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How to pass your PhD viva in a pandemic

Karen Nokes was recently one of the first PhD researchers to complete her viva online during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her PhD journey was not a typical one. Karen started her PhD as a mature student with over 20 years’ experience in the legal profession. She then transferred to Manchester part-way through her PhD and completed her thesis part-time in order to balance caring responsibilities with her studies. In this article, Karen shares her PhD journey and her top tips for preparing for an online oral examination.

Before entering academia, Karen qualified as a solicitor in 1993 and spent a short time in private practice doing criminal defence work. She then worked for the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority for almost 20 years investigating professional misconduct. This sparked an interest that would eventually become the question for her research.

Karen’s research explores ethical decision making in the professions. Her thesis proposes a theoretical model focusing on how individual factors interact with environmental factors to influence the ethicality of decisions. The model was tested empirically in the legal profession, with over 100 solicitors from across England & Wales answering ethical scenarios. The study yielded interesting results that demonstrate the influence of individual factors on ethical decision making. “It’s not a case of looking at a profession like the legal profession and saying that as a group they are likely to be more ethical or not when faced with a certain ethical dilemma,” explains Karen. “Individual differences like thinking style and experience matter, and have a significant impact on the decision outcome.”

Moving to Manchester

Karen is based in Worcestershire and started her PhD at a different institution. After three years, she followed her supervisor Professor Gerard Hodgkinson (Vice Dean for Research of the Faculty of Humanities) to Manchester. At this stage, she also transitioned to part-time study in order to balance caring responsibilities with her research.

Despite living 100 miles from Manchester, the move paid off. She found that AMBS was a very good ideological fit because of the prominence that's given to applying theory in the real world. “My research was not only about concentrating on a theoretical contribution, but actually taking it into the real world and saying what are the implications for practice? And what can we learn about the behaviour of those in the professions to try and prevent professional misconduct?” explains Karen. “I am actually really pleased that I ended up at AMBS, because for me it was very much about applying the theory and working out how we then might use the research findings. My supervisors – Professor Gerard Hodgkinson and Professor Mark Healy – have also been extremely supportive throughout the whole process.”

A virtual viva

Covid-19 didn’t impact Karen’s research because she had submitted her thesis at the end of last year. However, her viva was imminent when lockdown struck. “The business school had written some guidelines on having a viva online so I realised that if my viva was going to take place in the near future, it was probably going to be online. My initial reaction was quite a bit of anxiety and panic. I’d used Skype and Facetime with friends, but I’d never done anything like this online." 

Despite being a different ending to what she had anticipated, the experience was very positive. The administration was taken care of, she was well-briefed in advance as to how the viva would be run and felt at ease. “It isn't how you think it's going to end. You envisage being in a room in the business school having travelled up to the business school, staying overnight before the viva and prepping in the hotel. It was so different to how I thought it was going to be but it was such a positive experience. There were some benefits too, I actually felt more relaxed as I was in my own home and I didn’t have the travelling to contend with.”

With the viva behind her, Karen would like to stay in academia and build on her research project, taking the theoretical model and testing it in other domains such as accountancy or medicine, and also looking at other psychological foundations of ethical behaviour that we could learn from. “When you look at the impact of people acting unethically in professions like accountancy, law or medicine, it's huge. The impact goes beyond the individual people that they represent or care for; it has a wider impact on society as a whole.”

Overcoming online examinations

So, having gone through this experience, what tips would Karen give to somebody preparing for an online examination? Here are her five top tips:

  1. Leverage the benefits of being in your own home: get out in the fresh air for a walk, have a good meal beforehand and get yourself as relaxed as possible.
  2. Do lots of different types of preparation: research stock questions online, consider a mock viva and hold practice sessions online with friends
  3. Familiarise yourself with the conferencing software and check how you and your background will look on camera to increase your confidence on the day
  4. Prepare your room: make sure you've got your notes, your thesis and some refreshments.
  5. Clear distractions: send family (and dogs!) out of the house to exercise and ban teenagers (if you have them) from the internet to conserve bandwidth!

Find out more about the Manchester PhD >>