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.

Augment

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?”

10 Thesis Reading Tips For Viva Prep

I always tell people that reading their thesis is an essential part of viva prep, like it’s the easiest thing in the world – and I know that I struggled with it a lot! By the time I submitted I felt like I was burned out on my thesis. I felt confident, but was looking forward to when it would all be done. Here are ten tips for reading your thesis that should help with your viva preparations:

  1. Take a break for at least two weeks after you submit. Give yourself a little distance from your thesis.
  2. Plan when you’ll read it. When will you have read the whole thesis?
  3. Put Post Its at the start of each chapter. Make your thesis easier to navigate.
  4. Put Post Its where you find something important. Make it easier to find your thesis essentials.
  5. Try not to skim-read your thesis. Read it line-by-line at least once.
  6. Make a list of questions that one might have about your thesis. Keep them in mind.
  7. Underline typos when you see them. Don’t obsess about finding them.
  8. Make a glossary of terms. Whenever you find a piece of jargon, break it down.
  9. Set some goals. How many times do you need to read your thesis to feel happy?
  10. Take a day off from reading your thesis from time to time!

You have to read your thesis. It can feel like a chore at times, but it really is essential for the viva. Do everything you can to make the process work well for you.

Awkward

I talk about a lot of different things in Viva Survivor workshops, but there are certain tips or pieces of advice that often encounter a bit of resistance. See if they do the same for you that they do for others:

  • “Use Post It notes to add bookmarks or details to your thesis.”
  • “Pause and make a note after each question.”
  • “Feel free to ask your examiner if they can expand on a point.”
  • “It’s fine to ask for a break if you need one.”

Did any of those make you feel awkward, or make you feel that it would be awkward in the viva? Are you happy with the idea of pausing in silence to think? Do you feel comfortable with making notes? What do you think your examiners will say if you do or ask for any of these things?

Awkwardness is one of those things we develop over time. It’s related to stories that we come to believe. For example, if you feel awkward about the idea of pausing to make a note after a question, I would guess that you generally believe it’s rude to keep someone waiting if they’ve asked you a question.

Stories are powerful, but you can change them. If you feel awkward about any of the circumstances around the viva, or if anyone’s advice makes you think, “Sounds good but I couldn’t,” then see what you can do to change the story. Explore whether there’s a more helpful narrative you can take with you to talk about your research.

Scrawl

“Scrawl” is a great word to describe how I used to annotate papers during my PhD. I hated reading papers. I much preferred doing maths: balancing equations, defining functions, exploring little curiosities that popped into my head. It never occurred to me until after my PhD that reading papers was doing maths. It always seemed overly difficult.

I would scrawl over papers with whatever was to hand. Red pen in reach? Use that to underline. Get bored. Next day, a pencil is nearest. Start making notes in the margin, switch to pen to emphasis even if it is harder to read. Get bored. Next week, a highlighter, make things stand out, and so on.

I’d look over things months later when I needed a particular result and it was a mess. “How did this happen?” I would ask myself and it was only towards the end that I realised, “Oh, it was me. I made this so hard!”

It’s a great idea to annotate your thesis. You need a clear system in place for what you’re doing. Use red pen to underline typos, but only use it for that purpose. Make pencil notes in the margins, but only put notes in the margins and only use pencil for notes. Use highlighter to draw attention to only the things you really need to stand out, and so on.

Or come up with your own system, but learn from my mistakes, please!