Thesis Commentary

Can you summarise each page in your thesis in ten words or less?

You have plenty of white space at the top of each page, so you can if you want to. It wouldn’t take long, assuming you’d read your thesis since submission, and were generally familiar with it. A minute to think and capture the flow of your research.

300+ words, maybe tables, a diagram, ideas, all compressed into a few words to help you when you return to the page again in your prep or the viva.

Taken together, all of these words would create a director’s commentary for your thesis. A DVD extra for your research. You help yourself when you write the commentary – reflecting, thinking – and help yourself later when you come back to it. A little helpful commentary for you.

There’s plenty of white space at the bottom of each page too. If the top of the page summarises the flow of your work, maybe there’s something useful you could put at the bottom as well. Highlight a key reference? An idea that’s important? What you think of it all?

You don’t have to fill the margins of every page to prepare well for the viva, but a little thought and a few words can be really helpful.


I advise candidates to annotate their thesis, but the word really in my mind is augment:

To make something greater by adding to it…

You’re not just adding some notes or bookmarks, some Post-its or highlighted sections; your thesis will be better for you doing it.

I use the word annotate in workshops, because that’s what people expect. Let’s be clear though: if you add Post-its to show the start of chapters, underline typos, add notes in a consistent way, highlight references, insert clarifications, decrypt technical language, update a thought and anything else like this – you’re augmenting. Your thesis is greater than it was, a richer resource for you.

Step one, ask yourself: what would make your thesis even greater for you?

All Post-its Great And Small

Tiny Post-its are good for marking the start of chapters. You can clearly highlight where important parts of your thesis are.

Large, square Post-its help to expand on a point. Postcard-sized Post-its can be a brief summary of a key section or chapter.

Post-it Notes come in a variety of colours too! If you really want to you can think about some kind of way to code for different information. Different colours for different chapters, certain colours for certain kinds of work.

There’s a lot you can do to help annotate your thesis. A trip to the stationery cupboard is a good start.


PhD graduates have rarely told me they’ve forgotten an important detail in the viva. Usually everything comes to mind when needed.

But nevermind others: if you’re worried that something important will slip your mind you can do things to help yourself. Just for starters:

  • Make notes, don’t just read and re-read your thesis.
  • Bookmark details, make it clear where you can find them.
  • Highlight important passages on pages.

Your examiners don’t expect you to commit three or more years of work to memory. The worry comes from you. The solution can too.

A Few More Words

There’s a lot of empty margins in a thesis. A lot of space free in headers and footers. And in the centre of most pages a LOT of words.

A thesis is a summary of at least three years of research. An embedding of thoughts into words. It’s taken time to get it all just so.

When you’re reading it all back, remember that a few more words can make a difference:

  • The right word in a margin can draw your attention to something important.
  • A few words in pencil can decode a piece of jargon or a tricky acronym.
  • Ten new words at the top of a page can summarise the other 300 you’ve written.

Annotation helps. Don’t be afraid to add a few more words.


Software is often patched after an initial release. Sometimes to repair a previously unknown defect. Sometimes to add other functionality. And sometimes a patch just makes something better.

The last kind is the same as making notes in your thesis margin before the viva. It’s equivalent to highlighting or underlining text or references. Small additions can help a lot. Annotation is a patch to make your thesis more user-friendly for one important user.

Best of Viva Survivors 2017: Viva Prep

I’m rounding 2017 off with five days of link sharing for five different areas I’ve posted on this year. I’m starting today with the topic of viva prep which is something I think about every day. How can we best approach it? How can I help people think about it and then do something effective? Here’s a list of some of the best posts from 2017 to help with preparing for the viva!

I hope these posts are really useful for you. There are hundreds of posts on the blog from 2017, so go looking and see what you find.

Found something else on viva prep that you think is awesome? Let me know! And please share my best of 2017 posts with anyone who might need them. Retweets are always welcome!


Behind the scenes extras on DVDs are interesting, but not for everyone. I’m a fan of commentary tracks. I like listening to a movie director explore influences, or explain why they made the choices they did. It’s fascinating, but I guess that most people will just want to watch the film.

When it comes to your thesis and your viva, you’re not “most people”. Annotating your thesis creates a valuable commentary that is doubly useful. First you ask yourself questions, engage with your thesis and make choices about how to add to the work. After that, you have an incredible resource you can refer to in your preparation and in the viva.

So read your thesis with pen in hand. What does that piece of jargon actually mean? Can you summarise this complex argument you make? How will you draw attention to typos? Which are the key references to highlight?

How will you make your thesis even more valuable?


Whatever field you explore for your research, you will have terms that others can’t easily understand. There may be terminology that you can’t easily understand. I built up shorthand in my head, “OK, so a genus 2 mutation is like a donut with two holes. But not quite.”

Yeah, not quite…

When you come to read through your thesis, either when you’re finishing it up for submission or when you’re reading to prepare for the viva, make a list of terms that you find. Make notes about what these all mean. Be certain of your jargon. Break it down for yourself and you’ll be able to explain it better to others.