30 July 2020


Preparing for an Online Viva

By Catherine Pope

July 30, 2020

Posted in Viva

If you've recently submitted your thesis, there's a good chance your viva will happen online. Vivas can be stressful anyway, but technology adds an extra layer of excitement. Although it might feel daunting, the solution is to spend time preparing. Computers can sense when something's important and conspire to thwart us. In this post, I'll give you step-by-step guidance on making sure your online viva goes smoothly.

Preparation

  • Check whether your institution has provided any guidance for online vivas. While some are still desperately hoping that everything will suddenly go back to normal, others have been carefully planning.
  • Find out what platform your institution uses. This might be Zoom, Skype, or a VLE (virtual learning environment) such as Blackboard. Familiarise yourself with the software so you're not fumbling about on the day. If you're unhappy with your institution's choice of platform, ask whether you can use something else, especially if you have accessibility requirements.

  • Create a backup plan. Hopefully, your institution has some contingencies, but you might need to take the initiative. What happens if Zoom doesn't work? Can you use Skype instead? Is there any option to conduct the viva by phone if the problems persist? Could you exchange numbers in advance?

Setup

  • If possible, plug your computer directly into the router with an ethernet cable. This is much faster than a wireless connection and you'll definitely notice the difference. This might mean temporarily trailing a long cable around the house, or setting yourself up in a different room. Ethernet cables are cheap and you might even be able to beg or borrow one. If you can't use ethernet for some reason, sit as close as possible to your router.
  • Use a headset. This serves two purposes: 1) The headphones mean you're less likely to get distracted and miss an important question. And it prevents echo. If you're using speakers, the examiners' voices will be fed back to them with a slight delay, i.e feedback. 2) The microphone stays close to your mouth and moves with your head. Your examiners are less likely to miss something you say.

    A cheap Skype headset should be good enough for this purpose. Again, you might be able to borrow one. As a bonus, it'll make you look like a pilot.
  • If there's likely to be a lot of background noise, use an app like Krisp to improve the sound quality. This clever piece of software identifies the offending noise and strips it out as you speak.
  • Experiment with how to position your webcam. If you're using a laptop with a built-in camera, you don't have much flexibility. Unless you make some adjustments, the examiners will spend the viva looking up your nose. You can elevate your laptop by placing some books underneath, or maybe even those endless thesis drafts can be put to good use. Incidentally, integral webcams are often poor quality. For a higher resolution and more flexibility, you might want to try using your phone as a webcam.
  • Although this isn't a Hollywood set, you still want to think about lighting. Sitting in the gloom doesn't create a great impression. Ideally, you want some natural light on your face. If this isn't possible, you could place a couple of desk lamps either side of your monitor. When the light is just from behind, you'll be cast into a shadow.

Environment

  • Hopefully, you have a room where you can close the door. You don't want inquisitive quadrupeds or semi-nude partners suddenly appearing and looking for their pants. Explain to other household members and put a sign on the door.
  • Organise the space around your computer so you're not distracted. Make sure you have only what you need. Tidy away those unpaid bills, old train tickets, and half-finished books.
  • See if you can make your chair comfier by adjusting it or adding a cushion. You might be sitting for a few hours and an attack of sciatica won't help.

On the Day

  • Test all the technology. Twice. No, three times.
  • Tidy up your background - you don't want examiners peering at your knickknacks or your laundry. If you're using Zoom, don't be tempted to use a naff background. Keep it plain and professional.
  • Make sure other household members aren't on Netflix or other streaming sites, as this will consume a lot of the bandwidth.
  • Shut the window. Even if it's been quiet until now, once your viva starts, there will be sudden drilling or shrieking infants outside.
  • Have some water available. You might be talking for a few hours and your mouth will get dry. (Remember to mute yourself when you're taking a big gulp - it's Alt + Q on Zoom)
  • On your computer, switch off notifications. Although your examiners won't see them, they'll distract you.
  • Close any unnecessary applications, too. If you need to share your screen, you don't want to inadvertently show the examiners your inbox or Twitter feed.
  • Put your phone in airplane mode. Even better, leave it in another room. You don't want it suddenly springing into life when you're explaining your methodology.
  • Check yourself in the mirror. Even though you're not in the same room, you should still dress smartly. We've all got used to working in our dressing gowns, but that's not good viva attire. Your examiners won't know if you're wearing pyjama bottoms, though.

Etiquette

  • Look at the camera. Maintaining eye contact will make the viva feel more normal. Position your webcam (see above) so that it's at eye level.
  • Mute if typing, coughing, or drinking water. Your examiners will probably wear headphones and these noises could be deafening.
  • Don't multitask, obviously! Having other apps open will be tempting and distracting.
  • Give clear directions if you're pointing the examiners to a specific area of your thesis. Provide page numbers and give them time to find the location. This is valuable thinking time for you.
  • Accept that It's going to be awkward. If there's a lag, you'll all be talking over each other. It'll settle down and everyone is used to this happening.

Conclusion

It might seem as though there's a lot more to think about with an online viva. However, there are some definite advantages:

  • You're on your own territory and likely to be more comfortable.
  • There are no potential transport woes, such as roadworks, broken trains, or non-existent buses.
  • Your viva will probably happen a lot sooner, as it's easier to arrange.
  • You'll have a wider choice of examiners. When they don't need to spend time travelling, examiners are more likely to say yes.
  • There's no chance of forgetting to take important material with you.

Maybe an in-person viva feels more normal, but would you really want to sit in a room with people wearing facemasks?

Spend some time preparing and you'll be all set for the day. To hear about one researcher's experience of a online viva, take a look at this interview with the recently created Dr Noora Nevala, who successfully defended her thesis over Zoom

Best of luck with your viva! Let me know how you get on in the comments below.

Do you need help with getting ready for your viva? Get clear step-by-step advice on planning, preparation, and performance in this online course. You'll get videos, transcripts, and worksheets. Oh, and lots of practical advice to help you shine on your big day.

Catherine Pope

About the author

Since completing her PhD in 2014, Catherine has supported thousands of researchers through to the finish line. Having enjoyed a varied career as a web developer, lecturer, and coach, Catherine now shares her skills and knowledge through PhD Progress.

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