A user’s guide to writing up a PhD on dementia for submission

Today we’ve got our first guest blog by Dr Shibley Rahman (Academic in dementia)! The guest blog aligns with our #demphd chat this Thursday at 8pm on thesis writing. So, get your questions at the ready ~ Clarissa & the #demphd Team :

I’ve been asked to provide some personal thoughts on writing up a PhD for submission.

The background to this is as follows.

I submitted a Ph.D. for Cambridge entitled ‘Specific cognitive deficits in frontal lobe dementias’ in 2001. It was examined by two people – one internal, and one from the Functional Imaging Laboratory. It was passed after a 20 minute viva. I had no corrections.

Some general thoughts are as below.

First of all, do not feel obliged to write up everything you’ve ever done for the purposes of the thesis. Less really is more with a thesis. The examiners will want to make sure you’ve established an original body of research, and not copied it from anywhere. They’ll want to make sure you have a specialist understanding of that area of the literature.

“Less really is more with a thesis”

They want to ensure you have a story to tell – and that YOU understand the relevance of your own research. In other words, you can see why the thesis is of potential relevance to people with dementia, their significant others including carers, the people who funded the research, and the general public in general.

Actually, the first of a few number of questions I was asked was ‘Let’s say you’re on Newsnight – please tell me why think your research is important.’

There is, fundamentally, no point doing research unless you’re prepared to explain and defend it to the general public. In fact, in some places on the continent, your Ph.D. viva is conducted in public in front of an unselected audience.


If you have used a statistical test often in your thesis, such as a one way ANOVA or a Mann Whitney U test, be prepared to be asked a question on how the test works. It’s unlikely you’ll be asked this, but it is deeply embarrassing if, as a candidate for the Doctor of Philosophy degree, you appear utterly clueless on this.

Make sure you get someone other than you to read the thesis – to proofread it. No matter how many times you read it, you’ll never be able to spot mistakes – e.g. figure number inconsistencies, errors in spelling, or in grammar.

When writing the thesis, I found it helpful to write the General Discussion, General Introduction and then the experimental chapters in that order. You ideally wish then to present about three decent experimental studies at least where you’ve done the majority of the fieldwork.

If you have had any papers submitted to your thesis, which are relevant, be prepared to cite them. A Ph.D. examiner will feel reassured that your papers have undergone peer review. Do this especially if your papers have been in a high impact or well respected journal.

It’s a good idea to be guided by your supervisor on the choice of your examiners. It’s normally a good idea not to select an external Ph.D. who is known to antagonise your supervisor’s research.

But otherwise – try not to let the process get too daunting for you. They say also it’s as stressful for the partner too – as stressful as moving house maybe.

This is your chance to shine, and to ‘defend’ your work. Whatever happens in the viva, try to enjoy it, because it is an event you’ll never forget in your life – for better, or for worse.

Dr Shibley Rahman

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