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?

A Good INTRO

I used to be petrified of public speaking. I would only give talks during my PhD when I absolutely had to. I was always concerned that I would forget something, make a mistake or be asked a question for which I had no answer. I was even nervous about being too nervous!

Then I started a business where I had to present all of the time. My fears went partly because of regularly being in situations where I had to present, but also because I went out of my way to explore ways to give talks. I liked to find out about how to structure talks, particularly the beginnings. I knew that if I could get that right I’d feel good about the rest of the presentation, whether it was ten minutes or two hours.

A few years ago, my good friend Dr Aimee Blackledge shared an effective tool for starting talks with me. The tool is, fittingly, called INTRO and is an acronym to provide structure for the start of a presentation:

  • Interest: start by sharing something that will grab the audience’s attention, a fact, an image, a joke.
  • Need: say why what you’re going to talk about is important. Why does it need to be addressed?
  • Title: share the title of the talk.
  • Range: say something about how long you’ll speak for, what you might cover and how you want to handle questions.
  • Objective: close your introduction by sharing what you goal is with speaking. Is there something you want the audience to do as a result?

I really like how it helps start things off but also leads to a good overview. There’s a nice logic to it, and done well it can be a great start to a presentation. I think the five prompts also give a great format to create a summary of your research when it’s time to prepare for the viva.

  • Interest: how did you become interested in your field of research?
  • Need: what need does your thesis address?
  • Title: what is your thesis’ title, and why?
  • Range: what does your thesis cover?
  • Objective: what do you hope that someone would know, think or do after reading it?

Give INTRO a try when you next prepare a talk, see if it helps. Try it too when your viva is on the way to help break down what your work is all about.

8 Thoughts About Viva Questions

I’ve written a fair bit about viva questions before. I’m exploring different angles on the topic at the moment for future posts and workshops.

Here are eight short thoughts that might be useful:

  1. There are lots and lots of lists of common viva questions. Google it. There’s no reason for anyone to go to the viva ignorant of what could come up.
  2. There are lots and lots of questions you could be asked about your thesis which won’t be on any of those lists.
  3. You can’t practise every potential viva question.
  4. You could reflect and practise a few in particular on explaining your research or methodology.
  5. You can practise answering unexpected questions so you get comfortable in thinking through questions you’ve never considered before.
  6. You don’t have to answer a question immediately without pause or asking for clarification.
  7. You don’t have to answer a question without making a note of it first.
  8. Every question in the viva is being asked for a reason.

Number 5 is important. You can gain confidence by knowing that you can answer questions in viva-like conditions. Mock vivas, conversations with friends, giving seminars – there are lots of opportunities. Go find them.

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.

3 Questions You’ll Never Be Asked…

…but you might get a lot of help from considering them:

  • What do you not want to talk about in your viva?
  • Following on from that, why do you not want to talk about it?
  • What would you say if it did come up?

Your examiners won’t ask these questions, but answers to them will help you. Reflect on your thesis and research journey. What do you not want to focus on?

Six More Whys

I wrote a short post a few months ago with six why questions to help reflect on your research. Here are six more to continue the process.

  1. Why had no-one already done what you’ve done for your PhD?
  2. Why is your work original?
  3. Why is your work necessary?
  4. Why would someone else care about your research?
  5. Why is your thesis now finished?
  6. Why will you be celebrating after the viva?

Make some notes and let your answers rest for a couple of days. Come back and reflect some more.

Make opportunities to explore your research now your PhD is almost done.

Prompts

Sometimes a blank page can be beaten with prompts. If you want to get thoughts flowing, try the following:

  • The best paper I read during my PhD was…
  • The best advice my supervisor gave me was…
  • My greatest strength as a researcher is…
  • The best part of my thesis is…
  • The most valuable part of my work is…
  • Between now and the viva I need to…
  • To feel confident in the viva I need to…

If you come across any more prompts for thinking about your thesis, make a note of them. Use them yourself or pass them on to others. Keep thinking.

Going Further

I like creative thinking tools. (see previously!) I’m also intrigued by people who write up their thesis but have clear ideas for what they would do next. I didn’t have that at all. The most I could see was perhaps learning C++ to code a few algorithms, but apart from that I didn’t know what I could do next to take my research further.

Fortunately, I have a creative thinking tool for that: SCAMPER, an acronym of ways to innovate. Each letter is a different prompt for re-examining an idea or solution. There are lots of ways it can be used, but I think for the purposes of thinking how to develop research it is useful just to take each prompt at face value. If you’re thinking around your research area as part of your viva prep, the following could help.

  • Substitute: what could you change in your current research to get something valuable?
  • Combine: how could you blend your research with something else to find something innovative?
  • Adapt: is it possible to adapt a process or method you’ve already used successfully for something else?
  • Magnify: can you find something valuable by emphasising aspects of your prior research?
  • Put to other use: can you apply what you’ve done in another context?
  • Eliminate: how could you get an interesting result by removing aspects of your existing research or process?
  • Rearrange: how can you take what you’ve already done and remix to find something great?

Your examiners might not ask about future directions that your research could go in. An exercise like this can help lead you to interesting ideas, and it won’t hurt you to have more of them, will it?

Examiner Profiles

You can ask your supervisors for guidance. You can talk to colleagues about your ideas. You can even ask your non-PhD friends for help. You can’t ask your examiners anything before the viva, but you can do some work to get insight and feel confident about answering their questions.

Follow this seven step process for each of your examiners to get a sense of where they might be coming from:

  1. What papers have they recently published?
  2. Are there any themes, topics or ideas that they are consistently exploring?
  3. How does their research connect with your thesis?
  4. What are their declared research interests (on their staff page)?
  5. How do their research interests overlap with yours?
  6. What do you know about their reputation?
  7. How could their opinions help you?

Work your way through these questions for each of your examiners, either researching to find out information (like their papers or interests) or reflecting to see what it means for you. The last question is important particularly if you’re working towards an academic career. Your examiners will be part of a small group of people who have read all of your work. Their opinion could give you a helpful steer or fantastic idea.

You can’t ask them for help before the viva, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some help from them anyway.

9 Questions For The End Of The PhD

How often did you reflect during your PhD? Here are nine questions to help with some end of PhD reflection. Write or record answers for them. Your examiners are unlikely to ask some of these, but perhaps you’ll find some new insights.

  1. What’s your PhD worth?
  2. What does your PhD mean?
  3. What will you do next?
  4. What can you do now that you couldn’t do at the start?
  5. What do you know now that you didn’t know at the start?
  6. What was the greatest challenge you overcame?
  7. How did you do it?
  8. What did you leave unfinished?
  9. How do you feel now you’re at the end?

Come back to your answers after the viva. See if any of them have changed. If they have, why?