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By Frances Kelly

How is metaphor useful when writing a thesis? I’ve been mulling over this question off and on for a few years, having worked with thesis writers as an academic advisor and as a supervisor, and of course as someone who has written (once upon a time) a doctoral thesis.  I’ve even written about this elsewhere, several times (see below), so when Susan asked if I would write this blog on writing with metaphor, I wondered if maybe I’d exhausted the topic and had nothing fresh to say about it. Then I remembered the conversation about metaphor with a doctoral thesis writer that got me started down this track – and how useful it was for me, as a writer myself, to reflect on it. So I thought I’d go back to the start – to the metaphor that gave birth to my own metaphor, and to my thinking more generally about the use of metaphor when writing a thesis.

As you can probably tell, I’m ok with allusion and connotation in writing. However writing with metaphorical language is not really what I’m talking about here. Rather, what I’m focused on is the use of conceptual and structural metaphors when writing – rather than the use of poetic or metaphorical language in writing (although this is not always such a neat and tidy distinction).

The metaphor conversation happened at a conference (as these things often do). The other thesis writer and I were students at the same university, but had never properly talked to each other until we found ourselves at this conference in a whole other institution, city and country.  I was in the first year of my doctorate and she was in her final year. We were standing outside, on a sunny spring day in Sydney, talking about establishing an argument over the thesis, and my friend started to describe the image she had of her thesis as she neared completion. It was something like a school of fish – a particular kind of fish (I forget which) that like to travel very close together, so as to give the appearance of size to any potential predators. Together, the little fish looked imposing and strong. Apart, they were little fish, and far more vulnerable to attack. The conference paper she had just given, she felt, was like a breakaway group of fish in the ocean – a strand of her argument that, while reasonably strong in itself, was a bit more vulnerable because it was not presented together with the other strands.

The idea of the school of fish stayed with me. Later, when I began to analyse other thesis metaphors, and to theorise about the kind of function metaphor might play in thesis writing, I saw my friend’s metaphor as a conceptual metaphor –a ‘thing’ she could conceptualise that provided a way of holding her thesis in her mind’s eye. This ‘thing-making’ enabled her to make sense of the relationship between its parts (the little fish) and the whole (the school/big fish). Yet she did not make use of that metaphor in any deliberate way in the thesis itself – if you look at the thesis there is no hint of fish about it!

Other thesis writers use metaphor more deliberately, as a means of structuring the thesis. I give various examples of these structural metaphors in the book Susan, Ian and I wrote on Structuring your research thesis (2012) and in an article on ‘Cooking together disparate things: the role of metaphor in thesis writing’ (2011). With a structural metaphor, the author might use echo links between the titles of different sections, for example, to help build coherence. In these cases the metaphor has a dual function: it is conceptual and allows the author to imagine the thesis as an entity, at the same time it works to assist the reader to a coherent experience of the thesis text, to make links between different parts, and to bring the thesis together into a unified whole. Sometimes the metaphor will be one that is integral to the topic itself. I’ve seen a thesis on plants that in its structure echoes the parts of a plant, and a thesis in musicology that is structured like a symphony; in both the tenor (argument) and vehicle (formal elements, like structure) work together to establish meaning.

Sometimes, the articulation or recognition of a metaphor enables a breakthrough in thesis writing. It can be the moment (or series of moments) when the writer thinks – that’s it! That’s the thesis! This can happen in solely conceptual terms, because now the thesis can be imagined as a whole and complete thing; or it might be in conceptual and structural terms, because then the writer knows how they’re going to put it together in a way that makes sense of all its parts, that will in turn assist the reader.

What are some thesis metaphors? Here’s a quick gallop through some I’ve seen. The thesis as: tree, house, woven mat, knot, double helix, school of fish, department store, field of battle, journey, symphony, ship or canoe, pathway. The list goes on – let me know if you have one to add…

Frances Kelly

Special guest Frances Kelly is a Research Fellow in Higher Education, with special interest in doctoral education, in the School of Critical Studies in Education (CRSTIE), Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland.


Kelly, Frances. 2011. ‘’Cooking together disparate things’: the role of metaphor in thesis writing.’ Innovations in Education and Teaching International 48(4), 429-438. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2011.617088 

Carter, Susan, Kelly, Frances & Brailsford, Ian. 2012. Structuring your research thesis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.