Some thesis writing tips

Last week Dr Mark Hawker (@markhawker) held a great #demphd chat on thesis writing. Now, for those of you who might have missed out, or if you just want to have another read through the tips that came up, look no further, and read below 🙂 – the #demphd team (Grant, Julie, Paul, & Clarissa):

Writing a thesis is a skill in and of itself. It is a skill that very few will get ‘right’ first time … or even the second or third time of trying. Over the lifespan of my PhD in the social sciences, I must have revised and edited chapters into the tens of times. However, there are certainly ways of mitigating the burden of writing a thesis and I’d like to share a few with you in this blog post.

First, know the difference between an essay and a thesis. A thesis is an extended argument that should be weaved throughout the body of your work. This argument is cumulative and should be built upon right from the introduction through your literature review, methodology, results, discussion and conclusion. Your argument is the golden thread that brings your chapters together and makes them coherent to the reader and, ultimately, your examiners.

Second, and following on from knowing what a thesis ‘is’, know the difference between description and analysis. Your thesis must provide an original contribution to knowledge and that comes from evaluating resources that you read and drawing your own conclusions about their utility. Your thesis most likely will not be found ‘out there’ in a journal article or book. If it was then you most certainly will not be producing an original contribution to knowledge. If you are intent on using a particular theoretical framework then consider how your work contributes or extends it. More often than not the theoretical framework will have gaps or will not have been applied to your specific research question.

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Third, structure your thesis in such a way as to highlight the development of your argument. Each chapter may stand alone in its content but must also contribute to the overall structure of your thesis. Your methodology is informed by what you have found in your literature review. Similarly, your theoretical framework should be informed by your literature review and worked through into your methodology, results chapters, discussion and conclusion.

Fourth, work out how you write and how that affects the relationship with your supervisors. Writing my thesis took longer than anticipated because of the poor relationship I had with my supervisors in the beginning. I would go into my own little ‘writing mode’ and only surface when I thought I had a ‘finished’ chapter. However, when submitting that to my supervisors I’d often get comments back like “good start” or “good first draft”. This often made me feel pretty mortified as I thought the chapter was done and dusted and I was on to the next one! Over time, I realised that what I was producing was a splurge of thoughts onto a page that had little coherence and ‘flow’ as a thesis chapter. I needed to step back and plan my chapter better and identify how each section built upon the last and culminated with a contribution to my thesis as a whole.

Fifth, flag what particular aspects of your chapters you’d like feedback on by your supervisors. If you’re just looking for comments on the ‘feel’ of your chapter overall then just say that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for ‘nitty gritty’ comments on whether a sentence or paragraph makes sense then say so. I would often get comments at the sentence or paragraph level from one supervisor only to be shown by the other that the section at a whole felt ‘off’. In the end, this ‘back and forth’ just ends up wasting your time and your supervisors’ time!

Sixth, do not be disheartened by negative feedback. In the end, such feedback is not ‘negative’ at all but your supervisors’ way of helping you write the best thesis that you can. Very few (probably nobody) will write the ‘perfect’ chapter first time. A chapter will evolve over time as you develop as a competent researcher. This means that you will spend the majority of your time revising chapters and not simply editing them. You are in for the long haul for this! Do not let it get to you and, as my supervisor once old me: the “pains of production” is a key aspect of every PhD writer’s journey.

Seven, invest some time in reading other theses, books on writing and developing relationships with your fellow students. You will all be going through similar challenges and often will be able to share their own tips and tricks with you! On books, I’d recommend this one by Patrick Dunleavy and this one by Howard Becker. Both are accessible (you’ll have had enough with frustrating academic language in your own topic-specific reading to be thankful for well-written books) and allow you to dip in and out of them at will. Also, the Academic Phrasebank is a great resource for picking up some tips on academic writing.

Remember, if writing a thesis were easy then there would be far more PhDs than there are today. It takes time. You will go from loving your thesis to hating your thesis. You will also have times when your relationship with your supervisor feels strained and you will feel like you want to quit. This is normal. Do not quit, though! Step back, take some time away from the thesis and try to get to the root of why things aren’t as good as you’d hope them to be. Keep your chin up, as it will be worth it in the end. Best of luck!

 Dr. Mark Hawker (@markhawker)

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