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By Deborah Laurs

Irrespective of institution, the definition of a PhD is universally recognised as ‘a body of independent and original research,’ generally evidenced by a dissertation of ‘up to 100,000 words’. Hence, while the research is original, the form in which it is presented is, inevitably, a ‘cookie-cutter one-size-for-all approach’. Any Google search of ‘thesis structure’ pulls up the same ingredients—Introduction, Lit Review, Methodology/Research Design, Findings, Discussion, Conclusion.

Doctoral writing, then, by and large, entails a process of presenting original ideas in a markedly unoriginal form. Sure, the actual packaging may differ, depending on whether you’re within the Humanities, Sciences, or creative arts, but the basic ingredients, and—more importantly—the expectations of your audience (read: ‘examiners’) are identical. Even though Hugh Kearns succinctly summarises the thesis chapters as ‘what I know,’ ‘what I’ve read,’ ‘what I did,’ ‘what I’ve found’ and ‘what I reckon,’ it may be difficult for students to sustain confidence in the merits of their research and writing abilities when surrounded by exemplars that are ‘same, same but different’.

‘How to write’ handbooks offer firm guidelines about the requisite ingredients and ‘moves’ each section of the thesis requires in order to lead the reader (the not so gentle examiner) logically through to the conclusion. Yet, frequently, issues associated with attempting to reproduce an original version of a pre-ordained format crop up in the very first tasks, typically the Literature Review and Methodology chapters.

Clearly, surveying the existing body of knowledge is crucial in order to justify the ‘gap’ that the student’s original research seeks to fill. However, the task in itself is highly formulaic, requiring students to appraise a body of knowledge that every other scholar in the field has already reviewed, but to do so from the fresh and unique perspective of how it relates to their own research. Similarly (particularly in the social sciences) a student must establish her ontological and epistemological positioning, rejecting (or espousing) assorted research paradigms in the process. This intellectual journey is likely to result in writing that closely mirrors the writings of the likes of John Cresswell or Yvonna  Lincoln and Norman Denzin, and takes on different voices, usually awkwardly, like an unconvincing ventriloquist.  It is very difficult for emerging researchers to find their own authoritative voice in their writing.

The imitative nature of these tasks is exemplified by the existence of resources such as ‘academic phrase banks’, which contain pre-packaged expressions such as ‘It was decided that the best method to adopt for this investigation was to ….’ or  ‘Previous research tended to suffer from limitations/weaknesses/disadvantages/drawbacks [take your pick] such as…’ Although undoubtedly a useful tool, such templates reduce the thesis to the equivalent of a cloze test, with students needing only to ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ appropriate to the discipline.

As novice thesis writers put their literature reviews together, it’s no wonder that first drafts of lit reviews more often resemble summaries of ‘what I’ve read’ than ‘what these works mean to me’ and research design chapters sound unconvincingly stilted.  In many cases the plethora of voices—and jargon—within the literature overwhelms the student entirely, further exacerbating the paradoxical expectation that their writing demonstrates original thought.

Similarly, the spectre of plagiarism looms large. Early attempts to assimilate other people’s ideas and a sense of being overwhelmed often result in the student not daring to claim any ideas as her own. Prefacing each sentence with ‘According to …’ or ‘Research by …’, or over-reliance on quotations may seem the only safe way to demonstrate sources have been correctly acknowledged. Often first drafts are overly tentative.

Paraphrasing and synthesis are higher order cognitive skills, requiring a thorough understanding of the concept. For many students, this understanding may not transpire until well into the analysis stage, several years hence, which frequently necessitates an associated overhaul of the initial ‘kitchen-sink’ lit review chapter.  Setting novice writers a largely formulaic task with the aim of producing original thought requires careful scaffolding. Original writing requires original thinking, which in itself requires considerable confidence and a clear sense of direction, preparatory to entering into conversation with the biggest names in the field.

As with all writing matters, the main solution is talking—with one’s supervisor, fellow students; even better, talk with family and friends as far removed from the project as possible in order to help the student find her own voice because outsiders will have respect for her expertise compared to their own. But I wonder if others have ways of dealing with the writing tension underpinning the ‘same, same but different’ genre of the thesis.

Deborah Laurs is a senior learning advisor at Victoria, University of Wellington, New Zealand, where she runs research skills seminars and thesis-writing workshops, as well providing one-to-one support to students at all stages of their doctoral journey. In 2010, she was recognized as ‘most influential staff member’ by her university’s postgraduate students’ association, and in 2011, received a  ‘staff excellence’ award. She is co-author of Developing Generic Support for Doctoral Students (in press, due April 2014), Routledge.