, , ,

By Claire Aitchison

Earlier this month when I was running some workshops for doctoral students in the Northern Territory of Australia, a conversation ensued about no-go areas in the thesis.

nogo areas205

In thesis writing, as in life, we are wise to make decisions to keep certain things to ourselves. Some things that happen in doctoral research are best not shared. For example, don’t tell them how you forgot to turn on the tape recorder at the focus group interview…

Let me quickly make it clear that I am not advocating unethical practices like hiding bad results or manipulating data or findings, or withholding relevant information from participants. It is absolutely imperative to conform to ethical standards of research and to be as transparent and as consultative as possible about our processes and practices.

But in writing the thesis, one constantly needs to make decisions about what to include and exclude. Various institutional, disciplinary and ethical practices – and personal preferences – impact our decision-making about what goes into, or stays out of, the thesis.

In my experience, depending on the disciplinary expectations and the kind of research being undertaken, doctoral scholars may be uncertain as to whether or not to write (or write very much) about the following kinds of things:

For example, how much do we need to tell about the twists and turns of the research journey?   It’s not always clear. I worked with a student who sought to measure the impact of a certain leaf-chewing insect on a eucalypt forest. For many and convoluted reasons to do with access to a specific machine in the laboratory, she ended up changing her research, instead investigating the impact of the insect droppings on soil structures. She could have told this story from a variety of vantage points – not the least of which would have been her anger and frustration! What appeared in her thesis, however, was a very authoritative statement about the need for the study she did. Another scholar working with an indigenous community also had to make significant and unexpected changes to her research. She felt that she was not at liberty to relate any aspect of the circumstances which had brought about this substantial change, even though it had had a major impact on the research. Her choice to keep the public out of this part of the story was the right ethical decision.

It’s unlikely any doctoral thesis will include a review of all the relevant literature. Generally, it’s only after many iterations arising from sustained engagement in the research itself that we get clarity about what can stay and what must go. You can’t leave in a beaut 5,000 words on globalization – no matter how well-written – if it’s no longer relevant because your research moved you on in another direction. If it’s not fit for purpose, then it shouldn’t be in the thesis.

The pilot study can also present a dilemma. On a number of occasions I’ve worked with doctoral scholars who have been in a quandary about reporting on their pilot study. In my own doctoral research I did a small test-run to check out the veracity of my interview questions and to see which participant recruitment flyer appealed most. It was a useful activity for me – but it wasn’t a particularly important part of the research and I never reported on it, nor did I use the data that I collected in the process.

On the other hand, I’ve known of situations where the pilot study, although conceived of simply as a mechanism to test specific research methods, itself became an important source of data. In this case, the researcher had to decide how to tell that story. Should they have described how it started out as one thing and changed to another? What was necessary information in this case? Could they abandon the term ‘pilot study’ and include that original investigation as one of the data sets? Is it better to conceive of that component as a ‘First Phase’ of a two phase study? The point here is that we need to decide what story fits best the requirement to present a strong, coherent and honourable account.

Sometimes doctoral scholars are unsure about the need to include raw data in appendices. Again, there will be different answers according to the discipline and nature of the research. In the sciences there may be an expectation to include considerable amounts of information in appendices (protocols and calibration specifications, for example). In the social sciences and humanities there is often less need – but again it depends. I know of a couple of studies using photovoice as a method, but only one thesis had an appendix with the participant’s photos. For most social research, it would be rare to include the full transcripts of participant interviews or focus group transcripts in the appendices. On the other hand, this may be required for certain studies in applied linguistics.

When deciding whether or not something needs to go into the thesis, I am reminded of something my kids say: ‘I’ll tell you if you need to know’. This could be equally good advice for thesis writers.

If you’ve had other experiences or can suggest strategies for making some of those tricky decisions about what stays in, or gets removed from, the thesis we’d love to hear from you.