Last month I ran an editing boot camp aimed at helping late-stage doctoral writers whip their theses into shape. My late dear friend, Heather Kerr, used to talk about the ‘large, loose, baggy monsters’ that PhD candidates often confront towards the end of candidature. The phrase comes from Henry James when describing big 19th-century novels, and seems particularly apt for those doctoral candidates who have been writing and writing for several (sometimes way too many) years. The boot camp was designed to tame those baggy monsters into tightly argued, concisely written documents ready to submit for examination. Here I outline four exercises we used to achieve this.Continue reading
Our guest blogger this week is Ruth Weatherall, a lecturer in Not-for-Profit and Social Enterprise Management at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research uses feminist, queer, and ethical perspectives and is broadly concerned with how social justice, particularly related to gender inequality, is achieved in and through community organisations. She is also interested in how academics can write to achieve social justice. Two of her recent articles: ‘Writing the doctoral thesis differently’ (Management Learning) and ‘Even when those struggles are not our own’ (Gender Work and Organization) epitomise these concerns.
By Ruth Weatherall
Writing a thesis can be a daunting task. Where do you even begin? Happily, there are numerous sources offering guidance to aspiring PhDs. These books have promising titles like How to Write a Better Thesis or Writing your Doctoral Dissertation or Thesis Faster: A Proven Map to Success. Such books guarantee to answer key questions about doctoral writing: Do I write in the third person or the first person? What chapters should I include? How do I know if what I’m writing is ‘original’? How do I structure a literature review? What am I even doing here?
In the early stages of my PhD journey (in the field of organisation studies), I was a prolific reader of these books. I absorbed their advice and used it to start mapping my thesis in my mind. But the deeper I got into my fieldwork, the more I started to feel that such advice was constricting. The models offered in the books simply didn’t fit with my research experience. I felt like I was ‘reverse engineering’ my research journey into a neat formula. Importantly, it felt like this ‘formula’ was restricting how I was understanding the social world and the contributions I wanted to make. So I decided to explore how to write my thesis differently. Continue reading
By Susan Carter
I’m writing this as I prepare a two-hour workshop for a group of doctoral students who mostly work in Education. Our thinking work together will be premised upon an article that I have just read (Twining, Heller, Nussbaum, and Tsai, 2017). If you are able to access this, you’ll have a good resource for doctoral students, who often have difficulty with how they are expected to write about their study’s epistemology and ontology.
I’ve sent this article in advance to the students who’ll be coming to my class, since it devotes a few paragraph to the need for ‘internal alignment’ in research writing. If you cannot access the article, it would still be possible to run a workshop in which doctoral students talk about how their research design links to their epistemological position, and how the bits of their thesis tie logically together within that framework. Continue reading
By Susan Carter
In my experience of working across-campus with doctoral students, those who flounder at examination generally have the same failing. It’s broadly a lack of awareness of the generic expectations of a thesis. This lack of awarness shows in 1) inadequate linkage between problem or research question, literature, methods and findings; and 2) evident ignorance of the framework expected of a thesis.
This post takes a paint-by-numbers approach that may help students who struggle with the abstract language of genre, linkage, and framework, let alone epistemology.
Question, literature, methods and findings must be linked not just in the mind of the author but in clear explicit sentences so that a reader can quickly see connections. An audit before submission could include a check of the following:
- The description of the background fits what the study actually found—rewrite if things have shifted and the background now required is slightly different;
- The research question captures the essence of what the study actually finds—if it doesn’t, it should be rewritten so that it does;
- The methods section relates to the research question—sentences are needed to explain how;
- Method choices are supported by literature on methods;
- Any method discussed and not used has a sentence explaining why it is discussed at all—if there is no reason, it should be removed;
- Theories discussed in the literature review are applied in the discussion;
- Findings are compared with findings from literature—explain the difference and the possible reasons in sentences; and,
- The overall balance of literature, methodology, findings and discussion is appropriate (e.g., about the right % of the thesis is devoted to literature review, methodology etc. for the discipline).
A striking moment for me was when, in a panel I was chairing at a doctoral forum, an Engineering professor baldly stated that the literature review of a doctoral thesis should have around 200 references. He was answering a question for a man who said he had about 1,000 items in his Endnote library and was worried about writing the literature review. I was taken aback—in Arts Humanities topics, we don’t think quantitatively. Suggesting even a ball-park figure seemed somehow quite unscholarly to me.
But when I saw a thesis with, I estimate, 800 items, I could see that a quantitative approach is a good simple way for students to check that their writing does ‘demonstrate evidence of critical analysis.’ When there are just too many, most of them are frustratingly irrelevant to the project of the thesis. Although the is a need to demonstrate knowledge of the field, there ought not be too much detail about discourse at the very edge of that field.
Too many references will mean that much of it is not directly relevant to the research. This shows a lack of analysis as to what should be in or out, and signals the thesis writer hasn’t understood what they were meant to do. In some disciplines, the figure for references may be higher. Students could take a short route by checking Reference page numbers of five or six theses to find a guideline for what is normal for the thesis genre in their discipline.
It’s important to install a logically developed argument through the thesis, and again I’ve developed a very basic method to help with this. Each chapter needs to explain on the outset how it develops the argument, and to end by projecting a link forward to the next chapter. Additionally, a link to the object of all the busy details in the chapter is required every couple of pages to assure the reader that it is there for a purpose – not simply because the author found it interesting. Readers will savour obscure details when they are know that they are not being led off into a wilderness but are on track of the developing thesis.
Behind this apparently simplistic approach sit the issues of epistemology and discipline expectations, and the network of theories about how new knowledge is constructed and accepted by academic communities. But not all students find talk of epistemology the fastest route to seeing what they need to do in writing. Some who do good research and make valuable contributions would not find that explanations of high theory expressed in Latinate terms helped them with writing their thesis.
In the current environment of shorter times to completion, it is sensible to use straight forward routes to successful thesis writing. That does not include the supervisor writing for the student, but can include pragmatic suggestions that might save students from another longish block of revisions after examination. And I suspect that even a paint-by-numbers approach may provide a learning route to appreciating that you always write in a socially restrained situation and for a critical audience, so that meeting their expectations matters, almost as much as whether experiments work or not.
By Cally Guerin
One of the exercises I like to do in doctoral writing workshops is to look at real theses and see how they compare to the generic advice on writing theses. Participants bring along theses that have recently been submitted in their discipline and are regarded by supervisors and examiners as examples of good research and writing. The process is designed partly to encourage PhD students to have a clearer picture in their own minds of the end-product they are working towards, and partly to provide ways of articulating standard structures. Increasingly, I find that the theses students bring along to the workshops don’t quite match the standard advice.
Take the first chapter of a thesis, for example. This is usually labelled as the ‘Introduction’, but what that means can be surprisingly varied in terms of length and what is included. In the past, I’ve worked with a list of components that could (should?) be included in this opening section: background information, rationale for research, scope of project, research questions and aims, maybe something about methodology and/or the theoretical framework, and an outline of chapters. I suspect that most writing advisers and supervisors have similar lists in their heads. But how and where do we actually see these elements appearing in the thesis? For example, where do they sit in relation to the literature review?
The introduction elements might all be covered in a relatively short ‘mini chapter’ of 6-10 pages. This is then followed by a separate, considerably longer chapter that provides a big literature review or detailed examination of the context, background or theory underpinning the project.
Alternatively, the introduction elements might act as a kind of bracketing for the first chapter. The chapter starts by setting out the problem or issue and providing background context, but then moves into a lengthy, detailed examination of the literature. After this, the chapter returns to details of the specific project that will be reported in the thesis, its questions, aims, methods and finally chapter outline. That is, ‘Introduction’ might include a substantial literature review before we know much at all about the specific focus of this particular project.
(Personally, I like the mini-chapter format so that I know up front what this project is about; no need to keep it a mystery for the first 30 pages, in my opinion – as a reader I want to know what I’m in for early in the piece. This use of a short introductory chapter does not appear to be linked to specific disciplines from what I’ve noticed to date, though I’d be interested to hear about others’ impressions of where they see this format.)
When I look at theses that have been passed by examiners as acceptable, the elements listed above are not always obviously on show. Sometimes they are disguised behind other language; sometimes they are simply not present. For example, we usually see the chapter outline, but not always; research questions or aims can be hard to identify; theory and methodology may not be very prominent at all in what is labelled as the ‘Introduction’ chapter. While writing a doctoral thesis has never been a ‘painting by numbers’ exercise, it seems that variations on the basic patterns are more and more common. Maybe these variations have always existed within the broader framework of disciplinary expectations. Perhaps the apparent loosening up of examiners’ expectations is partly related to the changing nature of the PhD, in which the topics and types of PhDs no longer fit neatly into the traditional structures – different kinds of projects demand different forms of writing.
In many ways this is exciting, as it frees up the researcher to find news ways of representing their projects. But there remains the question of how much candidates can or should push the boundaries of the thesis format. While I find myself wanting to encourage risk-taking, the consequences can be devastating in this high-stakes writing. This makes it an important topic to discuss with students so that they make well-informed decisions about how they present their work for examination. My feeling at this stage is that the conventional advice is useful as a reliable guide, but should not be presented as a rulebook. If something else makes sense in a particular context, follow the internal logic of the situation. It is very useful for students to be encouraged to find out for themselves what is the accepted practice in their field, and what emerging practices might work well for their own project.
I’d love to hear about your own experience of these apparent changes. Has the ‘advice’ only ever been a general guideline? Do you find that the conventional advice is still working effectively in your field, or is there a mismatch between the advice and the execution? Are today’s examiners more flexible in their expectations? Do we need to let go of some of the traditional advice when updating the next edition of our ‘how to write a thesis’ manuals? Let us know your thoughts.
by Cally Guerin
Working with a student who was in the final throes of completing his thesis, I was recently reminded about the importance of writing conclusions. This can be a very challenging part of thesis writing, particularly as it comes at the point when the PhD candidate is often exhausted by the whole process of the research degree, feeling under enormous pressure to meet deadlines, and even heartily sick of the topic.
The final concluding chapter of a PhD thesis is often surprisingly short – sometimes no more than 6-10 pages. Perhaps this reflects some of the exhaustion mentioned above, but it is important to remember that the conclusion plays a crucial role for the reader in reflecting back on the entire project. Of course, in the case of a thesis, the ‘readers’ are the examiners, so this is a high-stakes moment for the doctoral writer. Mullins and Kiley (2002) make it very clear that it is dangerous for an examiner to reach the end of the thesis and feel unsure what it was all about. The concluding chapter needs to make it impossible to miss the main findings about what this thesis is contributing to knowledge in the discipline, explicitly stating and drawing attention to the central message of the whole project.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, the conclusion needs to match the introduction of the thesis, like a pair of book-ends. It can be very helpful to go back to the original aims/objectives/hypotheses as outlined at the beginning of the thesis to show how each of the research questions set up at the beginning has now been answered. Repeating those initial questions in the conclusion can structure the discussion in ways that make it easy for the reader/examiner to see that the research has indeed achieved what it set out to do. Depending on the disciplinary conventions, presenting the aims or questions as numbered statements or dot points – as a kind of checklist – can highlight that each of these points has been addressed and completed.
In situations where the thesis is presented as a collection of articles, the conclusion is even more important in its power to bring together the findings of the project into a coherent, unified whole. Even though each article/chapter has its own conclusion (sometimes this might be just the last paragraph of the Discussion section, depending on the requirements of the intended journal), the conclusion of the thesis needs to do meta-level work on top of summarising the findings.
This is the moment in every thesis to address the implications of those findings – the ‘so what?’ part of the process. What does it all mean? Why does it matter? Finally, after all that work, it becomes clear where the whole argument is going to end up.
In the process of reflecting on the overarching meaning of the research, it may be necessary to return to the previous chapters and scrutinise what has been presented there. Sometimes it is necessary to adjust the content or interpretation of earlier work in light of what is known at the end. The emphasis may have shifted for the overall project along the way, rendering some passages of writing redundant or others requiring more prominence.
There is a lot of useful advice on conclusions available in academic writing textbooks. I particularly like the idea that the thesis needs to end on a strong note. One exercise I like to do in writing groups is to look at the final sentence in a number of theses – sometimes a very illuminating insight into the state of mind of the candidates at the end of their projects. The conventional advice for undergraduate writers often recommends that no new material should be introduced at this point. However, I’m not sure that the same applies in the same way to a thesis, as it is usual to include some speculation about possible future research directions.
Paltridge and Starfield (2007) have a very useful chapter on conclusions that I’d recommend for all doctoral writers (not just those writing in a second language, as the title suggests). They include some good pointers about identifying the limitations of the research and therefore being wary of how grand the claims can be now that the evidence has been presented throughout the thesis; the structure of field-oriented or thesis-oriented conclusions; as well as some valuable language tips.
Does your own experience match the ideas set out above? Do you have any other advice that is useful for doctoral writers in particular disciplines that is not covered here?
(PS: Yes, I think you do have to go a little bit mad in the final throes of writing a thesis! That obsessive behaviour of checking and checking and rechecking is all part of the experience… Not easy, but I haven’t seen anyone avoid it yet.)
Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002) ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize’: how experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education 27(4): 369-386.
Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Routledge.