The Bones Of Your Research

Remember Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Your work comes from somewhere. Whatever your contribution, it stands on the shoulders of other researchers. How many papers are in your bibliography? How many more have you read, which didn’t make it into your bibliography but which informed your development or your work’s development?

By the end it might be almost impossible to remember every paper that has helped or influenced you. But you can reflect on your thesis and think about the meaningful fraction that makes up the core of what you’ve done. If you have 200 papers, what’s the top 10? The top 20?

Your thesis is built on a great body of work. What makes up the skeleton?

Tuning In

For the first half of 2016 I would listen to a string quartet doing covers of David Bowie songs whenever I was setting up for workshops.I listened to the songs one day and had a great workshop. It started as a little ritual but blossomed into priming: priming myself for confidence, tuning myself into a certain mode of thinking. After the summer break and a little reflection I switched to Daft Punk. I’m generally in a very happy space when I’m presenting, or I want to be, and Daft Punk is music that makes me happy.

So, an idea: What music makes you happy? What music do you associate with being the best version of you? What music tells the story of your PhD? There are a lot of things you could do to contribute to being viva ready – read your thesis of course, practice answering questions, make notes – but something helpful could be as simple as listening to a soundtrack that helps you focus well.

What’s on your playlist?


Where does your drive come from? What pushes you on to complete your goals? I’m not asking because your examiners necessarily will want to know, but because I think it’s good for you to bring it front and centre for yourself.

Is it for personal achievement? Is it for a career? Is it to make someone proud? Is it to be the best? There’s no right or wrong answers, just a source of energy.

The PhD is supposed to be difficult. Your motivation can help move you beyond the difficulties. Doing things can get so intense that we forget why we’re doing them in the first place. So take a step back and put that motivation at the front.

Why are you doing this? OK, now do it.


A common fear: what if your mind goes blank in the viva?

You could erm your way through a response: “Erm, well, I think, erm, hmm, that’s… Hmm, erm, if…”

You could waffle your way to freedom: “…in conclusion, as I said five minutes ago, in response to your particularly excellent query, that if we consider Foucault’s method – and there are several good reasons to do so, first of all…”

You could throw a smokebomb in the centre of the room and escape in the confusion: actually, no you can’t. Don’t do that.

Or you could: take a breath; ask your examiner to repeat the question; have a sip of water; breathe; think about your research; think about what you’ve done when confronted with a similar problem before; ask for a moment to think.

If your mind goes blank, then take your time. It’s OK. You can do this. It’s better than saying erm a lot or waffling to distract your examiners. And much better than throwing a smokebomb down.

I Don’t Know

“I don’t know” is not the end of the viva. It’s not a stain against your name. It doesn’t mean that you automatically lose.

It means you didn’t know something.

If you don’t have information, what do you have? I can think of a few possibilities:

  • Probably a question for yourself: you don’t know a definite answer, but what possibilities are there?
  • Probably a question or two for your examiners: can you tell me more?
  • Definitely a brain, and experience: given the question, given everything you do know, what does that lead you to think?

I don’t know is not the end of the viva. It could be the end of a strand of conversation. Or it could be an opportunity to show how you can think, and engage, discuss and decide. You can give an opinion. YOU can reason things out. I’ll say it again: You’re not here by accident.