PhD student completes studies with online viva

Chris Roberts had to sit his viva examination via Microsoft Teams due to the current restrictions.

A researcher had to swap the classroom for his living room as he became one of the first PhD students at Birmingham City University to undertake and pass their viva – an oral examination defending their thesis – online. 

Conducting your viva online

Chris Roberts would have spent the precious few moments before his viva by making the trip to BCU, walking into a designated exam room and shaking hands with three esteemed academics before sitting down to take his exam.

The viva, after all, is one of the final and most fearsome of challenges before a PhD student completes their doctorate, and sees them discuss their findings in front of a panel of relevant experts.

However, the current lockdown meant that Chris instead spent that time double checking his internet connection. The nerves of entering a room were replaced by entering a Microsoft Teams conference call.

“I think there were pros and cons to doing my viva digitally,” Chris explains today. “Undertaking a viva in familiar circumstances – my first-floor flat, in this case – allowed for increased focus.

“However, in terms of quelling the calm before the storm, being unable to escape your surroundings did not help matters.”

A vital step forward

More than any other feeling, though, was the relief that the option to conduct a viva online had become available.

“Once the thesis is written up and submitted, the wait for the viva is torturous. So much is at stake professionally,” Chris explains.

“If vivas had not been made available digitally, those awaiting it would have been caught in a state of paralysis, unable to move forward with their lives and careers for an indefinite period.

“Additionally, there could have also been financial difficulties for these affected students.”

An (online) meeting of minds

Chris’ own virtual viva, thankfully, proved to be a somewhat pleasurable affair.

“Once you get the initial nerves out of the way, it becomes enjoyable,” he explains. “Many PhD students worry it’s going to be an interrogation, but as long as you follow some key steps, it becomes more of a conversation between individuals with the same area of expertise.”

Chris says he prepared exactly the same as he would if the viva was taking place in its usual format.

“The rigour of the questions and required knowledge to successfully convince your examiners remains largely unchanged,” he says. “Once a thesis is written up and submitted, the student will have an intricate knowledge of their work.”

Not only did Chris sail through his viva with flying colours, he also largely escaped any nightmare scenarios such as the connection dropping, the screen freezing or any unwanted guests gate-crashing the room.

“It was commented at the end of my viva that there had been a few points where audio had broken up slightly, but I must say I didn’t experience these hiccups at all,” Chris smiles.

Changing the norm

Chris, whose research focused on a systematic feedback mechanism for built environment facilities, feels the current restrictions imposed during lockdown will leave a permanent impact on the way meetings are conducted.

“I think having online vivas as an option does nothing to diminish the traditional processes of undertaking a PhD,” he says. “Personally, I would like to see these options incorporated into a wider range of processes, as opposed to replacing them entirely.

“After all, every PhD student is different, and while I have interacted with these new ways of working successfully, others may not interact or appreciate them in the same way - I think it is about selecting the processes that maximise a student’s potential success.”

Ongoing mentoring and support

Chris feels BCU gave him the support he needed, no matter what way he conducted his viva.

“I can only thank my supervisory team, and in particular my director of study Professor David Edwards for the significant and ongoing support and mentoring he provided over the course of my PhD,” Chris says.

“I would also mention Professor Peter Larkham, the Director of Research Degrees for the Centre for the Built Environment, who offers consistent and invaluable support and advice to the PhD community.”

Not sure what to expect from an online viva? Our guide to sitting vivas remotely will provide you with all the info you need.