7 Questions To Help You Annotate Your Thesis

Annotating your thesis is useful viva prep. You have to really think about your thesis while you do it and you create a more useful resource for afterwards. I have general ideas I think are good for annotation, but every candidate has to do something that works for them. With that in mind, here are seven questions that could help you:

  1. What do you want to find easily?
  2. What is important in your thesis? (bonus question: how are you defining important?)
  3. Where do you need to add short notes?
  4. Where do you need to add longer notes?
  5. What pages would benefit from a few sentences to summarise them?
  6. What do you need to underline? (bonus question: why?)
  7. What do you need to highlight? (bonus question: why?)

Annotate your thesis so it is useful for you. Ask questions and set parameters before you start. Figure out what you need to do and then go do it.

Viva Prep Basics

In my Viva Survivor sessions I cover a lot of different topics, including a good half an hour on practical steps to take between submission and the viva.

Here’s the 1-minute version!

  • Read Your Thesis. No excuses, don’t skim, read it once, refresh your memory. When do you need to start this?
  • Annotate Your Thesis. Highlight, bookmarks, margins. What can you add to upgrade your thesis for the viva?
  • Create Summaries. Take a step back, reflect, then capture something about your work. What questions or topics need your focus?
  • Check Recent Literature. Take a little time to see what has been published recently. Where would you check?
  • Research Your Examiners. Explore their recent publications and interests. How big a task is this for you?
  • Find Opportunities To Rehearse. Mock vivas, conversations with friends and seminars can all help. Who do you need to ask for help?

Spend a little time on all of these areas and you’ll do a lot to help get ready for your viva.

Ten Quick Top Fives

Viva preparation is not about speed, but sometimes a quick task is useful to break the inertia. I’ve shared a few “top fives” posts before, but here are ten quick tasks to get things moving.

  1. Top Five Places To Bookmark In Your Thesis!
  2. Top Five Useful References For You!
  3. Top Five Academics Who Could Be A Good Examiner!
  4. Top Five Questions To Ask Your Supervisor!
  5. Top Five Friends Who Could Help Your Preparation!
  6. Top Five Definitions To Remember!
  7. Top Five Expectations For Your Viva!
  8. Top Five Details To Check!
  9. Top Five Things To Boost Your Self Confidence!
  10. Top Five Preparation Tasks!

Little lists, quick tasks, quick questions – they won’t be the most useful things you could do in preparation. Sometimes you’re not in a position to do the most effective task. Sometimes you’re not building a wall, you’re placing a brick: little by little, adding to your sense of being ready for your viva.

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?

Clearing Out The Vague

Reading and re-reading your thesis in preparation for the viva could show passages that don’t quite make sense.

You could read a sentence and know what you meant, but also know that the sentence doesn’t communicate it fully. You may even find a paragraph that leaves you scratching your head…

what does this mean? What was I trying to say?

…and while you might not feel good about finding something unclear, you don’t have to feel too bad about it either. It’s unlikely you’ve found something that would disqualify your thesis or you. You just need to clear out the vague words before you meet your examiners.

You can’t submit a pre-corrected version of your thesis but you could:

  • Write a short note in the margin;
  • Stick a Post-it Note with corrected text over the passage;
  • Create a mind map about the topic;
  • Check your definitions and jargon;
  • Practise explaining the area with your friends.

There’s a lot you can do to make vague words more clear. Exploring is always better than just hoping your examiners won’t notice.

Best of Viva Survivors 2018: Viva Prep

To finish 2018 I’m sharing my favourite posts from the last year. I’ll start as I did last year with the topic of viva prep, something that’s always in my mind because of this blog and the sessions that I deliver. Here are some of the most useful posts from the last twelve months.

I hope these posts give you a good foundation if you’re preparing for your viva soon. Seen anything else you think is useful for viva prep? Let me know! And do share these “best of” posts with any friends whose vivas are in the near future 🙂

Thesis Annotation Tips

Your thesis is a great help to begin with in the viva. Adding notes helps you reflect on what’s there and can make it better for the viva. Here are seven kinds of annotations that can really help.

  1. Add a small Post-it Note to the start of each chapter to make your thesis easier to navigate.
  2. Underline typos that you spot with the same colour ink.
  3. Unpick tricky passages with short descriptions in the margin.
  4. Create a thesis commentary by summarising each page in ten words or less at the top of the page.
  5. Highlight key references in your thesis.
  6. Use large Post-it Notes to summarise large blocks of text or to replace vague sentences.
  7. Add small Post-it Notes to draw attention to important sections of your thesis.

Think about what else would make your thesis even better than it already is. You’re making a special edition with an audience of one: it only has to be better for you.

Decode Your Thesis

My thesis was full of codewords: technical terms and jargon that would have been tough for the uninitiated to break.

Genus 2 manifold. Unoriented link. Plait presentation.

How coded is your thesis? Jargon can save on words and be a shorthand for precision. It can also keep people out – maybe even you!

Check your codewords during your viva preparation. Make a short glossary to be sure of your definitions. Decode tricky terms in the margins. Stick in Post-it Notes with concise explanations.

Unpicking the meaning of words can help you think about how to explain them even better.


I advise candidates to annotate their thesis, but the word really in my mind is augment:

To make something greater by adding to it…

You’re not just adding some notes or bookmarks, some Post-its or highlighted sections; your thesis will be better for you doing it.

I use the word annotate in workshops, because that’s what people expect. Let’s be clear though: if you add Post-its to show the start of chapters, underline typos, add notes in a consistent way, highlight references, insert clarifications, decrypt technical language, update a thought and anything else like this – you’re augmenting. Your thesis is greater than it was, a richer resource for you.

Step one, ask yourself: what would make your thesis even greater for you?

Annotation Helps

One of the best reasons to annotate your thesis is to make things stand out. For example:

  • Highlight key references and how you’ve used them;
  • Underline your typos for easier correction later;
  • Draw attention to jargon and specialist terms;
  • Draw attention to key passages of your thesis;
  • Highlight the parts you’re most proud of.

Annotation is purposeful work while you’re doing it; afterwards you have a more useful resource for your prep and the viva.

You can make your thesis clearer while you get ready for the viva. Start by asking yourself, “What would help me?”