7 Questions To Help Make An Edited Bibliography

I’ve advised candidates for a long time to think about making an edited bibliography as part of their viva preparations. Your research is based on a body of work: the edited bibliography is the skeleton you can identify supporting what you’ve done.

You could write it simply by thinking about what papers are important. If you need help, then try the following questions to start a list:

  1. What references have most informed your background reading?
  2. What references have most shaped your methods?
  3. What references have provided the most useful data or information?
  4. What references have helped you be sure about your conclusions?
  5. For each chapter of your thesis in turn, what references are most crucial to the material you present?
  6. Which papers do you need to remember?
  7. Which papers do you find it hard to remember?

Trim out any duplicates from the list this makes. Make sure you add the details of the authors, the journals, the year of publications. Then answer two questions for each reference: which chapter is it most relevant to? Why?

An edited bibliography can be a useful resource. I wonder if it’s even more useful when you’re creating it? Reflecting on where your research comes from is a valuable task in preparation for the viva.

If & Then

Hypothetical questions are a pain for PhD candidates thinking about their vivas.

If. If this happens, I’ll be stuck. If that happens, I won’t know what to do.

Except it’s not just if. There’s always a then. In worry, a candidate might not see it, but it’s always there. There is always a course of action. It might not be something you prefer. It might be tricky. It might be uncomfortable.

There is always something you can do.

  • If you find a typo, then you can correct it.
  • If you are forgetful, then you can write notes.
  • If you are worried about how to answer questions, then you can have a mock viva.
  • If you are concerned about your examiners, then you can research them.
  • If you aren’t sure about whether or not something is a normal part of the process, then you can check.

There are always hypothetical questions, and they always have actionable answers.

Set Chief Needs

“Set Chief Needs” is the neatest anagram of “Thesis Defence” – and also good viva prep advice!

Ahead of the viva consider what you need to be ready:

  • What do you need to feel confident?
  • How do you need to annotate your thesis?
  • What do you need to consider about your examiners?
  • What do you need from your supervisors?
  • What help do you need?
  • What papers do you need to re-read?
  • And so on!

Set Chief Needs works well…

…far better than Send Fit Cheeses…

Significant Original Contribution

I’ve heard these three words used so many times to describe what a PhD needs to produce. I’ve said them myself thousands of times in workshops! But what do we mean when we say these words? What are we getting at? Checking the thesaurus gives some helpful ideas…

Significant: compelling, important, momentous, powerful, serious, rich…

Original: authentic, initial, first, beginning, pioneer, primary…

Contribution: addition, improvement, increase, augmentation, present, gifting…

Significant original contribution is nice shorthand to capture the result of a PhD’s journey. Go deeper into the words to remind yourself just how awesome your research is.


After your viva there’s more to do. Not your corrections, not wrapping things up, not admin. Your PhD is coming to a close…

…and the rest of your life is right there waiting for you.

You’re not the same. Your PhD means something. What might it mean for you?

A change of title? A mark of respect? New opportunities? More money? More responsibility?

While you’re doing your PhD, it could feel like the most important thing you’ll ever do. Afterwards, as you go on, you have to find something else. So what will it be?

Expect Corrections

Most people have to do some. They’re not a punishment. They’re your examiners saying, “Here, you missed this,” or “This is good, but if you try this it will be better.”

Or occasionally, “That’s not how you spell that!”

You can’t predict exactly what you’ll be asked to do. Most PhD candidates will get minor corrections. Some don’t get any. Some are asked to do major corrections or resubmit. Check with your institution’s regulations about what different outcomes could mean for you. Be sure so you can plan ahead.

Expect that you’ll have some corrections to do, but expect that your thesis – and you – will be pretty good by the time your viva comes around.

What If You Have No Community?

At workshops I often advise people to talk to their colleagues when preparing for the viva:

  • Ask about their viva experiences to get a sense of what vivas are like;
  • Offer to take someone for coffee and use the time to chat about your research;
  • Find out about other research in your field.

Simply: you have to pass the viva by yourself, but you can get a lot of help from others.

At a recent workshop, someone chatted to me afterwards, “That sounds great, but I’m a part-time researcher. I’m not based on campus. I only come in to see my supervisor. I don’t really know anyone in my department. What can I do?”

I had to think for a few minutes. Over the years I’ve tried to clear out my own biases of what a PhD is. I was full-time, funded, had a shared office in a busy department, compulsory development programme – and I learned soon after my PhD that wasn’t always the case.

Still, I felt safe to assume that everyone has colleagues they can talk to. But what if you don’t?

I don’t have definite ideas, but here are some initial suggestions:

  • Email recent graduates, introduce yourself and ask about their viva experiences.
  • Decide to give a seminar about your work, a PhD in sixty minutes with time for questions. Invite people to come.
  • Ask academics in your department about their process when they take on the role of examiner.

I hope these thoughts help. I doubt that the person who chatted to me is unique. I’ll be thinking about this topic more in the coming months. Please get in touch if you have any suggestions too!

Pros & Cons

It can be useful to think through the pros and cons of different things related to your viva:

  • Whether you start preparing for the viva a month or two weeks before the viva…
  • Whether or not you try for an examiner who you’ve cited in your bibliography…
  • Whether or not your supervisor will be present on the day…
  • Whether or not you have a mock viva…

Some you can weigh up and get a clear idea of what to do. Some aren’t so clear. Is it better or worse to have an expert in your field examine your thesis? Should you create summaries of every chapter?

There are pros and cons for everything. Sometimes they lead you to a clear answer, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you just have to listen to your gut feeling.

At some point you have to take action. Whatever the pros and cons, however clear the issue, you still get to choose the course you take.

The Longcut

I like this term. The longcut is the anti-shortcut. The longcut doesn’t cut corners or take chances with success. It’s slow, patient and persistent.

You didn’t take shortcuts with your research. You didn’t take shortcuts with writing your thesis. When you come to get ready for the viva, you don’t want to take shortcuts, you want longcuts. You want to do good work that will help you be certain of being ready.

Don’t skim your thesis the day before. Don’t rely on the bare minimum. Don’t just think about what might happen.

If you’re busy, still make time. Think about what will make a difference, make a plan and do work to get yourself ready for success.

Take the longcut.