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Writing a thesis in the social sciences
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Wed, 03-Jan-2007
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Writing a thesis in the social sciences. A guide to good practice for students and staff. Article by University of York

1. The political and academic context
1.1 Completion rates: a cause for concern?
1.2 The purpose of this document
1.3 The status of this document
2. Deciding to do research work
2.1 Motivation
2.2 The joys of research
3. What is a thesis?
3.1 Durations of the periods of study; thesis word-length limits
3.2 The scope of the thesis
3.3 The criteria for the MPhil and PhD degrees
3.4 "Structure is argument and argument is structure"
4. Selecting your thesis topic
4.1 The importance of topic choice
4.2 Generating the topic
5. Working with your supervisor
5.1 The importance of the supervisory relationship
5.2 What your supervisor will and will not do
5.3 Frequency of meetings
5.4 Monitoring of and feedback from meetings
5.5 Contact after the period of full registration
5.6 The role of the Thesis Advisory Panel
5.7 Input from other members of staff
5.8 Resolving problems in the supervisory relationship
5.9 The supervisor and the examination process
6. Your first year
6.1 The importance of the first year
6.2 Establishing the initial framework; the literature survey
6.3 Research training
6.4 The dark side of graduate study
6.5 Starting to write a thesis
6.6 Academic and personal problems
6.7 The end of the first year; upgrading procedures
7. Your second and third years, and beyond
7.1 More on upgrading procedures
7.2 The second and third years: the move from primary research to writing
7.3 Revising the thesis
7.4 The additional year
7.5 Extension of registration
8. Using the University's research resources
8.1 Using the University's resources fully and systematically
8.2 Research resources
8.2.1 The Library
8.2.2 The Computing Service
8.3 Organisation of research materials
8.4 Quasi-legal issues; restriction of access to thesis
8.5 Plagiarism
8.6 The format and presentation of theses
9. An afterword
10. Comments form

Useful links

Regulation on academic misconduct and plagiarism
Regulation on the presentation and submission of theses
The Degrees of MPhil and PhD: Notes of guidance for students, supervisors and examiners

1. The political and academic context

This document has two main aims: to help you to complete your thesis, and to help you to complete it promptly.

It has been written in a context of concern on the part of those interested and involved in British higher education over thesis submission rates. For some time now the relevant parliamentary committees, particularly the powerful Public Accounts Committee, have been expressing concern that a high proportion of research degree students do not complete their theses or do not complete them within what is regarded as a reasonable period. These committees see this as public money being wasted - with some justification (although the fact that a student does not complete a thesis does not necessarily mean that the money has been wasted, as the thesis is not the sole product of the research). Parliament's concern obviously needs to be taken seriously, as most of the money for postgraduate work derives ultimately from the public purse.

This concern is transmitted to universities mainly through the Research Councils, which now monitor research degree completion more thoroughly than in the past. The device they use for this purpose is the annual submission rate survey. This shows the proportion of full-time students who complete their theses within four years of the date on which they start their studentship (although, obviously, students whose registration is suspended, for example on medical grounds, are discounted from the statistics). The Economic and Social Research Council now operates a sanctions policy whereby institutions which fail to achieve a specified rate of submissions are barred from receiving new research degree studentships for two years in the first instance.

But above and beyond these political and financial considerations, there are also sound academic reasons for ensuring prompt completion of theses. Some of the following points are findings from research into higher education; all of them are self-evident:

the longer the student spends upon a thesis, the greater the likelihood that it will not be completed at all;
students who complete their doctorates quickly are substantially more productive subsequently in terms of the quantity of work they publish;
as a training for most forms of employment, research completed to a timetable is a more valuable exercise than research carried out over an indefinite period;
the satisfaction of undertaking and seeing through a major exercise in research, analysis and writing - the culminating reward of your time as a graduate student - is increased if the thesis is completed within the prescribed period (and decreased the longer it drags on beyond that period).

As a way of improving completion rates the ESRC has been encouraging universities to pay greater attention to research degree management, and in particular to ensure good supervisory practice. A key element is purposefulness - purposefulness in choosing your topic, in organising and planning your research, and in following the topic through.

This document has been written to help and guide you in managing your research. We suggest that you should read it before you start and again at intervals during your period of study, particularly if you are encountering difficulties.

Although it is worded for you as students, the document is also designed for supervisors, to remind them of their duties and to help them in their task as well.

Some observations about the content of this document:

It has been written for all research students in the Social Sciences. Although some parts of it may appear to be written for full-time PhD students only, the guidance and precepts they contain apply equally, in principle if not in specifics, to MPhil and part-time PhD students as well.
It has been written for research degree students and their supervisors across the Social Sciences, by a committee drawn from all the departments and centres concerned. Thus at times it steers away from precision and towards a consensus. It is expected, however, that departments will supplement the booklet with written guidelines of their own which cover the specifics of departmental practice.
The document is non-formal in status and in particular does not supersede the University's Regulations.

2. Deciding to do research work

In considering research you should have a good idea about the nature and purpose of your proposed work. In practice this will mean contacting the relevant department and discussing your ideas with the person responsible for graduate studies. Be sure that you have a definite purpose in doing research work.
Having examined why you want to go to into graduate study, it is worth also finds how others see it. Talk to members of staff in your department, to research students and to your Careers Service about their perceptions and experience of graduate work, and read any materials your Careers Service may have on the subject. In this way you will be able to find out about difficulties of research work - and also about its satisfactions, rewards and excitements.

Graduate study offers a unique opportunity for intensive study of a particular subject, and it also provides a training in research methodology. The research process itself provides the satisfaction of detailed and painstaking analysis coupled with the excitement of intellectual insight and discovery. Finally, of course, it culminated in the achievement of having seen through and completed an original piece of work which in terms of size and significance is unprecedented in your academic career to date.

3. What is a thesis?

There are two basic formal parameters to research degrees: time and length.
The normal registration periods for students beginning an MPhil or PhD programme are as follows:

PhD (full-time) 3 years
PhD (part-time) 6 years

MPhil (full-time) 2 year
MPhil (part-time) 4 years

Beyond the normal registration period, students are allowed an additional period of up to one year, if required, in order to complete the writing up of their thesis. You should bear in mind, however, that, if you take employment during this additional year, your scope for completing your thesis will be restricted. The approach you should take to the additional year is discussed at greater length in section 7.4 of this document.

In addition, it is possible for students to apply for extensions of registration beyond the end of the additional year. Such extensions are made on the recommendation of the departmental graduate school board concerned, and require the approval of the University's Board for Graduate Schools. Extensions are not automatic, and are approved only in exceptional circumstances (see section 7.5 of the document). Under the Regulations, the maximum periods of extension that may normally be approved are:

PhD (full-time) 2 years
PhD (part-time) 3 years

MPhil (full-time) 1 year
MPhil (part-time) 2 years

Thesis word length limits are set by the Board of Studies or the graduate school board of your department or centre. Across the Social Sciences guidelines are as follows:

Department MPhil PhD
(words) (words)
Economics 50,000 80,000
Educational Studies 70,000 100,000
History 60,000 90,000
Language 70,000 100,000
Politics 70,000 100,000
Psychology (no specified limit) 80,000
Social Policy (no specified limit) 100,000
Women's Studies 50,000 80,000/100,000

These limits are advisory. It is unlikely - but possible - that your thesis would not be accepted for examination simply because you exceeded your department's limits. On the other hand you should not disregard them entirely: they are guides to give you an indication of the scale on which you should be working.

If a thesis is to be completed within three (or at most four) years, this obviously has fundamental implications for the nature of thesis work and the concept of a higher degree thesis.
For many years the PhD degree was seen as a culmination - the topmost rung of the academic ladder (other than the rarely-seen higher doctorate, which is awarded on the basis of a lifetime of published work). This meant that students were encouraged to take a rather exalted view of the level of achievement entailed. The expectation was that the finished thesis would be capable of being published, with little or no alteration, as the definitive word on the subject.

In recent years, in part because of the context described in section 1.1 above, the emphasis has changed: the PhD thesis is seen less as a masterwork and more as an apprentice piece. Although it is still expected that parts or all of the work will be worthy of publication, present thinking is that a thesis should contribute to, rather than encapsulate and dominate, a particular field of studies. The scope is less ambitious - and more realistic.

In recognition of this the University has endorsed the following formulation, which was drawn up by Oxford University and promulgated by the British Academy (now the AHRB - the equivalent body to the ESRC for subjects in the Humanities):

"A doctoral thesis is a piece of work which a capable, well-qualified and diligent student, who is properly supported and supervised, can complete within three years."

The only formal guidance given in the University's Regulations as to what is required of a PhD thesis is that it should contain "a substantial original contribution to knowledge or understanding" (Regulation 2.5.(a).iii). For most disciplines this means that the thesis must do at least one of three things:
a. provide additions to the body of accepted theoretical knowledge in the discipline;
b. provide new analysis of some empirical phenomenon or phenomena in the discipline; and/or
c. argue a convincing case for the interpretation of theoretical or applied knowledge in a discipline.

In 2003, the University introduced fuller criteria for the award of the degree of PhD.

At the MPhil level, the University has introduced a description of the level of attainment it expects for the MPhil degree which reads as follows:
"The MPhil is a degree of considerable distinction in its own right. It is obtained by research, and a MPhil thesis is expected to display:
a. a good general knowledge of the field of study; and
b. a comprehensively particular knowledge of some part or aspect of the field of study; and
c. a recognisable original contribution to knowledge or understanding

This is not a formal University regulation, but it is intended as broad guidance to students and examiners, and it supplements, rather than supersedes, any local guidelines your department may already have in place.
In 2003, the University introduced fuller criteria for the award of the degree of MPhil.

Some theses explicitly argue a single case or use a single methodology throughout. If you are writing a thesis of this kind, it is essential that you know the central lines of your argument, of your thesis, before you start to write. The arrangement of your argument, in each chapter and building from first chapter to last, must be designed to make the case in a cumulative and effective way, deploying evidence, example or illustration in support of your case as you go along. The argument, that is to say, will be carried forward on a structure (of points in each chapter and of chapters in the whole), and the structure - the arrangement of chapters and themes in them - will therefore help to make the argument as clearly and logically as possible. Structure is argument and argument structure.
Thus, before you write a chapter, be clear about its structure and argument, about what precisely you want to argue and how you will lay it out to best effect. It is no good slapping it down in a first draft in some more or less unordered way, hoping to attend to 'structure' later. Editing and alteration will of course happen later on, but you will save yourself a very considerable amount of time if you plan each chapter - and the whole thesis - as carefully as possible, point by point, trying to map out the way in which the structure will best carry forward the argument you will be developing.

4. Selecting your thesis topic

The first important factor in ensuring that you complete your thesis and that you complete it promptly is your choice of topic: you should choose a topic which can be completed within the set period.

Unless your graduate study is to be funded by a project grant where the topic is identified in advance, you will almost certainly have an important part in generating your own thesis topic.
Obviously it should be a topic in which you are interested. Thus if a member of staff takes the initiative and suggests to you a topic which is only at the fringes of your interests, you should not be awed into undertaking something you do not want to do.

If you are interested in graduate study and have the germ of an idea, the first stage is to discuss it with your supervisor or an appropriate member of staff who will be able to advise you as to whether it is worth your while to pursue your ambitions further. If it is, you should then apply on the University's graduate application form.

For research degree candidates in the Arts and Social Sciences, there is a supplement to the application form in which the applicant is asked to write a preliminary outline, about 200-350 words in length, about their proposed research topic; to list any relevant literature they have read; and to state the academic factors which have caused them to apply to York. The purpose of this exercise is to achieve a match between student and supervisor by ensuring that the department is able to offer supervision (and, where relevant, appropriate support facilities) and also that the member of staff intended as supervisor is interested in the topic in which you are interested. The department can only do this if it is clear what topic you wish to pursue.

In particular the short essay in the supplement to the application form is intended as a basis for further discussion and refinement of your thesis topic before you start your course. The interview will be part of this process: the interviewers will be seeking to establish that you have the motivation for graduate study and that your topic has the depth to sustain three years of intensive study. The process may also continue after the interview with further correspondence between you and your supervisor.

The aim of this preliminary activity is to ensure that you enter your first year as a research student with a clear sense of topic area and purpose.

In the context, it is worth mentioning that it is normal practice in all Social Science departments for candidates who do not already have a MPhil degree to be offered research degree registration at MPhil level in the first instance. (For a description of the upgrading procedures, see the third paragraph of section 6.7).

5. Working with your supervisor

The second important factor is ensuring that you complete your thesis and that you complete it promptly is the relationship with your supervisor.

Your supervisor will be a member of the staff of the Department concerned who is involved and knowledgeable in the area of your research interest. That is not say, however, that supervisors already know all there is to know about the subjects they supervise. The most successful supervisor-student relationships are those in which the interaction of research and learning is two-way, in which the student discovers and explores material and insights which are stimulating to the supervisor as well. Probably, also, you will find that the nature of the relationship will change over the study period, as you become less directly dependent upon your supervisor.

Your supervisor will not necessarily share the same perspective or outlook as you. However, this need not be seen as an obstacle to the supervisory relationship. Academic freedom and the related ideal of tolerance presuppose the right of others to different beliefs and points of view.

There are things your supervisor will not do, such as writing your thesis for you or acting as your copy-editor in the sense of correcting every error of spelling or punctuation, every idiosyncrasy of vocabulary or grammar. The things supervisors will do come in two main areas:

Firstly, we have seen in section 4 the importance of research topic choice. You and your supervisor will work together in refining the topic you will already have chosen and in planning a programme, with a timetable of target dates or "milestones", for turning the chosen topics into a completed thesis. Remember the earlier assertion "structure is argument: argument is structure": this early stage is about formulating both.
Secondly, once the path to completion has been determined your supervisor will monitor your work to see that you are keeping to it. If you come across diversions from the chosen path, your supervisor will advise you as to which you might go down profitably and which are blind alleys. In the early stages the main medium of the relationship will be discussion: you and your supervisor will talk together about the works you have been reading and the ideas you have been having. Later it will change to critique: your supervisor will read and comment on your drafts.
A third area in which your supervisor will assist you is with the mechanics of your work: matters such as using library and computing resources. We will be returning to this in section 8.

How frequent will your meetings with your supervisor be? The University's Regulations state that candidates for higher degrees, whether full-time or part-time, "are normally required to meet their supervisors not less than twice a term or more frequently if the Board of Studies so requires" (Regulation 2.1.(e)). In practice, twice a term is a minimum, with the number of meetings varying from term to term according to how far and how well you have progressed. During the all-important first year of thesis work it is likely that you and your supervisor will meet at least once a fortnight and for at least an hour each time. Later the number of meetings may fall off, especially as you get fully into your stride in writing your thesis. This is the time at which you may be meeting your supervisor twice a term only - unless you are having difficulties with your work, in which case the meetings may be more frequent. However, the falling-off in the number of meetings does not mean that the supervisor-student relationship becomes any less important. In these later meetings the supervisor will still be monitoring your work and assessing your progress against your programme of study.

It is a good idea for you and your supervisor to agree a calendar of meetings at the start of each term, or better still, at the start of each year. You will also need to keep track of one another's movements: it may be that the supervisor will be out of York for a period and thus will not be available for drop-in consultation.

If your supervisor is going to be away from the University, whether for a research term or a more extended period, your Department will make every effort to find a replacement.

Some departments now ask the supervisors to keep a note of the date of all meetings, with brief comments on the student's progress, for the department's records. Other departments operate a system of termly reports.

If you feel that you have not grasped fully the comments your supervisor makes at a supervisory meeting, it is open to you to ask for a written account of them. Similarly, if your supervisor feels that you are not grasping oral comments, or that your progress is not satisfactory, he or she will reinforce the oral comments by sending them to you in written form. However, this goes back to the point we made earlier about your supervisor not writing the thesis for you. If you get written comments or criticisms from your supervisor, you must not make it the limit of your ambition simply to meet the points your supervisor makes to you in the letter; instead, you should think of those points as a basis upon which to build your own original work.

The relationship with your supervisor will continue after your period of full registration has ended. The University's Regulations allow you a further year, if required, in which to complete the writing of your thesis. During this year your supervisor will continue to read and comment on your draft material. The aim will be to return material to you as promptly as possible. How promptly depends on how much there is to read and how detailed a commentary is needed. As a rough guide you might expect a straightforward chapter to be turned around within, say, two to three weeks.

Once your supervisor has seen your work in its full and final form you will be given the word as to whether it is fit to be submitted for examination - although, obviously, if there is likely to be doubt on this score any reservations and criticisms will have been made known to you much earlier. However, there is a cautionary point to be made here: if your supervisor tells you that in his or her view your thesis can be submitted for examination, that is not a guarantee that it will pass (this is an area to which we shall return in 5.9 below).

As a means of supplementing and supporting the central but individual relationship with your supervisor, you will work with a "Thesis Advisory Panel" (this is the preferred University title for such bodies, although some departments may use different titles).

The thesis advisory panel exists to offer a second opinion in that, like your supervisor, it will monitor your progress in terms of both quality and timing of your work, largely on the basis of the reports it receives from your supervisor and the drafts it sees from you. It is also the body which will interview you formally to decide whether you should be upgraded from MPhil to PhD status. The panel will normally comprise your supervisor and one or two other members of staff; these other members, who are chosen for their interest in your subject area, are available to you to consult more informally if you so wish.

The University has stipulated that meetings between research degree students and their thesis advisory panel should take place at least once in each year of the student's main registration period, but in some departments the meetings may be more frequent. It also expects that the meetings will be followed by feedback should be particularly detailed in an unlikely event that your progress is other than satisfactory.

Also in this connection, the University has recommended to all departments the practice used in several departments whereby as part of the upgrading interview the members of the advisory panel who are not the student's supervisor interview the student in private without the supervisor being present. The point of this practice is to find out whether there are any problems with the amount and level of the supervision the student is receiving. Not all departments have adopted this practice. Some have chosen other means to the same end, for example a confidential questionnaire administered by the Chair of the departmental graduate school board. But for the purposes of this section of the document the key point is that you should know that there is going to be a channel of this kind open to you.

There are also other, much more informal means of supplementing the supervisory relationship. If your work leads you towards areas which are better covered by another member of staff, you should ask your supervisor to arrange for you to have a supervisory meeting with the member of staff concerned: your supervisor should not mind the request - indeed it may be that he or she will suggest an arrangement of this kind before you have to ask. Also, the staff/graduate seminars held in the department will give you a chance to encounter thinking and viewpoints which will be different from those of your supervisor. The University is an academically responsive organisation: a small amount of effort and assertiveness on your part will open channels which will supplement the central supervisory relationship.

What happens if the supervisory relationship goes wrong? The particular intensity of graduate research work and the crucial importance of the supervisor-student relationship mean that this is a much more serious matter than, say, a difference of viewpoints with a tutor at undergraduate level. Fortunately this is a very rare occurrence.

The first person to talk to in these circumstances is, surprising as it may seem, your supervisor. Presented with the possibility that your work is being affected adversely by differences between the pair of you, he or she should be prepared to examine the situation fair-mindedly.

If talking to your supervisor proves to be impossible or unprofitable, the next person to talk to is your departmental graduate chair or your head of department. It doesn't much matter which: such cases are serious, and the two departmental officers would be likely to consult one another about them. Should you wish to press your case to the point of requesting a change in supervisor, the matter would be considered formally by the departmental graduate school board. Your case would need to be properly documented; you would be allowed to appear before the board in person to present it, accompanied by another member of the University for moral support if you so wish.

In terms of the University's formal academic procedures, the supervisory relationship is a matter which is internal to the department, and any problems arising from it should be resolved at that level. If you feel that your grievance is not being handled satisfactorily within the department, it is open to you to discuss it in confidence with the administrative officer in charge of the Graduate Schools Office; while obviously not competent to advise on specific academic issues relating to the subject matter of your thesis, this officer should be able to provide guidance on general matters covered in the University Regulations and in this booklet, such as frequency of meetings. The Graduate Students' Association, the Overseas Students' Association and the Students' Union might also be able to provide you with advice and support.

There are three wider points to bear in mind in this connection.

Firstly, you do not have to like your supervisor personally in order to get good supervision - although it helps! A supervisor who is detached (but not remote) can sometimes help you towards completion more effectively than a supervisor who is matey (and not detached).

Secondly, if you find yourself wanting to change supervisor remember that your original supervisor was appointed because of his or her expertise in your subject area; a new supervisor may be more agreeable in personal terms but less adequate in academic terms. Remember, too, that changing your supervisor could be costly to your chances of prompt completion as momentum and continuity might be lost in the transition period.

Thirdly, if you feel you have a grievance any case you may want to make arising from it will be stronger for being documented; anecdote may not be enough. Grievance cases are rare; but if you feel that you are not getting proper attention from your supervisor in that the supervisory meetings are infrequent or perfunctory, it may be helpful to you to keep notes of the dates and lengths of the meetings you do have.

We said earlier that, even if your supervisor tells you that your thesis is fit to be submitted for examination, that does not necessarily guarantee that it will pass.
Your supervisor is very unlikely to be one of your examiners. The University has a policy that a student's supervisor can be appointed as internal examiner only in exceptional circumstances. The University has to conduct its examinations in a manner which is consistent with the concepts of integrity and impartiality, and also has to be seen by its students and by the outside world to do so: and this makes it improper for the supervisor, who will have been intimately associated with the production of the thesis, to be associated with the examination of the thesis as well

It is University policy that it is open to the examiners to consult your supervisor and, if they so wish, to ask that he or she should be present at the viva voce examination: and this is the normal practice for most departments. If your supervisor is present, it is also open to the external examiner to exclude him or her from parts of the proceedings as appropriate.

In the very few cases where the supervisor is appointed as internal examiner, two external examiners will be appointed (the normal number is one).

The point of explaining these matters of administrative procedure is to show that, procedurally at least, it is possible that your supervisor and the examiners might disagree about the quality of your thesis. If they do, the examiners' verdict is overriding and final. You will be happy to hear, however, that such cases are very rare indeed.

If you submit your thesis for the PhD degree and the examiners recommend that the MPhil should be awarded without the possibility of revision and resubmission it is possible for you to make an appeal, under Regulation 2.9, to the University's Board for Graduate Schools for the opportunity to resubmit the thesis. The permissible grounds of an appeal are procedural only: but they can include seriously inadequate supervision. Again your case will need to be based in substance, rather than anecdotes, and to be supported by documentation (or by the lack of it: if you have been struggling and your supervisor has not given you comments in a written form, this might possibly be a point in your favour). Simply to say "My supervisor told me it was going to be OK" is not going to cut much ice with an appeal committee.

6. Your first year

The third important factor in ensuring that you complete your thesis and that you complete it promptly will be the progress you make in your first year. This is a year for thinking hard about argument and structure: the work you complete in the first year, and particularly your initial chapter, will to a large extent shape what follows.
Establishing the initial framework for approaching the theme of your research is one of the most crucial stages in graduate work. It is important that you should begin to grapple with this problem at the earliest stage of your period of study as a research student. In section 4 we described the preparations prior to your arrival at York: the application, further correspondence where appropriate, the interview, subsequent discussion to refine your topic. Nevertheless, this preliminary dialogue with your department and supervisor is neither limiting nor binding. The first few months of your research will be spent in defining and sharpening up your ideas. Do not be surprised if this occasionally involves different approaches, materials and perspectives form those you sketched at the interview stage. Many students start with an over-ambitious framework, which needs to be refined and redefined in ways that meet the criteria for the relevant degree - in the case of the PhD thesis, that it contains "a substantial original contribution to knowledge or understanding" - and that ensures that it can be completed within the prescribed period of study.

For most students the literature survey is an integral part of the first year. One important role of the literature survey is to find out the main lines of current thinking on your chosen subject by identifying and studying what has already been written on it (and not only written: the written word is by no means the only source material for many theses in the social sciences). In carrying out your literature survey it is important that you keep a careful written record summarising and where possible placing into critical context what you have read: this will be useful later, either as a reminder or as material to be incorporated into the thesis. A thorough and systematic survey of the literature in your field is also a useful way of establishing gaps and absences in existing research: these gaps often invite further reflection and research, and crystallise hypotheses which can be examined in greater detail.

Also in your first year, full-time students will be required to take courses in various aspects of research training. The subject matter of these courses will obviously vary from department to department: you will be provided with full details of what is on offer, not only in your own department but also in other departments and centres in the Social Sciences, through your departmental handbook, and you should discuss with your supervisor which courses you are required to take and which other courses might be useful to you. This training is provided in accordance with ESRC policy and guidelines. The purpose is to provide you with experience in the specific skills you will need both as a research student and in your subsequent professional career.

The first year may be your first experience of the intensive and solitary nature of graduate study. Especially if you are coming direct from an undergraduate course, it will represent a dramatic change in the character of your academic life. You will be embarking upon a piece of work which is probably at least ten times longer than anything you have written previously. The destination will seem a long way off: whereas with undergraduate essay deadlines you operated in terms of weeks and days, now it will be months and years. You may not have fellow students against whom you can usefully measure the progress you are making, as every graduate student works to a different pace and usually in very different subject areas. This is where the supervisory relationship is especially important; the role of your supervisor is to steer you in the right direction and to allay the anxieties you may well feel.

You should begin writing as early as possible, even if this only consists of notes on your reading, work on the literature survey, summaries of arguments and materials on file cards: jottings of this kind are important because they get you into a habit of writing on your subject.
There are no hard and fast rules as to the point at which you should start your thesis. Some argue that a draft introduction is the equivalent of a "flight plan": it is important to have it down on paper before proceeding further, even though there may be mid-course corrections en route, for example in the face of high winds or other contingencies. Others argue that you should begin by writing up the material which looks as if it is going to be the simplest or most readily acceptable, leaving the introduction to the end to pull the threads together (the danger with this approach is that it implies that the idea of structure and argument will somehow emerge of its own accord). Yet another approach is to start by writing material which is concrete rather than abstract: as you try to discuss and formulate ideas on concrete material as text on the page, the abstract generalisations are likely to arise from them.

What you write in your first year will not be your final word on the subject. You will find that as you continue into the later stages of your thesis some of your earlier text will need to be clarified or tied into the arguments you develop subsequently. In the early stages, therefore, it is not necessary to labour over every word and sentence in search of perfection which later developments will render relatively less perfect.

On a practical note in this connection, training to use a word processor will save you a great deal of time later.

It may be that during your period of study you encounter difficulties which are out of the ordinary run. Such problems may be academic; for example, you find that access to the sources you need is restricted, or that another researcher is working on the same topic as you. They may be medical. They may be personal; for example, a close relative is undergoing major illness which prevents you from concentrating on your work properly. Do not keep such problems to yourself. No matter how difficult and private they are, it will be in your own interests to discuss them with your supervisor as soon as they become evident. If the problem is academic, your supervisor should be able to suggest strategies or alternative approaches which will enable you to overcome or circumvent it. If the problem is medical or personal, your supervisor will refer you to an appropriate source of advice within the University. If it is a particularly serious medical or personal problem, suspension of registration until you are fit to resume your work without distraction may be an appropriate solution; in which case your supervisor will put into motion the appropriate procedures through the departmental graduate school board and the University's Board for Graduate Schools.

How much should you have accomplished by the end of your first year? The most important achievement will be to have sharpened the focus of your research topic, to have completed your review of the literature and to have obtained a clear idea of where you are going - and how you are going to get there. Assuming a thesis with a structure of an introduction and six chapters, you should aim to have at least two chapters completed in a fairly advanced draft form. The precise content and relation of this will differ from subject to subject. But in general terms the first chapter - it may later form the introduction - might for instance be as a minimum an account of the provenance, nature and central problems of your research topic, perhaps including an outline and justification of your methodology, framework or approach, while the other might be a review of the relevant literature. (If you are working to a different structure of chapters, the target might be 15,000-20,000 words out of the 70,000-100,000 works you will eventually write.) Such chapters will provide a firm platform for continued research and writing in the second and third years.
In addition, material contained in two chapters of this kind will often constitute what is required from you when the upgrading of your registration status from MPhil to PhD is considered, commonly at the end of the first year or very early in the second year. Upgrading procedures differ somewhat from department to department. But what is common to them all is that you will need to convince both your supervisor and your department not only that you have made good progress in your first year but also that you know where you are going. You will also have to persuade them that your thesis, when it is completed, will have the element of originality needed to meet the criteria for the PhD degree. The material you will be required to present for upgrading - for example, the two chapters mentioned above (or other comparable written work) - will also generally have to be accompanied by a reasonably detailed and realistic account of your proposed timetable for the remaining research and writing, up to the point of completion, stage by stage and chapter by chapter, giving dates for each.

So a successful first year as a research student will normally be one in which you have clarified focus, direction and method; in which you have developed any necessary technical skills for your research; and in which you have submitted two foundation chapters (or comparable written material). This will form the bulk of the material you present in support of your request for upgrading from MPhil to PhD.

7. Your second and third years, and beyond

In section 6.7 we spoke of the upgrading review on the basis that it takes place at the end of the first year. But we also said that departmental practices varied. For some students the upgrading review occurs as late as the end of the second year. If you are one of those students, it might nevertheless be useful for you to carry out a "mock" review of your own, in conjunction with your supervisor. A good time for this exercise might be the start of the summer vacation at the end of the first year. Its purpose would be to monitor your progress against your initial plans and timetable: your timetable may need to be revised at this point to make it more realistic.

In the second and third years your work will continue to involve a combination of primary research, analysis of material and writing. The mixture of these three ingredients will vary for each student, depending upon such factors as the subject of the thesis, the amount completed in the first year, and the availability of materials. For some students, also, analysis of materials will be directly linked with writing (for example, in qualitative research, such as ethnography). But one generalisation which can be made about these years is that for most students there will be a transition in working methods across the second and third years from an emphasis on primary research and analysis of materials to analysis of material and writing and then to writing only.
The difficulties we spoke of in section 6.4 arising from the solitary nature of graduate study may become more pronounced in the second and third years. Be prepared for periods of depression, and be prepared to talk them through with your supervisor, other members of staff and your fellow students.

If you have not completed your thesis by the time the three-year registration is up, you should at least have a full and substantially complete draft if at all possible. You should not still be conducting primary research or collecting and analysing material at this late stage of the registration period.

The timetable you will have constructed with your supervisor should include anticipated dates for completing the primary research and analysis of materials stages. If your upgrading review is at the end of the second year, the upgrading panel will need to know these dates for the purposes of its review (see section 6.7 for further comments on the upgrading process).
You will need to set aside at least four months towards the end of the three-year period for revising the thesis. During this period you should go through the thesis carefully to tighten up your arguments; to ensure that your prose expresses those arguments clearly; to eliminate unnecessary repetition; and, at the most basic level, to check references, spelling and punctuation. Your aim should be a thesis which is free from elementary error and a text which can be understood and appreciated by new readers (including the examiners). After the excitements of primary research and secondary analysis, the work you undertake in this final stage may seem like anticlimactic drudgery. But it is also very important; you do not want your thesis to be referred for resubmission because of faults and errors you could easily have avoided earlier.

Be warned: checking and proof-reading always take longer than you think they will. An approach which should reduce errors to a minimum is to read your text at least twice; once for sense, without worrying about typographical errors; and once for typographical errors, without worrying about sense. You should check numbers and statistical tables particularly carefully.

If (in spite of our earlier advice about training yourself to use a word processor for typing your thesis) you write your thesis by hand, you will need to allow time for checking the thesis before it goes to the typist, having it typed, checking the typescript and then checking any amendments - all this before it can finally be presented. These processes are very time-consuming, and will normally take at least six months. They can also be very expensive at the time and even more so should any typographical errors come to light in examination; the University insists that all such errors must be corrected before the thesis can be deposited in the University Library.

The University's Regulations allow you, if required, an additional period of up to one year beyond the three years' full-time registration for the PhD degree. This is sometimes - perhaps misleadingly - called the "writing-up year". In practice, after your three years as a graduate student are up you will almost certainly need to enter into employment of some sort. You should not underestimate how difficult it is to write substantial amounts of original work while in the first year of a new job. The transition to an entirely different mode of working will be as much of a shock to you as the previous transition from the undergraduate to the postgraduate mode of working. So you should not work into your plans and timetable over-ambitious targets for the amount of work you will need to do in the additional year. Instead, use the year - if it is required - for the final revisions, the final tidying-up, the final checks - the kinds of work you can do discontinuously in the evenings or at weekends.

The University Regulations also allow you to apply for up to two years' extension of registration beyond the three years of full-time registration and the additional year described in 7.4 above. However, in the context of external and internal pressure over submission rates which was discussed in section 1.1, the University is reluctant to grant such extensions, save in exceptional circumstances. For example, the Regulations specify that extensions will only be granted in cases where the candidate's work has been hampered by medical, personal, or unexpected academic circumstances for which supporting documentary evidence can be made available. The Regulations go on to gloss this very specifically by saying that for full-time students the need to take employment in the fourth year of registration will not be sufficient justification in itself for an extension of registration. The final decision is taken by the University's Board for Graduate Schools.
As a measure of the seriousness and care with which the Committee considers the applications it receives for extensions of registration, it requires that the applications should be submitted on a standard proforma which requests, firstly, a statement from the student, who is asked to give a detailed account of the present state of the work, the reasons for the delay in completion, an estimate of the extra time required and a note of the timetable for completion agreed with the supervisor; secondly, a statement from the supervisor, who is asked to comment on each element of the candidates' statement; and, thirdly, confirmation that the request has been considered and approved by the departmental graduate committee. The Committee has stated that it will not accept employment in the additional year as sufficient cause in itself for granting an extension; it is looking for additional personal or medical circumstances as mitigation of a delay in completion of the thesis within the prescribed period.

If for personal or medical reasons you are unable to make any progress on your thesis whatsoever, suspension of registration may be a more appropriate option.

8. Using the university's research resources

This section has two key themes: how to make full use of the research resources available to you at and through the University; and how to organise your usage of those resources systematically.

The two major research resources within the University are the Library and the Computing Service.

The Library is your major source of information. As such you will find it well worthwhile to spend some time at the start of your research in learning how it operates. The Library houses not only books and journals, but also government publications, statistical series, conference papers, reports, theses and non-book materials. You need to find out first of all what the Library has which is relevant to your research. There will probably be more than you think.
The use of printed bibliographies, abstracting and indexing services, and of computerised databases will bring to your notice work already written in books, articles and reports, and relevant research in progress in other institutions both in this country and elsewhere. Material not already available here may be obtained through the Library.

A librarian with responsibility for your subject area will be available to assist you with all stages of your research. Make contact early on so that with his or her help you may quickly become conversant with the techniques necessary for literature searching. If you learn to be systematic and thorough from the start, you will save yourself much time and trouble later.

The two major aspects of Computing Service activities likely to be relevant to your research are the provision of computing power and the provision of guidance, advice and training.
The central computing system is characterised by communications networks, large scale data storage and archiving, multi-user capability, a high peak processing power and concentration of scarce or expensive resources. These features are important if your work involves collaboration and sharing of data and software within your department and the University or with other institutions both national and international.

Assistance is available on all aspects of computing, not just the centrally-provided facilities, and it is very important to consult the Computing Service right at the start of your project. This can often save weeks of frustration at a later stage.

The two computing techniques most often used by Social Science students are data description and analysis, and the creation and production of theses and dissertations. If anything the latter is even more likely to cause problems than the former, so ask for advice early.

Computers can be of great assistance in your research, but getting the best out of them involves spending time learning and practising, and a certain amount of self-discipline. Start as early as possible, and if all else fails, read the manual!

In using the Library it is important that you should keep a systematic record of the books and articles you have read, noting carefully author(s), title, publisher, date of publications, and, where appropriate, page numbers. Your department will have a convention you will be required to follow when citing, either in footnotes or in a bibliography, any works you quote from or refer to in your thesis. You should follow this convention from the outset; otherwise you may find yourself at a late date having to verify the particulars of those references and to track down unlabelled references and quotes, which can be very time-consuming.
Make sure that your materials are filed and stored systematically, securely, and in sturdy containers. A pile of articles and drafts in random disorder on your desk or carpet may correspond to some romantic notion of academic behaviour, but it is hardly functional and is vulnerable to loss or other accidents.

If you are using material on a computer, make sure that you have a back up copy in paper form, as a guard against a mechanical breakdown.

If your work is not progressing or is progressing slowly, this may be the result of elementary problems concerned with the organisation of your research materials; and in such circumstances, you should not be hesitant about consulting your supervisor who should be able to give you the advice and guidance you need.

There is a range of quasi-legal issues which might impinge upon your work, for example:

confidentiality of sources;
libel (this can be a particular problem in case-study theses, and in such instances it may be necessary to render your subject anonymous);
data protection

If you think that you are likely to encounter problems in these or related areas, raise the matter with your supervisor at the earliest possible opportunity. Even if your supervisor cannot resolve your problem for you immediately, he or she should be able to seek advice form or to refer to you to whoever is the relevant source of guidance within the University's administration.
In connection with the issue of libel and the protection of confidential sources, the University's Regulations state: "All theses shall normally be available for consultation. In exceptional circumstances, the Board for Graduate Schools, at the author's request and on the recommendation of the Board of Studies or Graduate Committee concerned, may direct the access to a thesis be withheld for a period not exceeding twelve months from the date on which the award of the degree is approved. Such requests may be made at any stage during the candidature for a degree" (Regulation 2.8.4). In practice, however, the provision for restriction of access is invoked by students and department only rarely. Moreover, restriction is granted by the Graduate and Undergraduate Studies Committee only with the utmost reluctance; the Committee believes strongly in the principle of open access to the findings of academic research, and will grant restrictions only when there is a particularly pressing or pertinent reason to do so.

Of all the academic crimes, plagiarism - using someone else's work without acknowledgement and, worse still, passing it off as your own - is the worst. The penalties in cases where plagiarism and/or collusion or other forms of academic misconduct are found to have taken place are severe, and are set out in Regulation 5.4. The University will not condone plagiarism and you should not commit it.

Regulation 2.8 contains very detailed specifications for the format and presentation of MPhil and PhD theses. You should read this section of the Regulations now, not later; otherwise you might waste a considerable amount of time typing text for your thesis, only to find that you then have to retype it in a different format.
The Graduate Schools Office also gives guidance about word processor typefaces. The criterion is that theses should be in a permanent and legible form; some of the earlier dot-matrix printers do not meet this requirement.

9. An afterword

In a document like this, we are trying to foresee and to forestall possible difficulties. Most students, however, do not encounter the problems we have been describing. Instead, they find graduate study to be a formative, enjoyable and richly rewarding experience. If this document helps you to avoid the problems and to reap the rewards, it will have achieved its purposes.

In this positive spirit, we wish you well for your time as a graduate student at York.


If you have any comments on this document or on your experience of graduate study more generally, please print and complete the comments sheet.

Copyright for this article belongs to University of York

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Rosemary Goerisch. Original Source of the article is located here:http://www.york.ac.uk/admin/gso/wrtgthss.htm

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