Conducting a viva virtually

Ahmad Alfaraj is a 3rd Year PhD student in Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS) from Kuwait, specialising in Gulf Literature
The reason behind this blog post is twofold. First, to support the University of Exeter’s Doctoral College team in this very challenging time. Kindly allow me to convey my most sincere appreciation to them for the extraordinary moral support they have so graciously shown me in this difficult time, especially PGR support. Second, I would like to encourage my colleagues to conduct their vivas virtually with some tips.

l accepted undergoing my viva virtually although I was -and I still- in Exeter and all my psychological preparation for it was on a face-to-face basis. But l know the material and I am confident of my ability to defend my thesis.

2 days before the date agreed, the administration team told me of the technical requirements for this virtual endeavour as l would need to ensure that they are all available in my apartment.

My virtual viva took place on Friday the 27th March at 1pm. 3 hours before, my internal examiner emailed me a link (an invitation) to join them via Microsoft Teams that I had already installed. I joined them easily on time, and found 3 participants: internal examiner, external examiner, and non-examining chair. My internal examiner introduced me kindly and shortly to them. After that, the non-examining chair decided politely to hide and mute his window in order to let my examiners start the formal examination. I might be fortunate because both of my examiners were lovely and polite with me during the whole discussion.

At 2:40pm, my internal examiner asked me kindly to end the videoconference and wait shortly for another invitation to announce my result. I joined them at 2:55pm again. My mother and I were listening carefully. “Congratulations Dr. Ahmad! I am delighted to announce that you passed your viva successfully” My external examiner said.

Perhaps the most valuable advantage of doing my viva virtually is getting rid of the extra stress that mostly occurs to PhD students during the normal pattern of vivas. I remember very well how I was extremely relaxed on my own desk during my virtual viva.

Just imagine with me the following scene: you’re in your own apartment, your thesis and a cup of tea are on your desk, wearing comfortable clothes, and surrounded by your necessary sources. I personally consider such comfortable atmosphere the catalyst for a better focus, faster answers, and a satisfactory performance.

Further benefits -beside those I exemplified above- might be also observed by anyone else had the same experience. However, as I said: “It’s my own experience!” and I hope you all folks have even better experiences. 

My advice before conducting the virtual viva:

– Read your thesis entirely (1 day before the viva).

– Sleep well.

– Check your internet speed.

– Charge your laptop.

– Practice breathing exercises for stress before joining the videoconference. It’s really fruitful.

This coronavirus situation has taken us all by surprise and its ramifications have disrupted the lives of all unfortunately. I find myself torn between checking on my family and loved ones back home and ensuring that I and my colleagues here are well. But l must admit that it is stressful.

That being said, it is a situation that has been imposed on all of us and we just have to make the best out of what we have. Therefore, I support you guys to stay safe in this challenging time. In the same time, I invite you to be open to the possibility of conducting the viva virtually via videoconferencing.

 

Written by: Ahmad Alfaraj

@ahmedyfaraj 

Preparing for a virtual upgrade

Isabel Sawkins is a second-year PhD student, based in the History Department at Exeter and the International Politics Department at Aberystwyth. Issy’s project investigates the contemporary memorialisation of the Holocaust in the Russian Federation, specifically how it has been represented in museums, film, and education. Her project is funded by the South-West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. Issy is also co-editor for Ex Historia and one of the representatives for the British Association of Holocaust Studies

For half of 2019, my interaction with my supervisors took place solely through Skype: I was living with my parents over the summer months in Kent, before embarking on a ten-week placement at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum between October and December 2019. Skype was also my modus operandi for communication with my supervisors upon my return to the UK, as I was living with my parents in Kent yet again before my “planned” research-trip to Russia between March and June (Spoiler Alert: that trip hasn’t happened!)

Because of my research-trip to Poland, the Doctoral College agreed to offer me the opportunity to sit my upgrade in the Second term of Year 2 of my PhD, a term later than was expected for my cohort. It afforded me the means to completely immerse myself in my research whilst abroad, and then focus on submitting the documents required for upgrade when back in the UK. Being able to split my time in this way was essential for my mental wellbeing, ensuring that I was not overwhelmed with multiple responsibilities during my time in Poland.

I submitted my documents for upgrade in mid-February, in the hope that I would be able to have my upgrade interview in the first weeks of March (when I was scheduled to be down in Exeter for a conference I had organised for the British Association of Holocaust Studies). However, given the UCU strikes, my upgrade was delayed until the end of March, to just two days before I was destined to fly to Russia. Given that I would be back in Kent by this point, it was agreed that my upgrade would happen virtually, and this had been the agreement since late-February.

The decision to move all upgrades online in light of Covid-19 complications did not, therefore, affect my planned upgrade in any way! I was prepared for the fact that my upgrade would happen in my parents’ house, with shoddy internet (they have six different WiFis in their house because of the thick Georgian walls). I was also prepared for a situation in which multiple people would be in the same vicinity as me (plus two dogs). Luckily, my mother was kind enough to offer to walk the dogs whilst my upgrade was taking place, so that they weren’t tempted to scratch at my bedroom door, climb over my laptop, and introduce themselves to my upgrade panel (and yes, they have done this during multiple Skype supervisions and conference calls!)

The upgrade was a really pleasant experience for me, a unique opportunity to discuss my research with experts in the field and how to look at the project from different vantage points. Speaking frankly, within two minutes of speaking, I had completely forgotten that I was speaking to my panel virtually: it didn’t even cross my mind! I actually think I was more relaxed doing the upgrade virtually. I was in the comfort of my bedroom, with a cup of tea in hand. My panel understood the complications that might arise from doing the upgrade in this fashion, and when one of my panellists disappeared because of poor internet connection, we all managed to laugh at the situation. Technology is not always our friend, but we were all prepared for this eventuality! We didn’t let technological anxieties get in the way of discussing the research, which was the reason for which we were all there, after all!

Now that I have passed my upgrade, I can continue with my work, although not necessarily as had been originally planned. Luckily, some of my information can be accessed online, and I have managed to schedule some interviews with teachers in Russia, which will definitely keep me busy! I am sure that some of the conversations during my upgrade will shape this next stage of my work, and I am incredibly thankful for the advice and guidance offered by my panel for this project.

 

Written by: Isabel Sawkins

Twitter: @IssySawkins