How not to write a PhD thesis
In this guide, Tara Brabazon gives her top ten tips for doctoral failure
My teaching break between Christmas and the university’s snowy reopening in January followed in the footsteps of Goldilocks and the three bears. I examined three PhDs: one was too big; one was too small; one was just right. Put another way, one was as close to a fail as I have ever examined; one passed but required rewriting to strengthen the argument; and the last reminded me why it is such a pleasure to be an academic.
Concurrently, I have been shepherding three of my PhD students through the final two months to submission. These concluding weeks are an emotional cocktail of exhaustion, frustration, fright and exhilaration. Supervisors correct errors we thought had been removed a year ago. The paragraph that seemed good enough in the first draft now seems to drag down a chapter. My postgraduates cannot understand why I am so picky. They want to submit and move on with the rest of their lives.
There is a reason why supervisors are pedantic. If we are not, the postgraduates will live with the consequences of “major corrections” for months. The other alternative, besides being awarded the consolation prize of an MPhil, is managing the regret of three wasted years if a doctorate fails. Every correction, each typographical error, all inaccuracies, ambiguities or erroneous references that we find and remove in these crucial final weeks may swing an examiner from major to minor corrections, or from a full re-examination to a rethink of one chapter.
Being a PhD supervisor is stressful. It is a privilege but it is frightening. We know – and individual postgraduates do not – that strange comments are offered in response to even the best theses. Yes, an examiner graded a magnificent doctorate from one of my postgraduates as “minor corrections” for one typographical error in footnote 104 in the fifth chapter of an otherwise cleanly drafted 100,000 words. It was submitted ten years ago and I still remember it with regret.
Another examiner enjoyed a thesis on “cult” but wondered why there were no references to Madonna, grading it as requiring major corrections so that Madonna references could be inserted throughout the script.
Examiners have entered turf wars about the disciplinary parameters separating history and cultural studies. Often they look for their favourite theorists – generally Pierre Bourdieu or Gilles Deleuze these days – and are saddened to find citations to Michel Foucault and Félix Guattari.
Then there are the “let’s talk about something important – let’s talk about me” examiners. Their first task is to look for themselves in the bibliography, and they are not too interested in the research if there is no reference to their early sorties with Louis Althusser in Economy and Society from the 1970s.
I understand the angst, worry and stress of supervisors, but I have experienced the other side of the doctoral divide. Examining PhDs is both a pleasure and a curse. It is a joy to nurture, support and help the academy’s next generation, but it is a dreadful moment when an examiner realises that a script is so below international standards of scholarship that there are three options: straight fail, award an MPhil or hope that the student shows enough spark in the viva voce so that it may be possible to skid through to major corrections and a full re-examination in 18 months.
When confronted by these choices, I am filled with sadness for students and supervisors, but this is matched by anger and even embarrassment. What were the supervisors thinking? Who or what convinced the student that this script was acceptable?
Therefore, to offer insights to postgraduates who may be in the final stages of submission, cursing their supervisors who want another draft and further references, here are my ten tips for failing a PhD. If you want failure, this is your road map to getting there.
1. Submit an incomplete, poorly formatted bibliography
Doctoral students need to be told that most examiners start marking from the back of the script. Just as cooks are judged by their ingredients and implements, we judge doctoral students by the calibre of their sources.
The moment examiners see incomplete references or find that key theorists in the topic are absent, they worry. This concern intensifies when in-text citations with no match in the bibliography are located.
If examiners find ten errors, then students are required to perform minor corrections. If there are 20 anomalies, the doctorate will need major corrections. Any referencing issues over that number and examiners question the students’ academic abilities.
If the most basic academic protocols are not in place, the credibility of a script wavers. A bibliography is not just a bibliography: it is a canary in the doctoral mine.
2. Use phrases such as “some academics” or “all the literature” without mitigating statements or references
Generalisations infuriate me in first-year papers, but they are understandable. A 19-year-old student who states that “all women think that Katie Price is a great role model” is making a ridiculous point, but when the primary reading fodder is Heat magazine, the link between Jordan’s plastic surgery and empowered women seems causal. In a PhD, generalisations send me off for a long walk to Beachy Head.
The best doctorates are small. They are tightly constituted and justify students’ choice of one community of scholars over others while demonstrating that they have read enough to make the decision on academic rather than time-management grounds.
Invariably there is a link between a thin bibliography and a high number of generalisations. If a student has not read widely, then the scholars they have referenced become far more important and representative than they actually are.
I make my postgraduates pay for such statements. If they offer a generalisation such as “scholars of the online environment argue that democracy follows participation”, I demand that they find at least 30 separate references to verify their claim. They soon stop making generalisations.
Among my doctoral students, these demands have been nicknamed “Kent footnotes” after one of my great (post-) postgraduates, Mike Kent (now Dr Kent). He relished compiling these enormous footnotes, confirming the evidential base for his arguments. As he would be the first to admit, it was slightly obsessive behaviour, but it certainly confirmed the scale of his reading. In my current supervisory processes, students are punished for generalisations by being forced to assemble a “Kent footnote”.
3. Write an abstract without a sentence starting “my original contribution to knowledge is…”
The way to relax an examiner is to feature a sentence in the first paragraph of a PhD abstract that begins: “My original contribution to knowledge is…” If students cannot compress their argument and research findings into a single statement, then it can signify flabbiness in their method, theory or structure. It is an awful moment for examiners when they – desperately – try to find an original contribution to knowledge through a shapeless methods chapter or loose literature review. If examiners cannot pinpoint the original contribution, they have no choice but to award the script an MPhil.
The key is to make it easy for examiners. In the second sentence of the abstract, ensure that an original contribution is nailed to the page. Then we can relax and look for the scaffolding and verification of this statement.
I once supervised a student investigating a very small area of “queer” theory. It is a specialist field, well worked over by outstanding researchers. I remained concerned throughout the candidature that there was too much restatement of other academics’ work. The scholarship is of high quality and does not leave much space for new interpretations.
Finally, we located a clear section in one chapter that was original. He signalled it in the abstract. He highlighted it in the introduction. He stressed the importance of this insight in the chapter itself and restated it in the conclusion. Needless to say, every examiner noted the original contribution to knowledge that had been highlighted for them, based on a careful and methodical understanding of the field. He passed without corrections.
4. Fill the bibliography with references to blogs, online journalism and textbooks
This is a new problem I have seen in doctorates over the past six months. Throughout the noughties, online sources were used in PhDs. However, the first cycle of PhD candidates who have studied in the web 2.0 environment are submitting their doctorates this year. The impact on the theses I have examined recently is clear to see. Students do not differentiate between refereed and non-refereed or primary and secondary sources. The Google Effect – the creation of a culture of equivalence between blogs and academic articles – is in full force. When questioned in an oral examination, the candidates do not display that they have the capacity to differentiate between the calibre and quality of references.
This bibliographical flattening and reduction in quality sources unexpectedly affects candidates’ writing styles. I am not drawing a causal link here: major research would need to be undertaken to probe this relationship. But because the students are not reading difficult scholarship, they are unaware of the specificities of academic writing. The doctorates are pitched too low, filled with informalities, conversational language, generalisations, opinion and unreflexive leaps between their personal “journeys” (yes, it is like an episode of The X Factor) and research protocols.
I asked one of these postgraduates in their oral examination to offer a defence of their informal writing style, hoping that the student would pull out a passable justification through the “Aca-Fan”, disintermediation, participatory culture or organic intellectual arguments. Instead, the student replied: “I am proud of how the thesis is written. It is important to write how we speak.”
Actually, no. A PhD must be written to ensure that it can be examined within the regulations of a specific university and in keeping with international standards of doctoral education. A doctorate may be described in many ways, but it has no connection with everyday modes of communication.
5. Use discourse, ideology, signifier, signified, interpellation, postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism or deconstruction without reading the complete works of Foucault, Althusser, Saussure, Baudrillard or Derrida
How to upset an examiner in under 60 seconds: throw basic semiotic phrases into a sentence as if they are punctuation. Often this problem emerges in theses where “semiotics” is cited as a/the method. When a student uses words such as “discourse” and “ideology” as if they were neutral nouns, it is often a signal for the start of a pantomime of naivety throughout the script. Instead of an “analysis”, postgraduates describe their work as “deconstruction”. It is not deconstruction. They describe their approach as “structuralist”. It is not structuralist. Simply because they study structures does not mean it is structuralist. Conversely, simply because they do not study structures does not mean it is poststructuralist.
The number of students who fling names around as if they are fashion labels (“Dior”, “Derrida”, “Givenchy”, “Gramsci”) is becoming a problem. I also feel sorry for the students who are attempting a deep engagement with these theorists.
I am working with a postgraduate at the moment who has spent three months mapping Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge over media-policy theories of self-regulation. It has been frustrating and tough, creating – at this stage – only six pages of work from her efforts. Every week, I see the perspiration on the page and the strain in the footnotes. If a student is not prepared to undertake this scale of effort, they must edit the thesis and remove all these words. They leave themselves vulnerable to an examiner who knows their ideological state apparatuses from their repressive state apparatuses.
6. Assume something you are doing is new because you have not read enough to know that an academic wrote a book on it 20 years ago
Again, this is another new problem I have seen in the past couple of years. Lazy students, who may be more kindly described as “inexperienced researchers”, state that they have invented the wheel because they have not looked under their car to see the rolling objects under it. After minimal reading, it is easy to find original contributions to knowledge in every idea that emerges from the jarring effect of a bitter espresso.
More frequently, my problem as a supervisor has been the incredibly hardworking students who read so much that they cannot control all the scholarly balls they have thrown into the air. I supervise an inspirational scholar who is trying to map Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid” research over neoconservative theory. This is difficult research, particularly since she is also trying to punctuate this study with Stan Aronowitz’s investigations of post-work and Henry Giroux’s research into working-class education. For such students, supervisors have to prune the students’ arguments to ensure that all the branches are necessary and rooted in their original contributions to knowledge.
The over-readers present their own challenges. For our under-readers, the world is filled with their own brilliance because they do not realise that every single sentence they write has been explored, extended, tested and applied by other scholars in the past. Intriguingly, these are always the confident students, arriving at the viva voce brimming with pride in their achievements. They are the hardest ones to assess (and help) through an oral exam because they do not know enough to know how little they know.
Helpful handball questions about the most significant theorists in their research area are pointless, because they have invented all the material in this field. The only way to create an often-debilitating moment of self-awareness is by directly questioning the script: “On p57, you state that the academic literature has not addressed this argument. Yet in 1974, Philippa Philistine published a book and a series of articles on that topic. Why did you decide not to cite that material?”
Invariably, the answer to this question – often after much stuttering and stammering – is that the candidate had not read the analysis. I leave the question hanging at that point. We could get into why they have not read it, or the consequences of leaving out key theorists. But one moment of glimpsing into the abyss of failure is enough to summon doubt that their “originality” is original.
7. Leave spelling mistakes in the script
Spelling errors among my own PhD students leave me seething. I correct spelling errors. They appear in the next draft. I correct spelling errors. They appear in the next draft. The night before they bind their theses, I stare at the ceiling, summoning the doctoral gods and praying that they have removed the spelling errors.
Most examiners will accept a few spelling or typographical mistakes, but in a word-processing age, this tolerance is receding. I know plenty of examiners who gain great pleasure in constructing a table and listing all the typographical and spelling errors in a script. Occasionally I do it and then I know I need to get out more.
Spelling mistakes horrify students. They render supervisors in need of oxygen. Postgraduates may not fail doctorates because of them, but such errors end any chance of passing quickly and without corrections. These simple mistakes also create doubt in the examiner’s mind. If superficial errors exist, it may be necessary to drill more deeply into the interpretation, methods or structure chosen to present the findings.
8. Make the topic of the thesis too large
The best PhDs are small. They investigate a circumscribed area, rather than over-egging the originality or expertise. The most satisfying theses – and they are rare – emerge when students find small gaps in saturated research areas and offer innovative interpretations or new applications of old ideas.
The nightmare PhD for examiners is the candidate who tries to compress a life’s work into 100,000 words. They take on the history of Marxism, or more commonly these days, feminism. They attempt to distil 100 years of history, theory, dissent and debate into a literature review and end up applying these complex ideas to Beyoncé’s video for Single Ladies.
The best theses not only state their original contribution to knowledge but also confirm in the introduction what they do not address. I know that many supervisors disagree with me on this point. Nevertheless, the best way to protect candidates and ensure that examiners understand the boundaries and limits of the research is to state what is not being discussed. Students may be asked why they made those determinations, and there must be scholarly and strategic answers to such questions.
The easiest way to trim and hem the ragged edges of a doctorate is historically or geographically. The student can base the work on Belgium, Brazil or the Bahamas, or a particular decade, governmental term or after a significant event such as 11 September 2001. Another way to contain a project is theoretically, to state there is a focus on Henry Giroux’s model of popular culture and education rather than Henry Jenkins’ configurations of new media and literacy. Such a decision can be justified through the availability of sources, or the desire to monitor one scholar’s pathway through analogue and digital media. Examiners will feel more comfortable if they know that students have made considered choices about their area of research and understand the limits of their findings.
9. Write a short, rushed, basic exegesis
An unfair – but occasionally accurate – cliché of practice-led doctorates is that students take three and a half years to make a film, installation or soundscape and spend three and a half weeks writing the exegesis. Doctoral candidates seem unaware that examiners often read exegeses first and engage with the artefacts after assessing if candidates have read enough in the field.
Indeed, one of my students recommended an order of reading and watching for her examiners, moving between four chapters and films. The examiner responded in her report – bristling – that she would not be told how to evaluate a thesis: she always read the full exegesis and then decided whether or not to bother seeing the films. My student – thankfully – passed with ease, but this examiner told a truth that few acknowledge.
Most postgraduates I talk with assume that the examiners rush with enthusiasm to the packaged DVD or CD, or that they will not read a word of the doctorate until they have seen the exhibition. This is the same assumption that inhibits these students in viva voces. They think that they will be able to talk about “art” and “process” for two hours. I have never seen that happen. Instead, the emphasis is placed on the exegesis and how it articulates the artefact.
Postgraduates entering a doctoral programme to make a film or create a sonic installation subject themselves to a time-consuming and difficult process. If the student neglects the exegesis until the end of the candidature and constructs a rushed document about “how” rather than “why” it was made, there will be problems.
The best students find a way to create “bonsai” exegeses. They prepare perfectly formed engagements with theory, method and scholarship, but in miniature. They note word limits, demonstrate the precise dialogue between the exegesis and artefact, and show through a carefully edited script that they hold knowledge equivalent to the “traditional” doctoral level.
10. Submit a PhD with a short introduction or conclusion
A quick way to move from a good doctoral thesis to one requiring major corrections is to write a short introduction and/or conclusion. It is frustrating for examiners. We are poised to tick the minor corrections box, and then we turn to a one- or two-page conclusion.
After reading thousands of words, students must be able to present effective, convincing conclusions, restating the original contribution to knowledge, the significance of the research, the problems and flaws and further areas of scholarship. Short conclusions are created by tired doctoral students. They run out of words.
Short introductions signify the start of deeper problems: candidates are unaware of the research area or the theoretical framework. In the case of introductions and conclusions in doctoral theses, size does matter.
Hope washes over the start of a PhD candidature, but desperation and fear often mark its conclusion. There are (at least) ten simple indicators that prompt examiners to recommend re-examination, major corrections or – with some dismay – failure. If postgraduates utilise these guidelines, they will be able to make choices and realise the consequences of their decisions.
The lessons of scholarship begin with intellectual generosity to the scholars who precede us. Ironically – although perhaps not – candidatures also conclude there.
10 tips for writing a PhD thesis
Ingrid Curl shares simple rules for keeping your work clear and jargon-free
Writing up a PhD can often take place in a frenzy of activity in the last few months of your degree study, after years of hard work. But there are some steps that you can take to increase your chances of success.
- Do not be daunted by the task of “writing up”. Work on the text as your PhD takes shape, remember that all writers need editing, and help yourself by using these basic tips to make life easier. Read what great writers say about how to write before you start, and take their advice to heart. There is no dark art to clear, concise work; it is mostly a result of editing, and editing again. Above all, keep Elmore Leonard’s advice in mind: “If it reads like writing…rewrite it.”
- Plan the structure of your thesis carefully with your supervisor. Create rough drafts as you go so that you can refine them as you become more focused on the write-up. Much of writing comprises rewriting so be prepared to rework each chapter many times. Even Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of everything is shit.”
- Academic writing does not have to be dry. Inject some flair into your work. Read advice on writing and remember George Orwell’s words in Why I Write : “Never use the passive where you can use the active”; and Mark Twain’s on adjectives: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” If you prefer, Stephen King said: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
- Do not write up in chronological order. Work on each chapter while it is fresh in your mind or pertinent to what you are doing at that moment, but come back to it all later and work it up into a consistent, coherent piece, restructuring sections where necessary.
- Think carefully about your writing. Write your first draft, leave it and then come back to it with a critical eye. Look objectively at the writing and read it closely for style and sense. Look out for common errors such as dangling modifiers, subject-verb disagreement and inconsistency. If you are too involved with the text to be able to take a step back and do this, then ask a friend or colleague to read it with a critical eye. Remember Hemingway’s advice: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Clarity is key.
- Most universities use a preferred style of references. Make sure you know what this is and stick to it. One of the most common errors in academic writing is to cite papers in the text that do not then appear in the bibliography. All references in your thesis need to be cross-checked with the bibliography before submission. Using a database during your research can save a great deal of time in the writing-up process. Helpful software includes EndNote or Paperpile. Managing your bibliography from day one may seem obsessive but it will save you a great deal of time and stress by the end of the PhD process.
- Use a house style. Professional publications such as Times Higher Education use a house style guide to ensure consistency in spelling. For example, do not use both -ise spellings and -ize spellings, stick to British spelling and be consistent when referring to organisations or bodies. Because dictionaries vary in their use of hyphenation, use one dictionary and stick to it throughout the writing process. If you consult the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors , you will note the extraordinary number of words with alternative spellings. It can also be a very useful guide to preferred spellings, use of italicisation and foreign phrases.
- Take care when quoting from other sources. Ensure you note whether the italic emphasis is in the original and take careful notes when you are collecting quotes for your thesis. Transcribe them accurately to save work later and keep original spellings (even if they differ from your chosen style) to ensure fidelity to your source.
- Think about plagiarism. If you are quoting from works, quote from them accurately and paraphrase where necessary for your argument. This is where careful note-taking and use of references is invaluable and will help you to avoid even inadvertently plagiarising another work.
- Remember that your thesis is your chance to present your work in the best possible light. Consider your opening paragraphs, entice your reader with your writing and above all be clear about your hypothesis and your conclusion. Append material where it adds value but not where it merely bulks out your work. Consider your reader at all times. This is your chance to showcase your work.
If you stick to these simple rules, your writing will be clear and jargon-free. Above all, take to heart Orwell’s advice: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
Ingrid Curl is associate editor of Times Higher Education, and a former PhD student.
Writing Your PhD Dissertation
The best way to write your proposal and dissertation is to block out times during the day specifically reserved for writing. You can’t write something this large and involved by writing fifteen minutes here and another thirty minutes there. Novelists and playwrights don’t write that way, and neither should you.
Make an appointment with yourself to write. Don’t wait for inspiration. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should ignore those moments when inspiration strikes. It’s always helpful to have some paper and a pencil handy so that you can write things down as you think of them. Don’t rely on your memory because you may easily forget later. I used to lay awake at night thinking about things before I fell asleep. Sometimes, those moments of inspiration come when you are actually in front of your computer, working on your manuscript. Those are the best moments—when the words fly out of your head faster than you can type them, and the manuscript seems to just write itself. Admittedly, those moments are rare. Most of the time, writing is work, and good writing takes time; so don’t rely on inspiration to get you through your proposal and dissertation.
When you’re writing, don’t let things (or other people) become distractions. Admittedly, this is hard to do at times. You’d be surprised at how easy your mind can start to wander. One minute you’re having a great thought about existentialism, and the next minute you’re wondering how to get the phone number of the blonde girl in your existentialism class. I’ve met countless students who’ve had terrible trouble motivating themselves to write ad get their thoughts onto the page. However, if you force yourself to write, preferably at the same time every day, it’ll become easier as you train yourself to “turn on” your writing skills on a regular basis. Treat the dissertation as you would your job, but treat it as though it’s your muse, too. And think of yourself as a writer. Keeping ideas in your head doesn’t make you a writer; writing does.
If you have trouble writing full paragraphs or even full sentences that articulate your thoughts, then start with your notes. Spend time taking notes on the literature you’ve read and try connecting those notes together. You can always create full sentences and paragraphs later. The important thing is to get some of your initial thoughts down on paper or imputed in the computer, no matter how rough or inarticulate they may sound at first.
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The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of FindAPhD.
How to write a Doctoral Thesis
PATIENT care and teaching are rather well established components of our medical career. However, with the passage of time a third component has started to influence our medical culture, namely research.1-4 How to accept this challenge is a question.5 Indeed, teaching and research form a dialectic unit, meaning that teaching without a research component is like a soup without salt. It is a well-established fact that the research activity of an institution is directly proportional to the number of qualified and committed PhD candidates. An inspiring infrastructure, laboratory facilities and libraries are pre-requisites for a research culture to grow.6-8 This forms the basis of a generation cycle for an institution, so that research activity and its culture continues to grow from one generation to the next. The main objective of doctoral work in biomedical sciences is to develop a galaxy of scientist physicians and surgeons possessing high degree of humility, selflessness and ethical superiority. Such a programme will add a scholastic dimension to the clinical faculty.
Education in how to write a doctoral thesis or dissertation should be a part of the postgraduate curriculum, parallel to the laboratory work and Journal Club activities during the PhD studies and/or residency levels.9,10 The overall structure of a doctoral thesis is internationally standardized. However, it varies in style and quality, depending upon how original the work is, and how much the author has understood the work. Therefore a thorough discussion with supervisor, colleagues and assistance from other authors through correspondence can be useful sources for consultation.
Selection of a Topic
The choice of a topic for a doctoral thesis is a crucial step. It should be determined by scanning the literature whether the topic is original or similar work has already been done even a hundred years ago. It is the responsibility of both the supervisor and the PhD candidate to sort out this problem by continuous use of internet and a library.11 The work leading to the PhD degree can originate from research in following spheres:12
The availability of internationally standardized methods, as well as research committed supervisors can enable physicians and surgeons to do PhD work in both basic and clinical health sciences. The importance of research in basic health sciences cannot be overemphasized. It is rather the base of the applied sciences. There are many instances where the elucidation of a mechanism involved in a process awaits the development of an adequate methodology.13 In such a scenario; a new method is like a new eye. Research activity in the field of (a) and (b) illuminates the research directions for (c) (d) and (e). It is worth noting that sometimes important basic questions can come from (e) and stimulate research activity in the domain of basic health sciences.14,15
Types of Doctoral Thesis
TYPE-I: Book Form: a classical style. The blueprint of this form is shown in Table-I .
TYPE-II: Cumulative Doctoral thesis: A modem but quite useful practice.
A book containing the pearls of a PhD work has standardized divisions and formats, where the number of pages should be weighted in terms of content rather than container. The book includes summary, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, conclusions, references and acknowledgements.
Two exercises are mandatory before starting a PhD programme:
MATERIALS / SUBJECTS AND METHODS
Now comes the most crucial and functional part of the doctoral work, the materials/subjects and methods section. This part can be considered as the motor of the PhD work. The reliability, sensitivity and specificity of the motor must be checked before embarking on a long journey. Controlling the controls is the best guide for a precise and authentic work. Usually materials and methods contain components such as a description of the species involved, their number, age, weight and anthropometric parameters, types of surgical procedures and anesthesia if applied, and a detailed description of methodology. Continuous or point measurements should be thoroughly described. However, a dynamic method should always be preferred to static one.
The experimental protocol should be designed after a small pilot study, which is especially advisable in research on human subjects. A detailed and well-thought experimental protocol forms the basis of conditions under which the results would be obtained. Any deviation from the experimental protocol will affect the outcome, and the interpretation of results. It may be noted that great discoveries are usually accidental and without a protocol, based merely on careful observation! However, for the sake of a publication, a protocol has to be designed after the discovery. After having described the different phases of the experimental protocol with the help of a schematic diagram e.g., showing variables, time period and interventions, the selection of a statistical method should be discussed. Negative results should not be disregarded because they represent the boundary conditions of positive results. Sometimes the negative results are the real results.
It is usual practice that most PhD candidates start writing the methodological components first. This is followed by writing the results. The pre-requisites for writing results are that all figures, tables, schematic diagrams of methods and a working model should be ready. They should be designed in such a way that the information content of each figure should, when projected as a frame be visually clear to audience viewing it from a distance of about fifty feet. It is often observed that the presenters themselves have difficulty in deciphering a frame of the Power-Point being projected in a conference.
The results of a doctoral thesis should be treated like a bride. The flow of writing results becomes easier if all figures and tables are well prepared. This promotes the train of thoughts required to analyze the data in a quantitative fashion. The golden rule of writing results of a thesis is to describe what the figure shows. No explanation is required. One should avoid writing anything which is not there in a figure. Before writing one should observe each diagram for some time and make a list of observations in the form of key words. The more one has understood the information content of a figure; the better will be the fluency of writing. The interruption of the flow in writing most often indicates that an author has not understood the results. Discussion with colleagues or reference to the literature is the only remedy, and it functions sometimes like a caesarean procedure.
Statistical methods are good devices to test the degree of authenticity and precision of results if appropriately applied. The application of statistical technique in human studies poses difficulties because of large standard deviations. Outliers must be discussed, if they are excluded for the sake of statistical significance. Large standard deviations can be minimized by increasing the number of observations. If a regression analysis is not weighted, it gives faulty information. The correlation coefficient value can change from 0.7 to 0.4 if the regression analysis is weighted using Fisher’s test. The dissection of effect from artifact should be analysed in such a way that the signal to noise ratio of a parameter should be considered. A competent statistician should always be consulted in order to avoid the danger of distortion of results.
The legend of a figure should be well written. It contains a title, a brief description of variables and interventions, the main effect and a concluding remark conveying the original message. The writing of PhD work is further eased by a well maintained collection of data in the form of log book, original recordings, analyzed references with summaries and compiling the virgin data of the study on master plan sheet to understand the original signals before submitting to the procedures of statistics. The original data belong to the laboratory of an institution where it came into being and should be preserved for 5-7 years in the archive for the sake of brevity.
This is the liveliest part of a thesis. Its main goal is to defend the work by staging a constructive debate with the literature. The golden rule of this written debate should be that a rigid explanation looks backward and a design looks forward. The object is to derive a model out of a jig-saw puzzle of information. It should be designed in such a way that the results of the present study and those of authors from the literature can be better discussed and interpreted. Agreement and disagreement can be better resolved if one considers under what experimental conditions the results were obtained by the various authors. It means that the boundary conditions for each result should be carefully analyzed and compared.
The discussion can be divided into the following parts:
Type-II: CUMULATIVE DOCTORAL THESES
Another way of writing a doctoral work is a cumulative type of thesis.11 It consists of a few original publications in refereed journals of repute. It is supplemented by a concise summary about the research work. This type of thesis is usually practiced in Sweden, Germany and other countries. It has the advantage of being doubly refereed by the journals and the faculty of health sciences. Additionally, papers are published during a doctoral work. A declaration has to be given to the faculty of science about the sharing of research work in publications, provided there are co-authors. The weightage should be in favour of the PhD candidate, so that the thesis can ethically be better defended before the team of august research faculty.
A critical review of this manuscript by Dr. Roger Sutton, Dr. Khalid Khan, Dr. Bukhtiar Shah and Dr. Satwat Hashmi is gratefully acknowledged.
Dedicated to the memory of Mr. Azim Kidwai for his exemplary academic commitment and devotion to the science journalism in Pakistan.
How to Write Your Best Dissertation: Step-by-Step Guide
How to Write Your Best Dissertation: Step-by-Step Guide
When you get to the point of writing a dissertation, you’re clearly near the end of an important stage of your educational journey. The point of this paper is to showcase your skills and capacity to conduct research in your chosen discipline, and present the results through an original piece of content that will provide value for the academic and scientific community.
Before we get any further, let’s clarify one main thing: what is a dissertation?
This term is usually used to present the final result of independent work and research for an undergraduate program. A thesis, on the other hand, is crafted for the completion of a Master’s degree.
Dissertation – the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree.
However, the term dissertation is also used for the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about an undergraduate or PhD dissertation; the form of the assignment is very similar, although the PhD project is much more serious.
This guide will be useful both for undergraduate and PhD students, who are working on their dissertation projects, as well as for students developing theses for MA programs.
Most candidates usually start with great enthusiasm, but this intimidating project can throw them to despair. The process of planning, research, and writing will be the longest and most complex challenge you’ve ever committed to. The end result will be very rewarding, but you might go through several obstacles to get to that point. These are some of the most common problems students have when writing their dissertations:
- Procrastination. They think there is plenty of time to work on the project, and they keep delaying the starting point. This is a big problem, since these students usually find themselves in frantic stress when the deadline approaches. Check out article ”7 Signs You Might Need Academic Writing Help” and find the best solution
- Lack of research skills. Students who don’t have enough experience with academic writing think they just need to collect few relevant resources and extract relevant quotes from them. That’s far from the truth. You need to analyze those materials thoroughly and discuss them in the paper.
- Lack of writing skills. The dissertation paper should follow the strict rules of academic writing. You should write in proper form, style, and language; and you should make sure to implement the correct citation guidelines.
Although the challenge seems overwhelming, the important thing is to start from the beginning and complete each stage step by step. We have a guide that will show you the right direction.
Step 1: Write a winning dissertation proposal
We already explained what a dissertation paper is, but what is a dissertation proposal?
As the term itself suggests, this is a proposal for the final dissertation project, which should persuade the committee members that you’re going to commit to a valuable, interesting, and complex questions. This is a shorter paper than the final dissertation, but it’s equally as important because this is the point when you’ll think of a significant question and you’ll set up a plan for assembling information and writing the paper. Even if the proposal is not mandatory in your university, you should still write it and discuss the points with your mentor.
These are the main points to pay attention to when wondering how to write a dissertation proposal:
Choose the theme, question, and title
– What problem is your dissertation going to tackle?
– Why is it a problem for the research, academic, and scientific community you’ll belong to?
– Why is it important for you to find a solution?
– How are you going to search for the answers?
Do you want to find out more about choosing your dissertation topic? Check out our article.
“How to Come up with a Topic for Your Dissertation”
All these questions are important for making the final commitment. Make sure to brainstorm and choose a theme that will be valuable, unique, and reasonable. You don’t want to end up with a too complex question that would trick you in a dead end. The question you choose should lead you to a testable hypothesis that you can prove with strong arguments.
Discuss few alternatives of the dissertation title with your mentor before you start writing the proposal.
Structure of the dissertation proposal
If you want to make the proposal convincing, its format has to be clean and easy to follow. Here are the points you should include in the proposal:
- Dissertation title
- Objectives – Aim for up to three objectives. If you’re too extensive at this point, it will seem like your plan doesn’t have a focus, so you’ll need to narrow it down.
- Literature – Ask your mentor if you’re expected to list some specific references in this section. If that’s not the case, you’ll at least need to mention the areas of study, schools of thought, and other sources of information you’re going to use during the research stage.
- Research – This is the main section, where you’ll elaborate the ideas of your research question. You will clearly outline the area of research.
- Methodology – The dissertation project can be non-empirical (if the resources come from previously published projects) or empirical (if you collect data through questionnaires or other methods). In this section, you need to explain the methods of collecting data.
- Potential outcomes – Where do you think you’ll end up after all the research and analyzing? Explain the outcome you expect to come down to.
- Timeframe – Create a schedule that explains how you will manage all stages of dissertation writing within a specific timeframe.
- List of references – Ask your mentor if you’re supposed to include this part, and he’ll provide you with the instructions.
Step 2: Conduct an effective research
The dissertation research stage is going to determine the overall development of your project. It has to be methodical and effective, since you don’t want to waste your time reading and analyzing irrelevant resources. Here are a few tips that will help you go through it:
- Make a timeline for the research stage
It’s important to find enough resources to fully understand the phenomenon you’re focused on, but you’ll need to stop researching at one point or another.
Many students fall into a trap: they think they have to read everything that was ever written regarding the dissertation question they are about to elaborate. How much time do you plan to spend in the research stage? Make a timeline and stay committed to it.
The point of the research stage is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but you’ve also understood its limitations.
The Internet is a good starting place during the research stage. However, you have to realize that not everything you read on the Internet is absolutely true. Double-check the information you find and make sure it comes from a trustworthy resource. Use Google Scholar to locate reliable academic sources. Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can take you to some great publication if you check out the list of references on the pages of your interest.
Librarians are really helpful at this point of the project development. Don’t avoid the actual library and ask the librarian to provide you with some interesting publications.
You have to take notes; otherwise you’ll end up seriously confused and you won’t know where you located a certain important argument that you plan to use. Use Evernote, Penzu, or another online tool to write down notes about your impressions, as well as the sources you plan to reference.
Step 3: Write a mind-blowing dissertation
Now, you’re left with the most important stage of the dissertation writing process: composing the actual project, which will be the final product of all your efforts.
It’s surprising to see that many students have some level of confidence during the previous two stages of the process, but they crack when they realize they don’t really know how to write a dissertation. Remember: you already did a great job up to this point, so you have to proceed. Everything is easier when you have a plan.
You already have the dissertation proposal, which is a preliminary outline for the actual dissertation. However, you still need a more detailed outline for the large project. Did the research stage lead you in an unexpected direction? Make sure to include the new points in your outline.
This is a basic outline that will make it easier for you to write the dissertation:
The first chapter should include a background of the problem, and a statement of the issue. Then, you’ll clarify the purpose of the study, as well as the research question. Next, you’ll need to provide clear definitions of the terms related to the project. You will also expose your assumptions and expectations of the final results.
In this chapter of the dissertation, you will review the research process and the most important acknowledgements you’ve come down to.
This part of the dissertation is focused on the way you located the resources and the methods of implementation of the results. If you’re writing a qualitative dissertation, you will expose the research questions, setting, participants, data collection, and data analysis processes. If, on the other hand, you’re writing a quantitative dissertation, you will focus this chapter on the research questions and hypotheses, information about the population and sample, instrumentation, collection of data, and analysis of data.
This is the most important stage in the whole process of dissertation writing, since it showcases your intellectual capacity. At this point, you’ll restate the research questions and you will discuss the results you found, explaining the direction they led you to. In other words, you’ll answer those questions.
In the final chapter of the dissertation, you will summarize the study and you’ll briefly report the results. Don’t forget that you have to explain how your findings make a difference in the academic community and how they are implied in practice.
At the end of this chapter, include a “Recommendations for future research” section, where you’ll propose future research that will clarify the issue further. Explain why you suggest this research and what form it should take.
Use the recommended citation style for your field of study, and make sure to include all sources you used during the research and writing stages.
You’ll need another timeline, but this one will be focused on the writing process. Plan how to complete your dissertation chapter by chapter. When you have attainable goals, it will be easier for you to write the project without getting overwhelmed by its length and complexity.
There is no life-changing advice to give at this point. You just need to stay away from distractions, stick to your timeline, follow the outline, and complete the first draft. You already have what it takes; now you’re ready to do the real work.
Step 4: Edit and Proofread the Dissertation like a Pro
Now that you’ve completed the first draft of the paper, you can relax. Don’t even think about dissertation editing as soon as you finish writing the last sentence. You need to take some time away from the project, so make sure to leave space of at least few days between the writing and editing stage. When you come back to it, you’ll be able to notice most of its flaws.
There is a substantial difference between editing and proofreading: editing is focused on the essence, and proofreading is focused on the form of the paper. You need to deal with the essence first, since it would be silly to proofread the dissertation to perfection and then start getting rid of unnecessary parts and adding more details.
Pay attention to the logical connection between each argument. Are there any gaps in information? Fill them in with more details you collected through the research stage. Maybe you got carried away with the explanations at some point? Make sure to reduce the volume of those parts and clarify them as much as possible. The point is not in quantity; it’s in quality and clarity.
Finally, it’s time to do the final few readings and catch all spelling, grammar, and style errors you made. Read word by word, sentence by sentence, and consult a dictionary or thesaurus if you have any doubts.
If you notice that you’re struggling through the stages of editing and proofreading, you should know you’re not the only one with such problem. You are too attached to this project and it’s difficult for you to see the flaws in it. That’s why it’s recommended for students to use an editing service that will bring their projects to perfection. This is a smart investment that will save you from embarrassment after all that effort and stress you went through.
Step 5: Get feedback
Before you can submit the dissertation project to the committee, you need to get some feedback.
Start with a friend or colleague who has knowledge in this discipline. You need to trust this person, since the dissertation is your unique intellectual property. Ask about their opinions and suggestions for improvement.
Then, discuss the project with your mentor. He/she will point out any possible weak points, and you’ll get instructions on how to finalize the process before getting ready for the presentation.
The dissertation writing process is a great challenge, which not all students are capable to cope with. You need to keep in mind that you’ve come this far in your studies, so there is no other way to go but forward. Tackle the project stage by stage, and you’ll soon complete the most important paper in your whole educational journey.
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