First Chapter

The writer Cory Doctorow once described a great way to open a story: begin with a person, in a place, with a problem. These things hook the reader’s attention; they want to know more about the person, where they are and how they’re going to figure things out.

I like it, and I think it’s a neat format for reflection on your PhD origins too. Your examiners won’t want a complete timeline for the last few years, but they might be interested in how you got started.

Chances are, early on, you were a person, in a place, with a problem. So:

  • Who were you? What was your background? What did you know?
  • Where were you? How far along in your PhD were you? How did you encounter the difficulty?
  • What was the problem? Why was it a problem? Why was it something that needed solving?

And how did you resolve the problem?

Thinking about a story like this can be useful in preparation for the viva. You have a tale to tell in the viva if you need it and a reminder of how you set out towards the successes you’ve created along the way.

Viva Prep Basics

In my Viva Survivor sessions I cover a lot of different topics, including a good half an hour on practical steps to take between submission and the viva.

Here’s the 1-minute version!

  • Read Your Thesis. No excuses, don’t skim, read it once, refresh your memory. When do you need to start this?
  • Annotate Your Thesis. Highlight, bookmarks, margins. What can you add to upgrade your thesis for the viva?
  • Create Summaries. Take a step back, reflect, then capture something about your work. What questions or topics need your focus?
  • Check Recent Literature. Take a little time to see what has been published recently. Where would you check?
  • Research Your Examiners. Explore their recent publications and interests. How big a task is this for you?
  • Find Opportunities To Rehearse. Mock vivas, conversations with friends and seminars can all help. Who do you need to ask for help?

Spend a little time on all of these areas and you’ll do a lot to help get ready for your viva.

Three Word Reflections

Reflection is useful in many areas of life. It takes time though, and good reflection takes a lot of time. You can start small. Try taking three words, just three associations you have with whatever you want to reflect on. For your viva, this could be helpful in a lot of ways.

  • What three words come to mind when you think about your thesis? Why?
  • What three words do you think of when you think about your examiners? Why is that?
  • What three words describe your methods? Why?
  • Think of three words to summarise your bibliography? Why are those so important?
  • What three words would describe how well prepared you are? What do you need to do?

Three words can start a reflection. Typically ask yourself “Why?” to dig deeper. Maybe that leads you to a slightly better understanding. Perhaps you have to do something now. Three words is just a starting point, but you can go a long way.

What three words do you associate with your forthcoming viva? Why?

Best of Viva Survivors 2019: Viva Prep

Each year I finish my blogging by sharing some of my favourite posts over a few days. We’ll start my annual round-up with my favourite posts from 2019 on the subject of viva prep. Every PhD candidate will need to do something after submission to help themselves get ready. The posts below offer a range of different activities and encouragements to help with busy weeks waiting for the viva.

Spotted any other posts this year that you thought really helped with viva preparation? Let me know, and check back over the coming days for most Best of 2019 blog posts!

First Five Top Fives

To date I’ve written five “Top Ten Top Fives” posts! These are preparation icebreakers useful for getting started with valuable viva preparation. I have ideas to do more in the future, but for today here are links to those first five posts, plus my favourite prompt from each!

Viva prep is more than making lists, but you can use any of these fifty prompts to make a start on useful reflection.

Best of Viva Survivors 2018: Reflections & Summaries

To finish 2018 I’m sharing my favourite posts from the last year. Today we’ll take a look at several posts on the topic of reflections & summaries. It’s useful to take a step back from your research and your thesis and think about what it all means. If you can then create a concrete resource from that – a written summary, a list of points or a mindmap – then you’ve made something valuable.

I hope these posts help you reflect on your research as your viva approaches. I’m really quite proud of 7776 Mini-Vivas and if you’ve used it do drop me a line to let me know what you think! And do share these “best of” posts over the coming days, retweets are always welcome!

Looping Thesis Reflections

I like Pat Thomson‘s recent post about looping. In it she describes a useful writing method to quickly expand on a topic, then reflect to distil down, before expanding again. It seems like a nicely structured approach to get yourself started on a topic, or begin exploring new ideas.

It strikes me that it would also be really neat for reflecting on your research as the viva gets closer:

  • Pick an aspect of your work and just write freely about it for fifteen or twenty minutes.
  • Then take some time to reflect: What have you been writing about? What are you getting at?
  • Summarise your reflections in one sentence.
  • Now use this sentence as a starting point for a new period of writing.
  • Reflect and repeat until you feel satisfied.

I like Pat’s idea of reading through and thinking about everything that’s been written at the end too. An hour or so of writing and reflecting in this way could do a lot to get you exploring your thesis in a new way at the end of your PhD. A neat method for shaking off the cobwebs and seeing what else is in your work.

Pat’s a very generous academic, and shares brilliant ideas every week on her blog. I’d recommend you take a look at her past posts because I’m sure you’ll find something useful!

A Viva Prep Sandwich

Heard of the feedback sandwich?

It’s when you tell someone something good about their presentation/book/paper/whatever, then offer something constructive or negative, followed by something good. Good-“bad”-good.

A feedback sandwich – it has another name, but this is a polite sort of blog…

This good-“bad”-good construct got me thinking about viva prep, and I wonder if there’s a useful sequence we could follow when getting ready for the viva. As a series of activities, maybe something like the following would be useful.

  • Start with something that digs into something good about your work: say, reflecting on the value of your contribution or exploring ways that you could continue your work.
  • Follow that with something trickier, more difficult or potentially negative: how do you know your methods are valid? What might your examiners or someone else find contentious? What about your work could be “wrong”?
  • And finally consider something else about your work that’s good: take a positive step to annotate your thesis well, ask yourself some more reflective questions or make notes on the papers that support your thesis.

A viva prep sandwich, of sorts.

And perhaps tastier than the feedback sandwich, because you get to decide what it is made of?

SCAMPERing Through Your Thesis

I like acronyms as useful tools, particularly for unpicking things or prompting thoughts. Last year I shared a post on how to use the tool SCAMPER to think about how to extend the research you’ve done for your PhD. Recently it struck me that SCAMPER could be useful as a reflection and review tool.

Today’s post is a series of questions inspired by SCAMPER to get you reflecting about your research. Use these with journalling or free-writing to spark some thoughts about your thesis.

  • Substitute: what did you change from something someone else had done?
  • Combine: what ideas did you bring together in your thesis?
  • Adapt: how have you altered the approach that you started with?
  • Magnify: what areas did you decide to focus on?
  • Put to other use: what pre-existing tools or ideas did you use?
  • Eliminate: how did you simplify things as your work developed?
  • Rearrange: as your thesis was nearing completion, what changes did you have to make?

Use these questions to think about your research and thesis. Reflecting on the three or more years of work you’ve completed is an essential part of the viva prep process.

One Little Notebook

My favourite notebook: a tiny Moleskine, 64 pages, each smaller than a typical postcard. Many years back I bought a dozen in a sale and I’ve been hooked ever since. I use them for special projects, which got me thinking…

If one little notebook was all you could use to make notes about your thesis and research in preparation for your viva, what would you make notes of? What would help you? What would you use the space for?

  • A summary of each chapter?
  • A plan for your prep?
  • Notes on key papers or researchers?
  • Notes on your examiners’ research interests?
  • Notes on core questions of your own thesis?
  • A summary of what you’re most proud of?
  • Key questions you need to be sure of answering?

And you’d probably still have pages free.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, you get to decide what you need most in order to feel prepared for your viva; whatever good ideas or advice other people have, you’re the one who has to do the work. Turn this one little notebook idea over and see if it might work for you.

Second thought: you probably need fewer resources to get ready for the viva than you think.