Reflections on an Online Viva Examination and Tips for Virtual Candidates
Julie Brueckner, 09-July-2020
Can you tell us a little bit about your research?
My research was aimed at enhancing the scientific and practical understanding of women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions. I investigated male and female CEOs of publicly traded organizations from a psychological lens – integrating literature from personality, social, and organizational psychology. Specifically, I looked at CEOs’ motives and how potential differences in CEOs’ need for achievement, power, and affiliation/intimacy may relate to their success and evaluation as leaders. By adopting a socio-cultural perspective, my research considered questions such as whether certain societal beliefs and expectations associated with men, women, and leaders might impact what motives male and female leaders express, how they link to leadership outcomes, and how these motives are perceived by key stakeholders. To answer these questions, I have designed and conducted several quantitative studies, including archival and experimental research. These diverse approaches to studying the motives of male and female CEOs have allowed me to provide interesting initial insights into the understudied relationship of implicit motives and gender in the upper echelons of organizations – with practical relevance for leaders.
What is your background, and why did you decide to do a PhD?
My educational roots are in Psychology (University of Groningen), and I have specialized in Work & Organizational Psychology (Maastricht University) in the Netherlands. Before pursuing my Ph.D. in the Work, Psychology, and Strategy group at Dublin City University Business School, I gained practical experience in the area of people and organization from a leading international e-commerce company in the area of fashion and technology as well as in market research from a leading market research firm in Germany.
I decided to do a PhD because I wanted to satisfy my scientific curiosity as to what motives are characteristic of successful strategic leadership. In addition, I sought to understand better how leaders effectively communicate their vision. However, more than that, my goal was to contribute to a topic that I genuinely care about, which implies working towards equality in the workplace. Especially within the context of implicit motives, which are thought to be important predictors of leadership, little systematic research had yet been done focusing on women – even though female leaders are still dramatically underrepresented in executive business functions. Thus, my PhD touched on an economically and societally highly relevant topic. Also, I was intrigued by the personal challenge and growth associated with a PhD.
During my PhD it was important to me to maintain a close link to industry. I realized this by consulting entrepreneurs, collaborating on talent management projects, and co-hosting a conference focused on communicating research findings to a practitioner audience. These experiences made my PhD journey very versatile and kept me motivated.
You had to hold your Viva over Zoom due to the coronavirus. Probably not what you were expecting for your viva voce process! How did it go?
Indeed! During the PhD journey there is an ever-increasing psychological build-up surrounding the Viva Voce as the culmination of one’s work. I often visualized my Viva experience beforehand but never imagined it to take place virtually. I believe that my examination was the first-ever Viva Voce within DCU Business School conducted over Zoom – so a lot of anxiety and excitement was in the air. The Viva took place at on the 23rd of March, just ten days after the lockdown was announced for Ireland with the suspension of all university activities. So it was very much in the midst of the initial state of shock, uncertainty, and ever-increasing restrictions.
I am incredibly grateful that I had amazing supervisors and a fantastic chairperson who helped me navigate these challenges. Professor Hogan was an exceptional source of support. She made the reorganization of my Viva look easy, although there actually is a lot of work and rearrangements involved behind the scenes due to the formal nature of the examination as well as the many stakeholders that need to be managed in the process. In my case, the availability and travels of my supervisors (Prof. Janine Bosak and Prof. Jonas Lang) and examiners (Prof. Nicola Baumann and Prof. Patrick Flood), who would have arrived from three different countries, had to be coordinated.
In addition, I had a fantastic examination panel who asked excellent questions that were both reflective and stimulating, thus allowing me to discuss my work from multiple angles. This facilitated a critical yet constructive atmosphere that inspired a great scientific discourse, which I enjoyed a lot. The positive feedback I received in my examination, of course, contributed to the fact that I consider my Viva a great experience.
Any advice for others facing doing their Viva over Zoom?
No PhD journey is alike, so it is difficult to give specific recommendations as to what will work for other graduating PhD scholars. Nevertheless, some general advice that has helped me in preparing for my Big Digital Defense Day would include:
1: Be proactive and take the initiative – contact your chair and communicate your feelings about what you need in order to be comfortable during the examination in this “new normality”. Starting this process early means that the chair can do more to help and support you. Also, it makes the planning for your examination panel, who might need to (cancel) travel from abroad, easier.
2: Allow yourself to be vulnerable; it’s okay! Preparing for the Viva is a lot. Preparing for the Viva in a global pandemic is a lot more. It is okay not to be okay when faced with this challenge. For me, it helped to allow myself to be vulnerable and acknowledge my nervousness, take a deep breath, and bringing my attention back to the present to avoid negative thought spirals.
3: Remain cognitively flexible – During this unforeseen crisis, no day has been like the other. Probably the only constant in the near future is change and dynamic developments. Thus, I would advise other graduating PhD candidates to “go with the flow” as much as possible, as arrangements that have been discussed yesterday may not be adequate today. In the end, health is more important than sticking to previous agreements that may not prove feasible anymore in light of health recommendations. My Viva plan has changed approximately five times, and still, everything was fine at the end. However, it was also a learning experience for me as I tend to be rather structured in examination situations. It was helpful for me to engage in small rituals that remained unaffected by other changes related to the pandemic and viva prep, like going for a long walk in the evenings – this gave me stability while also allowing me to remain flexible where needed.
4: Seek and accept support – people are willing and happy to help!
During my Viva preparation, I sought lots of advice from my support structure inside and outside of DCU. For example (before the lockdown), I went for walks and had lunches with former PhD scholars to hear about their experience and preparation strategies. Listening to more than one story can help to pick the pieces that work best for your personality and style. I frequently talked to my supervisors and chair to understand better the different roles in the examination. In general, my experience has always been: ask, signal interest, and you shall receive. Now, I am looking forward to giving back and passing my experience forward to others.
5: Prepare – For me, preparation was the key to feeling comfortable. While everyone has their own strategy as to what level of detail suffices to feel sufficiently prepared, I strongly suggest having a mock viva with your supervisor and supervisory panel. In addition, I was part of a group of friends who all defended their work at around the same time. We engaged in group calls via Zoom to get acquainted with the technology and ask each other questions. This experience was incredibly helpful due to our interdisciplinary backgrounds, as every participant brought a unique and diverse point of view and criticism. After these calls, I received the feedback that my perspective as a social scientist was a valuable addition for the hard science PhDs (e.g., chemistry and biotechnology) as I asked lots of meta-level questions focused on their contributions and limitations. Likewise, their point of view provided me with a helpful opportunity for deeper reflection. Thus, I would strongly advocate for interdisciplinary exchanges. To prepare further, I would also advise knowing recent and the most significant publications (and maybe some “pet peeves”) of the examiners. Looking up their former doctoral students and reading their publications might help in getting a good grasp of their expertise, frequently used methods, etc.
6: Trust yourself – After the Viva prep is done, pat yourself on the back. It may not feel this way before the exam, but at the end of the day, after spending so much of your time researching a particular topic, you deserve to feel confident and proud of having developed into an expert.
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