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By Cally Guerin

One of the exercises I like to do in doctoral writing workshops is to look at real theses and see how they compare to the generic advice on writing theses. Participants bring along theses that have recently been submitted in their discipline and are regarded by supervisors and examiners as examples of good research and writing. The process is designed partly to encourage PhD students to have a clearer picture in their own minds of the end-product they are working towards, and partly to provide ways of articulating standard structures. Increasingly, I find that the theses students bring along to the workshops don’t quite match the standard advice.

Take the first chapter of a thesis, for example. This is usually labelled as the ‘Introduction’, but what that means can be surprisingly varied in terms of length and what is included. In the past, I’ve worked with a list of components that could (should?) be included in this opening section: background information, rationale for research, scope of project, research questions and aims, maybe something about methodology and/or the theoretical framework, and an outline of chapters. I suspect that most writing advisers and supervisors have similar lists in their heads. But how and where do we actually see these elements appearing in the thesis? For example, where do they sit in relation to the literature review?

The introduction elements might all be covered in a relatively short ‘mini chapter’ of 6-10 pages. This is then followed by a separate, considerably longer chapter that provides a big literature review or detailed examination of the context, background or theory underpinning the project.

Alternatively, the introduction elements might act as a kind of bracketing for the first chapter. The chapter starts by setting out the problem or issue and providing background context, but then moves into a lengthy, detailed examination of the literature. After this, the chapter returns to details of the specific project that will be reported in the thesis, its questions, aims, methods and finally chapter outline. That is, ‘Introduction’ might include a substantial literature review before we know much at all about the specific focus of this particular project.

(Personally, I like the mini-chapter format so that I know up front what this project is about; no need to keep it a mystery for the first 30 pages, in my opinion – as a reader I want to know what I’m in for early in the piece. This use of a short introductory chapter does not appear to be linked to specific disciplines from what I’ve noticed to date, though I’d be interested to hear about others’ impressions of where they see this format.)

When I look at theses that have been passed by examiners as acceptable, the elements listed above are not always obviously on show. Sometimes they are disguised behind other language; sometimes they are simply not present. For example, we usually see the chapter outline, but not always; research questions or aims can be hard to identify; theory and methodology may not be very prominent at all in what is labelled as the ‘Introduction’ chapter. While writing a doctoral thesis has never been a ‘painting by numbers’ exercise, it seems that variations on the basic patterns are more and more common. Maybe these variations have always existed within the broader framework of disciplinary expectations. Perhaps the apparent loosening up of examiners’ expectations is partly related to the changing nature of the PhD, in which the topics and types of PhDs no longer fit neatly into the traditional structures – different kinds of projects demand different forms of writing.

In many ways this is exciting, as it frees up the researcher to find news ways of representing their projects. But there remains the question of how much candidates can or should push the boundaries of the thesis format. While I find myself wanting to encourage risk-taking, the consequences can be devastating in this high-stakes writing. This makes it an important topic to discuss with students so that they make well-informed decisions about how they present their work for examination. My feeling at this stage is that the conventional advice is useful as a reliable guide, but should not be presented as a rulebook. If something else makes sense in a particular context, follow the internal logic of the situation. It is very useful for students to be encouraged to find out for themselves what is the accepted practice in their field, and what emerging practices might work well for their own project.

I’d love to hear about your own experience of these apparent changes. Has the ‘advice’ only ever been a general guideline? Do you find that the conventional advice is still working effectively in your field, or is there a mismatch between the advice and the execution? Are today’s examiners more flexible in their expectations? Do we need to let go of some of the traditional advice when updating the next edition of our ‘how to write a thesis’ manuals? Let us know your thoughts.