The current pandemic has drastically changed the PhD experience in ways we could not have imagined before. While we all miss the daily interactions we used to have within the department in the form of face to face meetings with supervisors, attending seminars and socialising in the complexity common room during lunch and (sometimes far too many) coffee breaks, there are some once-in-a-lifetime experiences that COVID-19 has changed for many of us. As all of you are already aware, PhD vivas are no longer in person. Like everything else, they have gone virtual. Since people usually only ever experience one PhD viva, it’s hard to know the differences between defending your thesis in person and online. So we decided to shine some light on online vivas and how they might differ from face to face ones by interviewing three of our recent MathSys graduates, Dr Sophie Meakin, Dr Benjamin Atkins and Dr Chris Davis. Sophie had her viva in person in December last year while Chris and Ben had theirs online this year. You can also find out more about what these three are up to in their post PhD lives at the bottom of the page.
Warning: Please keep in mind that a viva experience is a complex system with lots of interacting components affecting the experience! Being in person vs online is only one component!
How was the actual viva experience compared to your expectations?
Ben: It was much better than I expected! My examiners were very friendly. Whilst they obviously did ask me to defend the choices I had made, it was more to find out whether I knew about the alternatives, rather than attacking my choices, and to provide constructive feedback that would help make my work more easily publishable in the future. I think the expectation from published work and a PhD are actually very different, and although it helped a lot to have some of my work published already, I did not feel that it was expected of me to have all my work at this level, which is something I had worried about beforehand! I chose examiners who were more applied and concerned with the bigger picture rather than those who would be concerned with every small technical detail, which I think that really helped make my viva experience a positive one.
Chris: I had a similar experience. My examiners were friendly. As preparation for my viva, I had prepared a list of 200 questions and answers covering everything I thought they might ask about. The viva turned out to be more of a conversation about my work rather than the grilling I was expecting, and so I didn’t actually need to refer to those questions at all. Of course, there were things they didn’t like in my thesis but they gave alternative methods which they just wanted me to mention briefly in my thesis. Overall, it was more relaxed than I anticipated.
Sophie: I think my viva was mostly in line with what I expected. My examiners asked a range of questions, including quite a lot of discussion about the technical details about the assumptions of the models that I used. Most of the technical questions came from my external examiner, who is based in a maths department. I think it is important to think carefully about your examiners’ areas of research, since this will probably give you some idea about the kind of questions they might ask. Once we got onto the main research chapters, almost all of the questions were things that I had expected and prepared for, but there were lots of things that they didn’t pick up on as well!
Did you feel that having your viva f2f/online helped or hindered you in explaining your arguments well (say because of lack of a blackboard), forming a connection with your examiners and making it feel less nerve-wracking? Do you think it would've been different the other way round?
Chris: It was actually a lot less stressful doing it virtually. I didn’t really have any interactions with my examiners during my pre-viva talk though. After I gave my talk, we launched straight into it. I had my notes organised on my laptop before the viva began, and Ctrl+F was useful! My examiners had a list of questions that they wanted to go through and we just worked through those one after the other. So the conversation was not as free flowing as it would have been in person and felt a bit stilted. On the plus side, it was over a lot faster! A funny thing happened about midway through the viva - someone managed to join our MSTeams call! I think they were late to my pre-viva talk as we used the same link. I found it more amusing than distracting but I’m not sure this would happen if the viva was in person – although I guess someone could walk into D1.07 too! My advice would be not to use the same link for both the pre-viva talk and viva.
Ben: I thought it was less stressful too. Online meetings are already awkward so it took the awkwardness out of the viva. Just felt like any other meeting in some respects, which takes away the gravity of the situation. I didn’t get asked any questions that were too technical to explain over Skype, so I didn’t feel like it would have been any different had I had access to a blackboard. I guess it might be that the online setting means that examiners realise that they shouldn’t ask any questions that can’t be easily answered online, but I wouldn’t assume that will be the case! I didn’t give a pre-viva talk and so I had prepared a summary of my work in case the examiners wanted to begin with that. But they didn’t! However, they did ask me to summarise my last chapter – possibly because it was 170 pages in and they were bored! My advice would be to have a short summary ready for each chapter and for your entire thesis.
Sophie: I already knew my internal examiner and had met my external examiner at a conference earlier in the year. Even though my viva was in person and I gave a pre-viva talk, there wasn’t much interaction with my examiners beforehand, apart from to say hello! Like Chris, we went straight into questions about the thesis, since I’d already given an overview in my pre-viva talk. Although one of my examiners asked a lot of technical questions, I wasn’t asked to write out any proofs on paper or the blackboard, but I imagine this depends a lot on your examiners and thesis.
How did you feel on the day and after your viva? Sophie, did having people around help to stay calm before your viva and to celebrate after it? Ben and Chris, how did it feel to not have the usual MathSys common room celebration after your viva?
Sophie: I’m glad that I was able to do my viva in person, in part so that I could celebrate with people afterwards! Finally finishing the PhD is a big achievement, and I think it might have been quite underwhelming if my viva had been online.
Ben: It felt really, really good to finish. I wasn’t as nervy as I expected since I didn’t have to do a pre-viva talk, but at the same time, being online meant that I didn’t end up physically seeing people after my viva which slightly detracts from the pleasure of completing. But my supervisor did organise a zoom party afterwards for post-viva drinks which felt close to the real deal! My internal examiner congratulated me and said a few words, generally we all just chatted. It did feel like a weird anticlimax really but then again the whole submission process was an anticlimax too. We didn’t have to hand in a hard copy, just press send!
Chris: The process after the viva worked in a similar way to if it was in person; I left the Skype call for a bit and then they called me back when they had made their decisions. I didn’t do anything afterwards. I started my viva early and was completed by mid-morning when most people are still working. I would have liked to have some sort of celebration but I am very happy with how the whole experience went.
What are they doing now?
Sophie completed her viva on 19th December 2019. She spent three months working for the WHO as part of the North-Kivu Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is now a Research Fellow in real-time modelling of infectious disease outbreaks at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Ben completed his viva on 26th June 2020. He is now a research fellow in the Zeeman Institute for Systems Biology and Infectious Disease Epidemiology Research at Warwick University. He is currently focusing on the UK COVID-19 response, contributing to the significant effort that SBIDER have made in providing useful results and predictions to the UK government (for more info see https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/zeeman_institute/new_research/combatting_disease/covid19/).
Chris completed his viva on 21st July 2020. He is now a research fellow working with the Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) Modelling Consortium on gambiense human African Trypanosomiasis (gHAT) in the Zeeman Institute for Systems Biology and Infectious Disease Epidemiology Research (SBIDER) at Warwick University.
Left: Ben Atkins and Sophie Meakin; Right: Chris Davis
By Emma Southall and Aditi Shenvi