By Claire Aitchison

What have I got to say? This is the terror moment that strikes every doctoral student: the fear that perhaps there isn’t anything of worth to show for all the years of work.

I’ve never met a student who hasn’t experienced this kind of self-doubt – in part fuelled by exhaustion during the final stages, and in part this anxiety is an almost natural outcome of being too close, too fully immersed in the project to be able to objectively assess the merits of the work. However it is essential that researchers do make such judgements accurately since convention demands that the thesis clearly identifies the contribution and significance of the research.

Over the years I’ve collected a few strategies for helping students gain the perspective needed to make objective judgements and locate this appropriately in their texts. In particular, I’ve drawn on the work of Brian Paltridge and Sue Starfield (2007) for evidence-based accounts of structure and moves within theses; Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson (2014) for writer identity and positioning; Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein (2014) for activities that help scholars engage in critical academic conversations and the wonderful Patricia Goodson (2013) for stimulating thinking and writing.

Harnessing the advantages of objectivity and distance …

Even though I am by first inclination a qualitative researcher who loves detail and nuance, it is easy to get lost and overwhelmed in too much detail. One strategy to overcome this is to use tables, grids and figures which force me to simplify my thinking. Reducing things in this way requires me to distance myself so that I crystallise my thinking, identify key points and thus see how the parts interrelate as a working whole. This strategy of stepping away from the narrative to condense work into tables is a great antidote to my own tendency for often expansive and overly detailed writing.

I use a metaphor (I first read in Swales and Feak) to describe this process. Imagine you’ve been walking in a forest for some months examining the vegetation and have developed an expert, detailed knowledge of the individual trees, bushes and undergrowth vegetation. Down amongst the trees you have a close-up, comprehensive – but narrow perspective. But in addition, another perspective is required and that is one that can be achieved only by moving out of the forest up onto a hill and looking down at the entire valley. From there it is possible to see the big picture: how the trees congregate near the waterways, where shrubs sit in relationship to other vegetation, where the tall trees stand, the shades and nuances of the whole landscape and their connections to each other. From this distance one is able to make ‘high pass’ judgements about relationships and interdependencies – to overview the whole territory informed by an intimate knowledge of the detail.

I love this metaphor and use it often. For example, to explain to students how we need to situate our work in the literature, or to make overview statements about a body literature or to help us identify claims for significance. But how does one step out and up to the top of the mountain to get that objectivity? This is where I find tables useful.

For example when working with scholars who need clarity around findings we might work together on this activity:

Writing about findings

  1. On a separate piece of paper, brainstorm what you know now that you didn’t before you collected and analysed your data
  2. Order/reorder this list from most important to least important, making sub sets as necessary
  3. Take the most important 3-4 findings and complete this table by (a) listing each finding in the left hand column and working across the rows dot point responses for the prompts: (b) list the evidence for the finding (eg statistical significance, or thematic consistency), (c) identify how strong that evidence is (strong, medium, purely contextual, weak and so on). Finally, (d) identify how relevant or important this findings is and to whom/ for what purpose?


(a) Finding (b) Evidence (c) Strength of evidence (strong, weak… etc) (d) Relevance/ Importance (high/medium/low – to whom?)

As a tool to double-check hunches and impressions from the data, this grid helps me be objective: I can be more confident about what I have that allows me to make claims. Especially for qualitative research, this strategy forces me to think and strategise more clearly. For example, sometimes the strength of evidence doesn’t match what we know is important (from our reading or from experience in the field); when the information is laid out in this way, we can see we need to return to the data or the literature to investigate this mismatch. It helps us consider more deeply whether the relationship is causal or coincidental, contextual or general and so on.

Connecting findings to the literature

I also find tables useful as a systematic approach to building connections between findings and the literature. Here is an example:

  1. Review your findings and list the main ones in the left hand column
  2. For each item, ask the question Who else has had something to say on this? and brainstorm answers. Then,
  3. As appropriate, complete rows b-d.
(a) My key findings (b) Other relevant studies (similar findings)


(c) Other relevant studies (different findings)


(d) The connection … (making sense of your findings vis a vis the literature)

Answering the ‘So What?!’

When working with scholars who are struggling to be sure of their contribution – it can be really illustrative to answer the So What? question. This activity is worth a try:

  1. Review your findings and list the main ones down the left hand column (try to stick to only 2-4 items to help crystalise thinking)
  2. Answer the So What? question and brainstorm answers against each of the four columns to prompt new thinking (you may wish to add/ modify these prompts according to your research)
(a) Key finding (b) So What? … for practice (c) So What? … for theory (e) So What? … for policy (d) So What? … for future research

You might find these metaphors and tables useful in your own research writing and thinking – and we’d be delighted to hear of other strategies for gaining clarity in writing.


Goodson, P. (2013). Becoming an academic writer: 50 exercises for paced, productive, and powerful writing. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2014). “They say / I say”: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. . (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. (2nd ed.). Oxon: Routledge.

Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Oxon: Routledge.

Swales, J. & Feak, C. (2000). English in Today’s Research World: A Writing Guide. Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press.