The Long Distance Viva

A video viva is still just a viva in the same way that an ebook is still just a book. There are fundamentals that we would expect in both cases – a conversation in a viva, text in a book – but features that mark the experiences of a long distance viva or an ebook as being different in some way.

Video vivas require special equipment. There are extra rules and regulations. It really helps if the people involved have had practice with the software beforehand. The distance can cause a signal delay that is awkward at first.

And yet, for all the differences between a video viva and one on campus, it’s still just a viva. Complete within a few hours, very little extra prep, no big differences in what is being done. Rather than focus on what makes the experience unusual compared to previous expectations, it’s much better to invest time in preparing for it.

The Next Normal

We’ve not quite found the new form of the viva. In the UK, they’re all over video for now, but it’s too soon to say if that’s going to be normal from now on.

There’s definite benefits: potentially greater choice for examiners; more opportunity for making your own space a confidence-boosting environment for the viva; perhaps even new opportunities for participating in the viva itself that wouldn’t have been possible in a small seminar room. But reading body language and making small talk might suffer in the viva. I wonder if vivas-over-video will remain popular as people head back into the world.

I can recall telling seminar rooms not that long ago – very confidently – that any changes to the viva would come slowly. Academic culture was a ship that takes a long time to change course; the viva would continue to slowly evolve and change. I was so sure!

Wherever things go with the viva, the purpose will remain the same.

Examiners will want to explore your research contribution, be sure that you did the work and be certain that you’re a good researcher. They don’t have to do that in person though. As change comes, perhaps the viva will be broken into specific sections. Maybe formal presentations will become much more common as a start to the viva.

Our current situation is not normal, it’s different. The next normal is still coming.

It’ll take time, but it will get here. Underneath any differences though will be the same questions: What have you done and why? How did you do it? And can you show us how talented you are?

Comfortable Silence

There are many reasons for silence in the viva:

  • A moment while a broadband router buffers in the background.
  • Time while a page is consulted or a note made.
  • Processing time while someone thinks through the implications of a comment.
  • Thinking time in a candidate’s mind while they prepare a response.

The latter might feel unnerving, but none of these could feel particularly comfortable. Silence invites speculation. Knowing possible reasons doesn’t dissolve fears, it simple gives you something else to wonder about.

Rehearsals help. A mock viva won’t be a way to learn your lines like a play, but can give you the confidence to be in that space. Silence is just silence. The reasons don’t matter in a way. The silence is the space between the discussion. You have to wait for it to pass, or use it to help you think.

Practise and get comfortable with the little moments of quiet that you’re sure to find in your viva.

Snacks For The Video Viva

So your viva is going to be over video. That could feel rough at times, but there are some interesting possibilities too.

Why have a chocolate bar in your bag, like an in-person viva, when you could have a freshly baked biscuit on stand-by? Why have a half-cold cup of coffee for a few hours, when a friend or family member could be poised by the kettle if you have a break?

A viva over video can present some small logistical challenges, but it also provides opportunities to meet your needs. Snacks can be a little fancier, your space can be a little nicer. If your viva is over video, why don’t you do what you can to make things as close to your preference as possible? What could you do to make the space lovely for you?

What could you do to help you feel great about the occasion?

Video Viva Checklist

When you submit, you’ve done a lot already that helps you in the viva. After submission you have an opportunity to do a little more work to help you get ready. If your viva is over video, you can do a little extra to help you be ready for that particular situation. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things that could help.

  • Practise with the technology. Ask friends to do rehearsal calls. Find the location of basic on-screen buttons and prompts. Don’t assume that it will simply run fine on the day.
  • Find a space and setup that works well for you. What do you want to have behind you? Do you need to elevate the camera that you’re using? For all my webinars I have to put my laptop on top of a boxfile so that I’m not looking down at the camera!
  • Check your connection. See if you have a stable connection over wifi. Explore whether or not you need to use an ethernet cable.
  • Be certain of the plan for your viva. Know which software, what time and so on. Know what the backup plan is or how to get in touch if something unexpected happens.
  • Decide how you might support your verbal responses. Will you use an onscreen shared whiteboard? Or use a small whiteboard at your desk and then display to the camera? Or perhaps even use a second camera to show sketches?

Like most in-person vivas, video vivas are typically fine. They’re not meant to be ordeals. Preparation can ensure yours won’t be.

What Now?

Your viva could go really well. The point at which work and prep and expectation and anticipation all meet; you try so hard, push so much, show your best work and best self and then-

It’s over.

It’s done.

And it might be a bit… Meh.

A little… Oh.

Just… Is that it?

What now?

Not everything can be controlled, pre-arranged and sorted in advance. You can’t pre-determine how you will feel. You can’t know for sure what your viva will feel like until it’s done.

However, you can let some people know when your viva is happening. Let them know when you’re done. Maybe let them know how you want to treat this, or even how you might want to. If you live with family or friends and your viva is over video, pre-arrange a celebration. Your viva will be a success, but for many reasons – not just the current state of the world – it might not feel like the achievement it is on the day.

Do a few small things in advance to help the period after your viva be as good as it can be. Ask for help if you need it, even if that is help celebrating and marking your success.

Remote Chances

Most vivas go well, but there’s always a chance that something could go wrong a little. With the move towards remote vivas, over Skype or Zoom, there’s that little extra room for doubt and worry that something might go wrong. Video vivas were less common, until now, and so there aren’t as many easy answers for what to do or how to solve something.

In the absence of general advice, whatever the worry or potential problem, there’s three questions that come to my mind:

  1. How can I reduce the likelihood or the impact? You might not be able to avoid something, but you could soften it somehow.
  2. What is Plan B? Say the tech fails, what could you have on standby? What’s your backup?
  3. Who could help? In the viva the answer might be no-one – and knowing that helps because you know you have to get it done. Before the viva there are lots of people who can help you – you have to think about who might be best to ask.

The chances of something going wrong are slim. A little bit of constructive thought, just in case, won’t hurt your preparation or confidence.

Check The Regulations

Three words that need to be on every candidate’s to-do list for the viva.

The Regulations page I put together – a list of every uni in the UK’s thesis examination regulations – might be a good starting point for some. Given the changes brought on in the last five or six weeks, it’s worth digging deeper with your institution. Check to see if there is anything substantially different. I don’t imagine there will be: the purpose of the viva hasn’t changed, it’s only the medium that’s altered.

There may be constraints that a remote viva forces or suggests, but you know why you’re there and what your examiners have to do. Check the regulations to see if there are any particular conditions that have to be met to satisfy your institution. Ask friends and colleagues about their experiences for a better idea of what to expect.

New Expectations?

It’ll take time to figure out what vivas look like now.

Old, settled norms of “vivas are about this long” or “vivas have this kind of structure” will be in flux a little. Examiners will have to tweak their approaches, candidates may need to consider things in their setup for the viva, and so on. That might not be a bad thing.

Remember though: the circumstances might change, but the reasons remain the same. Your examiners are there to examine, you are there to pass. You still need to prepare, and while you might need to practise differently – checking tech, being sure of any changes to regulations – the practical prep tasks you’ll complete to be ready will be largely the same.

If you need to, dig deeper into expectations by finding others who’ve had a remote viva. Focus on getting ready just as others have before; there may be new expectations for the viva now, but lots of old ones will remain.

A Trial Run

Mock vivas have always been a good idea. A space to rehearse for the viva, an opportunity to build confidence at responding to questions and gain certainty that you’re prepared for the real thing.

Now, more than ever, a mock – or something like one – is a very good idea.

If your viva is going to be over video link of some kind then have a trial run. It would be great to do that with your supervisor. Have a formal mock, get a feel for the technology and the flow of conversation when people are at a distance.

Then explore the software so that you have an idea of keyboard shortcuts if you need them, screensharing if it might help or whiteboards functions. Get a friend or two to have test calls with. Look into the camera. Check to see what you look like. Check to see what’s behind you. Check with someone on the other end that they can hear you well enough.

For your actual viva, everyone will be understanding if the signal drops out. Everyone will be understanding if you don’t have a perfect study or bookcase behind you.

Take a few occasions before your viva, if it will be a remote viva, to test the situation. Get a feel for what it will be like. A bit strange, but fine.

Something you can survive.