Writing the Thesis
INTERACT WITH YOUR SUPERVISOR.
COMMUNICATE – TALK AND WRITE – AS A MAJOR PART OF THE RESEARCH PROCESS.
10 WAYS TO ACHIEVE THE 5 MOST IMPORTANT THINGS
BE CONNECTED ELECTRONICALLY.
Get on the internet and use the internet. There are vast resources of helpful advice for writing the thesis there, in addition to information resources specific to your field.
GET INVOLVED IN THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY OF YOUR FIELD.
Read other theses. Take all opportunities to go to lectures and conferences.
MAKE A COMMUNITY WHERE YOU ARE.
Build thesis support relationships with one or more other students and meet regularly (at least monthly) to discuss ideas and problems, and to give mutual feedback on writing.
Make a list of own writing problems; work on these, and keep an eye out for them in drafts.
FOCUS YOUR SUPERVISOR’S ATTENTION ON YOUR NEEDS.
Ask your supervisor for specific feedback in the areas you want and need input on.
DEVELOP A DISCIPLINED APPROACH TO YOUR WORK.
Get into a routine pattern, with designated place, time of day, and minimum period of time for work on the thesis. Make sure people around you know not to disturb you during this work.
KEEP YOUR MOMENTUM; DON’T WASTE TIME.
Do not let a week pass without doing something on the thesis. Write regularly (at least weekly), to help develop ideas and create draft material for the thesis - e.g. written summaries of sources, diary of problems and how they were handled. It is not a good idea to do research work for long periods without writing. Keep in mind that the whole point is to get a written work completed, so you might as well write through the whole process of your PhD study.
CREATE AN ONGOING DIALOGUE.
Ask questions as soon as they arise, and keep asking a question till you feel satisfied that you have a full answer which you understand. Students are often reluctant to pursue things they do not understand. Sometimes this is a matter of not feeling confident to approach the supervisor. Try out questions first on a thesis support “buddy” or other student. Discuss your question in detail, so you will have thought the question through in depth before meeting your supervisor.
ADOPT A SCHOLARLY ATTITUDE AND APPROACH TO YOUR WORK.
Work to a high standard. Be meticulous, avoiding the temptation to take shortcuts. Spend the time and effort needed to do a thorough and careful job of designing, researching and writing your thesis.
BE AWARE THAT YOU ARE A NOVICE AND AN APPRENTICE.
Avoid the common tendency of postgraduate students to think you are an expert in some aspect of research or writing a thesis. Never proceed with research before consulting your supervisor. PhD students always make mistakes when they carry out research without first clearing procedures with a knowledgeable researcher. Common problems are “fatal flaws” in questionnaire design (e.g. wrong type of scale), invalid interview procedure, wrong data type (not appropriate to theory or planned statistical procedures or method of analysis), inadequate sample size or composition.
SPECIFIC ADVICE FOR WRITING THE PhD THESIS
BE CONVENTIONAL IN ORGANISATION AND STYLE.
Follow the conventions of thesis research and writing in your field.
BE ORIGINAL IN WORDS AND CONTENT.
Originality is a key criterion on which a thesis is judged.
LEARN TECHNICAL TERMS AND USE THEM CORRECTLY.
A major part of learning a field is becoming proficient at its terminology.
Leave nothing unsaid or implicit, and leave out no words. Bring ideas to the surface and put them into words. Introduce all abbreviations, terms, and new ideas clearly.
GIVE CLEAR INDICATIONS OF STRUCTURE AND RELATIONSHIPS.
Link ideas using markers (e.g. conjunctions) of their logical relationships. Use punctuation (especially comma) to show the structure of sentences and their component parts.
Develop a precise idea and then write exactly what you intend. Avoid overgenerality, vagueness, ambiguity, or informality.
UNDERSTATE; NEVER OVERSTATE.
Avoid sweeping generalisations; generalise modestly and carefully. Never exaggerate.
Do not propose anything without good evidence. Do not go “out on a limb” or make rash statements. Avoid definitive conclusions. Hedge your bets by considering multiple factors.
ARGUE YOUR POINT OF VIEW; DO NOT MERELY STATE IT.
It is not adequate to simply state a point of view. Nor is it adequate to simply make a claim prefaced by “As it is widely believed,” “As it is well-known,” or simply “Clearly,…”.
FAIRLY EVALUATE OTHER WORK AND POINTS OF VIEW.
Discuss other people’s work and points of view, and evaluate them differentially, i.e. assess them as more or less reasonable, more or less similar to your own. Avoid any tendency to “strike down the opposition” or dismiss other work or viewpoints as entirely wrong or unjustified. Remember, you are a novice with only an initial understanding of your field and the work which has preceded yours.
Follow a specific convention of style or methodology consistently. Use words with consistent meanings.
Make your work new and relevant to the present state of your field. Bring your references up to within one year of what you are writing. Do not rely on old notions or methodologies, unless you are explicitly arguing that they need to be revisited and reconsidered.
BE SCRUPULOUSLY HONEST.
Reference all ideas in a way which makes clear exactly where they came from and how you obtained all information from other sources. Avoid referencing sources you have not actually read yourself. State limitations and problems in the research.
USE WRITING AS A THINKING PROCESS.
Keep notes; write ideas as they come to you when reading or thinking.
WRITE CHAPTER DRAFTS IN STAGES.
Do not wait to the end of your research process to write any thesis chapter. Draft thesis chapters as the stages of the research are completed, e.g. 1-Lit Review and Bibliography, 2-Methodology, 3-Results, 4-Discussion, 5-Conclusion, 6-Introduction, Abstract, Contents. Write 3 drafts at a minimum. Draft 1 is a rough draft, for your eyes only; its purpose is to develop and organise your ideas. Draft 2 is to show others, including the supervisor, for comment. Draft 3 is to rewrite and polish the work, based on input from others and your own close and careful reading after at least a two-week gap, so that you will see it with “fresh” eyes and mind.
NEVER WORRY ABOUT LENGTH IN A FIRST DRAFT.
Worrying about length as you are writing will restrict the free flow and development of ideas in an early stage. Once ideas are fully developed, they can be written in a more compact form.
THE STRUCTURE OF A THESIS
A student working towards a higher degree has to function in an academic community as well as in a discipline community made up of those who work in and have knowledge of a particular field or discipline. Each community has its own rules, many of which are implicit not explicit, and ways of functioning which members need to learn and use if they are to be successful. Only by learning and following these community-specific rules and practices can the student become a successful member of an academic or discipline community.
Members of the general academic community have certain expectations about written work. A thesis or dissertation must conform to these to a certain extent, in order to be accepted as a work of the proper type, such as an academic essay. In addition, each academic discipline has certain expectations about written work, based on its own practices, beliefs, and written traditions.
A PhD thesis or dissertation is a longer, deeper, and more detailed work than one written at Master’s level. More importantly, it is held up to much higher standards of originality and scholarship. Following the advice below will help you to succeed in the thesis writing process.
Below a common or “standard” thesis format is first provided, followed by variations found in recently completed theses from three different fields, none of which follow this format exactly.
COMMON (STANDARD) THESIS STRUCTURE
Chapter 1: Introduction to Thesis (usually a short chapter)
Chapter 2: Literature Review
Chapter 3: Methodology
Chapter 4: Results
Chapter 5: Discussion / Interpretation
Chapter 6: Recommendations / Future Research (sometimes included in
Discussion / Interpretation or Conclusion)
Chapter 7: Conclusion
References / Bibliography
COMPARISONS OF STRUCTURE OF 3 PhD THESES
Computing (A topic in the modeling and processing of a particular type of data)
Chapter Title Type
Ch 1 Introduction Thesis overview
Ch 2 Background and Lit Review Conceptual background, Lit. review
Ch 3 Three Real Problems and Their Models Technical content, Problem posing
Ch 4 Theoretical Analysis and Algorithms Results
Ch 5 Applications and Experimental Design Results
Ch 7 Conclusions and Future Work Conclusions, Summary, Prospect
Linguistics (A study of bilingualism in a particular country)
Chapter Title Type
Ch 1 Introduction Thesis overview
Ch 2 Background Historical, etc. background
Ch 3 Overview of conceptual frameworks Conceptual background, Lit. review
Ch 4 Language attitudes: Matched guise Results
Ch 5 Language diary study Results
Ch 6 Questionnaire study Results
Ch 7 Field experiment: Actual language Results
Ch 8 Concluding remarks Conclusions, summary, future research
Tourism (A study on a particular city [X] as portrayed through tourism literature)
Chapter Title Type
Introduction Conceptual etc. background, overview
Ch 1 Tourists, Travellers, Sightseers Conceptual and historical background
Ch 2 The Tourist Destination Conceptual background
Ch 3 Sound and Vision Conceptual background
Ch 4 As Seen On Television Conceptual background, Case studies
Ch 5 Recognising the Recognisable Conceptual background, Case studies
Ch 6 Views of [X] Results
Ch 7 [X] as The Vanishing Lady Results
Ch 8 The Travel Show Results
Ch 9 Holiday Results
Ch 10 Home Truths From Abroad Conclusions, Summary
Academic Writing: Building a Construction of Ideas
Academic thinking and reasoning involve building a construction of related ideas. Thus, it is only to be expected that the expression of academic thinking and reasoning through language (whether spoken or written) will also involve building a construction of related ideas. The utility of written language for expressing complex thoughts and constructions of ideas resides in its resources for building logical relations, meaning relations, and abstraction.
A clause is the minimal component of a written sentence, said to express one complete idea. Frequently, two clauses or more will be joined together or merged in order to express relationships between ideas.
E.g., The point can be debated; it is not universally agreed.
The point is not universally agreed and thus can be debated.
Not all writers share that point of view; nevertheless, it is a common position.
Not all writers share that point of view, although it is a common position.
The rebels were infiltrating the government; this occurred before fighting began
Long before the fighting had begun, the rebels were infiltrating the government.
Most commonly, the relationships between ideas are shown with the aid of punctuation and specific markers of the meaning and type of relationship intended. The first type of example below is uncommon in a thesis because there are no explicit connections made between the ideas. This makes possible several somewhat different interpretations as to what the writer wishes to emphasise or to argue. In the second of the two examples, the writer makes explicit connections between ideas.
E.g. The news spread quickly. It was disseminated in a series of pamphlets. These received a wide audience. The public responded by calling for the overthrow of the government.
spread quickly, disseminated in a series of widely read pamphlets,
which resulted in a call from the public for the overthrow of the
Meaning relations and logical relations can be shown by specific words and order of information.
E.g. The news spread
quickly through a series of widely read pamphlets, which resulted in a
call from the public for the overthrow of the government.
A complex chain of reasoning or cause-and-effect can also be built with the aid of abstraction.
E.g. The rapid dissemination of the news in a series of widely read pamphlets resulted in a call from the public for the overthrow of the government.
A key aspect of academic writing is the use of complex noun phrases to express complex ideas, discipline-specific concepts and constructs, and technical terms. The latter often consist of complex combinations of three or more words.
Computing the network node frequency list algorithm
Education computer-managed learning environments
Nursing nursing home emergency service personnel
Sociology regional survey sampling methodology
Some of the types of problems students have in English academic writing are reviewed in the next sections, with reference to published sources. Many of these make references to students coming from certain language backgrounds, and this information is included here though only a few languages are included.
Student writers tend to overuse coordinating conjunctions compared to experienced native writers.
Coordinating Conjunctions - Frequency (% of words) (after Ringbom, 1998, pp. 45-46)
Native French Spanish Finish Swedish Dutch German
but .36 .66 .70 .57 .58 .64 .67
so .16 .27 .33 .30 .26 .31 .31
Alternatives to but: [same clause] yet, however, nevertheless, in contrast;
[preceding clause] although, even though
Alternatives to so: [same clause] therefore, thus, hence, consequently, as a consequence, as a result; [preceding clause] since, because
Adverbial Connectors – Overuse and Underuse by Swedish and French Learners of English (as contrasted with native English speakers) (after Altenberg and Tapper, 1998, p. 91)
Appositive for instance
Contrastive on the contrary Contrastive however
Corroborative of course
NOTES: 1- Student writers often use moreover as equivalent to simple and. Moreover is properly used to add one reason or step in an argument to another, with the most important reason or step coming last and preceded by moreover. E.g. The method was chosen as that most commonly used in other investigations of similar type. It was, moreover, considered the most effective means of achieving the desired result. The correct meaning would not be given by and or in addition.
2- For instance and namely are less commonly used in academic writing than other alternatives. Instead of for instance, use for example and e.g. (which is the Latin abbreviation for ‘for example’). Instead of namely, use that is or i.e. (which is the Latin abbreviation for ‘that is’.)
3-Student writers often use on the contrary as a simple marker of contrast equivalent to but or however. On the contrary has a more specific usage, however, that makes it rare in a thesis. It is to mark a contradiction, i.e., a statement of a difference of opinion or belief. This usage has been stereotyped in the old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, as the bumbling Dr. Watson would often make a statement which the much cleverer Holmes would contradict and set right beginning with, “On the contrary, my dear Watson, …”. E.g. Watson: The thief obviously escaped through the window. Holmes: On the contrary, my dear Watson. Clearly, he could not have escaped that way, as the window has obviously not been opened for quite some time, …
4-Of course suggests obviousness and thus that there is no need to argue one’s case. It is therefore not a very useful word for a thesis.
In a pilot study on the current project, our project partner, Dr Ylva Berglund (University of Oxford) carried out lexical analysis on theses from four fields (Computing, Film Studies, Linguistics, and Tourism) as well as PhD student writing samples from each of them. One of the things she looked at was conjunctive adverbs:
additionally, also, consequently, conversely, finally, furthermore, hence, however, indeed, likewise, moreover, nevertheless, nonetheless, otherwise, similarly, then, therefore, thus
The following charts summarise her findings:
TTII – Tourism thesis II (Canadian)
TT – Tourism thesis (British)
TSD – Tourism student draft chapters
TS – Tourism student samples1+2
LT – Linguistics Thesis
LS – Linguistics student samples 1+2
FT – Film thesis
FS – Film student sample 1
CT – Computing thesis (with formulas removed)
CS – Computing student samples 1+ 2
Non-expert writers often attempt to win readers to their point of view by strengthening their statements through use of intensifiers such as completely or very:
E.g. The voyage of the Bounty was a completely misguided adventure.
This is a very difficult question to answer.
Given the conservatism of academic writing, intensifiers should be used sparingly, to avoid overstatement or imprecision.
SCALAR INTENSIFIER CATEGORIES German learner overuse (%)
(after Lorenz, 1998)
Amplifiers: Maximizers (completely, absolutely, etc.) 28.7
Boosters (very, highly, immensely, etc.) 48.0
Downtoners: Approximators (nearly, virtually etc.) 20.8
Compromisers (fairly, pretty, rather etc.) 35.6
Diminishers (slightly, a little etc.) 64.1
Minimizers (hardly, scarcely etc.) 21.3
Academic style is often impersonal, in the attempt to achieve objectivity and a focus on ideas and information rather than on the writer. Inexperienced writers are prone to overuse first and second person pronouns (I, we, and you). In some fields, it is normal for the writer of the thesis to refer to him/herself as I, though it is more common to refer to the writer of the thesis as the researcher and s/he. In disciplines where I may be used to refer to the writer of the thesis, you may also be acceptable to refer to the reader of the thesis. In disciplines where third person reference is the norm, there might be occasions to refer to the reader or the audience for this thesis. However, it is common in the formal style of academic writing for the reader to remain implicit and unmentioned.
The use of plural first person reference we can have many meanings:
E.g. We can see that … we = ‘the writer and anyone else’, i.e. we = ‘everyone’
We will see that… we = ‘the writer and the reader’
We have a tradition of… we = ‘the writer and others in the same field’
We showed in this work.. we = ‘the writer together with other researchers’
We will show that… we = ‘the writer alone’
In the last case, the researcher him/herself is euphemistically referred to as we; this usage is called the ‘royal we’, as it is commonly used by royalty to refer to themselves (“We are not amused”). In sum, we can be considered to introduce a degree of ambiguity or imprecision in the thesis and should generally be avoided.
Third person reference (it, s/he and they) is by far the most common type in the thesis.
Pronouns - Frequency (% of words) (after Ringbom, 1998, pp. 45-47)
Native French Spanish Finish Swedish Dutch German
1 .25 .45 .36 .52 .88 .41 1.36
we .34 .81 .98 .65 1.20 .34 .41
you .08 .33 .34 .34 .31 .46 .72
he .26 .20 .24 .24 .14 .42 .38
they .66 .77 .86 .63 .65 1.07 .75
it . 97 1.16 1.26 1.42 1.22 1.14 1.15
Altenberg, B., and Tapper, M. (1998). The use of adverbial connectors in advanced Swedish learners’ written English. In S. Granger (ed.), Learner English on computer (pp. 80-93). London: Longman.
Ringbom, H. (1998). Vocabulary frequencies in advanced learner English: a cross-linguistic approach. In S. Granger (ed.), Learner English on computer (pp. 41-52). London: Longman.