Bibliography Focus

Your thesis’ bibliography might contain hundreds of references. While you will have used all of these to shape and inform your research, it’s impossible for you to remember every detail. Your examiners won’t expect that from you either. They’re not unreasonable, but they will want to see evidence that you know your stuff.

What could you do in preparation?

  • You could take another look at the references that have helped build up your methods.
  • You could be sure of how sources containing important information have helped your research.
  • You could look again at any references you disagree with – to be sure you’re certain why you disagree with them.
  • You could create an edited bibliography: a top twenty list of the most useful papers that you’ve cited.

You don’t need to do all of these. You might need to do something else. But you need to do something to bring your bibliography into focus before your viva.

The 200 Reference Problem

“I have 200 references in my bibliography! How can I remember all those details?! What do I do if my examiners ask me about one of them??”

The 200 reference problem is not actually a problem. It’s a not-irrational worry linked to being perfect, the desire to know everything and be ultra-competent, but isn’t something to invest attention in.

How can I remember all those details? You can’t. Don’t try. Look for the most important references and do your best with those. It’s likely you’ve highlighted them in your thesis, but creating an edited bibliography could help you too.

What if my examiners ask me about one of these references? If your examiners ask you about one you can’t remember off-hand, you can check your thesis. It’s there with you in the viva to support your discussion. So check it.┬áBut it’s far more likely that your examiners will ask you about something important, something you know, than a random paper buried deep in the seventeenth page of your bibliography.

The 200 reference problem isn’t a problem. It’s a nudge to look again at your references and figure out how to use them as part of getting ready.

The Supporting Skeleton

For a long time I’ve made the following viva prep suggestion in seminars:

Consider writing an edited bibliography. If your bibliography is a body of work that supports your thesis then an edited bibliography is the skeleton of that body, the references that give you the most support. What would they be?

Following the metaphor a little:

  • What references are like the skull, protecting the brain: what references do you really need to know?
  • What references are like the ribs? They cover your heart, the core references that support your arguments.
  • Which references are like your ear bones: small, but which can make a big difference?

Not all references are equally valuable. Not all references are present for the same reason. Useful questions can help identify helpful items from your bibliography, but unfortunately not every bone in the body can prompt one of those questions!

Still, whether you create an edited bibliography or not, do reflect and consider how different references support you and your work in different ways.

Bringing Prep Ideas Together

I like the idea of making an edited bibliography – a list of the most important references in your thesis’ bibliography – as a means to focus on what really matters and helps shape your work.

I like using Why-How-What – three simple starter questions – as a quick framework to explore ideas or frame a presentation.

Let’s put them together! First, create an edited bibliography, the top twenty or so references in your thesis. Consider the papers, books and sources that have helped you the most. Then, take a few minutes to explore each of these references using Why-How-What:

  • Why was this reference so important?
  • How does it add to the work you’ve done?
  • What do you most need to remember?

What other questions or approaches could you use to explore the essential parts of your bibliography?

7 Questions To Help Make An Edited Bibliography

I’ve advised candidates for a long time to think about making an edited bibliography as part of their viva preparations. Your research is based on a body of work: the edited bibliography is the skeleton you can identify supporting what you’ve done.

You could write it simply by thinking about what papers are important. If you need help, then try the following questions to start a list:

  1. What references have most informed your background reading?
  2. What references have most shaped your methods?
  3. What references have provided the most useful data or information?
  4. What references have helped you be sure about your conclusions?
  5. For each chapter of your thesis in turn, what references are most crucial to the material you present?
  6. Which papers do you need to remember?
  7. Which papers do you find it hard to remember?

Trim out any duplicates from the list this makes. Make sure you add the details of the authors, the journals, the year of publications. Then answer two questions for each reference: which chapter is it most relevant to? Why?

An edited bibliography can be a useful resource. I wonder if it’s even more useful when you’re creating it? Reflecting on where your research comes from is a valuable task in preparation for the viva.

Reflecting on the Edited Bibliography

I like the idea of making an edited bibliography as part of viva preparations: figuring out the core of your bibliography and where your research comes from.

You can go a step further than just making a list of your best references. Start with the following questions to really reflect on your research:

  1. Pick a paper. Why is it more valuable than many others in your bibliography?
  2. Which chapter is it most relevant to?
  3. How, explicitly, have you used it in furthering your work?
  4. What other papers does it connect up with in your edited bibliography?
  5. Are there any downsides to basing your work on this paper?
  6. Think about the whole list. How do these papers fit together?
  7. How many groups could you place them in, and how would you label them?
  8. What papers have you left out of your edited bibliography and why?
  9. If you could add one more paper to your edited bibliography, what would it be and why?

During your PhD, you dig into your field to help bring your research to life. During your viva prep, you can dig into your bibliography to help yourself even more.

Keep digging.

Questioning Your Bibliography

At the back of your thesis is a great big list of articles and sources that have helped your research. It can be massive. I’ve asked a lot of people about the size of their bibliography, and I regularly get answers in the region of two to three hundred papers. Someone once told me that their bibliography would have over 800 references!

Your examiners will likely have some questions for you about your literature review and bibliography. While you can’t predict all of them, you can still ask yourself some questions to help your preparation:

  • What are the top ten or twenty papers that have been useful to you?
  • Which papers have been most inspiring to you?
  • Have you cited your examiners, and what did you make of their research?
  • Which papers in your bibliography are most highly regarded?
  • What three or four categories could you group your bibliography in to?

Several hundred papers can be difficult to manage in your head. Questions can help to break that mental map up into something more realistic. These are a start, and are fairly generic. You know your research better than me, so think: what other questions might help?

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?