, , ,

by Cally Guerin

Sometimes it seems that doctoral students attend workshops on thesis writing because they are seeking a nice, neat formula to follow. The primary question they want answered is: ‘What’s correct?’ Given all the other pressures on them – to finish on time, to be original, to get research published, etc., etc. – it’s easy to understand the desire to have a simple, straightforward set of rules to follow that will please examiners and journal editors alike. Part of the writing teacher’s job seems to be letting them down softly and helping them realize that it can never be that simple. The route to thesis submission always demands more complicated decision-making along the way; even more challenging, the environment in which those submissions occur is changing rapidly in unpredictable ways.

There is some comfort for those seeking these kinds of formulaic answers, however, in the traditional IMRAD structure of scientific articles: Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion. Unfortunately, this neat acronym neglects to mention the Abstract and Reference sections. And then, the apparently neat separation between different sections turns out to be rather messier for many researchers – is it okay to include some discussion in the Materials and Methods to explain why a non-standard procedure was adopted? Is there always a clear cut-off between Results and Analysis/Discussion if I’m reporting on qualitative research that has already been analysed in order to create some broad organizing themes? If you find yourself looking for useful strategies to work through such complex issues, try Carter, Kelly and Brailsford’s (2012) book, Structuring your research thesis.

Also very popular amongst those looking for instruction is the ‘moves’ approach developed by John Swales and Christine Feak (1996; 2004), otherwise known as the CaRS model (Create a Research Space). This model illuminates the reasoning behind Introductions in research and includes three main moves or positionings: establish a research territory (and make a case for why it matters); establish a niche (and point out a gap in the field); and occupy that niche (by explaining exactly what this new research will add to the field). These ‘moves’ or opening gambits do, of course, work very well in lots of ways, and should not be underestimated as a means to engage readers and demonstrate the value of the research. This approach has been picked up and developed further by many since (see, for example, Cargill & O’Connor 2009; Paltridge and Starfield 2007).

The structures mentioned above provide very useful guidance for novice writers, but will never be enough in doctoral writing. A thesis requires much more nuanced negotiation of the conventions of the discipline. In relation to this, I was greatly heartened to hear Anne Freadman speaking at the Writing Research Across Borders (WRAB) conference recently. Freadman, the doyenne of genre theory, is working at an enviably complex level. I can’t hope to capture the subtleties of her argument here, but one valuable message I took from her presentation was that, basically, writers need to conform to the ‘generic form’ only sufficiently for readers to recognize where their work fits in with the conventions and expectations of genre – they do not need to slavishly imitate or repeat that genre. The real achievement, it would seem, is for doctoral writers to find a balance between what they want to say and the conventions of their discipline that works well enough to communicate precisely the message they aim for. This is always a matter of judgement and can’t be dictated by adherence to strict rules.

Have you found yourself faced with doctoral students who seek easy answers? Or are you a doctoral candidate struggling with the same concerns? What other advice would you offer those trying to find their way through these questions?

Cargill, M. & O’Connor, P. (2009). Writing scientific research articles: Strategy and steps. Oxford UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

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

Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Swales, J.M. & Feak, C.B. (1996; 2004). Academic writing for graduate students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.