Virtual viva: a PhD lockdown story

Virtual viva: a PhD lockdown story

Gemma Griffiths was one of the first PhD candidates to defend her thesis virtually during the start of lockdown. From setting the background to blur on Skype to praying the internet connection doesn’t fail, we find out what it’s like taking part in a virtual viva. 

Gemma Griffiths PhD candidate

We first met Gemma when she won the Three Minute Thesis competition for concisely conveying her research into the 90’s subculture of riot grrrl as a literary artistic movement. Gemma has been studying at LJMU for quite some time, earning both her BA and MRes in English within the School of Humanities and Social Science. Throughout her learning journey, she’s experienced the typical ups and downs that most students face, but no one could have anticipated the additional challenge of having to complete a PhD during the coronavirus lockdown.

How did you find doing your viva via Skype?

"For me, doing a virtual viva had its pros and cons. One positive I found was that being in my own environment actually took some of the gravity out of the situation, which helped quell my nerves. Being behind a screen also enabled me to detach from the ‘room’ at times in the viva when I needed to look inwardly. I felt less pressure to respond quickly than I might have done in person, so I was able to really focus on my answers and make sure that I was saying exactly what I wanted to say about my work.

"As for the negatives, I can’t say for sure, but I imagine it’s a bit more exciting afterwards when you do your viva in person. I’m pretty sure I would have hit the pub with my supervisor and examiners after my viva, had it been in Liverpool and not during a global pandemic. Also, and this didn’t happen to me, but there is always the worry of technical issues."

How did you get support during lockdown leading up to your examination?

"A couple of months before the lockdown, I attended Dr Nathan Ryder’s ‘Viva Survivor’ workshop hosted by the Doctoral Academy. I would definitely recommend that to anyone approaching viva (I think they are running the workshop virtually now). Nathan gives you practical tips on how to prepare for the exam, as well as putting to bed myths about the viva that get bandied around sometimes.

"I also received information from the Doctoral Academy detailing the official protocols for a virtual viva. It explained what the procedure is if, for example, your internet connection fails midway through the exam. Stuff like that.

"Oh, and I had a few phone calls with my supervisor to air my concerns and get a last-minute pep talk."

How did you celebrate your achievement?

"I drank a bottle of red wine and slept for 16 hours."

What have you learnt about yourself during this whole experience?

"I think the most useful thing I have learnt from doing a PhD is how to write when I don’t feel like writing. I’m so glad to have acquired that skill, as I am sure it will come in very handy in the future.  

"About myself, the experience has taught me that I am resilient, persistent, and actually quite hard-working. Who knew?"

What has been the highlight of your time at LJMU?

"A highlight for me has definitely been meeting two lifelong friends (shout out to Aimee and Ryan). It can be quite a bonding experience doing a PhD alongside someone else.

"Also winning the university-wide finals of Three Minute Thesis was so much fun.

"My overall PhD experience has been fantastic and I am especially grateful to LJMU for facilitating my research. I went to New York for the first time during my PhD to visit The Riot Grrrl Collection at NYU, which was just incredible."

How have you coped during lockdown? Do you have any tips for other students?

"I have gone through periods of extreme focus and extreme lethargy in lockdown. Generally, though, it has made me realise how much I take for granted and how much personal interactions enrich my life.

"I think if I could say anything to other students trying to manage their wellbeing during lockdown, it would be this: you are doing the best you can under the circumstances, give yourself a break, it will come together in the end.

"I remember when I was writing my thesis, I had the attitude that external forces should not affect or disrupt my progress, and in retrospect, that caused a lot of undue stress. We are human after all!"

What’s next for you?

"I’m still working that out at the moment. Watch this space…"

LJMU is supporting its students to fulfil their ambitions by adapting to our current circumstances – from delivering online lectures to virtual learning assessments.

If you’re interested in finding out more about what it takes to study for a PhD or are drawn towards studying English, take a look at our courses.


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