7 Summary Starters

Writing a summary of your research, or some part of it, is useful for viva prep because it gets you making abstract ideas more concrete. It can be tricky to get started when faced with a blank page or a new text document. Sometimes the simplest way to start writing a summary is to answer a question:

  1. What got you started with your research topic?
  2. What was the paper or book that really hooked your interest?
  3. How would you describe your thesis contribution?
  4. What’s important about your thesis/research?
  5. What papers have been most helpful for your research?
  6. What has surprised you about your research?
  7. How has your research changed during your PhD?

If you use these questions, don’t just think about them, write down some thoughts. You don’t have to write perfect paragraphs, but capturing your ideas will help your thinking in the long term.

Ten Quick Top Fives

Viva preparation is not about speed, but sometimes a quick task is useful to break the inertia. I’ve shared a few “top fives” posts before, but here are ten quick tasks to get things moving.

  1. Top Five Places To Bookmark In Your Thesis!
  2. Top Five Useful References For You!
  3. Top Five Academics Who Could Be A Good Examiner!
  4. Top Five Questions To Ask Your Supervisor!
  5. Top Five Friends Who Could Help Your Preparation!
  6. Top Five Definitions To Remember!
  7. Top Five Expectations For Your Viva!
  8. Top Five Details To Check!
  9. Top Five Things To Boost Your Self Confidence!
  10. Top Five Preparation Tasks!

Little lists, quick tasks, quick questions – they won’t be the most useful things you could do in preparation. Sometimes you’re not in a position to do the most effective task. Sometimes you’re not building a wall, you’re placing a brick: little by little, adding to your sense of being ready for your viva.

Three Favourite Summaries

I like thinking about and developing ideas to get people creating summaries of their thesis.

An essential part of the viva prep process is to think about your research, and it’s useful to take a step back and try to think differently. Rather than let that thinking be abstract and drift away, it makes sense to capture it, both to help clarify what you think and to build a resource.

While I’ve been tinkering away on lots of ideas for a long time, when I deliver a Viva Survivor session, there are three in particular I recommend to candidates:

  1. “What’s Important?” – a simple, powerful question, framed on a single sheet of paper for each chapter. “What’s important?” can prompt a lot of thoughts in a lot of different ways, and restricting the answer to one side of paper for a chapter forces you to be thoughtful and not just wander off.
  2. Edited Bibliography – a prompt to explore the most useful references that support your thesis. Your thesis bibliography might stretch to hundreds and hundreds of articles, but what’s at the core of that? What would help a reader more than anything? What helps your research more than anything? What are the twenty or thirty most useful references? That’s your edited bibliography.
  3. A VIVA Summary – using four prompts to analyse a chapter and really direct your thoughts about your thesis. What’s Valuable to others in this chapter? What is Interesting to you? What do you find Vague or unclear? What questions might you like to Ask your examiners? These four prompts help to explore not just the ideas in your thesis, but how you express them, how you made them real and a lot more.

These are my favourites, and they can help a lot. If you try them, let me know how well they work for you!

Elevating Your Thesis Pitch

I’m sorting out my home office while I procrastinate about my next book. I’ve gathered a lot of notes and material over the last ten years of working with researchers, and not all of it is useful now. There are workshops I regularly did ten years ago that I’m not involved with now, and yet I’ve kept all of those notes just in case. It’s time to be ruthless, but I read and check them all one last time.

Just in case.

I found an old note about the 5Ps for elevator pitches and sharing business ideas. You can use the 5Ps – pain, premise, people, proof, purpose – to frame what you’re going to say about your amazing business proposal. These are essentially a shorthand for questions you’re answering while you tell the story of your idea.

  • Pain: what is the thing your business helps with?
  • Premise: how does your idea help with the pain?
  • People: who do you have on your team?
  • Proof: how do you know that your idea works?
  • Purpose: why are you doing this?

I like simple models for telling stories and communicating ideas. So when I found the 5Ps in an old note, one thing in the centre of a page of now-redundant information I wrote it out as a reminder. After a week of stewing at the back of my brain, I realised it could be a good way of reflecting what your research is about.

If you were to give a thesis elevator pitch, perhaps you could use the same 5Ps to prompt some questions and exploration.

  • Pain: what is the problem your research addresses?
  • Premise: how did you set about finding answers?
  • People: whose work do you reference in your thesis?
  • Proof: how do you know that what you’ve done is good?
  • Purpose: why did you want to do this research?

Each of these questions is generally good to explore before the viva. Together they make a neat little story about your research. Reflection and writing summaries before the viva is good preparation because it gives you opportunities to think about your work, and practice how you could talk about what you’ve done during your PhD.

Just in case.

A Few Sentences

Viva prep doesn’t always feel easy. If you find it tough to get going, or you feel stuck, or you only have a little time, you can still do something small that will make a difference. Writing a few sentences could be a good way to start.

  • Write a few sentences on key authors or papers you’ve used.
  • Write a few sentences to summarise your key contribution.
  • Write a few sentences to frame the challenge you’ve undertaken.
  • Write a few sentences to reflect on how far you’ve come.
  • Write a few sentences to unpick your methods.
  • Write a few sentences about your biggest achievement.

You can write a lot more if you want to, but you can get something nice, short and valuable from even a little reflection and writing.

Five Sentences

I love the provocation of five.sentenc.es: a call for shorter email and replies.

It’s sometimes tricky to explain ourselves clearly in a short space, but often rewarding when we do.

Think about what you could do in five sentences for your viva prep.

You could summarise your thesis in five sentences, or a chapter, a tricky part, or the core of your bibliography, your examiners’ work and so on.

Not everything needs to take a lot of words.

A Summary Of Summaries

Summarising your thesis or some aspect of it is useful. A summary helps you in two ways. First, through the act of creation: thinking about your work and then making something from those thoughts is a valuable reflection. Second, as a result, you have a resource you can use during your preparations for the viva.

A few considerations for how you might tailor this approach:

  • Use questions to direct your summary.
  • Decide in advance how much you are going to write, i.e., how many words? How many pages?
  • Follow your preferences for level of detail: what will be most useful to you?
  • Follow your preferences for what it will look like: bullet points, sentences or pictures?
  • Reflect on what gaps you might be trying to fill.

I’m keen on summaries as a helpful viva preparation tool. Take a look at similarly themed posts via this link. Explore what will be useful for you as you prepare for your viva.

Your Excellent Thesis

It’s not realistic to expect your thesis to be perfect, but it’s important not to think that your thesis is just “OK.”

“You’ve produced an average account of your satisfactory research.”

No! Start by considering what’s excellent about your thesis!

  • What are the best parts?
  • What are you proud of?
  • What really makes a difference?
  • What stands out?
  • How could someone be inspired by your research?
  • What do you love about your research?

Make some notes for yourself. Don’t forget. What’s excellent?

The UnAbstract

Look at the first statement of research in your thesis, your abstract. How clear is it? How would you explain it in plain, simple words? How would you remove jargon?

Would your abstract be enough to explain your ideas to a clever-but-less-knowledgeable person?

As a short viva prep exercise, consider writing a short UnAbstract. Something that doesn’t rely on specialist terms. Something that clearly states what you’ve done. It doesn’t mean you take each sentence of your abstract and simplify or de-jargon it. Use this opportunity this as a blank slate. Think about what your thesis actually does. Who is it for? Why would someone care about your research?

You’ve written thousands and thousands of words about your topic. Can you write a few more that are just plain, simple and clear about what you’ve done?

A SMART Review

From time to time I’ve shared an acronym I like on this blog. I’ve talked about SMART before: a useful tool to help with planning, it stands for Specific, Measurable, Advantages, Realistic, Time-bound – the five qualities of an effective goal. It struck me a few weeks ago that these words could also be a nice prompt for reflecting on your research at the end of the PhD:

  • Specific: how would you define what you’ve done in your research?
  • Measurable: how can you be certain of what you’ve achieved?
  • Advantages: how does your work make a contribution?
  • Realistic: how does your work compare to what you were originally planning?
  • Time-bound: how did your research change over the course of your PhD?

Five simple points to reflect on your research before the viva. Making notes on each of these points could make a nice summary of your work for viva prep.