in the broader body of knowledge, that you can show the main contribution you made, and that you understand the limitations of the research you carried out.
The viva is a crucial step in obtaining a Ph.D. degree. During your viva, you will need to show that you are able to carry out research independently (the scholarly sphere of the viva), that you can remain calm under the stress of the viva (the affective sphere of the viva), and that you can are ready to become “one of us” for the examiners (the cultural sphere of the viva). If you prepare well and get all technical elements of your videoconferencing sorted out in advance, you will be in the best possible shape to pass your viva.