By Susan Carter
It is easy (and sounds self-evident) to say that a thesis needs a thesis—i.e., an argument—but it’s easier said than done to produce that thesis in doctoral writing. This post proposes that the thinking done through writing is perhaps the most powerful route to developing a good argument. I’ll begin by considering the qualities of a good argument before pondering on ways to tell whether an argument has really developed to its best iteration. Often it is only once the whole project is completed that the author is able to say defensibly what the findings of the project mean. This means just before submission they need to make what is usually called an argument.
A good argument, then,
- Expresses the single most significant contribution;
- Goes beyond facts to what they mean in practice and to theory;
- Goes beyond what is dogmatic/didactic;
- Is not just a description of the research project;
- Is contentious to some degree (not just a statement of fact);
- Is more significant than claiming that something needs more study (or funding); and … are there other elements you’d add to this list?
Yet it often takes considerable mulling over the meaning of data before an argument becomes fully visible to its author. It can be difficult to decide which aspect of a novel contribution is really the strongest. Sometimes it is also possible to interpret data from different perspectives. As experienced academics, we may be better able to tease out a few different takes on data and produce more than one article: however, some doctoral writers can find it problematic to identify the most significant story that comprises their thesis’s thesis.
Some of us are led to a research topic because we have an existing didactic position on the topic. We all bring more than one perspective to our studies based on our life experience, and then we acquire academic approaches, theory, and discipline epistemolgies. Despite motivation towards the topic, though, researchers must keep an open mind to what findings show. It can be that the thesis argument changes from the original argument intended by a candidate with inherent assumptions. It may even happen that the final argument has a similar structure to a detective thriller: ‘All the evidence for what produces B points to fact C, and yet analysis of M and N shows that C is a red herring: it is really Z that influences B.’
It can take time to fully process findings, too. Although my kindly examiners allowed me to fly through the PhD examination, I achieved my best iteration of the argument inherent in my English Literature Studies doctorate in a book chapter that came out ten years after graduation (Carter, 2011). Doctoral candidates can take comfort in the fact that the thesis argument of their thesis may not necessarily be the final one emerging from the doctoral project. but meantime, before submission, they may welcome prompts to help them articulate the argument more clearly and defensibly.
One way to put pressure on an argument before submission is through a seminar like “Convince me!” where helpful colleagues pose questions until the author is sure that they have stated their argument so accurately and clearly that it is entirely defensible.
Another is for the doctoral writer to self-audit by writing the argument statement in a format that begins ‘This thesis argues/proposes that…’ and then to going through the statement checking the following:
- Is every word accurate?
- Can I stand by this and live by it as a researcher?
- What sort of challenge to my argument might come from my research field? Can I refute it?
- Is the most important noun in the subject position of the main clause?
- Is the main verb accurate?
- Is the tone right, not more dogmatic or confrontational nor more understated than what I really want to say?
It’s also sensible to consider the precision of that verb defining whether the thesis ‘argues’ or ‘proposes.’ The final statement from the research could ‘suggest’, ‘advise’, ‘question’, ‘raise questions about’, or it could ‘insist’, ‘redefine’, ‘highlight’, ‘expose’…; there are many options, and it is satisfying to find the most defensible.
And I remember being nervous before submission that I did not actually have a thesis in my thesis until my supervisor firmly assured me that I did—that sort of self-doubt may be common, so talking it through with doctoral candidates can help them feel more sure that they really are researchers who have an argument to stand by. Other thoughts on how to secure the thesis within the thesis are very welcome!
Carter, S. (2011). Mapping monstrous desire: Flirting with Sir Gawain, In W. M. Hoofnagle and W. R. Keller (Eds.) Other Nations: The Hybridization of Medieval Insular Mythology and Identity (pp. 165-184). Britannica et Americana 3: 27. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter.