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By Cally Guerin

One of the major challenges of writing a doctoral thesis is that the document submitted for examination doesn’t usually look much like the texts that PhD candidates read. For many students, the first six months or so is spent reading masses of articles, chapters and books, and the focus is on the content of those texts. Then they turn their attention to writing a markedly different genre. Even for those writing a thesis by publication, the document submitted for examination includes sections that do not resemble much of what they have been reading during candidature.

Choices need to be made regarding thesis chapters and their content. Often there is much more information about methods in a thesis than is common in the articles published by most disciplines. Some disciplines accommodate the basic science-based IMRAD model (Introduction, Materials and Method, Results, Analysis and Discussion) for the thesis, but this is not relevant everywhere; instead, choices need to be made about the number and order of chapters. Judgements need to be made about what works as a separate chapter compared to what sections are better combined into one chapter – and if combined, how much space or how many words should be allowed for each section? Does the concept of a chapter labelled ‘Literature Review’ work for this project? Or does it need to be split into one chapter about the background context of the project, and then another to explore the relevant theories about the topic? There is no set number of chapters, and every project will take its own shape.

It can be useful to encourage students to read a few recently examined theses by other candidates in their field. While it is also helpful for students to read their own supervisor’s thesis (as is often recommended by supervisors), sometimes they are from so long ago that the options and university regulations for presentation might have changed considerably since they were submitted. The questions below can be put to the text to help current students notice various features of theses.

  1. Is the Table of Contents formatted to ensure that the story of the research leaps off the page? What makes these pages easy or hard to read? Is it obvious at a glance where each new chapter begins? How are the levels of subheadings indicated – use of indenting, bold and/or italics? How is capitalisation used? Is there a line of dots leading to the page number?
  2. What do individual pages look like? Is the font big enough, are the margins wide enough and the space between lines appropriate? Is there too much or too little white space on the page? Some universities provide a template but many doctoral candidates need to develop their own.
  3. Is there a separate short Introduction outlining the project before the first big, substantial chapter? Or are the parts of the Introduction used to bracket the literature review chapter?
  4. Are all chapters the same length? (Hint: they don’t have to be – if it makes sense to include a shorter section that stands alone, I don’t see a problem with that.)
  5. What is going on in the Conclusion for the whole thesis? Does it simply summarise what’s already been said in the chapters, or is there a whole lot more included here? DoctoralWriting has posts that explore this in more detail – see here  and here.
  6. Is this thesis perfect, or simply good enough to have been awarded the degree? It’s quite common to notice small errors or language choices that might seem less than ideal. This can be comforting when it is emphasised that the thesis still got through the examination process. Of course, careful editing and proofreading is essential, but tiny mistakes will not entirely undo the project. (For advice on editing your own writing, see this post on ‘Preparing your thesis for submission’.)

Reading other people’s theses is a very useful strategy to help authors focus on what the reader needs, and in this case, that reader will be the examiner. This is one way to draw attention to the elements that distinguish a thesis from other genres. After all, it can be very difficult to write something without a clear sense of what the end-product needs to look like in terms of shape and content.

What would you add to this list of questions to help guide the reading of theses for current doctoral writers? What reader-friendly elements do doctoral writers tend to overlook in the presentation of their own theses?