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by Cally Guerin

Increasingly I find myself reminding students that a thesis doesn’t have to report on every single thought the researcher has had for the past 3 or 4 (or more) years of candidature. Sure, it is very valuable to include descriptions of null responses or negative results from experiments – this is certainly interesting to those working in that particular field and provides helpful information for other researchers in the area, sometimes closing off possible paths that are now known to be unfruitful. It can also be very useful to report on problems that arose during the project which changed the direction of the research. Such insights can demonstrate critical thinking on the part of the candidate who not only encountered problems along the way, but who also found innovative solutions.

What gets left out is sometimes as important as what is left in the thesis, however. Not everything that has been read needs to be included in the literature review; indeed, critical thinking is demonstrated in part by being discerning, by choosing what is relevant and important to the discussion, rather than offering up a grab-bag of all that vaguely touches on an area. Staying focused on one central line of argument, maintaining a strong sense of direction and not going off onto irrelevant tangents, makes for good research writing, as does the capacity to delete sentences that, however beautifully written, move off in a different direction. Likewise, a scholar must choose what is usefully included in the final telling of the story of the thesis.

I use the word ‘story’ deliberately to imply that this is one version of events that has been carefully constructed and crafted to present a coherent account of the research process. I like Rudestam and Newton’s (2001) description of a well-written thesis containing many of the elements of detective fiction: a mystery in terms of a research question that requires answering; clues that take the form of data collection; the elimination of incorrect answers or red herrings encountered along the way. The thesis doesn’t necessarily have to follow the chronology of events as experienced by the researcher – just because delays were experienced in starting one part of the project doesn’t mean that the story must follow precisely the same sequence of events. Readers need a coherent story about those events that adheres to its own internal logic in order to understand the value and integrity of the research itself.

Perhaps this is as good a place as any to make a plug for the thesis by publication. This form is often rather leaner than traditional format theses (though not necessarily meaner!). I think that thesis by publication offers one way to help students stay focused on what is interesting and useful to the reader. Writing with the audience of journal reviewers in mind can be a valuable aid towards being a little more objective about one’s own writing; having a strict word or page limit can also focus the mind on what really needs to be included. Using the format of a journal article encourages researchers to hone in on what’s new and important, and to recognise what is assumed knowledge at this level.

Does this resonate with your own experience? As examiners, what do you want to see left out of theses? As supervisors and writing teachers, what do you find yourselves saying to students on this topic? And as PhD candidates, where do the struggles occur over what to leave out?

Rudestam, K.E. and Newton, R.R. (2001) Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process. 2nd Edn. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

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