I use Why-How-What a lot to help candidates think about the significant, original contribution that they’ve made through their research.

Perhaps When-Where-Who, the other three basic questions are useful for unpicking viva prep:

  • When will you start your prep?
  • Where will you complete many of the tasks?
  • Who do you need to support you?

It’s useful to sketch out the timeline for doing the work. Prep is not a lot of work but it still needs planning so it doesn’t overwhelm. Finding a good space to work in is useful for having a productive environment. Knowing who you need to help you get ready is vital.

Who Did It?

I often encourage PhD candidates to reflect on Why, How and What:

  • Why did you do this research?
  • How did you do it?
  • What was the result?

These three questions are useful for breaking down the thesis contribution. They could be a good way to build up a summary. They’re a nice reminder that your thesis has something valuable.

But don’t forget Who:

  • Who did it?
  • Who kept going?
  • Who got more capable, more knowledgeable?

Your thesis has a significant original contribution. It’s only there because you did the work. You persisted, despite any pressures or setback – you made it happen. You became more talented along the way.

So: who is going to pass their viva?

Preparing A 3-Minute Summary

Three minutes is not long to share something of your work, whether on stage for a competition or as part of your viva. Depending on how quickly you talk and the emphasis you give to things, you have between 300 and 400 words at most. Exploring what you would say with that much time and that many words could be a nice way to play with your viva prep.

Start your planning by reflecting with a set of Why-How-What questions:

  • Why does your work matter?
  • How did you do your research?
  • What is the result of your research?

You can focus this more by thinking about your audience: what would they need to hear to help them understand what you’ve done or to help them see the most important aspects?

If it was your examiners, for example, in your viva, you would know that they had read your thesis. You would know that they had studied it and prepared to meet with you. You don’t need to overthink your summary, you simply have to share with them again what you think matters, why it matters – what really stands out from what you’ve done?

Three minutes isn’t long, but it can be enough to highlight something valuable, to emphasise what matters or to introduce a longer period of discussion. Take your time, use it well.

You Kept Going

A short reflection for today using my favourite thinking provocation, Why? How? What?

The last year or so has been hard – but if you’re reading this today (March 26th 2021) and your viva is soon, then you kept going despite it all. That means something. Reflect on the following:

  • Why did you keep going?
  • How did you keep going?
  • What did you accomplish as a result?

Take some pride. Take a sense of real achievement from all you’ve managed to do. Remind yourself that you kept going in such a strange time. You must have what you need to succeed in your viva too.

A Little Mental Warm-up

Exploring what makes your research a significant, original contribution is an essential part of viva preparation. Taking different perspectives, finding alternative words, telling other people about your work – all helps strengthen your confidence about saying, “I did this and it’s good.”

I’ve been a fan of the Why-How-What general approach for explaining things for years now, and love to find ways to apply it. It seems like a neat fit to the “significant, original contribution” that needs to be communicated in the viva.

  • Significant: Why is your work valuable?
  • Original: How is it different from what has come before?
  • Contribution: What makes it “enough” for a PhD thesis?

Look for different ways to explore and explain your research. Every opportunity you take is one more little mental warm-up for your viva.

Exploring Prep Ideas

The final flourishes that complete a piece of art. Shining your shoes before an interview. Proofreading and checking one last time.

All of these sorts of things can only make little differences, because the big difference has already been made (you’ve painted something, been accepted for interview, written something).

Viva preparation is the little differences you make to get ready; responses to things you see as gaps or absences in your readyness.

Make a list of the gaps, then explore each and think about what you could do. Why-How-What makes a nice structure for this exploration:

  • Why is this a problem?
  • How might you address it?
  • What will you do?

Explore what stands out to you as possible areas or tasks for viva preparation. Prioritise them if you’re busy: do the things that will have the biggest impact. Remember that this preparation is building on something that’s already pretty accomplished.

Bringing Prep Ideas Together

I like the idea of making an edited bibliography – a list of the most important references in your thesis’ bibliography – as a means to focus on what really matters and helps shape your work.

I like using Why-How-What – three simple starter questions – as a quick framework to explore ideas or frame a presentation.

Let’s put them together! First, create an edited bibliography, the top twenty or so references in your thesis. Consider the papers, books and sources that have helped you the most. Then, take a few minutes to explore each of these references using Why-How-What:

  • Why was this reference so important?
  • How does it add to the work you’ve done?
  • What do you most need to remember?

What other questions or approaches could you use to explore the essential parts of your bibliography?

Mistakes Happen

They do.

Slips, errors, accidents, typos, absent-minded actions and more. There’s a worry for some candidates that examiners will not forgive mistakes. Perfection is not the standard for the thesis or the viva, but you can still wonder, “What will they think about X?”

Well, let’s assume that whenever you find out about X you can’t do anything to change it (because otherwise, you probably would and it wouldn’t be a worry). Maybe you know X happened while writing up; maybe you discover X when you’re preparing for the viva; perhaps you’re asked and only realise X in the viva. Essentially your next steps in all these cases are the same.

Simply think about the Why, How and What of the mistake:

  • Why did the mistake happen?
  • How could you do something about it?
  • What do you think you need to do about it now?

Mistakes happen, and sometimes you need to act to correct them. Sometimes you just need to acknowledge them. Reflect on the why, the how and the what to explore how you might respond to examiners’ questions about mistakes in the viva.

Why-How-What For Examiners

Long term readers will know that I like Why-How-What as a way to frame and explain ideas. I share it a lot in workshops when people ask me how they can explain what their research is about. I think it’s also useful to generate questions and unpick aspects of the viva process that worry people, and one of the biggest sources of worry for PhD candidates is the examiners themselves.

What do they do? What will they ask? How will they behave? What if….?

Instead of aiming at the worries, let’s start with three questions.

Why are they examining me? A basic one to start with, but important. They’re examining you because they’ve been chosen. They’re examining you because you’ve done something special. They’re examining you because that’s how PhDs are assessed in the UK. They’re examining you because they are supposed to.

How will they examine me? Professionally. There are rules and regulations. There are expectations. They’ll try to live up to them, and seek help beforehand if they need it. They will be asking you questions, but they don’t come to the viva with a malicious agenda. They’re not there to tear you or your work apart.

What will happen in the viva? A discussion. A series of questions that drives conversation and leads to a conclusion. They’re not there to torture you. Your examiners want the best possible outcome they can find for you, given your thesis and performance. They want you to pass as well as you can and they want your thesis to be the best representation of your research that it can be.

There are other ways that we can take these questions; different people might answer them differently. There aren’t full details about rules and regulations, about outcomes, about what the examiners will do to prepare, but that information is out there if these starter questions and answers do not comfort you enough.

If something about your examiners or how they conduct the viva troubles you then your next actions are to find out more, do more, so that you can get back to what’s important.

Why? How? What?

Five Day Thesis Breakdown

Your thesis is an expression of your research. But in the viva, and at any time when someone asks you about your work, you can’t just hand them this great book you’ve made and say, “Read it!”

I like thinking about ways to help candidates reflect on their work. I like exploring ways to help people explain their ideas concisely. Here’s a plan of how to spend five days in short activities to break down your thesis and your research contribution.

Day 1: Describe the Why-How-What of your PhD in a single page, no more than 300 words.

Day 2: Use Day 1’s page to write a single paragraph about your PhD. Try to keep it under 100 words. Remove the inessential.

Day 3: Use Day 2’s paragraph to write a sentence describing your PhD – no more than 20 words. You’ll never be able to say everything, so don’t try. What can you get across?

Day 4: Use the work of the previous three days to write down five words. What are the themes of your work? Think about where it all started, how you did it and what your outcomes are.

Day 5: Write down one word. The Big Picture. What is it that stands out?

It’s unlikely your examiners will ask you to describe your research in a single word, but they will ask you to talk about your work. An exercise like this can help you think about your PhD a lot before the viva. You might never say to someone, “In one word, my research is all about…” but I think you’ll get something valuable from following this process.