Thursday, 16 May 2013

A PhD Student's Guide to 'Writing Up the Thesis'

Went to a couple of courses this week, courtesy of my amazing Graduate School Research Training department, and learned all sorts of things about submitting your thesis, and doing your viva. Here are some things off the top of my head that I took away with me:

-       Your research can’t be perfect, but your formatting CAN. Find out exactly how you are supposed to format your document. (what size are the margins meant to be? Bear in mind that they probably need to be quite large, because the binding will eat into them.) find all this out, as soon as you can, from your Department’s website. If you are not sure, ask people where to look. (the course organizer gave us a link to ours… phew.) Set your computer settings to whatever it is meant to be, NOW. Go attend a course called ‘Working with Long Documents’. Apparently it helps. Remember: the point of perfect formatting is that you annoy your examiners as little as possible, and make the thesis as easy for them to read as can be.
-       Your examiners will probably be reading your thesis on the train, on their way to the viva. (maybe they’ll read it before; but they certainly don’t have the time to spend many happy evenings poring over your thesis.) Make it as easy to read as you possibly can. Check that you are making your points clearly. Remove red herrings – things you mention but which do not really add to your argument, things that might distract the examiner from the point you are making. (you can always put those in the Appendices.) No contradictions/ offshoots/ things hanging unexplained.
-       Your thesis is a piece of work that is being written FOR YOUR EXAMINERS ONLY. It is a piece of work that is basically being submitted for an examination. It has to satisfy them, and no-one else. Don’t feel sad that there’s no room for flowery writing, and don’t feel sad if your supervisor says ‘no, that bit is not useful. get rid of it.’ Areas where you express yourself in an artistic way can open things up to interpretation or discussion. YOU DON’T WANT THAT. You are writing for the examiners at this stage, not the wider academic community. A good thesis is one that gives the examiners what they are looking for. Examiners want to know ‘Are you a rigorous, independent academic? Do you get to have this professional qualification?...’
-       So what are they looking for?... Originality of topic or methodology (so you need something original to say about your topic, not just a topic that’s never been done before); ability to make use of published work and source materials; something that is worthy in part of publication; a distinct contribution to knowledge (amongst other things. Check out for what makes a good thesis in the UK). If you have already published something which you say in your phd, make that abundantly clear – eg. ‘The research from this chapter has been published in…’. This tells your examiners ‘you’re about to read something which might sound familiar, and this is why’. Also, this ticks the ‘worthy of publication’ box, and shows that you have an active relationship with the existing literature, responding and contributing to it.
-       Originality: sometimes, the originality of your project can become obscured. You need to SHOUT ABOUT THIS. Flag it up, make it really clear. You need to know – what is your original contribution to knowledge? – and make it REALLY obvious.
-       Read other people’s theses. Read the thesis of someone from your department who recently passed. See how they do stuff.
-       The best way to prepare for the viva is to read and reread your thesis. Know your thesis; know what’s in each chapter; know what’s in each bit of each chapter and how that links to the argument and why. That’s what the discussion in the viva will be about. If you cannot stomach rereading your thesis before the viva, don’t worry. People have gone into the viva without having been able to bring themselves to look at it again. You know the material much better than anyone else. Get some sticky notes and stick one on the first page of each chapter, to help you find things quickly when the examiners ask a question about a specific bit. Finally, pay for an extra bound copy for yourself, so that in the viva you have the same exact object in your hand as the examiners do. This is very important and will help you.
-       Most people pass. The very few people that do not pass tend to be the ones who submitted against their supervisor’s recommendations. Do not do this.
-       When you submit your thesis: take someone along who knows how monumental this moment is, who knows the significance of what you are doing. Arrange to meet someone afterwards who recognizes the importance of what you’ve done. CELEBRATE THE SUBMISSION!...

(This is just some of the stuff that I learned, and I have to stop writing now, because I must get back to work [ie get started on some bloody work]. But if anyone has any questions or comments, or things to add, please feel free!)

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