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.

Eight Questions About Contribution

Having trouble putting your research contribution into words? Or want to reflect on it in new ways? Try the following questions to take a fresh look at what you’ve done for your PhD. (and if you’re writing up, these questions might help you to unpick some new thoughts about your work)

  1. What’s the most interesting part of your research?
  2. What do you think will influence other people’s work?
  3. Why had no-one else explored this topic in this way before?
  4. What feedback have you had about your research and its merit?
  5. What do you see the defining contribution of your thesis as being?
  6. What else did you find along the way?
  7. How can your work be best explained?
  8. How could you take your work further?

Spend some time in your viva prep thinking, writing and talking about what your contribution means.

Bonus Question! What kind of difference does your research make to your field now that it is done?

Changing Focus

If I’m working from home then I love to walk my daughter to nursery to start my day. After I’ve dropped her off, I’ll often continue my walk near the River Mersey.

The view from the promenade looks towards Liverpool. I often take pictures of the city from the same spot on my walk.

Some days I focus on the beach…

…other days I’ll look up to the sky…

…and sometimes the sun shines just right and I capture something truly beautiful.

Changing my focus just a little can make a big difference. It’s the same city in the distance, but a little to the left, a sunny day or the tide being in can mean a radically different picture.

When you’re preparing for the viva, take time to look at your thesis in new ways. Ask yourself questions you’ve not considered before. Make summaries to tease out certain kinds of information. Reflect on what you’ve done and look from a different perspective.

You might see something interesting.

You might get some new ideas.

You might just see something beautiful.