Prompts

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.

Kanji

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.

Brew

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?

Cheatsheet

What if you wanted to tell a friend about your research and you only had one sheet of paper? What would you put on this cheatsheet?

Would it have lots of pictures? Bullet-points? Would your abstract feature? And would it be black and white or full colour?

What would you leave out? What must you include? Do they need to know anything else in order to understand what you’re telling them?

Your friend would probably thank you, it’d be a neat insight into what you do.

If you do this, make two copies and keep one. You do valuable prep in creating the cheatsheet and then have a resource to refresh your memory later.

First Thoughts

Here’s a quick reflective exercise for the end of the PhD. Take a sheet of paper, divide it into three:

  • In the top write WHY: why did you do a PhD? Answer the question.
  • In the middle write HOW: how did you do a PhD? Answer the question.
  • At the bottom write WHAT: what did you find during your PhD? Answer the question.

What were your motivations? How did you go about doing research? What were the results?

Best Bit

My favourite thing in my thesis is on pages 33 and 34. I struggled for a couple of weeks on a single detail that I needed in order to prove the most important result in my research. I couldn’t get it. I knew what I needed and I knew intuitively it was true, but I couldn’t see the step.

And one day I took a break, and realised that the result I was aiming for was far bigger than what I needed. I was trying to slice bread with a chainsaw, but couldn’t get the damn thing to start.

As I realised that I needed a much smaller result to prove what I needed, I knew exactly how to prove it! It was a huge feeling of elation after a string of disappointed days. As I wrote down my proof, I realised that this tiny result could also be generalised: I’d spotted the blockage on the chainsaw, and now had the stronger result that I’d not been able to get.

I had a brief tug of war between satisfaction and frustration; thankfully satisfaction won out.

Three-and-a-half questions:
What’s the smallest meaningful result in your thesis?
What are you most satisfied or frustrated by in your research?
What’s the best bit of your thesis? Why?

Stepping back when doing research is important. Stepping back afterwards helps you grow.