By Susan Carter
Sometimes feeling insecure about thesis writing is a simply an uncomfortable symptom of increasing understanding of the topic. The example I am giving is the experience of designing thesis structure, but I’m pretty sure that there may be other times when insecurity, despair even, has to be read as a sign that you are right on track. You are just getting wiser.

It’s disconcertingly counterintuitive.

The example: Surprising numbers of doctoral students are troubled by thesis structuring design. Now, at my institution and I suspect many others, there is an assumption that by the end of the first year, structure is more or less nailed in place. However, with colleagues Frances Kelly and Marion Blumenstein, I researched doctoral students (n92) to learn more about this area of insecurity. We gathered lively metaphors used to describe thesis structure and found that there were discipline tendencies for tragedy or romance narrative types (find the article on this here).

But what unexpected was, when we correlated time-through-the-doctorate and Likkert-scale levels of uncertainty about structure, we found that the further through the doctorate individuals were, the less sure they felt about their thesis structure.

Many students know from the outset that they will have an introduction, literature review, methods, findings, discussion and conclusion. I’ve found from hundreds of student consultations, though, that in almost every discipline, some doctoral students find the rigidity of that structure does not serve the complexity of their topic well. And this realisation, which may come a year to two in, is bothersome.

They begin looking for alternative options, scouring a wider range of existing theses, and being torn by anxiety that if they are too creative, examiners may not recognise their work as a legitimate thesis, and yet feeling increasingly unwilling to stay on the well-trod path.

I’ve developed a two hour workshop on structuring a thesis that has been fairly well attended by doctoral students. It set off from the generic thesis model–if that will work, it is something of a never fail recipe and should be taken up gratefully and followed. I recommend to students who want to finish as quickly as possible that this one is a recognisable short safe route. But many know that it isn’t their solution.

The model is a check-list for non-standard thesis writers, who will still need to do the work of these sections somewhere and somehow within their theses. And make sure the expected generic moves are visible. From there we worked through a raft of possible ways to think about structure using ideas from thesis guide books (although literature on this was surprising lean) and ones we generated ourselves, but with discussion around the room to relate possible structural ideas to the individual challenges that each student was having.

It took me till the final stages of co-authoring a short book on structuring a research thesis to really understand that structure and style choices induce misery for those who know that they are writing themselves into existence in their thesis—into the academic existence that they could be inhabiting for a while. This aspect of writing was much closer to the bone–more intense–than meeting discipline expectations or showing critical analysis.

Seems the more you realise how complex your topic is, how strongly loyal you want to be to your data, how much the whole thing matters to you, the more troubling it is stepping into examiner scrutiny.

Our data suggests that initial plans aren’t final, nor should they be; they are contingent, and enable movement forward. As students gradually come to understand their topic, they may need to reorganise their plan—and they may have to live with the reality that doctoral writing is always a compromised negotiation. At the time, this feels like a disillusionment, but it is also the learning of research skills. (And possibly of wisdom that translates elsewhere.)

Carter, S., Kelly, F. and Brailsford, I. (2012). Structuring your research thesis. Houndsmills UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

Carter, S. & Blumenstein, M. (2011). Thesis structure: student experience and attempts towards solution. Higher Education Research Development, 34, 95-107.