By Susan Carter

I was talking to a chap who’d just graduated through a taught Masters with strong grades. He said, “Sometimes I got my best marks when I was really busy and didn’t have enough time. Then you’d just try to figure out the bare bones of what they wanted. Actually, that seems to be what matters.” With a big project like a doctoral thesis, looking for what matters becomes harder because there is so much detail to attend to with painstaking care. It becomes very easy to overlook what matters. Yet examiners who need to tick off that each of the generic requirements has been met are really looking for “what matters.”

A thesis with good bones usually stands out as strong once finished. This post is given to the bones of the thesis, the framework that gives its structure.

Figuring out the bone structure gives a writer multiple advantages at many stages of the thesis. Usually a full thesis proposal produced in the first year will have a suggested outline. The more concrete such an outline is, the easier the author makes it for themselves to begin the writing project. Knowing how many chapters (or articles if this is a thesis by/with publication) means envisioning the work that must be done.

Working back from the word limit helps too: knowing the full thesis might be 80,000 words lets you figure more or less what proportion of these words will be given to the different moves to be made within that word limit. It already breaks that work up into smaller tasks that seem less daunting. It also begins to outline the bones of each section—if there are only five thousand words to cover the three theories that underpin the research, then you need to decide what detail matters enough to be included. The shorter route to finished becomes more visible as a sense of structure firms up.

Pulling back to do a stocktake on what matters, and reconsidering the bones of the thesis, can sometimes be helpful if the detail is beginning to grow tiresome. Shifting from detail to the bare bones of thesis structure gives psychological relief as a way of shuffling forward with a large writing project. Moving back and forth between different sections and chores at different levels helps with the sheer tedium involved in a large project. For many doctoral students, this will be their first exercise in persistence. Consciously developing psychological strategies may be essential for survival.

Then, before submission, it’s a good idea to take an x-ray view of the thesis. At the end, the articulation of the skeleton becomes crucial because it does much of the work that allows the examiner to tick off against the criteria for a PhD.

That word articulation is apt: it applies to both talk and to movement. ‘Articulate’ is the word I use when I’m struggling for absolute precision with a theoretical or novel idea that is still slightly nebulous: “I need to find a way to articulate this.”

The articulation of the skeleton gives movement to the mass of flesh: the talk of a thesis, the flesh of content, needs to make moves too. It needs to demonstrate that it meets the generic criteria for doctoral qualification–these usually relate to originality, incorporation of the relevant literature and methodology, and the overall format.

The metaphor of a skeleton with articulation could be taken a bit further into the joinery hooking those bones together. Ensuring that every section of the thesis is framed within the main argument, the context of problem, what is known, what unknown, the theory, the methodology and why the research matters somehow assures examiners that this is a coherent entity that makes a substantial enough contribution. Doing this entails successful articulation of those good bones (what really matters) and sets them to work persuading examiners and future readers that the research contribution is valuable and interesting.

Do you have different metaphors than dancing skeletons for that might help doctoral students think about their key points and how to emphasise them in writing?