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By Susan Carter with Deborah Walker

At my institution, the maximum word length for a thesis is 100,000 words. Those I know who examine theses tend to think this is a good thing. But many students don’t—they find it frustratingly difficult to fit the complexity of what they want to do into that box.

I think that there are lots of benefits in doing a doctorate in an era where economy of language is mandated. Those of us who are obsessive about writing, our own and others’, know that often being forced to cut back on writing length enlivens and sharpens the prose. It forces us to say things more accurately. We have to settle on main points. Once we cut away the not-so-central strands, the writing gains a surprising authority and style. It’s better, easier to follow and more persuasive.

I did my own doctorate as an international student needing to hurry because of the high fees entailed. Now, as an academic, I still like to work to deadlines with publication. On planet earth, it seems to me, limits on things are usual: you are asked to run 100 m or run 200 m and there is no haggling about the line. We seem a species that prefers to draw frameworks round things.

And, as an academic working with doctoral students, I’ve talked to many international students who are keen to find the quickest route to completion and home again. I have watched other students go slowly grey as they linger within exquisitely intricate studies that are absolute works of art, as is their expertise. Although I can see the pleasure in this, I am not sure it is the best choice: I want them to get through the doctorate and move into ‘real’ life. Often it is when children are due that the need for more traction becomes most urgent.

Yet, arguably, that practice of thinking that pruned is better, and the very terms I have defined it in, suggests that there is only one way to handle a cat and that every cat must be short-haired. I say ‘arguably’ because I had just that argument recently, and it forced me to concede that my approach is based on my own, limited, experience.

Deborah is an academic teaching across languages and cultures. She’s interested in supervision, came to a seminar I advertised, and this allowed us to argue about whether it was pedagogically unsound to shackle thesis length to 100,000 words. Deborah is supervising a cotutelle doctorate, so her student has a French supervisor and a New Zealand one.

While in full agreement as to the importance of crisp, concise writing and realistic deadlines, she argued passionately that any French institution rightly allows a doctorate to take however much space it needs to do its work (100,000-120,000 words would be reasonably light for Humanities). She’s grateful the cotutelle regulations allow her candidate the flexibility to avoid this cookie-cutter one-size-for-all approach which limits the candidate’s ability to present her research in its entirety.

So, each of our opinions is based on our different experiences, showing multiple realities. Is there any commonality in preference?

You may have noticed that we tend to fish for comments at the end of our blog posts, but this one offers a poll. What do you think? From your point of view is it better to limit word length and time as the definition of a thesis or should we make the box bigger?

Deborah Walker-Morrison (Ngati Kahungunu / Raakai Paaka; Ngati Pahauwera) is Head of French at the University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her professional profile can be found at http://www.artsfaculty.auckland.ac.nz/staff/?UPI=dwal049&Name=Deborah Walker

Too small boxes and Maru the cat: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7c05gVJK7ug

Maru and big box: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2q7fw3PdFA

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