I’m a SurVIVA, Part One

Recommended listening: Destiny Child’s ‘Survivor’

This blog post’s beginnings were in a series of emails I sent to friends preparing for their viva in the time of Covid-19, with everything from submissions to vivas being moved online. My submission date for my viva was 20 April 2020, which I thought would be plenty of time to proofread, double-check references, and finesse the arguments within each of my chapters. By early March, I started to worry that the rising rates of Covid-19 infections in the UK would mean that the university, archives, and libraries might shut before my submission date. The few weeks in March before everything did indeed shut was a ‘controlled frenzy’ of activity, making sure I had everything I needed to finish my thesis from home. In the end, I didn’t fully pull it off. There are still images of seal casts in one of my chapters where I hoped to have images of the original impressions, but the archives cancelled my image requests and done is better than perfect.

Hearing the whoosh of my email submission as it went through.

I’m aware that there are a plethora of blog posts on preparing for the viva and what to expect, but with the announcement of Lockdown 2.0, the virtual viva may be here to stay for the foreseeable future. This post and it’s sequel intend to give some helpful advice on what to expect in an online viva and offer some helpful tips on how to prepare for it. And let’s be honest, I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to make a terrible pun in the title and reference Destiny’s Child.

Preparing for the Virtual Viva

I started thinking about my thesis again two weeks before the date of my viva. The break from my thesis and doctoral work was intentional. After the ‘controlled frenzy’ of the run up to submission at the start of lockdown, I was completely burned out. In addition, I had developed what I thought was stress-induced acid reflux and I was more sick than well by 20 April (it turns out I had gallstones and was very ill, but that’s for another blog post). Because I associated being ill with coping with the stress of submitting during a global pandemic, I decided to take a break from my academic work and recover. I’m glad I took a break. The viva is only the next step in the process, it’s not an end point of the PhD, and allowing myself time to regroup after submission meant that I was happier returning to my work to prep for the viva.

Two weeks out, I broke up my thesis into manageable chunks to closely read through each day. This worked out to a chapter a day. I broke it up in this way because it allowed me to go through each chapter more carefully without getting the panic of imposter syndrome by reading through it all at once. It also allowed me to identify places in the thesis where I might have elaborated on an argument more and to actually write in the margins or on a piece of notebook paper what I would say. This helped me build up my confidence around contentious points. I also made a colour-coded key for my thesis so that I could identify for myself different themes that ran through the thesis as well as the overall argument.

My heavily annotated copy of my thesis, along with post-it note key.
Thesis with argumentative additions.

7 days before my viva, I met with my supervisors. I chose to meet with them 7 days out specifically so I could bring questions that I had from my week of reviewing and preparing. They flagged 3 questions that were likely to be asked in the viva. These questions are broadly applicable:

  1.  Where does your work feature in current historiography? In your own words, what is the state of your field in 2020?
  2. This question specifically related to my methodology for seals, but broadly be prepared to talk through your methodologies and why you did your research the way you did.
  3. What is your thesis’s contribution to knowledge?

I actually answered these questions on notebook paper. I wrote them out at my kitchen table, without looking at my thesis. It was much an exercise to prove to myself I knew my material as much as it was a preparatory exercise for the viva. One of the most useful things I read online about vivas is that they are open-note exams. You are expected to bring your thesis and notes with you, so I made sure I had answers to these questions written down in case I panicked in the viva I had something tangible to look at to help me refocus and ground myself back into the examination.

I re-read my introduction and conclusion the day before my viva and spent the rest of the day doing things that made me feel good. For me this is herbal tea, meditation, my yoga practice, and reading. Full disclosure, I still had a panic attack the night before and barely slept. While I don’t recommend having a panic attack, I will say it’s okay to be nervous. It’s natural to feel anxious about the viva, but it’s also important to remember that your examiners want you to succeed too.

Here ends part one, dear Reader. The next blog post will cover the virtual viva experience and how we celebrated even with Covid restrictions.

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