Questions your reader should never ask


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Professor Sioux McKenna is Coordinator of the PhD in Higher Education Program in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL) at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Here she writes from her experience as a supervisor and examiner, reminding us of what readers will want from the thesis.

By Sioux McKenna

While a detective novel works on the basis of tantalizing clues and red herrings woven into the narrative, we know that the academic text should employ no such slippery techniques. In academic writing, we want to be presented with accessible and credible arguments, well substantiated with evidence the moment they are presented. And yet when I am reading PhD students’ work, I often find myself asking bewildered questions to which the answers remain a mystery, with clarity only achieved pages down the line if at all. It seems to me that there are at least five questions a reader should never have to ask. And we need to help our students to write in ways that foreclose such queries.

1. What do you mean?

I know how tempting it is to speckle my writing with the complex concepts that I’ve taken an age to make sense of for myself. I am proud that I understand them and can use them correctly. But of course my reader may not be aware of what ‘field of recontextualization’ means or how one stumbles into a ‘zone of proximal development’. Unless we’re writing for a specialized journal, we need to assume our reader is fairly new to the theories we’re drawing on so we need to explain them just as soon as we use them.

Students often think of the thesis examiner as someone who is all-knowing. But of course while they may well be familiar with some aspects of your student’s study, others will be new to them. You might have selected one examiner who knows the problem context, another who is familiar with the theory your student is using and yet another who shares your student’s methodological expertise. But chances are not all of them will come to your student’s study with experience across the entire text, so your student must not be tempted to throw in the comment that the thesis is premised on a ‘depth ontology’ and expect her readers to nod approvingly.

The rule of thumb is that terminology cannot be used until it has been explained in full for the reader. When I come across the term ‘patriarchal aesthetic’ in the second paragraph of page 1, I expect it to be explained to me in that very same paragraph. I don’t want to have to wait until Chapter Three to figure out what was meant. This is not a murder mystery so the reader shouldn’t have to do the detective work.

While there may be a case for occasionally introducing a complex concept with a signpost note along the lines of ‘This concept will be discussed in Chapter Three’, it is far better not to use cross-referencing that refers forwards, thereby leaving the reader stumbling around in the dark until she finally reaches the illuminating discussion pages later.

Academic writing is full of complex terminology. This is hopefully not from a pompous attempt to seem clever, but rather because such terminology has the power of semantic density (Maton 2014) whereby a single word or phrase can come to condense an entire textbook of meaning or signal a specific position within the debate. But before sprinkling the text with semantically dense words and phrases, we need to ensure that the reader has access to the meaning they hold.

For these reasons, Chapter One is often written in fairly everyday language, with more nuanced, sophisticated terminology only being used later after it has been gradually introduced to the reader.

2. What does that stand for?

When a reader is told that ‘the HEQSF provides us with a notion of doctorateness’ or that ‘there is a SUN policy on supervision’, there is an expectation that the reader will know what is meant by these clumps of capitalized letters.

I think that when a writer introduces an acronym on first use of the term in full, they are essentially saying: ‘It’s too much bother for me to write this out in full each time, so here is what it means, and now you, dear Reader, can do the work of remembering what it stands for.’

But perhaps it isn’t laziness that draws us to acronyms. Perhaps it’s because they make our writing look more scientific. Acronyms, like concepts, can be semantically dense and bring a world of meaning encapsulated in just a few letters, for example, most scientific formulae work in this way. But if by SUN you simply mean Stellenbosch University, why not just say as much and save your readers the bother of paging back to the Glossary?

Of course it can be clumsy to write certain phrases out in full repeatedly. But unless the acronym is found throughout the text and its use genuinely does improve the flow of reading, I say the writer should do the work of saying what she means instead of asking the reader to remember for her.

3. Why is she telling me this?

It’s really important to flag the relevance of each part of the discussion. I need frequent reminders about why I’m reading each section by having overt links made back to the topic being researched.

In my experience, examiners often read a thesis in chunks: one chapter on Christmas Eve, the next only two days later when the festivities are over. So the connections have to be fairly explicit and the reader needs to be reminded with cross-references that refer backwards to how this bit connects to previously discussed bits.

I’ve had PhD students who have spent ages and ages reading around a certain concept. The eight pages that they then write discussing the deliberations about the particular issue are masterful. But the data in the end didn’t really require that particular discussion and so now it sits in the thesis as a sophisticated tangent.

Just because the knowledge was hard-won and just because it’s really interesting, doesn’t mean it belongs in the thesis. If it isn’t clearly related, delete. And if it is related, explicitly tell the reader how it links to the issue being researched. We don’t ever want the reader to be wondering why on earth she has to wade through any section.

4. So what?

While the previous question relates to the need for writers to make the links between the writing and the study focus explicit, this question is about significance. We never want the reader to think ‘Ho hum. So what?’ When we report on an issue in the literature or in the data, we need to explicitly state its significance.

We don’t want our students’ examiners to wonder what the implications of a particular section are. They may admire the way that interesting quotations from the data have been woven into a discussion that is replete with substantiation from the literature, but they also need to see why it is important. The thesis is an argument and not a report. Show, don’t just tell.

5. Where is the doctorate?

This question relates to the previous one. What is the significance of the study? But the doctorate has to be more than just significant – it has to be significant in a way that contributes to the boundaries of the field. So it is really important that the reader sees what contribution is made by the thesis.

This can be in a major breakthrough that changes the way we understand the phenomenon. But it’s more likely to be smaller scale. Perhaps it is the application of the theory to a new context, or the contribution of a challenge to an existing viewpoint, or the addition of one more insight into the problem being interrogated.

The key is for the student to tell the reader where the doctorate is. As the examiner, I should never be left with the question about what aspect of the thesis makes a doctoral level contribution to the field. I recently examined a thesis in which the scholar actually used the phrase ‘This thesis contributes to the field at doctoral level in the following three ways…’ It was pretty easy for me then to see where the doctorate was.

As supervisors, we’re often our students’ first readers. I guess it’s our job to ask these questions on the drafts of their work long before an examiner gets to do so. I’m sure there are other questions we should foresee and answer before a reader gets to ask them. I’d love to add to this list…


Maton, K (2014) Knowledge and Knowers London: Routledge.


The importance of narrative



by Cally Guerin

It seems that everywhere I look, people are becoming more and more focused on narrative in all sorts of academic and research writing. Whether it is an application for a research grant, a report on completed research or when applying for a teaching award, the constant refrain is: ‘Try to tell more of a story about this’. It is particularly common to be encouraged to write literature reviews – and even entire theses – as if they are a ‘story’.

What is this about? I suspect that these demands for storytelling refer to a need to add value to what might otherwise simply be a list of ideas. The writer needs to interpret and join up the bare facts of the case, not just present that information and wait for the reader to infer what it all means. Perhaps narrativising is also a way of engaging the reader with some kind of emotional tug – the story can attract readers’ attention and make them care about the topic.

So, if we want to write research with more of a story, it is useful to consider the various elements of storytelling in order to see how they could be harnessed. (A caveat: I’m thinking about rather conventional storytelling. Those working in experimental literary studies will have much more adventurous notions of what constitutes ‘narrative’ – my apologies to you in advance!)

To start with, stories require a setting, so it is necessary to describe the context for the research. Readers may be familiar with some aspects of the setting, but it is useful to state the explicit details. To some extent, the setting can be a way of putting parameters around the project, pointing to the specifics of the context that are relevant for the rest of the research.

‘Characters’ might refer to the main players as the researchers, or might refer to the study population. The characters involved in a study does not always mean people, of course – it could be a gene or a building material under investigation, or a set of policy documents that are being examined.

Plot is where we start to see structure emerge. The stages of plot can help the research writer draw the reader into wanting to know ‘and then what happened?’, inviting them to turn the page or scroll down the screen to see how this story evolves. Readers need to start with an orientation to the original topic to be explored and a sense of the current state of affairs. Next, the complication can be described – what is it that we need to find out more about? What is the problem/gap to be explored? And eventually (importantly for reader satisfaction), a plot requires resolution – what were the findings or outcome of the research, and how does this change our knowledge of the world?

Storytelling also takes into account content and form. For research writers, this refers to collecting and collating the relevant information and ensuring details (and any resulting conclusions) are accurate. That content must be expressed in a form that meets reader expectations, which will always depend on disciplinary expectations of the particular genre being written.

Once we know who did it, what happens, when and where it occurred, narrative also demands that we can see the relationship between different elements; readers need to understand why this bit comes before that section, and how those parts inform each other. The chronology needs to be clear, even if it is not an exact replica of the order of events in the lived research – artful construction to make sense of the work is sometimes required (DoctoralWriting has written more about this here and here). The why is important here just as it is in other stories – why did this happen and why is it important or interesting?

The storyboarding approach can be helpful for choosing what order things should go in. One way of doing this is to use PowerPoint to plan the writing. One slide for each idea or paragraph provides a graphic split between the chunks of content, and they are easily moved around using the ‘slide sorter’ view. The thesis story may then be seen with different plot scenarios, helping the writer to choose the right story line according to where the significant parts of the content are, and what order will make them most accessible to the reader.

I spent a goodly portion of my summer holiday reading page-turning thrillers – now I look forward to reading some doctoral theses that have similarly satisfying narratives! How about you? What does ‘tell more of a story’ mean in your research world and how can doctoral writers use this to their advantage?

Writing in 2016 – new resolutions?


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Welcome back to DoctoralWriting! We are planning a busy year of posts for you, and hope you’ll find plenty here to support doctoral writing in 2016.

January always sees a plethora of New Year’s resolutions and advice on how to turn those resolutions into reality. The world of doctoral writing is no exception, and we have established our own tradition of offering suggestions about how to cultivate good writing habits in 2014 and in 2015. All of the ideas in these posts still stand, and I’d recommend going back to them as a useful reminder of some good strategies.

Those New Year’s resolutions are all well and good, but actually making them happen seems to be somewhat harder. I was interested to see this article in The Conversation that offers psychological strategies designed to help. Although I’m no expert on the psychology Levy employs, I’ve tried to think about how these ideas might apply in the context of doctoral writing. Levy recommends focusing on ‘intentions, constructions and bundles’.

To turn good ‘intentions’ into actions, it can be helpful to use a cue to trigger the action. For doctoral writers, this might mean having some kind of external prompt that dictates sitting down at the computer and starting to type.  For example, as soon as the rest of the household has left home for work or school, or as soon as the writer steps back into the office after a brisk post-lunch walk, or immediately after checking on the mice. Don’t allow space for a choice about what happens next, just do it!

‘Constructions’ refers to thinking about the abstract rather than concrete properties of the choice before us. Instead of approaching a specific writing task, it could be helpful for writers to think: ‘Do I want to write a thesis?’ and then realising that this isn’t going to happen without doing today’s writing. Personally, I can see how keeping the endgame in sight might work for some, although there are other benefits in keeping the writing tasks small, specific and doable. Experiment to see what is most motivating.

By seeing behaviour as ‘bundles’ it becomes possible to notice how individual choices represent a recurrent challenge (do I always want to delay opening my current writing by reading a few more articles?).  What is perhaps harder is to stand back and recognise those habitual patterns of procrastination and their associated rationalisations. But paying attention to what doctoral writers are doing when they aren’t writing is no doubt a good place to start.

And finally, Levy points out that self-control seems to be a finite resource that requires topping up. This can be done through creating a positive mood by doing something that makes you feel more cheerful, like ticking off what you’ve achieved today or reading cartoons about PhD experiences – on second thoughts, a grumpy cat meme might be safer! Exposure to nature is useful, so head outside to drink your tea in the park. Avoiding temptation in the first place is also sensible, so turn off your email so that you don’t know that a new message has arrived; that way you won’t need to exercise your willpower to avoid the distraction of checking what crucial information has just popped into your inbox. Apparently sugar also works its magic on increasing our self-control over other choices, but unfortunately for many of us this is out of bounds according to our other New Year resolutions!

What strategies have you found helpful in getting your students’ or your own writing done? It would be great to hear from others about how to make a reality of those New Year’s resolutions to get doctoral writing back on track and racing ahead to the finish line.




A flurry of conferences heading towards Christmas


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By Claire Aitchison, Cally Guerin & Susan Carter

This will be our final post for 2015, and we are finishing with a celebration of the wider academic community that provides us with something like professional family. In the last month we have attended three conferences. It is seasonal to speak of three wise men at Christmas: our conferences are stand-in equivalents. We share the insights we drew from these recent gatherings.


At the end of November, Cally and Claire attended the 12th Biennial Conference of the Association for Academic Language and Learning (AALL) at the University of Wollongong, near Sydney, Australia. The conference brought together over 200 academic language developers from Australia and overseas consortium bodies in Canada, New Zealand and the UK.

Presentations covered a diverse set of interests including, for example:

  • the sharing of institutional practices and programs, such as online provision embedding academic literacies into curricula
  • assessment and alignment, program evaluation, data analytics
  • peer learning and critical pedagogies, rural students
  • academic writing theories and practices
  • entry and transition experiences including testing and support, VET student transitions
  • international students; prior experiences, western approaches
  • postgraduate student writing and supervisor development.

In addition, the three keynote speakers provided stimulating perspectives:

Ronald Barnett, Emeritus Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education, London, gave a counter-discourse to the ‘skills’ push advocating more holistic possibilities for universities through an ecological curriculum; Associate Professor Cath Ellis, Associate Dean (Education) for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, challenged us to consider the role of assessment analytics for educational design and delivery. The final day Keynote from Dr Kate Bowles from the University of Wollongong, was a fascinating presentation on a student’s journey using the metaphor of the university as maze.


Cally made it to the 7th Asia Pacific Conference on Educational Integrity (APCEI), held in Albury-Wodonga on 16-18 November, and hosted by Charles Sturt University in association with La Trobe University. The location aptly fitted the theme of “Crossing the borders: new frontiers for academic integrity”, as the cities of Albury and Wodonga also sit opposite each other on either side of the New South Wales and Victorian state borders in Australia.

At first glance, one might assume that “crossing the borders” from educational integrity into unethical behaviours of academic misconduct, plagiarism and cheating have little relevance to doctoral writing. Disappointingly this is not so, and the conference keynotes included important reminders to PhD candidates and their supervisors about the necessity for maintaining high standards of ethical behaviour in undertaking research. Among others, we heard from Dr Robert Waldersee of the Independent Commission Against Corruption and from Anthony McClaran of TEQSA (the Australian Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency). Associate Professor Jay Phillips reminded us of the responsibilities of research related to indigenous areas and topics. Associate Professor Cath Ellis from the University of New South Wales presented her insights on “contract cheating”; this was an eye-opener, and detailed the extent (and affordability) of the buying of academic texts – including Masters and doctoral theses.

This conference revealed the careful work currently being undertaken in Australia to develop effective university policies and procedures that can respond fairly and consistently to the challenges of a digital world. As with any conference, Cally was able to attend only a tiny percentage of the presentations in parallel sessions. Highlights for her were hearing more about Ursula McGowan’s influential work on the importance of teaching the skills of appropriate referencing and citation; Judith Bannister’s explanation of copyright law in Australia and how it relates to authorship and ownership; and Ruth Walker’s invocation of queer theory to push us to reconsider how and why some writing is sanctioned by the academy while other forms of writing are not.

For those of us working in universities, the issues surrounding educational integrity are critical if we want to develop graduates who attend university not as “consumers” there to buy a product, but as global citizens seeking a transformative education that will prepare them to operate as ethical professionals in their chosen fields.


In New Zealand, Susan attended the Tertiary Education Research New Zealand (TERNZ) conference 25-27 November, hosted by Auckland University of Technology. at their central campus. The TERNZ conference is an unusual one in that papers are discursive: presenters deliver for 10 minutes with the other 40 minutes of the hour given to interactivity. It’s a place where people can bring ideas to show, share, and expect the benefit of practitioner community input. Additionally, attendees are put into groups of about 10 that meet a couple of times each day to share what individuals learned in different sessions, so that each comes away with a wider sense of the ideas exchanged. Consequently this is a friendly conference, a very safe one for novice presenters.

Conference themes in general covered the importance of networking, sharing models and examples, exploring pedagogy that incorporates technology and making the implicit codes of academia more explicit. The detail amongst these themes was rich.

Topics ranged from first year student through to doctoral support, the focus of this brief summary. Deborah Laurs and Susan Carter shared their findings from doctoral students and from supervisors as to their experiences of giving and receiving feedback on writing—they focused discussion on how a guide for supervisors on giving good feedback could allow for individual preference.

One theme was around technology: KwongNui Sim showed the research on how doctoral students use technology that sits behind her recent blog; Jennie Billot and Anaise Irvine considered whether lurkers on blog sites such as their own Thesislink were learning or whether learning required actually engaging in the discussion (the agreed conclusion was that, yes, lurkers do learn, including deep-level learning). E. Marcia Johnson considered best practice for the professional development of doctoral supervisors. Community of practice was another theme, although at this conference it was not central to explorations of doctoral study: it might have been.

Keynote speaker Professor Pare Keiha connected the practicalities and the wonderment of learning, capturing that sense of magic that happens with each learning breakthrough.


Frequently on this site we mull over the challenges of doctoral writing and the learning that is accomplished through that long laborious process—maybe the season might allow us to celebrate the pleasure we get from being part of a rich academic community, and the wonderment of those great times when learning occurs. We’re off for a few weeks now, and wish you the best of the season.


Photos courtesy of MorgueFile

Voice and emphasis in doctoral writing


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By Susan Carter

Here’s a speculation: too much writerly focus on discipline convention sometimes muffles the value of the argument and the authorial voice. I’m prompted by three separate experiences. Two were wrapped around giving feedback on writing.

Bert’s a longstanding personal friend who is also currently a doctoral student: we worked together decades ago before university became a part of our lives and were surprised to find each other both locked into academia. Because I know Bert well, I know that he is passionate about inclusive teaching, and I could see that his authentic concern with getting at-risk students safely through their first year at university would have been the foundation for his PhD topic. Yet he was struggling with writing, stuck, getting hammered a bit by his supervisors, and I became an informal mentor.

What I noticed straight way as I read his chapter draft was that he avoided making statements about his own belief: there was no sense of a live author with a set of pedagogical values evident in his discussion section. In Education, there needed to be, and even more so in this case. As a friend, I felt indignant that Bert’s commitment to what he saw as academic style (objective, muted in tone) was betraying who he was, the caring teacher–and one also, at this point in time, a caring teacher under pressure to wrap up his PhD.

Then another colleague who is in the early stages of her doctorate showed me two sections of her writing. One was written on the basis of an initial review of literature. The other was written on the basis of her own ideas. The ideas-prompted one was much more logical in its flow, more animated and convincing, with a stronger sense that she was an experienced trustworthy author.

Comparison made me wonder whether maybe it is sounder to begin from the spark of ideas and feed literature references into the prose than it is to privilege the literature as the starting point.

I suspect that most experienced academic writers follow this practice, and it may be a point of difference between experienced research writers and those who are new to the task, new to the extensive literature search and daunted by academic conventions. Of course, initially candidates need to read extensively to check there is a gap in knowledge to be filled, and to tentatively write about what they read, but once writing starts in earnest, I believe that prose driven by ideas is usually stronger.

When candidates step up to research writing at a higher level than they have experienced before, it can seem daunting trying to meet discipline conventions and reader expectations. But, certainly in some disciplines, a good legend above the desk might be ‘Trust yourself: Your research value lies more in your ability to think and connect than in your ability to hobble prose to academic conventions.’

There is also the issue of getting the balance of emphasis just right. The third thing prompting this post was an article in a recent Listener on good communication. It gave examples of workplace behaviour that would require people to initiate difficult conversations, and then compared three approaches to demonstrate good and bad practice.

Essentially, the speaker needed to broach a conflict of interests; the skilled initiator should aim to avoid an angry argument, and nor should they be so polite that they fail to state their concern effectively. In the Listener article, the children’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears provided the analogy for approaches that, like Goldilock’s experience of the three bears’ different beds, were too hard, too soft and just right. Some statements were too harsh, some were too gentle, so ineffective, and then there was the carefully worded just right version.

I think often doctoral writing manoeuvres through the same challenges with saying things exactly right for the amount of emphasis that will neither antagonise a reader because too strongly stated, nor be so hedged as to fail to make a contribution.

Sometimes writing is less clear when it strives to capture academic language, for example, when the passive voice is striven to be maintained, clarity may be lost–I’m spoofing the passive here to demonstrate. I’m not sure what to suggest in such cases, and wonder if others have practical ways of talking students through to where they find their own voice, and capture the right emphasis on their own ideas.

The literature review for beginners: writing while still uncertain


By Susan Carter

Writing about literature can cause confusion and frustration for new PhD candidates. How can they start writing a ‘literature review’ in the first few months of candidature when they are still not sure of what they are really looking for, and when they may not have finalised the scope and aims of the thesis?

Despite this, reviewing the literature is commonly the entry point to doctoral writing for many. Frequently it is begun early in the first year in order to stake out the research landscape. Early stage candidates generally work from a preliminary proposal that includes some literature. The main purpose of reading on the topic early is to ensure that their project hasn’t already been done, and to better understand methods commonly used. At the same time, the novice researcher will absorb the jargon and conventions of the discipline, and should be encouraged to do this consciously.

They must at least make notes of what they read so as to avoid forgetting who said what: writing must accompany reading. The more this early writing already includes evidence of their own critical analysis of literature, the more effort will be saved later down the track. It has to be done, but means building a literature review without a sure sense of its final definitive purpose. Some candidates are unnerved by contingency, and purpose for writing can help with that.

Here’s an approach for producing writing that is likely to be usable during a literature review early on when things still seem undecided.

I’ve written on the literature review previously, suggesting that, early on, reading is like a smash and grab or breaking and entering: you need to get in and then out again as quickly as possible, carrying away only what is valuable. A commenter moderated this to the less violent analogy of being a tourist who only takes souvenirs that are 1) valuable and 2) fit in the suitcase. Cally Guerin also has a post (citing Kamler and Thompson 2006), about having attitude when it comes to literature. This time I want to start from a different direction: not the reader’s attitude to the task of reading, but her method in recording findings to make that writing as useful as possible down the track.

I’m basing this on the convention that theses make generic moves, each of which needs support from the literature the candidate reads. The entry-level doctoral student could begin with a plan of the finished thesis or dissertation that factors in how each section of writing will advance the overall argument, and what work literature will need to do to support the final written thesis. The idea is to plot out the story that the literature must detail in, much like developing the storyline of a novel.

The introduction usually establishes a problem, limitation, or lack of understanding. Literature provides evidence that a gap exists in understanding about something that matters, to show its seriousness, and to identify exactly where the gap in knowledge lies that this thesis will fill. That gap is often not clearly defined at the start of the project, especially in non-STEM disciplines. However, any time in literature that the problem in the topic is mentioned, it can be written into a document that will eventually become the first few pages of the introduction. Literature that distinguishes where the problem is worse, or how it is mitigated slightly, or what details affect it (e.g., building material, gender, location, etc.) is also likely to fit under what I would simply call ‘the problem.’ Here, the ‘best’ literature will show that the problem really matters—that will strengthen the thesis in the eyes of readers.

Then the methods used will be defended with literature. Detail about previous approaches will build the argument for methods used—reporting these from the literature requires looking for other studies’ limitations as well as strengths and writing the story of what seems useful and what less so to the current project. Having a set of evaluation criteria in hand enables even early reading to be fitted into a coherent plan, described in a way that is likely to be useable. Chris Hart (1988) spells out the kinds of questions that literature ought to answer. Candidates can work out what questions they need to ask of literature for their own project, and might include criteria like:

  • Are any definitions useful?
  • Is their problem the same as mine?
  • Are their methods good?
  • What supports my ideas?
  • What raises new ideas or disagrees with mine?
  • What are the limitations?

Additionally, they can look at each publication’s prose for models that can be followed. Does it clearly articulate the problem, and the argument? Is it succinct and convincing? How does it defend methods and articulate a methodology? Does it use good vocabulary? How does it handle theory? Strong prose structures at the level of paragraph and sentence can be emulated by novice researchers who are unsure.

If you are in a discipline that uses direct quotation, accumulating useful quotations is essential—and while you are picking those that express ideas eloquently, you can look at syntax for how they achieve this quality. Care with page numbers is essential.

It still won’t be easy, but the candidate could begin by constructing a mock contents page for their future thesis and itemising what literature will be needed in each section gives one way to mitigate the panic that some doctoral students feel when reading and writing while still unsure of their final topic.


Hart, Chris. (1998). Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination. London: Sage Publications, 1998.

Kamer, B. & Thompson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.






Innovation in the doctoral thesis: Cutting edge or over the edge?



By Susan Carter

Cutting edge is a term for trail-blazing work that opens up intellectual frontiers. I’m generally enthusiastic about cutting-edge work that pushes the boundaries. I’m assuming that most of us savour innovation; I’m also assuming that supervisors have responsibilities for minimising student risk and that doctoral students want success.

For some years I facilitated doctoral fora and several times put together a panel of doctoral graduates who had won our Dean of Graduate Studies best thesis award. The intention was that they would give advice based on their own experiences to those still writing theses. Whenever the best thesis writers described their work, there would be something about it that diverged strikingly from conventional structure, methods or genre. It seemed as though it was often the well-controlled use of strategies from a different discipline that caused these theses to stand out as high quality.

Barbara Lovitts (2007: 36-38) has researched what comprises an outstanding, a very good, an acceptable and an unacceptable thesis, gathering characteristics from academics [n279] across ten disciplines. The qualities of an outstanding thesis include, amongst others, many pointers to innovation:

  • Original and significant, and also ambitious, brilliant, clear, clever, coherent, compelling, concise, creative, elegant, engaging, exciting, interesting, insightful, persuasive, sophisticated, surprising and thoughtful
  • Pushes the discipline’s boundaries

Our Dean isn’t alone, then, in evaluation of best theses: other academics agree that innovation marks an outstanding these. Not all of us are capable of achieving this level of excellence, but the good news is that we don’t have to: it’s reassuring to read what is passable—the characteristics of an acceptable thesis are not that high (Lovitts, 2007: 38).

Yet, I’ve also worked with doctoral scholars who aim for a non-standard thesis and the outcome is unfortunate, placing them at risk, causing supervisory angst, and resulting in fairly extensive revision once the examiners’ reports come in. Writing that aims to be ‘creative’ can be self-indulgent, satisfying for the author but frustrating for a reader. The thesis can present as tangled and jumbly, and reading it, like hacking through a dense jungle.

Lovitts (2007: 37-38) also has something to say there. Her characteristics of an unacceptable thesis include some that might be linked to those whose attempts at innovation fail:

  • Is poorly written
  • Presentation is sloppy
  • Does not understand basic concepts, processes, or conventions of the discipline
  • Theory is missing, wrong, or not handled well
  • Data are flawed, wrong, false, fudged, or misrepresented
  • Analysis is wrong, inappropriate, incoherent, or confused

Innovation is one of those polarising abstract nouns, potentially wonderful or troublesome. And discussion of it can be painful. It is hard to give feedback around the failure of prose to communicate when a thesis author is sure that they are producing something playfully artistic. Often, of course, and usually in some disciplines, evaluation is subjective. Nonetheless, safety fences need to be erected if there seems a serious risk that examiners interpret innovation as sloppiness or naivety about what a thesis should be and deem it not worthy of a doctorate.

Writers often struggle to see what it is that entangles their readers. Emotions then heighten—both the student’s and the supervisor’s. While it is hard to give feedback to a doctoral student who resents that you are not appreciative of their artistry, supervisors and doctoral students need to avoid angering an examiner with innovation that might be hard to recognise or understand.

So how do thesis writers and supervisors recognise what is strong because it is cutting edge, and what is at risk of falling off the edge into the abyss of failure? I also attended the best thesis award ceremonies, and know from the Dean’s eulogies that the award winners’ prose was fluent, clear and stylish, their work well-referenced and highly polished. There were almost no typos or surface level errors. At the same time as there was something novel in the construction of the thesis itself, there was unmistakable evidence of the authors’ scholarly authority and meticulous care. They demonstrated an unquestionable ‘insider persona’ (Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995).

Here’s the take home message, then. My recommendation is that when students hanker strongly for innovation, they need to audit their own writing skills and patience with revision.

In my experience, there’s a simple formula: the more non-standard the thesis, the stronger the writer’s fluency and authorial control must be if examiners and other readers are to remain sure that the thesis is not simply a mess.

It is likely to take more hours of work to produce a best thesis that leverages from its innovation. Doctoral students should be reminded that once they graduate, they have the material in the thesis to publish how they wish—one option is to save ideas for innovative presentation until after graduation. Publication is probably where they will make their mark within international discourse–they may find journals there that welcome the more creative version of work that was conservative in the thesis.

As is frequently the case, choice about the degree to which convention can be broken depends in part on an author’s levels of risk-aversion versus thrill-desire. The doctorate is a three to four year endeavour—it seems a mistake to take the project too near the edge of failure without being aware of what is needed for safety.

I’m curious as to how others experience innovation, either successful or troublesome. Maybe you have views on this based on your own risk aversion or delight in creativity? Post a comment!


Berkenkotter, Carol, & Huckin, Thomas N. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication: Cognition, Culture, Power. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lovitts, B. (2007). Making the implicit explicit: Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, Virginia, Stylus.







PhD study and computer technologies use: A common experience?


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By Kwong Nui

This blog returns to the technology and doctoral study series, and comes from Kwong Nui who is a lecturer in e-learning at Centre for Academic Development, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Kwong Nui’s PhD thesis investigates the ways PhD students use ICT to support their doctoral research process – and right now she’s just waiting for her examiner reports! Good luck Kwong Nui, and thanks for this contribution which is such a fitting conclusion to our series on technologies for doctoral study.

In terms of technology contributing to my PhD dissertation, I guess the main use is for searching articles and writing my dissertation … my supervisors suggested I use some new software; I said I would take a look, but really I couldn’t be bothered with the hassle and frustration involved in learning how to use it. … My PhD is more important than learning to use a new software application.

Under normal circumstances, PhD students have to use computer technologies throughout their doctoral research, including for preparation, fieldwork, analysis and writing. But very often, PhD students also have reservations – as is evident in this participant quote from my own research into doctoral student use of technology. What does this indicate?

As a PhD student myself, I have been a keen user of technological devices, tools and applications. With the encouragement of my supervisors, I decided to engage with computer technologies throughout my doctoral research, particularly with the notion of being efficient and effective towards the goal of producing my PhD thesis. I set up my Endnote (a referencing software), OneNote (a digital notebook for research journals and reflections), and the dissertation format on Microsoft Word, as well as the proposed milestones on Outlook Calendar from Day One of my PhD study.

At the same time, I started setting up Netvibes feed (see the screenshot below) from the relevant library databases to retrieve literature in this research domain. This setup enhanced my literature search and updates as new publications in my field came out.

Then, in the data collection phase, I used smart devices to record participants’ audios during their individual and group discussion sessions (Voice Memos app of an iPhone and an external audio recorder as a backup) as well as for photographing purposes (the Camera on an iPhone). Also, I downloaded a licenced software application, Manic Time, onto the participants’ computer devices in order to capture their daily computer activities. At the end of the data collection period, I uploaded all my raw data onto a secure university cloud platform, Syncplicity, for data storage. During the data analysis phase, I used NVivo for coding purposes and SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) version 22 as well as Microsoft Excel for statistical analysis.

OneNote, that I had set up at the beginning phase of my PhD, played a significant role in both the data collection and analysis phases, in terms of generating, mind mapping and discussing ideas between my supervisors and myself (see the screenshot below). Such shared platform established research transparency within the team and enriched our communication on my PhD research development.

Like many other students I regularly used popular applications such as Microsoft Visio for diagramming purpose; Microsoft Power Point to develop and present my slides; and Skype for communication with people.

In summary, I hardly used any paper in the process of carrying out my PhD study for those two and a half years. Looking back, the computer technologies I used while undertaking PhD might impress no one; the experiences I created with them are what matters, and the fact that I’m gaining useful knowledge beyond my discipline expertise. Now that I have started my first academic position at a university, I am pleased that the computer technologies experiences I have gained from my doctoral learning have smoothed my emerging academic and research process.

However, I’m aware that despite the access to computer technologies in higher education, many PhD students are, to a certain extent, resistant to changing their methods of working for the reason portrayed at the beginning of this blog. While it is acknowledged that adaptation takes time, it could be important for PhD students who are at an advanced academic level to continually review, revise and improve their research practices based upon current and anticipated future needs. In my experience, PhD students definitely benefit from proactively taking up opportunities to learn to use various ICT effectively and efficiently during their candidature – whilst not neglecting the main objective of doctoral research and the production of the thesis.

Managing writing tension in the supervision relationship


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By Susan Carter

We’ve had a useful series of posts on technology for doctoral writing, but this post turns from the technical to the social. Human beings have their own complexities. It isn’t uncommon for tension to arise between doctoral students and their supervisors over the writing processes.

Commonly this occurs when supervision crosses different cultural protocols for talking across hierarchies. Gender, age, experience—even things like whether both have children or not—can cause tensions. Laurie Finke puts it neatly: “Every utterance is always inhabited by the voice of the ‘other,’ or of many others, because the interests of race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, and any number of other related ‘accents’ intersect each utterance” (Finke, 1992: 13).

Here, though, I focus not on social distinctions, but on difference in approach to practice. I’m drawing on material I have developed for supervisors teams who want support with managing the relationship. The following sets of questions are intended to help students and supervisors identify causes of tension so that they can begin strategizing on how to work around them. Statements in them are similar to ones I have heard expressed by academics and doctoral students: I believe that occasionally quite polarised views are held within supervisor-student relationships, and that these can also cause discomfit. Those who are not so extreme can still their preference tendencies.

Reality check for differences

Writing preferences can be checked with the following:

Main criteria for thesis prose

Clarity is the most important feature of thesis prose. Clarity is less important than theoretical complexity or creativity or [something else].

Internal thesis consistency (e.g., with use of first person pronouns, register of language etc.)

Consistency right throughout the thesis is essential. Sometimes consistency rules need to be broken when there are more important issues at stake.

Doctoral thesis length is usually 70 – 100 thousand words

It’s best to take all the words needed to fully explore material and ideas. It’s best to produce something as direct and succinct as possible to achieve doctoral success.

The thesis must show knowledge of literature and critical analysis of it

It is most important that novice researchers spend as long as it takes to fully understand the literature. Novice researchers should be discouraged from endless reading because it can go on forever.

Standard of submitted thesis

Each doctoral thesis is its author’s only one: it has to be perfect. As soon as a thesis is good enough it should be submitted so the author can move on—future publication can be more sophisticated.

Closure on research project

As soon as a thesis is good enough it should be submitted so the author can move on—future publication can be more sophisticated. Students should submit as soon as possible—they can do more with data later.

Thrill from originality or from using the conventions of research

I most love the intellectual adventure of academia. I most love the time-honoured security of academia’s well established conventions.

Fast lane or slow lane

Students should progress beyond the doctorate as soon as possible. Students should experience the doctorate to full satisfaction before moving on.

Plans for after the thesis

Students should be prepared for work as academics after completion of the doctorate. Students should be encouraged to prepare for a wide range of career options.

Holistic or discrete writing practice

It’s best to work on individual sections of the thesis one at a time. It’s best to work steadily over the whole thesis, ranging between sections.

Risk taker or risk averse

The best students take risks in thesis writing for the satisfaction of a cutting-edge style. The best students make choices that ensure safety through the examination process.

With these prompts, student and supervisor can begin talking rationally about why they might both be frustrated. They can consider whether there any other dichotomies are causing tension. The premise is that the conversation deliberately steps back from blame and reaction to objectively diagnose the cause of pain and then come up with a route to alleviating it.

I’m sure there’s scope for further analytical approaches to tension between student and supervisor around doctoral writing. Communication preferences play a role too. Do you have suggestions? Or experiences that identify other tensions that are due to different approaches to doctoral writing?


Finke, Laurie A. (1992). Feminist theory, women’s writing. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.



How ‘RescueTime’ rescued me



This post comes from the wonderful Fritz Siregar, a PhD student from Indonesia who has been studying at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney. Besides being a regular at ‘Shut up and Write’ meet ups, Fritz can boast that he is nearly finished his PhD in Law on the Indonesian Constitutional Court. Of course we wish him a speedy completion – but we will miss him when he’s done and gone home! Read here how Fritz got to be so productive…

One of our challenges as Ph.D. students is to determine whether or not our days are productive. In my case there are many occasions when, at the end of the day, I wonder where all my time has gone. From participating in two “avoiding procrastination” workshops I know it’s not just me: many people have this problem! These workshops told me that we must chunk our daily list into reading, writing, editing, researching and I learned that productivity shall decline if we do one activity for more than 2 hours continuously.  I also attended a writing skills workshop where I learned that writing in “snacking style” is more productive. It is much better to allocate a specific 2 hours per day to writing rather than scheduling 5 hours per day.

Upon considering those two insights, I tried to quantify my day to maximize my productivity. I decided to make a target of “250 words” per day. So, if I successfully wrote 250 words, I would stop writing and do something else (read, edit, social media, reading news). However, if you are a research student, you might understand that writing 250 solid words into your Ph.D. dissertation is not easy to do: it requires combining referencing, checking your research and resisting the temptation to read other articles. Many days I failed to achieve this target so I changed my plan to write “whatever 500 words”. At the writing skills workshop, I learned that we must set a specific time to write, allowing the mind to flow and letting the brain write as much as possible. I can then use that “500 words” for a blog, dissertation, or another report that I need to prepare. The idea to quantify my writing output is the foundation for using the application RescueTime.

I installed the app RescueTime after reading a review on the net (I was probably procrastinating!). I used the free version for almost a year and kept using it until today. RescueTime is an app that you need to install to your computer. It has free PC and Mac versions. I used MacAir, so I did not have to bother with the university’s strict security regarding installation of new apps. If you use a PC-based or campus computer, you may need IT Security approval to install it.

RescueTime provides a report about how you use your computer. In the background, the app calculates how much time you are working with certain applications. Then it reports this through a dashboard in which you can see your Score and Reports.

RescueTime also allows you to set your Writing Goals for the day. In my case, I try to write 2 hours per day. I can assure you that it is not easy to do (the counting starts when you start to type; when you stop typing, the system also stops counting). In RescueTime you can set the level of information that you want RescueTime to collect, for example, whether the monitor will collect all data from all websites or only domains that you specify. I let RescueTime collect all data without restriction. This means that RescueTime will let me know how much time I spent in shopping websites (eBay, Amazon) or social media.

RescueTime also offers a paid version for approximately $72AUS per year. With the paid version you can access more features, such as blocking programs that you do not want to access, recording break time or receiving more detailed feedback on your activity. But I am already satisfied with the free version.

Here is a screen shot of the kind of report that I get. On one of my great days RescueTime will make high score compared to my daily writing target:

1Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.21.59 pm

RescueTime will let me know which apps that I  used often.

2Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.22.24 pm3Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.22.49 pm

However, in my not-so-productive days, when I spend much time procrastinating or on other distractions, RescueTime gives me a low score.

4Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.23.11 pm

It seems that I used more time on distracting activities!

5Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.23.36 pm

And I did not meet my writing goal, even though I spent more time on my computer!

6Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 6.24.00 pm

After using RescueTime for almost a year, I have made some modifications in my writing behaviour. First, RescueTime confirmed what I already knew; that is, from 12 PM – 3 PM is not my productive period. I waste most of that time on distractions such as social media or reading the news. I now schedule other activities for that time period. Second, the app let me know not only how much time I have wasted, but also what I’ve been doing while distracted – and this ‘soft punishment’ feedback helps me force myself to go back to work later in the day.

RescueTime stresses their information collecting activities, stating:

Rescuetime will record information about the currently active application or website on your computer. We record the following information: application name, web site URL, window title, start time of use, end time of use, OS username, and computer machine name. We do not (and never will) collect keystrokes, form input, screenshots, or anything nefarious.

However, if you feel insecure in this regard, perhaps you might be better not to install it on your computer. Luckily this isn’t an issue for me – I’ve found RescueTime enormously beneficial for writing my PhD

On a productive day with a higher score, I can go home with head high knowing that I have had a busy day writing. RescueTime will not tell me whether I’ve been working on my dissertation, but for sure it helps me make each day more productive than the last. If you want to consider using this application, you can download it from this link: (Disclaimer: if you do download from this link – I get to try RescueTime Pro for a week!)


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