By Dr Anaise Irvine (Auckland University of Technology) and Dr Ian Brailsford (University of Auckland)

Anaise works as a researcher development coordinator at Auckland University of Technology, ensuring that the university offers opportunities for researchers to develop their skills. She has been providing writing tips via AUT’s Thesislink blog for a few years, and gives writing feedback to all students who submit abstracts for AUT’s Postgraduate Symposium. Ian works as a postgraduate learning adviser at the University of Auckland, supporting postgraduate student learning. He has had a long career working with postgrad students in mostly workshop and orientation sessions.

In her new book Developing Research Writing: A Handbook for Supervisors and Advisors (co-edited with Susan Carter), Deborah Laurs points out that learning advisors like ourselves “see many more instances of postgraduate writing than any one supervisor” (p.43). While supervisors become well-versed in the writing standards of their discipline, we witness the writing struggles that occur across disciplines. This equips us to engage in ‘big picture’ thinking about principles of good academic writing that transcend disciplinary norms.

We find it useful to translate these big picture ideas into metaphors and heuristic techniques that enable students to process the discipline-specific advice they are already (hopefully) receiving from their supervisor/s. If supervisors are giving detailed feedback on thesis drafts, then these heuristic techniques can help students to make sense of details by understanding the general writing principles underpinning the feedback they receive.

Through recent collegial coffee conservations, we’ve devised a metaphor to help students grasp the fundamental notions of thesis form and thesis function. We offer it here, in the hope that it can be useful in our colleagues’ conversations with students.

What is the Function and Form of a Thesis?

The function of the thesis, at a basic level, is to communicate research findings. But from the student’s perspective, there may be many more functions: to earn a prestigious qualification, access a particular type of career, or change the world. A practical workshop strategy is to get students thinking about who they want to reach or influence through their thesis writing, and to conceptualise the function of their research both within and beyond the thesis.

Similarly, the form of the thesis may vary depending on the student’s goals. All students must adhere to institutional regulations and navigate disciplinary norms, while also taking into account the best form to suit their readers’ needs and the specific characteristics of their research. However, there is also room for students to shape the thesis for their own purposes, using some creative licence at times. Some considerations include:

  • What does the university expect? (E.g. regulations around word limits, formatting, allowable use of publications or copyrighted material)
  • What are my disciplinary norms? (E.g. length and breadth of bibliography, use of figures and appendices, writing style)
  • What do my examiners / supervisors / readers expect? (E.g. logical structuring, signposting, clear and concise prose)
  • What suits my research? (E.g. potential use of creative licence, strategic rule-breaking)
  • What suits my personal or career goals? (E.g. making the thesis translatable into publications and/or attractive to potential future employers)

Demystifying the typical form of the postgraduate thesis (in terms of chapter structure and page length) has the potential to focus the minds of thesis writers but, at the same time, run the risk of implying a simplistic formula that has to be adhered to. The fact that almost half of the University of Auckland’s doctoral theses over the last 10 years have either been formed with 7 or 8 chapters is empirically true, but this information on its own doesn’t mean that an individual student’s thesis can’t have 3 or 20 chapters if it needed to.

Given that function and form both involve a balance between institutional requirements and the student’s own creative freedom, it is important to get students thinking deliberately about a strategy for each. This is not a new concept; for example, Nick Hopwood has blogged about why he believes form should follow function. To encourage students to focus on both function and form – and particularly the interplay between them – we propose the ‘perfect coat’ metaphor.

Form without Function: The Stylish T-Shirt Coat

It’s a freezing winter’s day. You’re shivering in single-digit temperatures, being whipped with bone-chilling winds. You need a coat with substance.

Fortunately, you have a coat that crosses over your body and belts firmly closed, with lapels that you can tuck in to warm your collarbone. It looks great, and it’s got everything you want in a winter coat… except that it’s made of t-shirt fabric.

Coat A

A thesis with form but no function is like the t-shirt coat. It might have all the right design features, but if it doesn’t do its fundamental job then it’s almost no use at all. No matter how thoughtfully structured your chapters, or how stylishly phrased your sentences, if your thesis does not make a substantial contribution to knowledge then it isn’t doing its job.


Function without Form: The Ugly Warm Coat

On the other hand, you might have a coat that is wonderfully warm and fuzzy, and performs the job of protecting you from the cold perfectly. But if all that warmth comes from lime green synthetic fur with a Baby-Spice-circa-1996 fuzzy pink trim, then you might not feel comfortable leaving the house in it.

Coat 2

Even the most functional thesis will be unappealing to readers and examiners if it lacks a pleasing form. Your research might be Nobel Prize-worthy – but ugly features such as illogical structuring, sloppy sentence construction, repetitive phrasing, and bloated prose can still make it unpalatable.

Of course, style in writing, as in fashion, is subjective. What is ugly to you might be the height of style to me, and vice versa. But form is not just about style: it is about fitness for purpose.

If you were dressing for academic purposes – say you were attending a conference, or meeting a colleague – you would dress in a way that you feel represents you as an academic. If your academic persona is conservative, then a conservative style would be appropriate. If your academic persona is about challenging the status quo, then you might dress unconventionally.

The thesis equivalent of the fuzzy lime green coat might actually be perfect for some purposes. But unconventional form must be deliberate, justified, and defensible if it is to pass muster in the traditional world of academia.


Function and Form: The Perfect Coat

Here’s where we tell you that the perfect coat is both warm (function) and stylish (form). However, it’s not quite that simple. Because there are so many different climates and so many definitions of style, there is no universal perfect coat.

A coat that’s functional on a February day in Auckland would be woefully inadequate on a February day in Moscow. Similarly, a coat that’s styled for a business meeting would be ridiculed at a rave.

Every student needs to figure out what the perfect coat looks like for their unique research project, professional goals, and academic context. In other words, every thesis writer has to determine what counts as good form and function for their own thesis, within (or perhaps sometimes, contesting) the constraints of institutional and disciplinary expectations.


Using the Metaphor

We’ve been using this interplay between form and function in our teaching and writing. What do other postgrad learning advisers think? Are there inherent risks in possibly making students risk-averse by talking about the ‘typical’ form and function of a thesis, thereby creating an impression of homogeneity? Or do we threaten the tradition of the thesis if we encourage too much creative freedom? Is the ‘form and function’ concept likely to resonate with current thesis students when they come to our workshops or read our advice? Or are we side-stepping our thesis writers’ more specific textual needs?

How have other postgrad learning advisors prioritised and addressed form and function in thesis writing? Let us know in the comments.