Inventing New Questions

You had to ask original questions to find the original contribution in your thesis. You had to do something new and different. What was it? What did you ask that was new? What were the answers or ideas that you found?

Now, to make the viva happen, your examiners might have to invent more new questions. Predicting viva questions isn’t simple or easy, but finding people who can ask you new questions, questions you’ve not been asked before, can be useful. Get your supervisors and colleagues to ask you questions so you can practise responding.

You built your contribution on new questions. Now cement your confidence with them too.


Whatever else your thesis has – ideas, opinions, theories, hypotheses, results, conclusions – it has implications.

  • What might someone else do with your work?
  • How might they be inspired?
  • What questions do we now know to ask?
  • What questions do we know are foolish?
  • What does your thesis mean?

Thoughts in these areas could be rich for useful viva preparation – and relevant topics for conversation in the viva.

What Was Hard?

Was it reading everything you did to understand your discipline?

Was it finding ways to frame questions for your research?

Was it difficult getting to grips with methods and processes?

Was it tough to write your thesis?

Anything that’s hard at PhD level is valuable. It has to be. It’s either valuable because it’s practically hard, taking time to acquire skills or understanding, or it’s valuable because it’s original. Anything you’ve found hard during your PhD (even if you find it less difficult now) is valuable.

Valuable is a sign post leading in the direction of what makes your research significant: why it matters and what kind of a difference it makes. Take time before the viva to think about what was hard. You’ll unpick some of what you’ll need to talk about with your examiners.

The Opposite of Insignificant

To get your PhD and pass the viva you have to make a significant, original contribution to your field. Candidates fret and worry about whether their work is significant. Have they done enough? Is it good enough? It’s not hard to doubt. Significant varies by discipline and by thesis. Expectations vary too. How do you know what significant looks like?

Maybe instead of getting tied up in knots about whether your research is significant we should see if it is insignificant.

Insignificant. Adjective: too small to be worth consideration or meaningless. See also: unimportant, trivial, negligible, inconsequential, flimsy, pointless, worthless and irrelevant.

That’s not your work. That’s not you. Right?

Ask questions about what your examiners will want to talk about, wonder if they will have comments or criticisms – but don’t doubt your work is significant. It means something.

Significant varies, but insignificant is clear, and insignificant is not you.

What’s New?

You have to make original contributions in your thesis. It’s good to reflect on this before your viva. There are lots of questions that can help stimulate ideas and connections:

  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • What is different in your work from other work in this area?
  • How did your work build on earlier research?
  • What have you learned?
  • What are the outputs of your research?
  • What new questions do we now know to ask?

If one question doesn’t spark an answer, see if another will. What’s new?


There are many ways to think about your thesis’ contribution.

Instead of coming up with a list of things you’ve done, start with why others might find something valuable in your research. What might they value? What would help them? What do they now know as a result of what you’ve done?

There are lots of things that could be valuable in research. Don’t compare your diamonds to other people’s. Look at why your work shines. What makes it valuable? What makes it special?

(you, for one thing)

Significant Original Contribution

I’ve heard these three words used so many times to describe what a PhD needs to produce. I’ve said them myself thousands of times in workshops! But what do we mean when we say these words? What are we getting at? Checking the thesaurus gives some helpful ideas…

Significant: compelling, important, momentous, powerful, serious, rich…

Original: authentic, initial, first, beginning, pioneer, primary…

Contribution: addition, improvement, increase, augmentation, present, gifting…

Significant original contribution is nice shorthand to capture the result of a PhD’s journey. Go deeper into the words to remind yourself just how awesome your research is.