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By Douglas Eacersall and Cristy Bartlett, with Susan Carter

It’s common that as supervisors and advisors we tell doctoral candidates to get online and look at other theses—any theses that can be found online are successful and available for students to get ideas for how to write their own. This post comes from Douglas and Cristy who took the time in their institution to build a library of full thesis proposals, those documents that candidates need to satisfy first year review and confirm their registration in the doctoral programme. They described their work in a DoctoralWriting Conversation in which they also discussed their book chapter on preparing students for candidature review – Confirmation of candidature: An autoethnographic reflection from the dual identities of student and research administrator.

To some extent, that is another story, and at the end of this post, there is a little more on how to gather examples of that quite covert genre, the full thesis proposal. What this post focuses on, though, is the advice that can be given to doctoral candidates so that they make effective use of exemplars of any item of doctoral writing.

It’s easy to get interested in the research described in completed theses, so that attention wanders away from the task of learning from them about doctoral writing per se. We think candidates could be reminded that they are workers upskilling in research expertise—the expertise of writing and persuading a discourse community that you belong within it. I was going to write that use of exemplars is part of apprenticeship training, but I haven’t because it is something that I still do as an experienced academic, for example, when wanting to see if a particular journal might accept my work. Maybe it is best to simply say that exemplar use can be helpful and a means to guide our practice and learning at any stage of the research journey.  As such the content below can be used to inform not only doctoral writing but research writing more broadly, beyond the doctorate.

Using exemplars to guide your work

Exemplars can be a useful way to understand the expectations and quality required for assessment (Bell, Mladenovic, and Price 2013). Doctoral writing exemplars show possible approaches and are never the definitive answer for a particular research project. There are many ways to fulfil the requirements of doctoral writing. Exemplars provide general and specific examples, both of which can be used to inform the research project and approaches to doctoral writing.  The points below may assist with this.  

You may not find an exact match for your research topic or discipline area, nevertheless exemplars from a different topic or discipline can still be useful. 

Look for general approaches in the exemplar that can inform your specific approach. This could include:

  • Overall structuring– What headings and subheadings are used? Approximately how many items are in the reference list? What proportion of text is given to the common headings in research and doctoral writing , introducing the topic, establishing a gap in knowledge, contextualizing the study in other literature, explaining and defending methods and theory, describing findings, discussing their meaning and wrapping the work up with a conclusion? Could the exemplar structure be used for your writing?
  • The research gap and likely original contribution – how does the exemplar convince you as a reader that the research project is worthwhile? What sort of literature review shows that there is a gap, and that it matters significantly that it should be filled?
  • Literature review – How is the literature review structured? How is the literature discussed? Can you find specific concrete examples of when the author demonstrates their critical analysis of the literature they review? Can you see how literature is used to justify the author’s methods, approaches, and attitudes? Once you have noticed the kind of language used for this important work, can you translate it into your own study? Could this approach work for your literature review?
  • Methodology – Although many research projects have different topics, they all need to describe methods and justify them with a methodology. How good is the exemplar at describing the methods and analysis? How do they draw on previous studies to do this? How do they defend their choices within the methodology? How much theory drives analysis or underpins the study? What elements does the methodology section cover? How are the elements of the methodology section discussed? Can this approach inform the methodology you plan to use in your project?
  • Findings – How is clarity achieved in reporting findings? Any useful phrases that are used in the writing?
  • Discussion – How does the author orient their research within the discipline? How do they make the meaning of their findings clearly visible? Are there rhetorical strategies for showing the significance of findings?
  • Conclusion – It can be really difficult writing a good conclusion, summing up the project strongly. How does this example foreground the significance of the study? How do they describe limitations without making their own work seem worthless?
  • Tone and style—is this flat, concrete language or opaque, theoretical language? Or does tone shift over different parts of the writing? Is it pleasurable or hard to read? Would you want to cultivate a similar voice or a very different one?

Douglas and Cristy recognised the benefit of having a library of full proposals, and found that supervisors and doctoral candidates within their institution were generally willing to add to this collection, creating a valuable resource for first year candidates wondering what such a document should look like. They talked about this project and you can find a summary of this in the DoctoralWriting conversations.

There may be more to add to this pedagogical approach—there’s some research, mostly based on using exemplars for teaching English as an additional language (e.g., Smyth & Carless, 2021) that insists that the use of exemplars needs to be managed. If research on teaching by using exemplars interests you, you could check out To, Panadero & Carless’s (2021) systematic review.

Now, we expect that doctoral candidates, who are survivors within academia, should be fine with exemplars and a check-list prompt of what to look for, but we think the addition of a workshop would give the opportunity to explicitly point out strengths and weaknesses of the exemplars. But maybe we are wrong on that…If you use exemplars for your own writing or as a learning tool for your students, we would like to hear about it, so please leave a comment. Douglas and Cristy are also happy to discuss the ins and outs of setting up an exemplar database at your institution.


Bell, A., Mladenovic, R., & Price, M. (2013). Students’ perceptions of the usefulness of marking guides, grade descriptors and annotated exemplars. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 38(7), 393-406. doi:10.1080/02602938.2012.714738

Smyth, P. & Carless, D. Theorising how teachers manage the use of exemplars: Towards mediated learning from exemplars. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(3), 769-788, doi: 10.1080/02602938.2020.1781785

To, J., Panadero, E. & Carless, D. (2021). A systematic review of the educational uses and effects of exemplars. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, doi: doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2021.2011134