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By Susan Carter

In my experience of working across-campus with doctoral students, those who flounder at examination generally have the same failing. It’s broadly a lack of awareness of the generic expectations of a thesis. This lack of awarness shows in 1) inadequate linkage between problem or research question, literature, methods and findings; and 2) evident ignorance of the framework expected of a thesis.

This post takes a paint-by-numbers approach that may help students who struggle with the abstract language of genre, linkage, and framework, let alone epistemology.

Question, literature, methods and findings must be linked not just in the mind of the author but in clear explicit sentences so that a reader can quickly see connections. An audit before submission could include a check of the following:

  • The description of the background fits what the study actually found—rewrite if things have shifted and the background now required is slightly different;
  • The research question captures the essence of what the study actually finds—if it doesn’t, it should be rewritten so that it does;
  • The methods section relates to the research question—sentences are needed to explain how;
  • Method choices are supported by literature on methods;
  • Any method discussed and not used has a sentence explaining why it is discussed at all—if there is no reason, it should be removed;
  • Theories discussed in the literature review are applied in the discussion;
  • Findings are compared with findings from literature—explain the difference and the possible reasons in sentences; and,
  • The overall balance of literature, methodology, findings and discussion is appropriate (e.g., about the right % of the thesis is devoted to literature review, methodology etc. for the discipline).

A striking moment for me was when, in a panel I was chairing at a doctoral forum, an Engineering professor baldly stated that the literature review of a doctoral thesis should have around 200 references. He was answering a question for a man who said he had about 1,000 items in his Endnote library and was worried about writing the literature review. I was taken aback—in Arts Humanities topics, we don’t think quantitatively. Suggesting even a ball-park figure seemed somehow quite unscholarly to me.

But when I saw a thesis with, I estimate, 800 items, I could see that a quantitative approach is a good simple way for students to check that their writing does ‘demonstrate evidence of critical analysis.’ When there are just too many, most of them are frustratingly irrelevant to the project of the thesis. Although the is a need to demonstrate knowledge of the field, there ought not be too much detail about discourse at the very edge of that field.

Too many references will mean that much of it is not directly relevant to the research. This shows a lack of analysis as to what should be in or out, and signals the thesis writer hasn’t understood what they were meant to do. In some disciplines, the figure for references may be higher. Students could take a short route by checking Reference page numbers of five or six theses to find a guideline for what is normal for the thesis genre in their discipline.

It’s important to install a logically developed argument through the thesis, and again I’ve developed a very basic method to help with this. Each chapter needs to explain on the outset how it develops the argument, and to end by projecting a link forward to the next chapter. Additionally, a link to the object of all the busy details in the chapter is required every couple of pages to assure the reader that it is there for a purpose – not simply because the author found it interesting. Readers will savour obscure details when they are know that they are not being led off into a wilderness but are on track of the developing thesis.

Behind this apparently simplistic approach sit the issues of epistemology and discipline expectations, and the network of theories about how new knowledge is constructed and accepted by academic communities. But not all students find talk of epistemology the fastest route to seeing what they need to do in writing. Some who do good research and make valuable contributions would not find that explanations of high theory expressed in Latinate terms helped them with writing their thesis.

In the current environment of shorter times to completion, it is sensible to use straight forward routes to successful thesis writing. That does not include the supervisor writing for the student, but can include pragmatic suggestions that might save students from another longish block of revisions after examination. And I suspect that even a paint-by-numbers approach may provide a learning route to appreciating that you always write in a socially restrained situation and for a critical audience, so that meeting their expectations matters, almost as much as whether experiments work or not.

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