Thesis Prep Checklist

Check off the following as you complete these thesis-related tasks before the viva:

  1. Added Post-it Notes to the start of each chapter to help with thesis navigation.
  2. Read through every chapter carefully at least once.
  3. Highlighted key references in each chapter.
  4. Added Post-it Notes to any important pages.
  5. Written a 1-line summary at the top of each page.
  6. Annotated any tricky passages to make them clearer.
  7. Bookmarked pages that add to the key contribution of the thesis.

If you’ve done all of these then you’re doing well. Your prep might not be complete, but you’ve read your thesis, annotated it usefully and started to think through why your work makes a difference.

What else can you do to get ready?

Convinced

You might be.

Certain, no doubts, no wavering.

Or your examiner might be.

100%, thought about it, no alternatives.

When someone is convinced, the best thing you can do is ask why. Once you know the why, you know what you need to think about.

If you’re convinced of something, ask yourself why. Arrange your reasons, be sure they are correct and your thinking is sound.

If your examiner is convinced of their opinion, and thinks differently to you, ask them why. Listen to them generously, be sure you understand what they’re saying, then explore how your differing convictions meet.

One of you might be wrong.

Maybe both of you are wrong.

You won’t know until you ask.

Elevating Your Thesis Pitch

I’m sorting out my home office while I procrastinate about my next book. I’ve gathered a lot of notes and material over the last ten years of working with researchers, and not all of it is useful now. There are workshops I regularly did ten years ago that I’m not involved with now, and yet I’ve kept all of those notes just in case. It’s time to be ruthless, but I read and check them all one last time.

Just in case.

I found an old note about the 5Ps for elevator pitches and sharing business ideas. You can use the 5Ps – pain, premise, people, proof, purpose – to frame what you’re going to say about your amazing business proposal. These are essentially a shorthand for questions you’re answering while you tell the story of your idea.

  • Pain: what is the thing your business helps with?
  • Premise: how does your idea help with the pain?
  • People: who do you have on your team?
  • Proof: how do you know that your idea works?
  • Purpose: why are you doing this?

I like simple models for telling stories and communicating ideas. So when I found the 5Ps in an old note, one thing in the centre of a page of now-redundant information I wrote it out as a reminder. After a week of stewing at the back of my brain, I realised it could be a good way of reflecting what your research is about.

If you were to give a thesis elevator pitch, perhaps you could use the same 5Ps to prompt some questions and exploration.

  • Pain: what is the problem your research addresses?
  • Premise: how did you set about finding answers?
  • People: whose work do you reference in your thesis?
  • Proof: how do you know that what you’ve done is good?
  • Purpose: why did you want to do this research?

Each of these questions is generally good to explore before the viva. Together they make a neat little story about your research. Reflection and writing summaries before the viva is good preparation because it gives you opportunities to think about your work, and practice how you could talk about what you’ve done during your PhD.

Just in case.

The Value of Valuable Questions

I love finding valuable questions. I try to read as widely as possible in things like self-help books, coaching blogs and interviews with interesting people. The ideas and advice are often helpful, but a good question hooks my attention more than anything.

In a recent TEDx post I came across a really insightful question:

What’s the most important thing I can do today that would make tomorrow better?

The article is asking in the context of time management and organisation, but this makes me think more generally. Perhaps, what can I do today to make my future brighter? What can I start now to set up a better later?

It gives me two thoughts for the viva and viva prep particularly. First, what’s the most important thing you can do today for your prep that will make the rest of your viva preparations better?

Second, what important things have you done throughout your PhD that makes your current situation great?

Preparation and reflection both help as you get close to the viva.

What other valuable questions help you? And where could you get more from?

A Contentious Thesis?

Don’t worry. It means you have something interesting in your research. It means that in the viva your examiners have a lot to ask about.

And it means you’ve been working on your thesis for a long time. You will know how to engage with people who aren’t sure. With people who want to know more. With people who have their own ideas.

So read up, think, have a mock viva and conversations with friends, and get ready to explore your work.

Edge Cases

The vivas that take place over Skype.

The third examiner in the room, or the second external.

The examiner that isn’t an academic.

These aren’t what most candidates would expect, but they don’t make your viva unique and unpredictable. Your viva is unique because you’re unique, your thesis is unique – no-one will ever have the exam that you do. If you have a viva over videoconferencing, or if your examiner doesn’t have a PhD, you shouldn’t worry. These things don’t happen all the time, but they aren’t happening for the first time in your viva either.

They’re not common but the edge cases still have expectations. You can ask and find out about them.

It’s Not An Interview

The viva seems like a job interview from some perspectives. In both cases you might decide to dress smart. Both vivas and job interviews ask questions to explore, at least in part, how great you are.

That’s about all though. The purposes and outcomes are very different. Despite that, there are similar things you could do in both situations to get ready.

  • Explore what your panel will want to talk about: for both situations you can know aspects of this in advance.
  • Reflect and make notes on the great parts of yourself and your work: think about evidence and how you could explain things clearly.
  • Find opportunities to practise answering questions: there may be common questions in interviews to which you could practise answers, but for the viva you can prepare well by finding situations to practise with unexpected questions.

The viva is not really like a job interview, but there’s value in thinking in some of the same ways when it comes to preparation.

Plan Your Prep

Viva preparation does not have to be a full-time job, but at the same time it’s not a trivial matter. It takes time, it takes space and it takes effort. The result of all of this work is someone who feels ready: a Future-You with confidence in their ability for the day of the viva.

A small plan would help all of this.

Don’t wait until a few weeks before and then think, “What should I do?” With as much advance notice think about the probable timing of the viva. Think about your other commitments. Think about the kinds of gaps in your confidence and preparation, and the kinds of tasks you might do to fill those gaps. Think about how you might break those tasks up into manageable chunks.

Then think about how much free time you would realistically have in the period around the viva for preparation – and consequently, think about when you might need to start. Simply sketch out when you might begin, what order you might do things and note down anything that will be a priority.

You don’t need Gantt charts, flow diagrams and timetables. Make a small plan, just a little thought to steer you towards success.

The Greatest Worry

I’ve thought a lot about what candidates have told me for the last ten years. I’ve been in a fortunate position to meet many thousands of postgraduate researchers, and to help them get through various stages of their PhD. And when you listen for long enough you notice patterns. Sometimes it’s the things that are said often but sometimes it’s how things are said.

And I think I know what the greatest worry of postgraduate researchers is as they get closer to the viva.

It’s not that examiners won’t like their work.

It’s not that the thesis will be somehow incomplete.

And it’s not that they will go blank or have to say “I don’t know” to a question.

The greatest worry is that they will get to the viva and discover that they are not who they think they are.

They will find out that they are not talented. They will find in that moment that they are not as clever, as quick or as resourceful as they had hoped. They will find out that they are not as knowledgeable as they thought they were. This doubt can be held quite deeply within; the fear, the worry that you are not as good, as clever, as confident as you think.

This kind of self-doubt can be hard to beat. I think a solution can be found though in questions and reflection. If you’re doubting yourself at all before the viva then start with these two questions:

  • How else could you have got this far?
  • What can you point to in your research that’s great?

The first question is needed to start to unpick doubt. Doing a PhD is hard. While you can be fortunate you can’t just be lucky. You can’t get to submission and the viva by chance alone. There’s no other explanation other than you must have worked for it. That work must have produced something. The second question is useful to start exploring just what that might be. If you list the great things that have come out of your research you can start to believe that you’re great too.

Self-doubt can be a hard problem, but it’s not intractable.

Rather than beat away your fear it might be better to build up your bravery instead.

No Spoilers!

A few weeks ago I was patiently (at first, then impatiently) waiting for Avengers Endgame to be released at the cinema. Tickets booked, clock ticking down in my brain to when I could go and find out what happened. I expected that the heroes would win, but was desperate to know how…

…but not so desperate to read any reviews or leaks or spoilers. That would be heresy. I wanted to be as spoiler-free as possible. The trailer might have shown me some odd sequences, made me wonder, “Well, how did they get to there? And who are they talking to? And…” but that was just to whet my appetite.

There are no spoilers for the viva, of course. Unlike a movie it can’t be spoiled by someone telling you what happens in advance because it’s not happened. It’s not a spoiler to know you’re very, very likely to pass.

A spoiler would be knowing what questions were going to be asked, or what your examiners exactly thought in advance. And I think those would be spoilers: they would spoil the conversation, the viva would be less of a test of your talent and more a test of your memory. A viva spoiled like this would be a sad conclusion to a PhD journey.

Thankfully, there are no spoilers at all for the viva. The hero of the story will win. We might not know exactly how, but there are some pretty good reasons why…