Soundbites

It’s cool when you can summarise your research in a tweet. I loved the challenge of explaining my work so that a layperson could understand.

I explore ways to tell apart complicated knotted structures. For my PhD, I found several new processes and results using maths!

There might be some value in breaking down your chapters or key results into soundbites, as a reflective exercise. You could start off with 100 words to summarise a chapter, then try to do it in 25. Could you explain a chapter in ten words? You’d lose something, but it could help you to think through what’s important.

Just remember: this might help you to reflect on your work, but you’ll need more words to tell your research story to your examiners. You can’t predict all of their questions ahead of time, but you can be sure that they want more than a quip.

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?

Ten Out Of Ten

How would you score yourself when it comes to your PhD? I would give the me-from-ten-years-ago maybe a seven. I got results, but I was careless at reading papers and I didn’t speak up often enough when I didn’t understand something.

I think I would have stretched to an eight if I could have thought more about the structure of my thesis, maybe if I’d read a few more examples to see how others had done it. A nine would have been if I had really unpicked and understood the theoretical background of Chapter 5. I don’t know what a ten would look like for me…

How about you? Your examiners aren’t going to give you a score or grade like this, but if you can honestly reflect then maybe you can give yourself a boost. If you’re, say, a seven now, what would help you to score an eight? If you rate yourself an eight for viva prep, how do you get closer to ten?

Think about how you can make a difference for yourself.

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.

What’s Your Contribution?

Be as grand as you like. The question could finish with many things: what is your contribution…

  • …to your field?
  • …to research?
  • …to knowledge?
  • …to the world?

Turn it around a few times in your mind. Examine your work from a lot of perspectives. The scope of the answer could vary too. It may be that there are a handful of researchers who will really care, and a few dozen more who will be interested. It may be that your research could impact millions.

I have heard from many people who have had to answer a question about their research contribution at some point in their viva. Do you share your contribution in three bullet points? Can you share it that way? Do you start with why? Do you start with how you were inspired?

There are many ways to explore the topic of contribution. You need to find some way to think it through. You need to make opportunities to practise talking about it. When you do you unpick why your research is valuable. You explore why it’s worthwhile. It makes sense that your examiners would bring it up. What’s the best way you can explain your contribution?

The Perfect Viva

What would a perfect viva look like?

No hard questions? Being told you had passed at the start? Friendly examiners? A one hour time limit?

Just like the perfect thesis, the perfect viva doesn’t exist. You have no way of knowing in advance what your examiners think or what they have planned for the viva. Most people will have a positive viva, but it’s not totally within their control. However, you can control how prepared you are for your viva. It’s totally up to you, what you do to get ready, what you read or write or think. So don’t focus on what perfect might look like: focus on what you can actually do.

Little Grey Cells

Hercule Poirot would be amazing at preparing for the viva. He’s meticulous and organised. He looks deeply into matters and isn’t satisfied if an explanation only satisfies some of the details. Often he has a companion – Captain Hastings, Ariadne Oliver, Chief Inspector Japp – who can offer him support and a different perspective on the case at hand. And after he has taken in as much information as possible he rests his little grey cells until they are ready to sing to him.

Poirot would ace a viva. You can too, n’est-ce pas? Be organised; find an ally; rest your little grey cells.

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?

Simple and Easy

I worry that simple is equated with easy too often.

Too often I see people mistake the output for the process. It can take years of sifting through data, asking the right (and wrong) questions, or trying lots of things to arrive at an answer. And sometimes, after all of that, the final answer could be expressed in very few words.

Just because something can be explained simply doesn’t mean it has taken no effort to get to that explanation. If your ideas or research seem simple to explain now, don’t worry, your examiners will understand how you got to that point.

And if you find something easy at the end of your PhD, it can still be incredibly complicated – it could be too hard for other people – but not for you. Not at the end of your PhD.

Remember: simple and easy are not synonyms for each other; nor are they synonyms for worthless.

1-10-100-1000

On Day 1 of your PhD you have promise.

On Day 10 you might be worrying what you’ve let yourself in for, but you’re better than you were on Day 1.

On Day 100 you might be struggling, but there’s a path ahead even if you can’t see it.

On Day 1000 you’re doing so much more than you could at Day 100! Your thesis is taking shape, though there’s probably still a fair bit to do.

Well then: how good are you and your thesis going to be by the end? Pretty darn good.