Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Writing your thesis and preparing for your viva

Writing your thesis

The first question to ask yourself is "who am I writing for?" Ok, you're writing for yourself and your supervisor, but you and (s)he know the work too well. Think instead of the examiners, and others who will read it now and in the future.

Sticking with the examiner for the moment, you should realise that the examiners want to pass you: you make it simpler for her if she can find all the evidence she needs as easily as possible. In fact, this is just as applicable when you're writing papers in general, and particularly for when you're drafting a research grant application. So, here are some specific points 
  • write it as you would say it: that means keep the language straightforward … just because it's written, there's no need to use longer words, or more complicated constructions;
  • if in doubt, include it: it's not a problem to read something that you know (within reason) but is is a problem to come across a TLA that you don't understand;
  • give a clear statement of contribution of the work: what have you done that goes beyond the state of the art (which you will explain in a "related work" chapter) … also it's worth saying where to find those contributions in the thesis (by giving section cross-references)
  • if some of the work has already been published in jointly authored papers, it's very good for you to give a clear statement of your contribution to the papers;
  • make it easy to read the thesis by including the right signposting, which means that anyone reading the thesis knows precisely what you do, where; in particular, I'd advise you to include:
    • an overview of the whole thing in the introduction
    • a summary at the beginning of each chapter, section by section
    • and a conclusion at the end summarising the contribution of the chapter
To get another perspective on what to aim for in writing, you can look at the criteria for the CPHC/BCS Distinguished Dissertations competition, which aims to reward the best theses in CS in the UK. This prize looks for
  • whether the thesis makes a noteworthy contribution to the subject, and what that contribution is;
  • the standard of exposition;
  • how well it places its results in the context of computer science as a whole; and
  • how easily a computer scientist with significantly different interests would be able to grasp its essentials.
As you're writing there are people who will give you feedback. At Kent someone from your supervision panel will help, as well as your supervisor, it's worth checking early on who from your panel will do this.

A cardinal rule in getting feedback is only ask for feedback on things that are final, albeit final first drafts. There's nothing worse than giving feedback on something and then being told "oh yes, I was going to do that" … it should have been done (preferably) or at least there be some note to the effect that it's still to do. Why do I say this? The first reading is always the most effective … when you read for a second time, it's inevitably going to be shaped by the results of the first read. 

Finally, make sure that you've fixed the problems pointed out first time before you ask someone to read it again!

Preparing for your viva

First, make sure you check when it is, and keep in touch with the internal examiner and supervisor about what they need you to do specifically to prepare for the viva.

Candidates are often (usually?) asked to give a summary of the main contributions of the thesis at the start of the viva: this could be a 10 minute oral presentation (no slides) or (sometimes) with slides …  either way, it's worth be prepared, and check with your supervisor about this.

Read the thesis again in the days before the viva, so that you're familiar with what is where … it will probably be a few months since you submitted it, and so it will have gone out of your mind. While you're reading thorough, it makes sense to keep track of typos that you find, so that you can fix them in the final version. You can go armed with errata lists, either personal or to share with the examiners, that you compile while reading it.

Will your supervisor be present? The Kent rules are they are only there with your explicit permission, and this is entirely up to you. At other universities the rules might be different, and other people might be there – this might be an independent chair of the proceedings, for example – or the viva might be recorded. It may be that you would like to invite your supervisor to be present after the viva is over,  if there are corrections to be discussed once the decision has been made.

Another way of preparing is to give a seminar to your research group: that will help you think about what your contribution is, and also how the parts of the thesis fit together, something that may well be a question in the viva itself. I've heard of people having a mock viva, but I'm not sure that's such a good idea … each viva will be different, and preparing by reading and giving a seminar should be enough.

Wear something comfortable … and take some water with you.

Probably you'll have access to a whiteboard, but just in case not it's useful to take along some paper if you want to draw diagrams or otherwise explain things visually or symbolically. 

Once the viva gets going,
  • think before you answer … it's no problem to consider what you want to say before you say it;
  • if you don't understand a question, ask for clarification … if it's not clear to you then it may well not be clear to the other examiner either, and
  • if things seem to get stuck into a discussion of a particular point, politely ask to move on. 
Finally, some common questions that get asked,

  • as I said earlier, examiners often begin by asking you to give a summary of the contribution that your work makers,
  • and this might be followed by going into some more depth about how the bits of the thesis fit together  – it is supposed to be a "body of work" and it's worthwhile thinking about how you would explain that in your case;
  • other questions might ask about your knowledge of work by others in this field,
  • or get you to talk in detail about "your argument on p34" or "your proof on p31" … it's not all high-level and context, but will engage with the details of what you have written, and how you justify it.
So, good luck with the writing and the viva itself!


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