|Writing your PhD thesis|
Writing your PhD thesis. Article by Becky Champion, Steve Draper, Barbara Howarth, Gurprit Lall, Liza Paul, Midge McLundie, Barbara Weightman. The copyright for this article belongs to Stephen W. Draper
These are collaborative notes written by the participants of a 2 hour 10 min. session on writing for PhD students, held on 8 March 2001 as part of the \"professional skills\" component of the taught course for our postgrad. students. It was led by Steve Draper. Four first year postgrads attended: Liza Paul, Barbara Howarth, Becky Champion, Gurprit Lall. In addition a second year postgrad Midge McLundie attended, and also Barbara Weightman who is the effective learning advisor for the Social Science faculty.
The session discussed some of the issues involved in writing a thesis, problems that arise, and ways of overcoming them. Being aware of these issues at an early stage in the Ph.D. process, when there is still time to make an impact, should help to improve the quality of your final thesis.
The problem with writing [Midge]
People\'s experiences/problems/issues when writing
The practice of writing:
It\'s hard to get started, especially if you\'re out of practice in academic writing: writing doesn\'t seem to flow as well as it did as an undergraduate. [did it ever flow??]
even if you have experience in other areas, academic writing is different
you feel capable of producing an acceptable end product, with adequate prose, but the process of getting there is painful
feeling inadequate when your writing doesn\'t come up to your (or others\') expectations
[putting off writing, for fear of writing badly]
Handling the information that you gather:
feelings of drowning in the literature, in the detail
how to structure the ideas that are developing
how you record and process the information
o hand-written notes, or typed into the computer
o write up papers as you read them.
Communicating your ideas:
If your writing is too terse: possibly you\'re not explaining what you mean sufficiently for a reader to understand?
- [perhaps the therapy for this is to show your writing to peers, or even better to undergraduates, and ask if they can understand it (and then to revise it until they can)]
If your writing is too verbose: possibly you\'re not being clear about what you want to say?
- [the therapy for those of us who are too long-winded is to show your writing to knowledgeable colleagues, and prune it until they are no longer too bored to finish it. Steve\'s personal ideal (not achieved) is to write such that I\'m interesting enough to hold the attention of other researchers, but clear and simple enough that undergraduates can understand it]
problems in structuring the argument.
when is the right time to write?
should you carry out experiments for two years, then write up in the third?
how should you structure your work?
Problems that can be seen in previous examples of theses
A lack of strength in the underlying argument, i.e. no `thesis\'. The words were produced, but they didn\'t read as though there was any research thinking behind them.
A lack of consideration about what a thesis is, and how to communicate it to a reader:
the purpose of a thesis is to present an argument which has not been assembled before, and to persuade the reader of the validity of this argument, so
o what is it they need to know?
o why do they need to know this?
the format of the thesis needs to flow from the structure of the underlying argument - it\'s not just an exercise of `filling in the blanks\' in a conventional format, like filling in your tax return. The thesis is there to serve the argument, so you may not necessarily want to follow convention. However, if you do not, the format of your thesis will have to be made more explicit to the reader. [Literature review should be relevant]
A poor quality of writing:
poor writing will make it harder for the reader to interpret your thesis
o one position: poor spelling is not important, unless it affects the meaning of the sentence
o another position: if your writing looks as though you haven\'t even bothered to proof read it, and therefore you don\'t care about your work, why should the reader?
o [take advantage of a spell checker, BUT see here for a little example of their limitations...]
o [personal opinion - I find poor spelling in professional documents annoying and distracting]
o [what does your thesis convey to the reader, not just in terms of argument, but in terms of presentation?]
however, a thesis is written for its sense, not its surface details: a high quality of English won\'t hide, or only on the most superficial level, a weak underlying argument.
don\'t spend a disproportionate amount of time on spelling and surface details, but concentrate on communicating your message
in terms of the format of the thesis: you need to really think about the message you want to communicate; how this will be affected by the way it\'s written up; and the role the format will play in your particular thesis. You may want to consider moving away from the conventional format. [If you do, explain your format to the reader]
Writing (volume) [Becky]
Each person at the session was asked to write down what (and how much) they had written since September. Then each person related to the rest of the group what they had produced.
Points about writing:
you will get better slowly. Therefore practice is essential. Are you doing enough each year? You should aim to be doing more writing than you were at undergraduate level (level 4 students - 9 x 1 hour essays and 2 long pieces of 10,000 words?) - not less
o set goals in writing - work to achieve these goals
another reason to practise writing relentlessly is that you will use it in almost any job you do in future: writing is the nature of white collar work. If you teach school, you have to write endless reports on children. If you work in any service industry you\'ll be writing bids/proposals for clients. If you find a rich man/woman to support you being a mother/father, you\'ll probably end up writing to teachers, head teachers, your MP etc. to make things you want happen
a thesis = approx. 80,000 words (1/2 book). This is bigger than anything else you will have written. How should you work up to this? Again set writing goals for the year
a thesis needs to contain a `bigger\' thought - not just a compilation of smaller thoughts.
[Steve has a document on the web that includes some basic (relatively low level) advice on writing. Though written for undergraduates writing critical reviews, at least some of the remarks, e.g. about introductions and titles, apply to theses.]
Reading other theses [Midge]
Reading other theses will give you an idea of what is expected. It might not be immediately obvious whether they are good or bad, but this may not matter in respect of learning to write your own - you can learn from a bad thesis as well as a good one. [And with practice you will become better at discriminating??]
Writing reviews of theses you read will improve your understanding of them. One technique is to dip into the thesis, then put the key points on one side of A4, for example:
number of different studies
number of subjects
[Prof. Kennedy\'s on-line notes have a section, \"What template can I use to review research?\", which gives a checklist of other things you might want to consider when reviewing papers etc. It can be found at http://www.gla.ac.uk/faculties/socialsciences/tutorials/howtodo/review.htm. Also
Argument structure [Barbara]
What is a thesis?
an argument designed to shepherd the reader to a final conclusion. All elements of the dissertation should lead to this final goal
at the start of the third year, try writing down a concise resumι (i.e. on the back of a postcard) of the structure of the argument! The main thrust of the argument must be clear in your head so that you know which elements you need to select for inclusion in the dissertation. Possibly one could attempt this exercise at the beginning of the Ph.D.? However, while building a structure at an early stage might be a valuable exercise, a disadvantage of laying out the structure too early is that the research itself may show up unexpected findings. Consequently, this will affect the structure of the argument and a great deal of \"rejigging\" of the dissertation will be necessary. Also, it is important to make a distinction between a plan and a structure: a plan is there to give direction to your work; the `argument\' of the thesis, and hence its structure, will probably change and develop as your research progresses.
Who reads Ph.D.s and how do they read them?
very few people will read the dissertation from cover to cover. The vast majority will select particular sections to read and they will probably have a focused question in mind
the logical structure of the dissertation is of vital importance. In particular, the way you \"glue\" sections of the dissertation together will play an important role in guiding your reader through particular sections. It is good advice then to consider your reader when writing. One way to guide the reader through the dissertation is by skilful use of conclusions and introductions. For example, in chapter introductions, clearly state the importance of that chapter and its role in the thesis
bear in mind that the logical structure will need to change as the argument is restructured. Remember that a high level argument has a logical structure and an argument. Are there any holes in the argument?
The introduction: when should you write one?
the introduction, in full prose, should be both the first thing and last thing you write. Having said that, some people may benefit more by working with an ongoing framework of the introduction throughout the course of the Ph.D.
What role does the introduction play?
the introduction should constitute the first chapter of the thesis and has several functions. These include:
o introducing the general topic: What kind of topic is this? What is and is not included in this topic?
o introducing this specific research
o to preview, or provide a summary of the dissertation (e.g. a \"map\" of the dissertation).
Although there are no \"rules\", in the prescriptive sense, for writing your introduction there are certain conventions. Remember that the reader may be trained in a discipline that is different to your own. Consequently, s/he may have different expectations. It may be useful to label or \'flag\' any aspect of the topic that is not mainstream. In multidisciplinary topics, it is particularly important to make it clear which perspective you are viewing the topic from. You may also wish to signal any breaks from convention (i.e. make it clear to the reader that you are breaking with convention and doing something unusual or original).
It may be useful to include a table of studies in your introduction - this will help the reader to see at a glance whether they want to read further.
Editing and revising your work [Gurprit]
It is always useful to get others to read your work and to get feedback from them. This will help you to get a feel of how others understand your work and writing.
Some points to think about before you hand your work to be read:
use your readers carefully
try to get the most out of them by checking your work first
it\'s advisable to give your work to a first year student (to get the spelling and perhaps clarity fixed) and then make the relevant corrections before handing the work to your supervisor
most importantly make sure that you understand the criticisms the reader makes and actively make the required changes.
Editing your own work
There are various methods that you can use to edit your own work:
leave your work for a few days and then re-read it with `fresh eyes\'
a more radical approach would be to rewrite your work, this process will be time consuming and not always appropriate when deadlines are approaching, fast!
Strategies for Ph.D. students
Volunteer yourself to be a reader, this will give you an idea of how others write and it won\'t make you feel bad when you ask them to read your work!
When writing up make sure you leave adequate time to read and edit your work.
Make sure you use your supervisors as final draft readers and don\'t hand them your first draft. Run your first draft by another student.
Considering these points will allow you to get the most out of your work and help develop a thesis that appeals to a wide audience.
Managing your time [Midge]
If you want other people to read your thesis, and revise it based on their comments, then you need to allow time for this when planning your schedule.
It is possible to write thesis chapters a year or two in advance, but be aware of the amount of modification that may be required to reflect a changed position. Some of the parts which are most tedious to write, such as the methods section, will probably require little revision. Even if the chapter content does not need much revision, however, the \"glue\" relating the chapter to the rest of the thesis will probably need revised.
Leave plenty of time to prepare your bibliography/list of references. Taking full references of material as you read it will save time and trouble later. Keeping these in an electronic format should make it easier when you come to cite them. [I can highly recommend EndNote (or another bibliographic reference manager) - as well as providing a database for storing references, it can automatically produce fully formatted references and a bibliography in a Word document]
One technique for managing your time is to set your deadline, then work backwards to where you are now:
set out the tasks you want to complete, and the processes you need to go through. (Treat this as a guide, don\'t stick to it slavishly)
assess the time that\'s available, and put in lots of slack time
use techniques such as chunking
put in milestones, and check your progress against them.
One of the major difficulties can be assessing how long things will actually take. (Steve\'s rule of thumb - estimate the time YOU think it will take then double it!)
Know how you work: plan your work to take advantage of when you work best, whether first thing in the morning or late at night (you may have found this out from your undergraduate days).
Getting past the fear of starting:
you can use \"fear\" or \"treats\"
o assess what you need to do, and how long you have to do it - panic yourself into starting!
o promise yourself a treat when you\'ve completed a certain task
allow yourself to write badly at the first attempt
intermediate writings - not everything you write has to be to full academic standard - less formal writing can act as preparation for more formal writing
o personal notes - for your own use
o notes for friends - can be understood by people who have some knowledge of the topic
[Julia Cameron talks about this and other aspects of writing in her book, \"The Right to Write\" (Pan Books, 2000)]
Comments/suggestions from the session
Schedule sessions every three months for postgraduates to meet and review each other\'s reading and writing - get (and give!) supportive and encouraging feedback.
Good to hear that others also feel very fearful of writing and feel what they write is rubbish at first.
Reminder to keep practising - reassurance that with practice will get better.
Very helpful tips - read other theses, and get others to read your own work.
See also the section on student feedback.
A little poem about spell checkers...
I half a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea
It plane lee marks for my revue
Miss steaks eye can knot sea
Aye ran this poem threw it
I\'m shore your pleased two no
Its let her perfect inn it\'s weigh
My checker tolled me sew
A checker is a blessing.
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when aye rime.
Each frays comes posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours over every word
To check sum spelling rule.
Bee fore a veiling checkers
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we\'re lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.
Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
There are know faults with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear
Now spelling does not phase me,
It does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped words fare as hear
To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should be proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaws are knot aloud
Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too please.
Design rationale of the teaching [Steve]
Content / curriculum
The overall topic is writing;
reading is my answer for how to train yourself on academic style, common structures of PhDs, and experience of common problems in finding your way round a PhD (try to do better yourself);
time management is part of writing, especially something as big as a thesis.
Focussing on thesis argument structure is really how critical thinking applies to PhDs, and is also important for composing the \"glue\" sentences throughout the thesis.
Another way of cross-checking the content is to consider a list of study skills topics:
Academic writing: clearly the main focus here.
Time management: an explicit topic here, though not given more than a small time.
Exam technique: I could have advised on vivas, but that was not the topic here.
Memory, note-making and (re)organisation. Not a heading here, but it did come up and was discussed a bit; partly under the writing they did, and the issue of the extent of re-usability of what they write for the thesis. Perhaps this deserves more space, as the kind of note-taking i.e. private writing you do is rather different for a PhD: developing ideas is more important than summarising papers written by others.
Critical thinking. Not mentioned by that term; but in fact my emphasis on working on the essential skeleton of the logical structure of their thesis argument, and constantly organising and flagging their writing in relation to it, is actually just exactly critical thinking about what their argument is, and what its strengths and weaknesses are.
Learning activities / methods
Group sessions should begin with self-introductions. [did this]
Start by getting people to think of their starting point on the topic: here, what their current notions and worries about writing a PhD are. [did this]
Connect with (i.e. recall to mind) their experience so far of writing. [did this]
Discover what they want and allow some chance of adapting what you say to address that. All teaching should include interaction between the learners\' views and concerns and the teacher\'s. This was represented by the initial trawl of their concerns, and to a small extent by my remembering to refer back to those at appropriate points. However really only about 5 mins out of 130 for this: should probably do better. [did this in part]
All teaching should connect to practice: both action and experience (perception) by the learner. The recalling their past experience and anxieties is one attempt; the exercises/activities at three time scales are another. But perhaps more should be attempted. The reading/critiquing exercise needs improvement. We could have done in-class exercises for each person on drafting a) thesis titles, b) classic one or two sentence introductions to a thesis, c) fantasy concluding paragraphs. [addressed this]
All teaching needs to be the trigger or seed for further activities by the learner: see next major section below. [Did this, but these students feel they don\'t have time for this: see next subsection.]
Midge suggested it could have been run with an alternative structure: split the two hours into two one hour sessions a week apart:
Week 1: set the agenda, and suggest aims/issues/standards.
Homework: Get people to come back with prepared answers to a) exercises b) critiques of something e.g. a piece of writing, and a thesis.
Week 2: Disucss the homework. Generally: do on the spot exercises and discussion of ways and means.
Student feedback on this session was basically: topic found very useful, design of session mostly OK, though the reading/critiquing exercise should be improved. One thought it \"a good idea to have the homework, because you have to think about what you\'re writing - I found thinking about the seminar afterwards for your [feedback request] questions even more useful.\"
But the key problem is time for them which is a problem for setting further work. In particular one wrote:
\"Any tips on how to manage the nightmare of the first six months when your days are so broken up with faculty lectures, departmental lectures, seminars, SUPPORT, lab demonstrating to try to earn a bit of extra cash. I find it extremely difficult to make any progress on reading or writing unless I have about 2.5 hours uninterrupted peace to concentrate. Since I\'ve been here this seems to be virtually impossible to find. I know that this is a part of academic life in general, but I think it\'s been particularly bad for us so far. I think the worst is over now for us, as a lot of the faculty and departmental lectures stop after easter and so I am confident that I will be much more efficient in my time management when I have more freedom to organised my own day. However - for next years intake, it might be helpful to have some advice ready for them, or at least warn them what they\'re in for.\"
Further feedback comments from Midge
These notes were written by Midge in response to the followup request for feedback that I sent out. Midge is in her second year, and her viewpoint, as she comments below, is different partly because of that.
I realised while I was thinking about the seminar, for your questions, that in some ways I learned as much from doing that as I did from the seminar itself. That\'s not meant as a criticism of the seminar, but a thought that both parts were equally valuable, at least for me.
Would it be practical to keep the two hours (or would you need more?), but split over two weeks, where the emphasis in the first week is on what it\'s all about, and in the second week is on the messy, hands-on actual doing of it, with time in between for reflection/homework? (I guess what I mean is that there can be a huge gulf between knowing what you\'re supposed to do, and doing it - like Barbara\'s time management? - also that I find interactive exercises useful.) Or is it better to have a bit of both in each session?
I had wondered if you could ask people to write an abstract before the seminar, circulating them beforehand, and everyone could prepare some comments for discussion at the seminar. Then I thought that maybe this wouldn\'t work, as you might need time to build up trust within the group before people would do this usefully. Perhaps this might be appropriate if the seminar was split over two weeks?
Other things it might be interesting to ask people (in addition to what they feel is good and bad about their writing):
what is their piece of writing that they\'re most proud of, and why? (not necessarily \'academic\' writing); and the one they\'re least proud of, and why?
what\'s the best piece of advice they\'ve ever found, or been given, about writing, and why?
You could maybe ask people in advance what their main problems are, so that the emphasis of the session could be adjusted slightly depending on the needs of the group. (But is there an advantage in having spontaneous answers - less time to deceive yourself?)
As an example, I think my main problems are:
putting off \'higher-level\' writing because I think it will be hard, and being worried I won\'t do it well (the only way to get past this is to do it, and do it, and do it)
taking ages to write things
lack of critical content - most of the writing I\'ve produced is \'this and this and this\' - - more bringing out key points rather that critical treatment - probably because that\'s the type of writing I\'m more used to doing (am going to read Critical Reviews notes)
lack of self discipline
In relation to asking them about their problems you could ask what they would most like to know, or would find most useful.
In my case this might be, for example:
advice on improving self-discipline - maybe sharing any tips people have found. (Although I guess this is another thing you\'ve just got to do, and do, and do till it becomes easier...)
making commitments to other people helps, as you don\'t want to (be seen to?) let them down
Maybe this is where having the postgrad group meeting would help (or alternatively, Procrastinators Anonymous?!?). You each agree to do something, and circulate it to the others before the meeting, and everyone prepares comments on other folks\' things ready for the meeting?
would it be worth doing this more frequently than every three months, or would that be too intrusive? (probably too much if you have to read everyone\'s stuff as well as doing your own research)
is this similar to the setup of a \'reading group\'?
(This may be too much like undergraduate stuff - I\'m not sure what Psychology students have done already. Maybe most people just want to be left to get on with it, and find this type of thing too low level. Maybe it could be a voluntary thing. (Back to Proc. Anon...))
You could ask people generally (as opposed to only problems) what they would most like to know, or have known when they started. Or things they have found that work for them?
In my case:
ideas about intermediate writings (Steve)
the notion that you have to be willing to let yourself do it badly (Julia Cameron\'s book, also Barbara Weightman, also section on \"How to Start Writing\" in Kennedy\'s How to Do Research that talks about getting past writer\'s block: web reference http://www.gla.ac.uk/faculties/socialsciences/tutorials/howtodo/page24.htm)
that \"hanging out on the page\" works (Julia Cameron\'s book)
writing short summaries or essays on each area of information I got would be good for me I think - maybe this is what\'s expected when writing up notes, but I think in my case essays might be better. Although this is probably something that should be able to be taken as read at postgraduate level, I think I need practice in doing this, especially in the `critical\' sense. People who\'ve done Psychology as a first degree, or another area where essay writing is the main method of submitting work, probably wouldn\'t need as much. (Or am I making the wrong assumptions about Psychology degrees?)
In terms of participation:
it would have been good if more people had taken part in more discussion
it might have been useful to have had any `opposing\' views identified beforehand - not just things that would come up in discussion, but any more fundamental issues. This might have allowed more balanced discussion (not in terms of the `sides\' of the argument, but in terms of the time it took up). But you\'ll probably get differences of opinion anyway, so maybe it\'s not worth the extra effort!
I guess my experience of writing might be different to most Psychology students, and
I\'m in second year (!)
I was reading the page yesterday, and I thought the comment about the time was very valid - I\'d completely forgotten what it was like last year. (I only had to attend the lectures, but I think ESRC students are required to do most of the assignments as well, so it\'s no wonder they don\'t want to do any more.) Could it be done in Term 3 next year, or at the beginning of Year 2?
Feedback comments from Barbara Weightman
I thought the two hour session was very useful and gave everyone the chance to discuss key areas of difficulty. The formal structure of the meeting was less clear to me but this may be explained by my arrival ten minutes after the start. During the first hour, discussion centred around clearly identifying the areas of difficulty and I think this process is particularly relevant for thesis writing: in categorising the problem one determines the range of solutions available. I believe our differences of approach came through very clearly and I hope our disagreements were sufficiently polarised! I loved the poem introduced by Mairghread, it was new to me.
Learning activities (exercises)
There were three time scales for activities / exercises for the participants:
During the class
1. What are your current goals for this session; current anxieties about writing.
2. Write down the list of things you have written so far this academic year, along with the approximate size of each, and type of writing.
3. Who do you think the audience for your thesis is? Have you yourself ever read a thesis?
4. Write down: when should you write the introduction to a thesis: as the first or last part you write?
5. Critique a piece of writing (a rough memo I had). [Do this better next time]
(Not done this time)
6. What is your piece of writing that you\'re most proud of, and why? (not necessarily \'academic\' writing); and the one you\'re least proud of, and why?
7. What\'s the best piece of advice you\'ve ever found, or been given, about writing, and why?
8. What they would most like to know, or would find most useful.
9. Spend 5 minutes doing a draft personal plan for your reading and writing.
10. Draft a/your own thesis title: or rather 6 versions of it.
11. Draft a 3 sentence summary of your thesis, particularly the essential structure of its argument.
Homework within the next 7 days
o Writing up notes about the session collaboratively. The idea is to collaborate in a full set of notes: divided between the participants, one of whom also acts as editor (collecting the contributions). They are then put on the web as a joint resource.
Still better is if these are discussed (e.g. over email) within the 7 days and revised; and that the notes are not merely a record but are extended with comments, questions and so on.
o Feedback on the session, partly for the presenter, partly as a reflection exercise. This time I asked:
1. Should I have reduced the material to one hour?
2. Should I have dropped the interactive exercise element of it? i.e. should I (a)keep it as it was; or (b) cut the exercises but kept the coverage; or (c) cut the things covered but keep some interaction.
3. Should it have been more interactive (specific suggestions even more useful than just yes/no)
4. Other points or topics I missed out that you think should be included?
5. What is your opinion so far (obviously your opinion on this in 6 months may be more valuable) on whether it was a good idea to get you to write up notes on the session as homework?
6. That is an example of setting work in relation to the class. What is your opinion on the most useful amount of this (in number of items and time taken)? For instance, each class could require reading or writing in advance, and afterwards; or one, or none at all.
7. What was the best thing about the session? What was the worst thing about the session? And how could I do that thing better?
0. Each student should set themselves both reading and writing targets for the year, or for their whole PhD. Perhaps I should have had this as another exercise within the session: the first drafting of such plans.
1. They should review them periodically: a suggestion for this review is to get together as a group every 3 months for a joint review.
2. Run seminars on thesis reviews: The presenter would have chosen the thesis to be important to her; read it carefully, and written out a detailed review, which she also presents a version of verbally. The others would have spent a fixed time e.g. one hour in advance looking at the thesis. In an hour you can read the abstract, intro, and conclusions; dip in and check whether these are honest summaries; dip in and discover basics including the number of studies, number of subjects, validity of the study, etc. If you can\'t discover this in an hour, that is a criticism of the way it\'s written.
0. TLS may offer a workshop on writing your thesis.
1. You may ask for help from effective learning advisors.
Last word [Steve]
So what, in hindsight, was my essential message?
You need to practise writing.
You need to practise reading PhD theses (not least so you know what being the audience for a thesis is like).
You need to practise reviewing / reshaping the essential logical skeleton or argument of your own thesis or research.
And eventually write your thesis in the light of all three of these.
© The copyright for this article belongs to Stephen W. Draper
This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Stephen W. Draper. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/courses/thesis.html
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