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.

Rest And Think

When do you do your best thinking? How do you relax? How do you organise your thoughts?

I think with a bit of reflection everyone can better their process. If you reflect on the above questions, you can start to think about how you improve. For example, for me:

  • I do my best thinking when I’m walking along the seafront – so maybe I should do more of this…
  • I relax well at the moment playing video games – and that’s nice but a bit lonely, so maybe I need to play more board games…
  • I use a couple of notebooks, but they run out too quick – so maybe I need to re-examine my system…

You don’t have to get better at something just for the sake of it, but if you want to improve you have to start from somewhere. After all, there’s a lot of thought needed in the production of a thesis, in the preparation for the viva and on the day itself. And for PhDs that question about relaxing is most important. Time off is never time wasted. Remember to take a day off, even if you’re preparing for the viva.

Connecting

My daughter is nearly four. While she seems to be changing all the time, there are some constants. Since a very early age we’ve read her a bedtime story every day. My wife and I love reading and telling stories and we want our daughter to be the same. Of course, we want her to simply enjoy stories at bedtime, but we hope it will make a connection for her life too. Books are great, stories are important.

Throughout your PhD you’ve built some strong connections with your research. Take a step back and think: what are they? Where do you feel personally involved with the research and the outcomes? If your viva is coming up, what new connections can you try to build between now and then? Look for new things in your thesis that are great, look for the parts of your research that are important.

No Guarantee

I knew what troubled me before the viva. I couldn’t explain the background of a particular chapter in my thesis. I understood the results perfectly. I didn’t understand the set-up. I tried to avoid thinking about it.

Methodology, results, conclusions, longevity of research – there are lots of areas that set people on edge, lots of directions tricky questions can come from. I don’t have a silver bullet to solve this problem. The only thing I can think of is practice: find opportunities to practise answering tricky questions. It’s not a plan with a guarantee. It doesn’t mean that you’ll answer questions perfectly. You will answer them better and I think you’ll have less anxiety.

What kinds of questions do you feel you might struggle with in the viva? What can you do to answer them well?

As I said, I knew what troubled me before the viva and I tried to avoid thinking about it. That’s not a winning strategy.