Definitions

A short viva prep exercise: make a list of five to ten concepts or ideas that are fundamental for your research.

Now spend a few minutes defining them, either recording yourself talking about them or writing a few notes. They could be hyper-specific – a genus 2 handlebody was important in my thesis, for example – or much more general:

  • What is an equation?
  • What is an interview?
  • Can you describe an essential piece of equipment for your research?
  • How do you define a good method?
  • What is “good” data?

Go back to fundamentals and definitions. In the viva you’re called on to explain how you did your research and to show that you’re a good researcher. Perfection is not a realistic state to attain, but do you feel confident about your understanding of basic definitions?

You can.

7 Questions To Help You Annotate Your Thesis

Annotating your thesis is useful viva prep. You have to really think about your thesis while you do it and you create a more useful resource for afterwards. I have general ideas I think are good for annotation, but every candidate has to do something that works for them. With that in mind, here are seven questions that could help you:

  1. What do you want to find easily?
  2. What is important in your thesis? (bonus question: how are you defining important?)
  3. Where do you need to add short notes?
  4. Where do you need to add longer notes?
  5. What pages would benefit from a few sentences to summarise them?
  6. What do you need to underline? (bonus question: why?)
  7. What do you need to highlight? (bonus question: why?)

Annotate your thesis so it is useful for you. Ask questions and set parameters before you start. Figure out what you need to do and then go do it.

Six Steps For Friction-free Prep

In preparing for the viva you have your thesis, your knowledge, your talent…

…and a lot of things potentially in your way, stopping you from getting ready! Busy days, family ties, worry, uncertainty over what to do – there’s lots to slow you down!

Thankfully, there’s a few simple steps you can take to remove the obstacles in your way:

  1. Make a plan. Just a short one, just an idea of when you need start, when you need to stop and what you need to do.
  2. Get your materials together. You need your thesis, some stationery, some paper and some papers you’ve referenced too. Get it all together, don’t leave things for later when you can procrastinate and avoid prep because you don’t have that paper you need.
  3. Find a prep space. It might be your dining table, it could be your office, it could be a cafe. But find a space that you can work well in.
  4. Tell others what you need. Probably, you need them to leave you alone from time to time! Get the space you need.
  5. Do at least one thing every day. Read a chapter, write a summary, check a reference – do something so it becomes a habit. Small tasks add up.
  6. Make a task list for your plan. What are all the tasks you have to get done? Cross them off as you go to see your progress as it happens.

Be practical. Don’t stay in your head with worries, doubts, procrastinations. Work better by removing things that create friction as you get ready to pass your viva.

Best of Viva Survivors 2019: Viva Prep

Each year I finish my blogging by sharing some of my favourite posts over a few days. We’ll start my annual round-up with my favourite posts from 2019 on the subject of viva prep. Every PhD candidate will need to do something after submission to help themselves get ready. The posts below offer a range of different activities and encouragements to help with busy weeks waiting for the viva.

Spotted any other posts this year that you thought really helped with viva preparation? Let me know, and check back over the coming days for most Best of 2019 blog posts!

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.

Augment

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.

Unforgettable

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.