A Lasting Contribution

Nothing lasts forever. How long will your contribution to knowledge stand? How many years before there is something bigger, better, more considered or more helpfully stated?

On the one hand, you don’t need to account for everything that will or could happen in your field with respect to your research.

On the other, it could be helpful to think about what could happen next to help you share something of the significance you see and that you hope others will see in time.

Consider what your work could mean in the future and you can help yourself to consider what it means right now.

Always Significant

If there is one thing that has to be talked about in the viva it is the significant, original contribution that you’ve made through your research and that you have written up in your thesis. It’s not the only thing that can or will be talked about but it has to be discussed. You have to talk about it because this research and thesis is what you’ve done to earn your PhD.

So you have to be ready to do that. Write summaries about what you’ve done, make notes, check your thesis, have a mock viva or in some way practise with questions talking about it.

There will be lots to talk about at your viva. Talking about your significant, original contribution is guaranteed. Practise doesn’t make perfect, but prepare and you will be ready.

Important Details

Before your viva, ask yourself what’s important about your thesis:

  • What’s important in each chapter?
  • What’s important about the references you cite?
  • What’s important about the contribution you make in your thesis?
  • What’s important for you to share with your examiners?
  • What’s important for you to remember?

Focus yourself to consider what really matters about your thesis.

Remember the most important detail: you did it.

Your thesis would not exist without your work, skill, knowledge and determination.

Contributions Make A Difference

Every PhD candidate in their viva is, at some point and in some way, going to need to talk about their contribution. Examiners will raise the topic and the candidate will need to talk about why their research is significant and original. No small thing, and so it’s no wonder that it might feel tough to do.

When it’s your turn to get ready, think about the difference your work makes. A research contribution makes a difference. Sharing new ideas or a new perspective; discovering something or making something clearer. Helping someone or maybe helping lots of people. Showing that something is true or proving that something is false. Updating old ideas or revealing something for the first time.

Your research contributions must make a difference in some way. If you’re stuck trying to find the words to express your contribution, consider starting with the difference your work makes.

The What

What did you do?

It’s unlikely your examiners will ask you as simple a question as this to explore your PhD research but the thought will be there.

What did you do?

When your examiners ask about your research, remember that they will have already carefully read your thesis. They know what you did: they’re looking for you to be clear, concise and to dig into what you think is important to summarise.

What did you do?

It’s necessary to ask how and why in order to explain what you did. Methods and motivations are as interesting to explore as outcomes.

What did you do?

It’s probably necessary to practise different ways of describing your research to see what works best for you. You don’t need a polished monologue for your viva, but the practise will help you to find the words when you need them.

What did you do?

The Sum Of The Parts

The phrase “significant, original contribution” is probably the best combination of words that we have to describe the something that a PhD candidate needs in their thesis to demonstrate that they are a good researcher and that they have done good work.

It’s also a worrying concept to grapple with for many candidates.

A “significant, original contribution” sounds like a singular result. It sounds like one fantastical theory, a number, a paragraph that shares knowledge with incredible impact.

Many candidates imagine something like this and worry because they don’t have one contribution, they have lots of little things. They have a collection of papers. They have a collection of projects (that was my thesis). They have many small results presented in one thesis, but perhaps no unifying conclusion.

Of course, as the title for this post suggests, these all add up to make a contribution.

The chapters, sections, results, papers, ideas, developments, conclusions – all together these make the contribution. “Significant” is a worrying word to candidates in my experience, because they try to imagine the number that goes with that. How many pages? How many papers? How big a bibliography? How much of the thing that I do?

This sum doesn’t have a number for an answer. Taking all the parts together, you have to judge for yourself: is this enough?

Ask your friends and colleagues: is this enough? Ask your supervisors: is this enough?

Is this enough?

And why?

Once you feel sure for yourself then you can move past a “significant, original contribution”. The sum of everything you present, everything you’ve done, all shows a real contribution to knowledge – and it shows a capable person who has created that contribution.

Who Did It?

I often encourage PhD candidates to reflect on Why, How and What:

  • Why did you do this research?
  • How did you do it?
  • What was the result?

These three questions are useful for breaking down the thesis contribution. They could be a good way to build up a summary. They’re a nice reminder that your thesis has something valuable.

But don’t forget Who:

  • Who did it?
  • Who kept going?
  • Who got more capable, more knowledgeable?

Your thesis has a significant original contribution. It’s only there because you did the work. You persisted, despite any pressures or setback – you made it happen. You became more talented along the way.

So: who is going to pass their viva?

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.

The Outtakes

I’m curious about outtakes in movies – the scenes that didn’t make it in or alternate versions of scenes that did.

Sometimes outtakes are shown as bloopers: the moments when things went wrong or when someone laughed. It’s helpful to see outtakes because it reminds you that however impressive something looks in a movie it’s taken time and effort to achieve that.

Your thesis will have outtakes too. Sections that aren’t included. Perhaps a whole chapter that just doesn’t fit. You’ll have loose threads you cut or ideas that had to be left out because of the space or time you had available.

As interesting as movie outtakes can be their existence also serves to remind us of something else: that there’s a reason that they were not in the finished film. They didn’t fit. They didn’t work. They were just people laughing, and as funny as that might be to see it doesn’t tell the story.

It’s the same with your thesis. You might second-guess yourself, or doubt if you have enough in your thesis at some point but remember: if you left something out of your thesis there is a good reason.

Remember what those reasons are and you can strengthen the reasons for including the work that you have.

Confidence & Contribution

Real confidence isn’t just a feeling, it’s based on facts.

Confidence for your viva is grounded in evidence. One place to look for that confidence is in what your research is all about. The phrase significant, original contribution can be broken down into three questions that lead to more confidence for you:

  • Significant: why does it matter?
  • Original: how is it new?
  • Contribution: what did you do?

Taken together, your responses can lay the foundations for greater confidence in your work, your ability and for the outcome of your viva.