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Susan Carter

This post comes from talk at a digital writing retreat recently where I provided advice about things that were troubling the distance doctoral writers who attended. These writers were at different stages of their theses, from those in their first year worried about preparing their full thesis proposal to one who was about to submit and working on final revisions.

At our institution, the first year review is tantamount to confirmation of candidature. It’s a big deal, with quite critical review. Of course, submission is an even bigger deal. I ended up presenting something of a manifesto to doctoral writers – a culmination of my current thinking about doctoral writing. Here’s the advice I offered.

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Start with people. Just people, not academic rigour and pedantry because those aspects of doctoral writing can fill you with anxiety. Writing is a social negotiation. Who are you talking to? What do readers need? How do you need to convince them? What expectations regarding deference, dominance, obligation and work will they have? Who does the work, to what degree of perfection, and who decides what is good enough?

None of this is unusual—we know this all the time, we do this all the time. In every household, in every job, in every friendship we work these things out. Usually, we do it unconsciously—we’re social animals and we have antennae that alert us to what the social expectations are and how far we can go with breaking rules and getting away with it.

What is unusual, what we don’t know instinctively, is the academic expectations of the writing of fully fledged researchers within the academic community, including how we “demonstrate critical analysis.”

“Critical” in “critical analysis” is not the same as critical in “She was critical of his language”. Critical analysis means thinking carefully. That careful thinking is what you want to demonstrate in doctoral writing for both your provisional year review and your final thesis submission.

In academic writing, we need to see that:

  • You know what you are talking about;
  • You are careful to say things accurately;
  • You are respectful of other research, but assume your own research is equal to theirs and importantly, yours is central;
  • You respect your reader, providing what they need to know, avoiding clutter in your writing, and avoiding repetition;  
  • When you cite literature, you never behave as though you expect the reader to go and read what you are citing so that they can follow you—you always make it clear for them in your sentences;
  • You use the language of your discipline and research niche to show you fit in here;
  • You expect to have to defend everything you do because academia is pretty tough.

Full proposal

Research writing is public not personal, so presenting a full thesis proposal is like coming out at a debutante ball: you make an entry that is significant, watched, judged. (I’ve never been a debutante – and you probably haven’t either – but you may, like me, have read fiction about this weird formal ritual.)

At our institution the full thesis proposal is evaluated by two academics who are not the candidate’s supervisors and this provides a safety net for the project going forward. So, what are full proposal reviewers judging? That the writer will not waste years of their life on a project that has obvious weaknesses, mismatches, is too skimpy or too bulky, too unimportant to be worth the effort, or too hugely important to complete within three to four years. 

Here’s a check list for the full thesis proposal. Writers could read through their proposals imagining that they were the over-burdened academics charged with checking for viability.

  • A full proposal shows that the project is viable: the topic is weighty enough to earn a doctorate without being too big to accomplish.
  • The proposal identifies a gap in knowledge or understanding by reviewing the literature convincingly and critically.
  • Research questions are accurately expressed, clearly showing how the project will fill the gap.
  • Methods are carefully described with benefits and any limitations, showing this project can be finished and answer the research questions within three years.
  • The time-line looks doable and creates a sense of a candidate who thinks about practicalities.
  • Theory matches research questions and methods. The writing style and use of terms fits the discipline’s epistemology. You situate yourself as someone who can handle theory but who is also very pragmatic and realistic about the work.
  • Literacy and competence in formal English language is demonstrated, with the understanding that this continues to improve over the next two to three years.

All of the above is more about people than about pedantry, in my view. In this case it is about people as readers with needs and expectation. Please comment if you have other ways of making the demonstration of critical analysis in doctoral writing seem like normal social behaviour.

He aha te mea nui o te ao
What is the most important thing in the world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people
Maori proverb