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Professor Sioux McKenna is Coordinator of the PhD in Higher Education Program in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL) at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Here she writes from her experience as a supervisor and examiner, reminding us of what readers will want from the thesis.

By Sioux McKenna

While a detective novel works on the basis of tantalizing clues and red herrings woven into the narrative, we know that the academic text should employ no such slippery techniques. In academic writing, we want to be presented with accessible and credible arguments, well substantiated with evidence the moment they are presented. And yet when I am reading PhD students’ work, I often find myself asking bewildered questions to which the answers remain a mystery, with clarity only achieved pages down the line if at all. It seems to me that there are at least five questions a reader should never have to ask. And we need to help our students to write in ways that foreclose such queries.

1. What do you mean?

I know how tempting it is to speckle my writing with the complex concepts that I’ve taken an age to make sense of for myself. I am proud that I understand them and can use them correctly. But of course my reader may not be aware of what ‘field of recontextualization’ means or how one stumbles into a ‘zone of proximal development’. Unless we’re writing for a specialized journal, we need to assume our reader is fairly new to the theories we’re drawing on so we need to explain them just as soon as we use them.

Students often think of the thesis examiner as someone who is all-knowing. But of course while they may well be familiar with some aspects of your student’s study, others will be new to them. You might have selected one examiner who knows the problem context, another who is familiar with the theory your student is using and yet another who shares your student’s methodological expertise. But chances are not all of them will come to your student’s study with experience across the entire text, so your student must not be tempted to throw in the comment that the thesis is premised on a ‘depth ontology’ and expect her readers to nod approvingly.

The rule of thumb is that terminology cannot be used until it has been explained in full for the reader. When I come across the term ‘patriarchal aesthetic’ in the second paragraph of page 1, I expect it to be explained to me in that very same paragraph. I don’t want to have to wait until Chapter Three to figure out what was meant. This is not a murder mystery so the reader shouldn’t have to do the detective work.

While there may be a case for occasionally introducing a complex concept with a signpost note along the lines of ‘This concept will be discussed in Chapter Three’, it is far better not to use cross-referencing that refers forwards, thereby leaving the reader stumbling around in the dark until she finally reaches the illuminating discussion pages later.

Academic writing is full of complex terminology. This is hopefully not from a pompous attempt to seem clever, but rather because such terminology has the power of semantic density (Maton 2014) whereby a single word or phrase can come to condense an entire textbook of meaning or signal a specific position within the debate. But before sprinkling the text with semantically dense words and phrases, we need to ensure that the reader has access to the meaning they hold.

For these reasons, Chapter One is often written in fairly everyday language, with more nuanced, sophisticated terminology only being used later after it has been gradually introduced to the reader.

2. What does that stand for?

When a reader is told that ‘the HEQSF provides us with a notion of doctorateness’ or that ‘there is a SUN policy on supervision’, there is an expectation that the reader will know what is meant by these clumps of capitalized letters.

I think that when a writer introduces an acronym on first use of the term in full, they are essentially saying: ‘It’s too much bother for me to write this out in full each time, so here is what it means, and now you, dear Reader, can do the work of remembering what it stands for.’

But perhaps it isn’t laziness that draws us to acronyms. Perhaps it’s because they make our writing look more scientific. Acronyms, like concepts, can be semantically dense and bring a world of meaning encapsulated in just a few letters, for example, most scientific formulae work in this way. But if by SUN you simply mean Stellenbosch University, why not just say as much and save your readers the bother of paging back to the Glossary?

Of course it can be clumsy to write certain phrases out in full repeatedly. But unless the acronym is found throughout the text and its use genuinely does improve the flow of reading, I say the writer should do the work of saying what she means instead of asking the reader to remember for her.

3. Why is she telling me this?

It’s really important to flag the relevance of each part of the discussion. I need frequent reminders about why I’m reading each section by having overt links made back to the topic being researched.

In my experience, examiners often read a thesis in chunks: one chapter on Christmas Eve, the next only two days later when the festivities are over. So the connections have to be fairly explicit and the reader needs to be reminded with cross-references that refer backwards to how this bit connects to previously discussed bits.

I’ve had PhD students who have spent ages and ages reading around a certain concept. The eight pages that they then write discussing the deliberations about the particular issue are masterful. But the data in the end didn’t really require that particular discussion and so now it sits in the thesis as a sophisticated tangent.

Just because the knowledge was hard-won and just because it’s really interesting, doesn’t mean it belongs in the thesis. If it isn’t clearly related, delete. And if it is related, explicitly tell the reader how it links to the issue being researched. We don’t ever want the reader to be wondering why on earth she has to wade through any section.

4. So what?

While the previous question relates to the need for writers to make the links between the writing and the study focus explicit, this question is about significance. We never want the reader to think ‘Ho hum. So what?’ When we report on an issue in the literature or in the data, we need to explicitly state its significance.

We don’t want our students’ examiners to wonder what the implications of a particular section are. They may admire the way that interesting quotations from the data have been woven into a discussion that is replete with substantiation from the literature, but they also need to see why it is important. The thesis is an argument and not a report. Show, don’t just tell.

5. Where is the doctorate?

This question relates to the previous one. What is the significance of the study? But the doctorate has to be more than just significant – it has to be significant in a way that contributes to the boundaries of the field. So it is really important that the reader sees what contribution is made by the thesis.

This can be in a major breakthrough that changes the way we understand the phenomenon. But it’s more likely to be smaller scale. Perhaps it is the application of the theory to a new context, or the contribution of a challenge to an existing viewpoint, or the addition of one more insight into the problem being interrogated.

The key is for the student to tell the reader where the doctorate is. As the examiner, I should never be left with the question about what aspect of the thesis makes a doctoral level contribution to the field. I recently examined a thesis in which the scholar actually used the phrase ‘This thesis contributes to the field at doctoral level in the following three ways…’ It was pretty easy for me then to see where the doctorate was.

As supervisors, we’re often our students’ first readers. I guess it’s our job to ask these questions on the drafts of their work long before an examiner gets to do so. I’m sure there are other questions we should foresee and answer before a reader gets to ask them. I’d love to add to this list…


Maton, K (2014) Knowledge and Knowers London: Routledge.