What’s Your Story?

If you have your thesis done and your viva coming up, it’s because you did the work and you developed yourself. Simple to say, but these things don’t just simple happen. What were the big moments along the way?

Everyone’s story is different. From my PhD, I remember…

  • …being six months into my PhD, sitting on a train, not even on my way to work, and suddenly the problem I had been considering snapped into focus. It was a small result at the time, but a meaningful one. It grew into a result that underpinned three chapters of my thesis.
  • …visiting Marseille for a two-week conference and summer school. It helped me present and share my research with others and was also a big boost to my confidence. It forced me to step out of my confidence zone.
  • …going to researcher development workshops, and then being invited to help on them. It helped me with presenting and thinking skills, it made me think about my talents more broadly, and it planted a seed that there was something interesting I might like to explore in the area of researcher development…

…which is how I ended up where I am!

Think back over the last few years. What are the big moments that have shaped and defined you? How did you get to where you are now? What stands out in your memory and why?

What Do You Want Them To Ask?

As part of your viva prep spend ten minutes listing everything you’d like your examiners to ask.

Reflect for each one: why do you want them to ask about that thing?

Do you feel confident? Why?

Do you feel happy? Why?

Do you feel proud? Why?

It’s useful to dig into things that trouble you and ask why. Once you’ve unpicked the feeling you can start to do something about it.

It’s just as useful to reflect on the things you’re happy with. You can build confidence for the viva on those whys as well.

Pride & Achievements

Make a list of everything you’ve done that makes you feel proud. Think about all of the achievements in your PhD. Reflect on why they matter to you.

Within that list you’ll find the strengths of your work. You’ll see your research’s contributions. You made those contributions.

Make your list. Reflect on all you’ve done. Think about why you could be confident to meet the challenges of your viva.

What’s New?

You have to make original contributions in your thesis. It’s good to reflect on this before your viva. There are lots of questions that can help stimulate ideas and connections:

  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • What is different in your work from other work in this area?
  • How did your work build on earlier research?
  • What have you learned?
  • What are the outputs of your research?
  • What new questions do we now know to ask?

If one question doesn’t spark an answer, see if another will. What’s new?

Valuable

There are many ways to think about your thesis’ contribution.

Instead of coming up with a list of things you’ve done, start with why others might find something valuable in your research. What might they value? What would help them? What do they now know as a result of what you’ve done?

There are lots of things that could be valuable in research. Don’t compare your diamonds to other people’s. Look at why your work shines. What makes it valuable? What makes it special?

(you, for one thing)

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.

Where’s The Challenge?

As an alternate route to unpicking the value of your thesis contribution, consider reflecting on the challenge that was involved in getting it done. I don’t only mean the labour of three or more years, but the deeper questions about the nature of the research itself.

  • Why could it not have been done before now?
  • What made it difficult?
  • Who else had tried to do this?
  • Why are you the first person to do this?
  • What do you see the challenge as being?
  • What obstacles have you overcome?

Reflecting on the challenge is a different perspective, but it leads in the same direction. The challenge points to the value of what you’ve done.

Illuminate

There’s a lot of light cast around during the PhD process.

You shine a light on a topic you found, and create more when you write your thesis.

You brighten up your thesis when you prepare for the viva.

Your examiners bring your work into full sun, although hopefully it won’t feel like a harsh glare.

And fingers crossed you won’t have to burn the midnight oil to add a little more light with your corrections.

Every step of the way you illuminate something because you’re making it easier for someone else to see the value of what you’ve found.

Keep on shining.

Eight Questions About Contribution

Having trouble putting your research contribution into words? Or want to reflect on it in new ways? Try the following questions to take a fresh look at what you’ve done for your PhD. (and if you’re writing up, these questions might help you to unpick some new thoughts about your work)

  1. What’s the most interesting part of your research?
  2. What do you think will influence other people’s work?
  3. Why had no-one else explored this topic in this way before?
  4. What feedback have you had about your research and its merit?
  5. What do you see the defining contribution of your thesis as being?
  6. What else did you find along the way?
  7. How can your work be best explained?
  8. How could you take your work further?

Spend some time in your viva prep thinking, writing and talking about what your contribution means.

Bonus Question! What kind of difference does your research make to your field now that it is done?

Cosmic Viva Prep

Think of your thesis as a star. It shines, it’s powerful. It’s there because you’ve set it out in the cosmos of your research field.

Somewhere in that vast space are the works of your examiners. They’ve done more; their contributions might make constellations. Patterns of lights in your discipline.

Don’t think negatively of yourself by comparison. Instead, just look at the constellations. What do they look like? What does a constellation tell you about what an examiner thinks?

And what might your thesis-star look like from their constellation?