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?

Digging Deeper With VIVA

Earlier this year I shared my directed thinking tool, VIVA, which is really useful for analysing chapters of your thesis in preparation for the viva. My general suggestion for VIVA is to take a sheet of paper and divide it into four sections. Then in each section make notes about the chapter you want to reflect on but directed by a specific keyword:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone else find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about the work?
  • Vague: what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask: what questions would you ask your examiners if you had the opportunity?

This kind of directed or prompted thinking can build a really interesting reflection and summary. It’s enough to simply reflect and make notes, see where your thinking takes you. You can go much deeper if you want to though. First, simply asking “Why?” after each of your responses helps:

Why would they find that valuable? Why are you interested in that way? Why is it not clear? Why do you want to ask those questions?

Or for Valuable you could dig into different audiences: is there more than one kind of value that someone could look for? Has the Interesting component of your research changed over time? How can you make something Vague more clear? If there was only time to Ask one question of your examiners, how would you prioritise?

Questions lead to answers sometimes. In my experience they nearly always lead to more questions. That’s not a bad thing if you’re trying to think deeply about something. If you use VIVA, think about how you can use follow-up questions to reflect on your research.

Six Short Summaries

Six viva preparation ideas. Get a piece of paper and pick one of the following to write about. You don’t need to do all of these. Each one offers a different perspective on your PhD.

  1. Answer the question, “What’s important about my research?”
  2. Write about your conclusions and where they come from.
  3. Detail the helpful steers your supervisor gave you during your PhD.
  4. Write about what you found difficult during your research.
  5. Answer the question, “Who would find my work interesting?”
  6. Write down the first ten words that come to mind about your PhD. Expand on each.

A little thinking, and a little time spent on putting those thoughts into words on a page.

Find Your Firsts

Build your confidence by identifying your achievements from your PhD. There’s more than just your thesis. Reflect on the first time you…

  • …gave a seminar in your department. When was it? What did you talk about?
  • …delivered a talk at a conference talk. Where was it? How did it go?
  • …wrote the first draft of a chapter. What feedback did you get? What did you learn?
  • …networked. Who did you meet? What did you share?
  • …realised you were going to finish. When was it? What prompted that thought?

Find your firsts: these are key moments in your PhD. They plot out a fantastic journey that’s brought you to today.

Five Day Thesis Breakdown

Your thesis is an expression of your research. But in the viva, and at any time when someone asks you about your work, you can’t just hand them this great book you’ve made and say, “Read it!”

I like thinking about ways to help candidates reflect on their work. I like exploring ways to help people explain their ideas concisely. Here’s a plan of how to spend five days in short activities to break down your thesis and your research contribution.

Day 1: Describe the Why-How-What of your PhD in a single page, no more than 300 words.

Day 2: Use Day 1’s page to write a single paragraph about your PhD. Try to keep it under 100 words. Remove the inessential.

Day 3: Use Day 2’s paragraph to write a sentence describing your PhD – no more than 20 words. You’ll never be able to say everything, so don’t try. What can you get across?

Day 4: Use the work of the previous three days to write down five words. What are the themes of your work? Think about where it all started, how you did it and what your outcomes are.

Day 5: Write down one word. The Big Picture. What is it that stands out?

It’s unlikely your examiners will ask you to describe your research in a single word, but they will ask you to talk about your work. An exercise like this can help you think about your PhD a lot before the viva. You might never say to someone, “In one word, my research is all about…” but I think you’ll get something valuable from following this process.

VIVA and the Viva

I’ve shared a few acronyms in posts over the last year but today’s tool is different because I invented it!

VIVA is very useful to help with exploring your thesis before the viva; it’s a directed thinking tool in the same way that SWOT is used to analyse a situation. VIVA can be used simply. Take a sheet of paper for a chapter in your thesis and divide it into four. Then use a different word in each section to direct your attention as you make notes about the chapter:

  • Valuable (to others): what would someone else find valuable in this chapter?
  • Interesting (to you): what interests you about the work?
  • Vague: what doesn’t seem clear when you read it?
  • Ask: what questions would you like to ask your examiners if you had the opportunity?

This can help to draw out key points for your thesis. If you do this kind of analysis for each chapter then you build a really interesting summary. From considering what’s Valuable you unpick the contribution that you’ve made in your thesis, and by thinking about what is Interesting you rediscover your motivations. If you look for what’s Vague then you find what you need to strengthen ahead of discussion in the viva, and if you consider what questions to Ask you think ahead about the way the conversation might unfold.

I came up with VIVA about four years ago and it’s become one of the most useful ideas I’ve shared in my workshops. I’m surprised in looking back over this first year of the blog that I’ve not shared it here before! I hope you find it helpful ahead of your viva, and find some interesting ideas when you analyse your thesis.

In short: use VIVA to help with the viva!

Summary Fundamentals

A summary is an answer to a question. For a postgraduate researcher with their viva in the future the question could be:

  • How can I describe this concisely?
  • How can I explain this to a novice?
  • How can I display this visually for myself?
  • How can I outline my thesis?
  • How can I arrange what I know to most help myself?
  • What’s the story of my research?
  • What are the essential facts of my thesis?
  • What does my thesis look like?
  • What matters most about my work?
  • What stands out about my research?
  • Why is this a valuable contribution?

There are many, many useful questions to help create summaries. And there are many ways that you can arrange or display the content of an answer to create a summary. The act of making a summary is a useful tool for viva preparation. If you ask a better question you can find a more valuable answer.

Reflect a little. What kinds of information formats help you? So what kinds of summaries could help you?

So what kinds of questions could help you?

Start With One

There’s a time and a place for detailed plans, complex strategies and exhaustive lists. But figuring out everything you need to plan or do or check is hard. And when you get a list together it can be overwhelming. Instead, start with one thing.

  • Start with one person who can tell you about their viva.
  • Start with one chapter of your thesis.
  • Start with one question to help you unpick your results.
  • Start with one paper that has been really helpful.
  • Start with one idea of how to explain your thesis.

There may be more to do. Once you start you have momentum. Keep going.

Top Ten Top Fives

I often encourage people to use “top fives” to start a summary or reflection. Get a list of five going and you have something to build on. There’s a lot you can think about when you’re preparing for the viva, so here’s my top ten list of top five topics!

  1. Top Five Contributions To Your Field That You’ve Made!
  2. Top Five Papers That You’ve Referenced In Your Bibliography!
  3. Top Five Questions You Might Like To Ask Your Examiners In The Viva!
  4. Top Five Pages You Want To Find Easily In Your Thesis!
  5. Top Five Things You Really Need To Remember!
  6. Top Five Questions You Don’t Want To Be Asked By Your Examiners!
  7. Top Five People You Can Turn To For Help!
  8. Top Five Steps You Need To Do To Feel Prepared!
  9. Top Five Proudest Moments Of Your PhD!
  10. Top Five Things You Can Do To Be Confident On The Day!

Lists are fun. Structure helps. What makes your list(s)?