By Susan Carter
Thesis writing is aimed at a primary reader: the examiner, a creature from the back of the psychological cave. Examiners are much feared because they are by definition testy readers, menacing in their power. The research thesis is thus the most defensive academic writing we produce, more defensive than undergraduate work, more defensive than articles.
To remove all panicky thoughts of the monstrous, Sue Johnston (1997: 345) sensibly points out that “Examiners require all of the normal forms of assistance which should be provided to any reader.” Actually, though, in addition to wanting the usual, examiners are readers who work in the evenings and often in short bursts, and may need just a little more guidance, despite being experts by definition. As Pat Thomson recently noted, you need to keep them on track, steering them towards signing off your thesis as completed. Hence, thesis writing needs to defend research choices.
Research on examiners and what they commonly want is handy to look at before submission, even better if it’s quite early on in the doctorate. Useful questions to imagine examiners asking include:
• Why did you choose that particular problem? Why did you not study this other problem instead?
• What exactly were you trying to find out? I’m unclear about the meaning of your problem statement.
• You have reviewed the important literature, but I fail to see what use you make of your review. Can you clarify for me what you learned from the review of literature?
• When you reviewed the literature, why did you decide to review that particular area of study?
• Why did you choose that particular method? Why did you not instead use this other method?
• Can you clarify for me how the particular method you chose relates directly to the problem you have chosen to study?
(Glatthorn 1998, 186-188)
Addressing these questions somewhere in the first year of the doctorate when decisions are being made boosts word count—good for confidence level and keeps supervisor happy—and establishes the mindset of defending the research in its writing. Being so defensively careful also shows that the writer knows about the thesis genre—it gives the look of someone who is already an insider.
While decisions are being made at the beginning, it’s also useful to remember that examiners will want to see that:
• the rationale for the study is clearly explicated;
• the appropriateness of the researcher conducting this study is made clear;
• clear and succinct hypotheses or questions are derived from/revealed by the literature review;
• the rationale of the general approach is closely argued, giving a reasoned case for rejecting other possible approaches;
• a justification of the research design is presented, taking account of potential advantages and limitations;
• the research techniques are argued as being theoretically and practically relevant to the research problem; reasons are given for rejection of possible alternatives, rationale provided for amendments to standard tests and procedures or for detailed design of innovative techniques.
(Tinkler & Jackson 2004, 114-116)
The reminder that a thesis need to link both literature and theory to what is actually being done is a good one—it usefully prompts the sort of writing that secures the thesis.
Another good source of examiner questions or focus is found in Trafford and Leshem (2002), who analyse what examiners want to tick off as satisfactory, and come up with ten ‘clusters’ of questions round different generic doctoral aspects: e.g., research design, conceptualization, methodology, methods,etc. Thesis writers may need to disengage from their attention to their research in the early stages to patiently give explanation and justification for decisions as they are making them, when the issues are fresh in their mind.
• Glatthorn, Allan A. (1998). Writing the Winning Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Guide Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Corwin, 1998.
• Johnston, Sue. (1997). “Examining the Examiners: an Analysis of Examiners’ Reports on Doctoral Theses,” Studies in Higher Education, Vol 22(3): 333-347.
• Tinkler, Penny and Carolyn Jackson. (2004). The Doctoral Examination Process: A Handbook for Students, Examiners and Supervisors. Berkshire: Open University Press.
• Trafford, Vernon and Shosh Leshem. (2002).“Starting at the End to Undertake Doctoral Research: Predictable Questions as Stepping Stones” in Higher Education Review, 34, 4, 2002, 43 – 61.