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.┬áIt’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.

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.

Why Did You Do It?

Why did you work on your PhD?

  • Is it because you had a passion?
  • You had curiosity you had to explore?
  • Did you want to work with your supervisor and together steered things to the work that became your PhD?
  • Or did you apply for a project that seemed interesting and you thought would suit you?

Any of these situations are fine. There’s no magic “best reason” for doing a PhD or selecting a topic. “Why did you do it?” is a good starter question. Whatever your reason is it’s really a lead-in to a topic you’ll definitely need to talk about in the viva:

Why was your research worth doing?

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.

Some Significant, Original Questions

A thesis needs to contain a significant, original contribution. A viva needs to have some exploration of this. So in preparation for the viva’s discussion, it makes sense to spend some time reflecting and exploring these factors.

On significant:

  • Why is your work valuable?
  • Who is it valuable to?
  • How would you describe the importance of your research?
  • What makes it special?
  • What makes it matter?

On original:

  • What aspects are novel?
  • In what ways is your work different?
  • What exists now that didn’t before?
  • How does your work change your field?
  • How can you qualify the originality?

Not every useful viva prep question is typical of a question you might get in the viva. Not every question might prompt an answer for you. Some answers might overlap. The point is to get thinking and writing and see where this leads you.

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.


A PhD thesis needs to have a significant, original contribution in it. So a postgraduate researcher needs to make a significant, original contribution for it. Significant, original contributions (to research, to knowledge, to the world) don’t grow on trees. They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t happen by accident.

If you’re feeling nervous or even afraid at the end of the PhD, weigh it against what you’ve done to get this far. The dedication and work you’ve put in tip the scales in your favour.