Plus, Minus, Interesting

I like to use thinking tools, and “Plus, Minus, Interesting” is a good concept by Edward de Bono. To put it simply, it’s just a request to look at things from different perspectives: look for positives, negatives and interesting features, don’t just examine something with whatever gut feeling you have.

I can think of lots of ways to use it when preparing for the viva:

  • Explore the methodology you used to do your research. Why was it good to do it the way that you did? What did it not allow you to do? What’s interesting about it?
  • If you find a passage that is unclear, use “plus, minus, interesting” to reframe the vague text.
  • Create a summary for each chapter, a single page divided into three sections. Plus for important things, minus for difficult parts, interesting for things that others might find, erm, interesting.
  • Use “plus, minus, interesting” to provoke an analysis or discussion of the main outcomes of your thesis.

This is just one flexible tool. There are others! Use what you can to explore your research in new ways. It’s good prep to think differently about your thesis before the viva.


I realised the other day that I often advise people to take their time when it comes to the viva.

Plan how you’re going to prepare.

Invest time in reading your thesis carefully.

Don’t rush to an answer in the viva.

It got me wondering, are there any areas of viva prep or thesis examination where it would be good to rush?

Well, there are things that you can do quickly, but they’re not so much about rushing as they are about doing specific tasks. Dash out some bullet points about a chapter when you start a summary file; spend two minutes to put a Post It at the start of each chapter in your thesis; write down the first five researchers you can think of whose work you build on.

You can do these quickly and then develop them: write a summary, add Post Its to other important areas, expand your researcher list. You’re not rushing, you’re starting.

I can’t think of a good reason to rush in preparation or in the viva…

…but maybe after the viva you want to hurry to tell someone your good news?


If you’re looking for a way to share a summary of your research, as you might in the viva, think Why-How-What:

  • Why is your topic worth researching?
  • How have you gone about researching it?
  • What have you found?

Every time you give a summary of your work you get to try new ways to communicate what’s important. These questions are only the beginning, you might want to elaborate. You have to start somewhere though.

Colour Your Thinking

I’m a fan of Edward de Bono, and I love his Six Thinking Hats concept. It’s a way to manage discussions or problem solving. You can check out the details if you like; in short, you can imagine people putting on coloured hats to drive different kinds of thinking or observations. This stops people taking over with a particular agenda and prevents a certain emphasis being put on discussion.

Six Thinking Hats is a useful solo review tool for your thesis too. As each colour of hat corresponds to a certain kind of thinking you can explore your research in a different and useful way. For example, you might make some notes about a chapter in the following sequence of thinking:

  • White Hat: what is this chapter about?
  • Blue Hat: what process or method drives it forward?
  • Red Hat: how do you feel about the material in it?
  • Yellow Hat: what is good about this chapter?
  • Black Hat: what could be better?
  • Green Hat: where are the opportunities to build on this work?

If different coloured hats sounds silly, just take these six questions in sequence as a way to unpick some thoughts about your thesis!


Sometimes a blank page can be beaten with prompts. If you want to get thoughts flowing, try the following:

  • The best paper I read during my PhD was…
  • The best advice my supervisor gave me was…
  • My greatest strength as a researcher is…
  • The best part of my thesis is…
  • The most valuable part of my work is…
  • Between now and the viva I need to…
  • To feel confident in the viva I need to…

If you come across any more prompts for thinking about your thesis, make a note of them. Use them yourself or pass them on to others. Keep thinking.


I picked up a little Japanese on my past travels. Well, enough to ask for directions, say I don’t understand and enquire after an English menu.

I never picked up any familiarity with kanji or what different symbols mean. The jōyō kanji list is the 2136 most common characters that people need to know. As I understand it, if you can read and comprehend all of them, then you can fully engage with day-to-day life in Japan. You can browse a newspaper, understand signs and read government documents.

To get a picture of your thesis, what would someone need to know? I don’t mean what papers do they need to have read or specialist knowledge. What do they need to understand? What elements must they get a grasp of?

And while you don’t need to have perfect recall of your entire thesis, there must be some parts which you need to know. What are they? While you might want to try to remember things, it makes sense to make some notes. Maybe write a list to start, then see how it fills out.

Hopefully it won’t run to 2136 points.


I work from home a lot. When I go to the kitchen and boil the kettle I like to dry any dishes in the rack; it feels like a good way to use the minute or so while the water gets to 100 degrees, and the time after that while the tea brews. It makes an incremental difference, less dishes to do later in the day.

While I think viva prep is best done in meaningful chunks, there are some tasks that can be done in a couple of minutes which can make a difference. Three examples:

  • You can break down why a particular paper in your bibliography is valuable to your research.
  • You can brainstorm keywords for themes in a chapter.
  • You can carefully pick through a page looking for anything that seems vague or unclear.

None of these involve deep thought. None of them will take a long time. All of them can add a little something to how well you’re prepared.

As can staying appropriately caffeinated…

What’s Your Contribution?

Be as grand as you like. The question could finish with many things: what is your contribution…

  • …to your field?
  • …to research?
  • …to knowledge?
  • …to the world?

Turn it around a few times in your mind. Examine your work from a lot of perspectives. The scope of the answer could vary too. It may be that there are a handful of researchers who will really care, and a few dozen more who will be interested. It may be that your research could impact millions.

I have heard from many people who have had to answer a question about their research contribution at some point in their viva. Do you share your contribution in three bullet points? Can you share it that way? Do you start with why? Do you start with how you were inspired?

There are many ways to explore the topic of contribution. You need to find some way to think it through. You need to make opportunities to practise talking about it. When you do you unpick why your research is valuable. You explore why it’s worthwhile. It makes sense that your examiners would bring it up. What’s the best way you can explain your contribution?

Taming The Blank Page

It’s a good idea to make summaries on the run up to your viva. It’s great, purposeful work while you make them and you have valuable resources you can refer to afterwards. It doesn’t take much, a sheet of paper is a great start. A blank piece of A4 can be intimidating though; where do you begin? What’s worth doing? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Start a mind map: put your thesis title in a bubble in the middle. Add a couple of branches like Starting Points, Important Results, Background and Key References. Keep going.
  • Why, How, What: an exercise I shared previously. Helps to unpick what you’ve done in your research.
  • Timeline: create a timeline of your success. When did you hit your first important goal? What was it? How did you make your way to completion?
  • Chapter-by-chapter breakdown: take a sheet of paper for each chapter and write “What’s Important?” at the top. Use that to prompt your thinking and analyse what you’ve done.

You don’t need much to get started with viva prep. A little push and you’ll find yourself doing great work.

Dreamer, Realist, Critic

I’m a big fan of creative thinking tools. The Disney Method is one I like a lot. It forces you to break creative thinking into stages by adopting three personas:

  • Dreamer: think of as many ideas as possible; encourage brainstorming; remove constraints and see where thoughts take you.
  • Realist: think about what would work practically; explore within resources and deadlines; see what can be achieved.
  • Critic: think about what won’t work in your ideas; test them to destruction; find problems to solve.

At the end of this kind of process, ideas are stronger and more clearly defined. You can see whether or not they will actually be useful.

Maybe something like this could be a useful framing when it comes to look back over one’s research too:

  • Dreamer: what did you want to do when you started? What were your big goals? How high were you aiming?
  • Realist: what did you actually do during your PhD? How did you tame your objectives? In what ways did you have to adjust the scale of your ambitions?
  • Critic: where are the problems with what you’ve done? What could people object to? What would you do differently, and why?

You might not get these exact questions in the viva, but they might not be a million miles away either. Tools like this can be useful to unpick and explore. They can boost your confidence at going over your research in the viva.

Bonus questions: Which are you most like in your day-to-day, a Dreamer, a Realist or a Critic? How well does that work for you?