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!

Use Your Acknowledgements Page

The acknowledgements page of a thesis is a lovely opportunity to be thankful.

Thank your supervisors for all they’ve done.

Thank your family and friends by name.

Thank your funders if you have them.

Thank anyone who has really helped.

Looking back at mine, and at others I’ve seen, the acknowledgements page is a time capsule. A little slice of a time when you were someone else. I’ve not stayed in touch with many of the friends who helped me through my PhD. That page reminds me of who I have to be thankful to, and who made a difference.

Say thank you.

On The Surface

Imagine your thesis is an iceberg.

You can see it floating in a sea of knowledge. Big and beautiful, possibly dangerous! A hazard for other ideas, crashing and crushing, but approached carefully you can study it. Someone can think about how it relates to other icebergs/theses, what it means. They can dream up questions about it. Depending on who that someone is, depending on their experience – their own icebergs – those questions could be tricky…

But there’s more than what’s on the surface.

If an examiner or anyone else reads your thesis they see the surface iceberg. Your research and experience are underwater: a massive bulk of knowledge, skill, time, patience, talent, persistence. Quietly hidden, but there all the same.

Your examiners can ask about what they see on the surface, make guesses perhaps at what else is in the watery shadows.

You appreciate it all though; the surface iceberg-thesis and the experience-knowledge-skill-time-patience-talent-persistence-ice-mountain of research beneath the surface. It’s all there for you when you need it, hiding in the depths.

(with thanks to Sylvia Duckworth and Hugh Kearns for inspiration!)

Where’s The Challenge?

As an alternate route to unpicking the value of your thesis contribution, consider reflecting on the challenge that was involved in getting it done. I don’t only mean the labour of three or more years, but the deeper questions about the nature of the research itself.

  • Why could it not have been done before now?
  • What made it difficult?
  • Who else had tried to do this?
  • Why are you the first person to do this?
  • What do you see the challenge as being?
  • What obstacles have you overcome?

Reflecting on the challenge is a different perspective, but it leads in the same direction. The challenge points to the value of what you’ve done.


What message would you add to the end of your thesis?

You don’t have time to do every follow-up, or advance every idea. Perhaps you can leave that to someone else. Perhaps there is a new perspective that you have on the whole work, and a short note could set those thoughts out. Maybe there is a problem with something in your thesis, but you don’t quite know how to talk about it on the page. Or it could be that you just want to thank some people.

Reflect on your thesis. What postscript would you add?

PS: Now you’ve reflected on this, consider making some notes or even writing a message. Your examiners are unlikely to ask you anything like this directly, but this kind of reflection and review is useful to see what you think about your thesis now it’s done.


There’s a lot of light cast around during the PhD process.

You shine a light on a topic you found, and create more when you write your thesis.

You brighten up your thesis when you prepare for the viva.

Your examiners bring your work into full sun, although hopefully it won’t feel like a harsh glare.

And fingers crossed you won’t have to burn the midnight oil to add a little more light with your corrections.

Every step of the way you illuminate something because you’re making it easier for someone else to see the value of what you’ve found.

Keep on shining.


In Jenga, whatever your intentions, you might knock the tower down at any moment. Your actions or a misplacement by the last player might make things so unstable that the tower can only fall.

It’s tempting to think of the viva is a precarious situation, but your thesis is not a Jenga tower, and the viva is not a game.

Questions from examiners aren’t like pulling bricks out. Your answers aren’t going to make your work fall apart. Discussion can bring in some wobbles, but your work is more than a tower of bricks. You designed this structure, it didn’t just come together out of a box.

Annotation Helps

One of the best reasons to annotate your thesis is to make things stand out. For example:

  • Highlight key references and how you’ve used them;
  • Underline your typos for easier correction later;
  • Draw attention to jargon and specialist terms;
  • Draw attention to key passages of your thesis;
  • Highlight the parts you’re most proud of.

Annotation is purposeful work while you’re doing it; afterwards you have a more useful resource for your prep and the viva.

You can make your thesis clearer while you get ready for the viva. Start by asking yourself, “What would help me?”

The Flipside of Blame

Outside of the usual typos and copyediting, my biggest corrections were to rewrite two chapters. They followed a similar flow, two case studies using a process I’d developed. My examiners were happy with the result, but not with how it was set out. It took me several weeks to re-arrange the model I had in my head. Thankfully, the second chapter was much easier to write once the first had been done.

Last year, sharing this story with a PhD candidate they asked, “So who was to blame? Your supervisor? They should have caught it, right?”

Wrong. My supervisor was responsible for giving me feedback, and he did. He told me that those chapters explained the process that I had developed, which they did.

“Well, your examiners then, they were just being harsh.”

No, they were doing their jobs. They fulfilled their roles perfectly. They asked for corrections to help make my thesis the best it could be.

I was to blame for my corrections…

…and the flipside of blame is responsibility.

I was responsible for writing my thesis, and I was responsible for ensuring it was the best it could be for submission. No-one else. The chapters needed something. I could have spotted that. I could have seen that my descriptions, while accurate, were missing a lot of the terminology and rigour that was appropriate. It was hidden in the background, when I needed to bring it front and centre.

Blame and responsibility are shadows of the same thing. It depends where you position yourself to look at the situation. You’re responsible for your corrections…

…and you’re to blame for how good your research is overall.

Changing Focus

If I’m working from home then I love to walk my daughter to nursery to start my day. After I’ve dropped her off, I’ll often continue my walk near the River Mersey.

The view from the promenade looks towards Liverpool. I often take pictures of the city from the same spot on my walk.

Some days I focus on the beach…

…other days I’ll look up to the sky…

…and sometimes the sun shines just right and I capture something truly beautiful.

Changing my focus just a little can make a big difference. It’s the same city in the distance, but a little to the left, a sunny day or the tide being in can mean a radically different picture.

When you’re preparing for the viva, take time to look at your thesis in new ways. Ask yourself questions you’ve not considered before. Make summaries to tease out certain kinds of information. Reflect on what you’ve done and look from a different perspective.

You might see something interesting.

You might get some new ideas.

You might just see something beautiful.