Unprecedented: The Story of a Lockdown Viva (Dissertation Defense)

Unprecedented: The Story of a Lockdown Viva (Dissertation Defense)
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1 year ago

Unprecedented: The Story of a Lockdown Viva (Dissertation Defense)

The latter half of 2020 seemed to be compartmentalised into cycles of thinking ‘the next 3 weeks will be it’ for the pandemic and so I remained quite convinced that my viva (dissertation defense) would go ahead as planned in person. In December I finally made my peace with the likely prospect of virtual viva and hope that this article highlights the benefits of this new necessity that has been embraced.

My PhD research focussed on how environmental ‘stressors’ like inflammation, stress, and diet experienced during the critical periods of development of prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal life – that is, before, during, and after birth – affect our risk for disease. It seemed fitting to reflect on my virtual viva in the same way here:


Pre-viva - preparation, preparation, and… pause

A few days after I handed in my thesis, I moved to a new city and started my postdoc which has been a steep learning curve and kept me busy during lockdown #3. I ignored my thesis for a solid 6 weeks to get stuck into the new job and explore what I could of Edinburgh.

At the 4-week countdown, I started asking friends and colleagues about their own viva experiences, reaching out on Twitter for some top tips that had helped people prepare. Whilst lockdown probably restricted the number of spontaneous chats I could have about it in the lab, it meant I had more time to myself at home to do the most frequently recommended action – read my thesis.

I probably read my thesis in full twice over to prepare, making notes on possible discussion points and highlighting any typos (including the worrying ‘CpG residues’ to ‘CpG restudies’ blunder given my external examiner is an epigeneticist…). A tip that I found really useful was to add bookmarks for significant parts of the thesis, such as chapters, significant figures, or main discussion points.

After this, the next most common piece of advice was to stop, put the thesis down, and take time to relax ahead of the big day. The night before I watched some TV, had a bath, and got into bed at a reasonable time.

Whilst I could feel the stress and anxiety gradually rising the week before, everyone who I had asked about their experiences was right – the day before was pretty stress-free and a sense of ‘this is happening, I’m prepared for it, and I can’t do anything more now’ filled my mind.

In the morning, I took the time to cook breakfast, got out for a run to clear my head, and made sure I wasn’t rushed ahead of the exam at 2pm. I was finally able to wear my neuron tie from SfN 2019, contrasting with the slippers I had on underneath my laptop setup on my kitchen table with my thesis hardcopy, water, and all potential distractions like emails and my phone turned off.


Peri-viva – home comforts vs home distractions

Like any online meeting, the wait before seemed to last for far longer than the couple of minutes it probably was and, once online, my examiners were quick to put me at ease – I was familiar with both of their research beforehand and had met my external examiner at a conference in 2019.

Once we had a few minutes of catching up, my external examiner began by explaining how the exam would be structured and asked two introductory questions: how has the pandemic affected your thesis and what is your academic background leading to this point?

There was a big moment of relief next when they proceeded to be very complimentary about my thesis, which lifted a huge weight off my shoulders and really helped me settle into the exam. We then went through, chapter by chapter, and what I expected to be a unidirectional grilling was more like a lively discussion about my research. Having a virtual viva had the added benefit of having a digital copy up on screen too – one examiner didn’t request a hardcopy at all – so we were able to jump back and forth easily.

At about 2 hours in, someone started loudly knocking on my door and, I suppose because they could hear me talking, carried on for a good few minutes – a novel viva distraction that comes with working from home.

My viva lasted just over 3 hours, and after being kicked out for 5 minutes (during which a much-needed coffee was made), I was readmitted to the call and heard those magical words: ‘congratulations Dr Potter!’


Post-viva – not quite the pub!

Whilst the restrictions meant the traditional post-viva party and pub trip were unable to go ahead, I was kept busy with calls from my supervisors, family, and friends. After leaving the room to get changed, I saw that the loud knocking that had disturbed the viva was an amazing box of brownies that my colleague had sent which was a lovely surprise.

I spent the evening on virtual calls with friends having a few drinks, but it didn’t take long for me to get into bed after an exhausting day. Now that things are looking brighter (both in terms of the weather and the pandemic) I am just starting to be able to catch up with the celebratory pub trips and making the most of life with my new title.

Having a virtual viva meant some sacrifices compared to the traditional format, but the ability to instantly bring together scientists across three countries needs to be recognised in the context of international science. I was lucky to have a wholly positive viva experience and am happy that the academic community has embraced this new era of virtual meetings – from vivas, to conferences, to teaching.

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Harry Potter is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, UK. You can connect with Harry via Twitter or LinkedIn:

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