Eight Questions About Contribution

Having trouble putting your research contribution into words? Or want to reflect on it in new ways? Try the following questions to take a fresh look at what you’ve done for your PhD. (and if you’re writing up, these questions might help you to unpick some new thoughts about your work)

  1. What’s the most interesting part of your research?
  2. What do you think will influence other people’s work?
  3. Why had no-one else explored this topic in this way before?
  4. What feedback have you had about your research and its merit?
  5. What do you see the defining contribution of your thesis as being?
  6. What else did you find along the way?
  7. How can your work be best explained?
  8. How could you take your work further?

Spend some time in your viva prep thinking, writing and talking about what your contribution means.

Bonus Question! What kind of difference does your research make to your field now that it is done?

Changing Focus

If I’m working from home then I love to walk my daughter to nursery to start my day. After I’ve dropped her off, I’ll often continue my walk near the River Mersey.

The view from the promenade looks towards Liverpool. I often take pictures of the city from the same spot on my walk.

Some days I focus on the beach…

…other days I’ll look up to the sky…

…and sometimes the sun shines just right and I capture something truly beautiful.

Changing my focus just a little can make a big difference. It’s the same city in the distance, but a little to the left, a sunny day or the tide being in can mean a radically different picture.

When you’re preparing for the viva, take time to look at your thesis in new ways. Ask yourself questions you’ve not considered before. Make summaries to tease out certain kinds of information. Reflect on what you’ve done and look from a different perspective.

You might see something interesting.

You might get some new ideas.

You might just see something beautiful.

Beating Busy

It can feel like a great pressure has been taken away when you submit your thesis…

…only to be replaced by the pressure of the viva and preparation. Some candidates will feel it more than others, particularly if they’re juggling work, applying for jobs, taking care of their families and 101 other things.

So plan. Break up the pressure by being clear about what you need to do. Some questions that could help:

  • How much time do you have available?
  • What constraints are there on your time?
  • What can you do to make your preparation time more effective?
  • When can you work at your best to prepare?
  • Who do you need help from? (and how can you ask them?)
  • What can you do less of or rearrange to make space for your viva prep?
  • What would a good plan for your prep look like?

“Busy” means you have to make a change. Start by stepping back. Get organised and get to work. The end is in sight.

Checklist for After

I’m trying something a little different for a few posts this week. Each post is a checklist of things to do for a different part of the viva process. I started a few days ago with a Checklist for Submission, a Checklist for Viva Prep and yesterday’s Checklist for the Viva. Today we conclude the series with a Checklist for After!

It’s over!

How was it? How do you feel? You might be feeling a bit dazed, a bit tired, a bit hyped or maybe even a bit nonplussed by the viva. Quick checklist for you:

  • I’ve passed!
  • I’m going to do something to celebrate this fantastic achievement!
  • I’ve sketched out a plan to complete the corrections my examiners have given me.
  • I’ve passed!

What’s likely after the viva is you have passed, but you have a little more work to do. Celebrate, but get the work done as soon as possible. You might need to revisit this checklist a few times before it sinks in.

The viva is done. Tick it off your life checklist.

Now, what’s next?

Checklist for the Viva

I’m trying something a little different for a few posts this week. Each post is a checklist of things to do for a different part of the viva process. I started a few days ago with a Checklist for Submission, and yesterday we had a Checklist for Viva Prep. Today we continue with a Checklist for the Viva!

Not long to go now! Are you ready? Compare your current state to the list below:

  • I’ve explored the realistic expectations of the PhD viva in the UK.
  • I did the research; I wrote my thesis.
  • I’ve prepared for my viva.
  • I’ve got the things I need practically for the day.
  • I’ve reflected on where I can find confidence.
  • I’m ready to discuss my research, my thesis and myself with the examiners.

All good? Of course you are. You’re ready for your viva.

Tomorrow: Checklist for After!

Checklist for Viva Prep

I’m trying something a little different for a few posts this week. Each post is a checklist of things to do for a different part of the viva process. I started yesterday with the Checklist for Submission, and today we continue with a Checklist for Viva Prep!

You’ve worked hard for years and your thesis is done. Check this list below when you’ve spent some time preparing for the viva. What have you done already?

  • I’ve read my thesis carefully all the way through.
  • I’ve made opportunities to practise answering questions.
  • I’ve annotated my thesis in a way that’s useful for me.
  • I’ve explored my examiners’ research.
  • I’ve reflected on my contribution to research.
  • I’ve made summaries to explore my thesis from different perspectives.

Marked some of these off? Then you’re on your way to being viva-ready. You might not need to do something that falls under all of these headings. Think about what will work well for you and when you can get it done.

Tomorrow: Checklist for the Viva!

Checklist for Submission

I’m trying something a little different for the next few days’ posts. Each post will be a checklist of things to do for a different part of the viva process, starting today with the Checklist for Submission!

Are you just about to submit? Step back for a few minutes and see if you’ve covered everything:

  • I have written the best thesis I could.
  • I know who my examiners are likely to be.
  • I know the regulations and process for thesis submission.
  • I have a rough plan of the work I’ll do in preparation for the viva.
  • I have an approximate idea of when my viva is likely to be.

Checked all of these off? Then you’re ready to submit! Congratulations!

Tomorrow: Checklist for Viva Prep!

What Is An Answer?

It can be lots of things, depending on the question. In the viva an answer could be…

  • …an explanation you’re presenting as fact. You believe with certainty that what you’re saying is “true”.
  • …an opinion. You have an idea, some reasons and an argument that feels plausible to you.
  • …a simple fact. Information pulled from your memory.
  • …a guess. An idea plus hope.

Questions in the viva could lead to all of these kinds of answers, and more. For a lot of questions you might face, the only answer you can give would be an opinion. You may face a question which has no definite answer, and your examiners know that too. They want to see how you think about your subject.

For all the questions you face, best to be honest with yourself (and your examiners) about which kind of answer you’re giving.

Prep Scores

There’s several strands running through how prepared a candidate could feel for the viva. You might know your thesis back-to-front, but be worried about answering questions. You could feel shaky on what vivas are actually like, but feel certain that you know about your examiners’ research interests.

Building on this post from last year, here’s a quick exercise to help you get a grip on how you’re doing and what you could do to boost your confidence. Give yourself a mark out of ten for each of the following:

  • Awareness of your field;
  • Knowledge of your research;
  • Confidence in your abilities as a researcher;
  • Confidence in what you’ve written in your thesis;
  • Ability to answer questions and discuss your research;
  • Awareness of your examiners’ research;
  • Certainty about viva expectations.

Which is highest? Why? Can you be even better or have greater confidence?

Which is lowest? Why? What’s your plan for that particular aspect?

For all of these, how could you increase your mark by one point? What steps could you take? Who could you ask for help?

Now, what will you actually do?

(if you’re looking for help, there’s a lot of it on this blog, on the Resources and Elsewhere pages, and of course in the Podcast Archive!)

This And That

My viva was done, and I was celebrating. There were a lot of people from my department in Bistro Jacques, and most of them had the same three things to say to me: “Congratulations!” – “How was it?” – “What corrections did you get?”

To which I replied: “Thanks!” – “It was fine!” –

-and on the last question I evaded: “Oh… This and that…”

I felt almost ashamed.

I had to re-structure and re-write two chapters, but that felt fine. I felt terrible about the typos! Particularly all of the places where I had transposed words or written “the the”. My spellcheck and proofreading hadn’t picked them up. They were silly, pointless mistakes that I should have found. Missing minus signs! How?! What was wrong with me?!?!

(I could, on occasion, be a bit overly dramatic in my youth…)

Perspective time: most people get corrections after the viva and for many they really could be described as “this and that”.

Mostly they’re cosmetic fixes to clear up typos and clunky sentences. Whatever scale of corrections you get they take time and work to do – but sometimes not much of either. You can feel bad about them, however small or large they are, but the point is that they help you make your thesis be the best possible representation of your work.

Most people get corrections. Go to your viva knowing you’ve done your best, but expecting to do a little more. You’re human.