7 Questions To Explore Your Contribution

The topic of what makes your thesis a significant, original contribution is going to come up in your viva.

Your examiners are not going to simply ask “What makes your work significant? What makes it original?” Reflecting on different questions can help you be prepared to respond when the topic comes up with whatever questions your examiners use.

Think, write notes or talk with others about the following:

  1. Why is your thesis valuable?
  2. Who might use your work?
  3. How is your research different from what’s been done before?
  4. What makes your research topic interesting?
  5. How would you summarise your contribution?
  6. How is your research special?
  7. Why did you want to explore this area?

Explore your contribution before the viva and you can be ready for exploring it in the viva.

Why Did You Do It?

Why did you work on your PhD?

  • Is it because you had a passion?
  • You had curiosity you had to explore?
  • Did you want to work with your supervisor and together steered things to the work that became your PhD?
  • Or did you apply for a project that seemed interesting and you thought would suit you?

Any of these situations are fine. There’s no magic “best reason” for doing a PhD or selecting a topic. “Why did you do it?” is a good starter question. Whatever your reason is it’s really a lead-in to a topic you’ll definitely need to talk about in the viva:

Why was your research worth doing?

Interesting Decisions

Seth Godin writes recently of “the magic of trade-offs” – an idea that resonated with my own memories of doing a PhD.

  • I remember writing only a few paragraphs about an application for one of my results, because I knew my time would be better spent developing something else new.
  • I remember the pride when I worked out a neat method that saved a lot of calculation time in an algorithm – because I’d previously decided to wait and explore more before checking with my supervisor, though this was uncertain when I started my plan.
  • And I remember the trade-off (that paid off) when I decided to not apply for jobs as I was getting close to submission, to save my time and attention for getting my thesis as good as it could be.

I’m sure you must have made trade-offs in the process of doing a PhD. Another way of looking at trade-offs is that someone makes an interesting decision. There may be no right or wrong, but for now this is the choice. A consequence, doing a PhD, might be that other options are closed to you as a result of your interesting decision.

And another consequence might be that your examiners ask you to talk about or defend your interesting decisions in the viva. Not because you’re right or wrong, or because your examiners are – but because your decisions are interesting. They’re worth talking about and exploring.

In preparation for your viva, review your interesting decisions. Where did you trade-off different things? How did you make those decisions? What were your reasons?

And do you still think it was the right thing to do?

The Most Important

What are the most important papers or ideas that started your research journey?

What were the most important days of your PhD?

What are the most important passages in your thesis?

Where did you do the most important work of your research?

What are the most important skills you’ve developed or built on while doing your PhD?

All of these questions have subjective responses, but are all worth considering. Your work must have important stuff, and even with typos or different perspectives or things that could be changed, it’s far better to focus on what is important and good about your research, than direct attention to things that could detract.

A question with an objective response: who did the work to create a thesis from all of this important stuff?

(don’t forget the answer to that one)

Your Contribution, Simply

To reach submission you must have made a contribution: you must have done something. Reflecting before the viva and making notes, even using a simple question, can be quite powerful.

To begin with, three simple questions: Why did you do it? How did you do it? What did you do?

If you’re looking to dig a little deeper with simple questions, consider the following:

  • Why is your contribution valuable?
  • How do you know your contribution makes a difference?
  • What does your contribution mean for others?

These are simple to ask, but could have complex responses. Notice too that they are aiming at the same thing – your contribution – but from different perspectives.

By reaching submission you must have done something. Use questions in your preparation to help you explore that something and find useful ways to think about it and share it with others.

What Have You Forgotten?

I believe it’s worth reflecting on this a little before the viva.

What have you forgotten?

Perhaps you can’t know for sure. You’ve had to edit out papers, ideas and references that didn’t fit. You forgot them, to concentrate on what mattered.

Perhaps there are details that elude you sometimes; if so, what can you do make them more memorable or to summarise them?

Perhaps you view the question as an almost-irrelevance, a nonsense. How could you remember what you’ve forgotten?

I think it’s useful to remember that however much you have forgotten, accidentally or so you could focus, there must be so much more that you remember by the end of your PhD. You have a lot of knowledge, which doesn’t mean simply knowing more: you know more of what you need.

What have you forgotten? What do you remember? What do you know?

Values & Valuable

Different people value different things.

Whether or not a job, a house, a partner, a research idea or anything else is suitable or good to you will depend on what you see as valuable. For your thesis then, there are two useful sets of questions to consider.

First, what do you value in your field? What is it that you think is “good” or “useful”? What topics or ideas do you think are better? Consequently, how do you see your thesis as being valuable? What contribution does it make? Why does that align with your idea of what you value?

Second, what might others value in your field? What might they then see as being valuable in your thesis? What ideas are people looking for? What contributions have you seen others value recently, at conferences or in papers?

Different sets of values might still find common valuable features in your research. Perhaps by considering what others find interesting, useful or significant, you could find a new perspective on your research.

Stars and Black Holes

We can see stars directly. Some are big, some are small (relatively speaking), some are bright, some less so, but so long as nothing is in the way, they’re there. We can’t see black holes directly. They’re tricky, difficult to describe maybe, possibly destructive if we get too close and you don’t want your examiners to talk about them-

-oh, yeah, this is a thesis metaphor!

The stars are your contributions. They’re in your thesis, and so long as nothing is in the way (clunky writing, obscure terminology, confusing structure) your examiners and anyone else reading your thesis will see them. They might still have questions about them, but they will see clearly that there is something valuable there.

The black holes are things you can’t see clearly. Problems, Issues, Gaps – things you don’t want your examiners to ask about because it’s hard to talk about them. And you worry that once you’re in the conversational gravitational pull you won’t be able to escape the crushing forces at the heart of the matter!

The stars and black holes in your thesis are made up of the same stuff though: ideas.

Get back to ideas in your preparation. Stars or black holes, what are the ideas that make them up? Why do they matter in their respective way? How can you best describe them?

Get used to the brightness of your stars. Grow comfortable being in orbit of your black holes.

New And Improved

How would you advertise your research?

Do you have an exciting and original take on classic ideas?

Do you have a new and improved way of looking at things?

Is your work wholly original, never-before-seen concepts?

Advertising works. When we use different phrases to communicate a value, different parts of our brain focus. We listen more for details or we are channelled to look for certain information.

Soundbites won’t win the viva, but if you take the time to explore the words you use to frame your research, you’ll hopefully find helpful phrases to lead your thinking and others’ attention.

Your Best Work

Where is it? How do you define best when it comes to your research?

  • What’s your best result?
  • What’s your best chapter?
  • What’s the best idea in your thesis?
  • What was the best talk you gave during your PhD?
  • What’s the best way you can prepare for your viva?

It’s vital to acknowledge that you have really good ideas in your work. You have achieved a lot to get this far. Don’t hide it or hide from it.

Dig deeper by asking yourself why after all of these questions.

And remember this is your best so far. Better is still ahead.