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.

The Standard

You need to have made a significant, original contribution with your research. Defining the standard for that is hard, but we can rule some things out. The standard is not…

  • …producing two papers during your PhD.
  • …having at least six chapters in your thesis.
  • …70,000 words.
  • …a minimum of 200 references in your bibliography.
  • …working yourself into a shell of your former self.
  • …perfection.

The standard is good enough.

Are your research and your thesis good enough? Are you good enough?

Good enough might still be tricky to define. Together you and your supervisors can establish some helpful criteria that can show you’re meeting the standard. It has to be discussed because every thesis is different, but figuring out what good enough means for your work, and knowing you’ve met the standard is a huge confidence boost for the viva.

Contribution Matters

Not which papers you didn’t read, or which things you got stuck on. Not the title of your supervisor or the uni you did your undergrad at.

Your significant, original contribution matters. What did you do? How did you do it? Why did you do it?

Be prepared to have a conversation in your viva that explores this new, valuable something that you have. Consider what you could do in your preparation to help you explain, explore and share this contribution that you have made.

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.