What should I include in a 15-minute summary of my thesis?

The candidate asking me this had been prompted by their examiners to prepare a presentation to start their viva. This isn’t a common situation, but it’s one way to begin the viva. I can’t remember what I said in the moment that I was asked – it was towards the end of a three-hour webinar – but remembering it today I’m struck by several thoughts.

Fifteen minutes isn’t very long to summarise a thesis, so it pays to be concise. It helps to rehearse. It helps to think things through. And the question, as asked, is worth interrogating: should isn’t helpful. There are lots of things one could do.

Here are fifteen points and questions to reflect on if you were asked to prepare a fifteen-minute presentation for the viva:

  1. Why did you want to do this research?
  2. Why did the research need doing?
  3. What were the main methods you used?
  4. What literature supported the approach that you took?
  5. What makes your work an original contribution?
  6. What are you proudest of in what you have done?
  7. What was the hardest problem you overcame?
  8. What can you explain simply in the space of fifteen minutes?
  9. What can you not explain in the space of fifteen minutes?
  10. Given that your examiners have read your thesis, what do you need to re-emphasise in a presentation at the start of your viva?
  11. How does your work make a difference?
  12. How has your work made a difference in you?
  13. What do you need to start your presentation by saying?
  14. What do you need to conclude your presentation with?
  15. What can you safely leave out of your presentation?

Even if you – like most candidates – are not asked to prepare an opening presentation, reflecting on many of these questions could be useful before your viva!