Chairing a viva on Zoom with a little va-va-voom

Written by: Alison Baverstock
Published on: 14 Dec 2020

Zoom viva meeting

Source: iStock

PhD vivas are one of the many academic experiences that have moved online, and (as if the process weren’t already fraught enough) this now means candidates may well be sitting in a space that doesn’t feel appropriate, surrounded by personal effects (not necessarily their own) and using a format they associate with talking to their friends.

Having taken part in several, I offer here a few pointers on optimum conduct – in particular on the role of the independent chair.

Before the event

Having done vivas on both, I think that Zoom works better than Teams. The way the faces line up on screen feels more empathetic. There may be, however, institutional restrictions about which platform you use, in which case you have no choice.

With online vivas, it seems to fall to the chair to set up the event, so as part of your (kind) email to the candidate to tell them when and where it will be, suggest they think about having a physical copy of their thesis with them, so they can find things quickly. If the viva is on screen, with the thesis stored on the same laptop, it can be hard to locate specific points in a hurry.

Read the examiner reports early. If either is very negative, suggest a pre-meeting (easily done online) to establish whether or not the viva should happen. If the decision is to proceed, encourage them to think about the questions they want to ask while you are together in the pre-meeting. You don’t want to be doing this 10 minutes before the scheduled start − a late beginning makes the candidate very nervous.

When the examiners have decided what they will ask, and who will ask what, gently suggest they begin with a straightforward question to put the candidate at ease. Trying to concentrate on a complicated sentence structure when the environment is still strange is tricky.

If you hear the examiners, in their pre-meeting, saying positive things, encourage them to pass these on to the candidate. During the first viva I attended, in an observational capacity prior to chairing myself, I heard the external examiner say (before the candidate was in the room): “This is an exceptional piece of work.” Yet not once during the viva did he say anything remotely complimentary. Some examiners tell the candidate they have passed before the viva starts, and then use the scheduled opportunity to discuss their findings. As a formal welcome to an academic community, this is hard to beat.

At the start

As independent chair, your role is to ensure a calm and supportive environment within which the candidate can articulate and defend their thesis. No change here. But you might mention that an online viva brings an opportunity for you all to connect instantly, from wherever you are physically, and have a really interesting discussion. Helpful if you sound positive.

The usual preambles and physical shuffling into the room, which help everyone acclimatise, are missing. Teleporting in, and then finding yourself face to face with the names you are primed to expect, can be unnerving.  

I would advise taking longer over the introductions. Include the internal examiner, even if known to them already, and say something about yourself and your role. Welcome the supervisor, if they are present, thank them for making this a priority and then ask them to switch off their camera/microphone. All the same courtesies apply, so ensure the candidate knows they can request a break or ask for a question to be repeated. Check they have something to drink available.

Effective phone management is vital. Suggest everyone switches off. There are big penalties for a student who allows their phone to ring during an examination, and examiners should treat the situation with equal respect. Having a live phone close to the computer risks reducing bandwidth and hence the collective audio experience; it could also be worth suggesting recording the viva − it tends to promote civility.

During the viva

More on phones. As chair, keep a close eye on what’s going on. You really can tell where attention is focused. Become attuned to arm movements and sight lines that indicate a mobile phone, just off-camera, is also part of proceedings. A PhD viva is usually the culmination of at least four years’ hard work, and examiners should give the candidate their full concentration. This is not a time for anyone (including the chair) to catch up on emails or texts. It’s plain rude (and grounds for an appeal).

Keep an eye on the time. Offer a break after an hour, earlier if you see signs of the candidate’s attention waning. The switch to online learning is showing us that concentration levels online can be intense but fatigue sets in sooner.

Be aware that what is being examined is the candidate’s thesis, not what the examiner might have written in their place. If you suspect this is the case, keep careful notes and refer to them during the debrief. It’s a generalisation but, in my experience, examiners who present as “questions” how they personally would have structured the submission tend not to be great at listening to the candidate’s answers.

Encourage them to avoid asking two questions at the same time. If they do so, maybe suggest isolating the parts, so the candidate can answer the first before proceeding to the second.

Above all, remember that this situation is stressful – and that’s the last thing they need right now.

Alison Baverstock is professor of publishing at Kingston University