23 Mar 2001 ............... Length about 6,100 words (39,000 bytes).
This is a WWW document maintained by Steve Draper, installed at http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve/courses/thesis.html.
You may copy it. How to refer to it.
Web site logical path:
Becky Champion, Steve Draper, Barbara Howarth, Gurprit Lall, Liza Paul,
Midge McLundie, Barbara Weightman.
These are collaborative notes written by the participants of
a 2 hour 10 min. session on writing for PhD students, held on 8 March 2001
as part of the "professional skills" component of the taught course for our
postgrad. students. It was led by
Four first year postgrads attended:
Gurprit Lall. In addition a second year postgrad
attended, and also
who is the effective learning advisor for the Social Science faculty.
The session discussed some of the issues involved in writing a thesis,
problems that arise, and ways of overcoming them. Being aware of these issues
at an early stage in the Ph.D. process, when there is still time to make an
impact, should help to improve the quality of your final thesis.
The practice of writing:
- It's hard to get started, especially if you're out of practice in academic
writing: writing doesn't seem to flow as well as it did as an undergraduate.
[did it ever flow??]
- even if you have experience in other areas, academic writing is different
- you feel capable of producing an acceptable end product,
with adequate prose, but the process of getting there is painful
- feeling inadequate when your writing doesn't come up to your (or others')
- [putting off writing, for fear of writing badly]
Handling the information that you gather:
- feelings of drowning in the literature, in the detail
- how to structure the ideas that are developing
- how you record and process the information
- hand-written notes, or typed into the computer
- write up papers as you read them.
Communicating your ideas:
- If your writing is too terse: possibly you're not explaining what you mean
sufficiently for a reader to understand?
- [perhaps the therapy for this is to show your writing to peers, or even
better to undergraduates, and ask if they can understand it (and then to revise
it until they can)]
- If your writing is too verbose: possibly you're not being clear about what you want
- [the therapy for those of us who are too long-winded is to show your
writing to knowledgeable colleagues, and prune it until they are no longer too
bored to finish it. Steve's personal ideal (not achieved) is to write such that I'm
interesting enough to hold the attention of other researchers, but clear and
simple enough that undergraduates can understand it]
- problems in structuring the argument.
A lack of strength in the underlying argument, i.e. no `thesis'. The words
were produced, but they didn't read as though there was any research thinking
- when is the right time to write?
- should you carry out experiments for two years, then write up in the third?
- how should you structure your work?
A lack of consideration about what a thesis is, and how to communicate it to a
- the purpose of a thesis is to present an argument which has not been
assembled before, and to persuade the reader of the validity of this argument,
- what is it they need to know?
- why do they need to know this?
- the format of the thesis needs to flow from the structure of the underlying
argument - it's not just an exercise of `filling in the blanks' in a
conventional format, like filling in your tax return. The thesis is there to
serve the argument, so you may not necessarily want to follow convention.
However, if you do not, the format of your thesis will have to be made more
explicit to the reader. [Literature review should be relevant]
A poor quality of writing:
- poor writing will make it harder for the reader to interpret your thesis
- one position: poor spelling is not important, unless it affects the meaning
of the sentence
- another position: if your writing looks as though you haven't even bothered
to proof read it, and therefore you don't care about your work, why should the
- [take advantage of a spell checker, BUT
see here for
a little example of their limitations...]
- [personal opinion - I find poor spelling in professional documents
annoying and distracting]
- [what does your thesis convey to the reader, not just in terms of
argument, but in terms of presentation?]
- however, a thesis is written for its sense, not its surface details: a high
quality of English won't hide, or only on the most superficial level, a weak
Each person at the session was asked to write down what (and how much) they
had written since September. Then each person related to the rest of the group
what they had produced.
- don't spend a disproportionate amount of time on spelling and surface
details, but concentrate on communicating your message
- in terms of the format of the thesis: you need to really think about the
message you want to communicate; how this will be affected by the way it's
written up; and the role the format will play in your particular thesis. You
may want to consider moving away from the conventional format.
[If you do, explain your format to the reader]
Points about writing:
- you will get better slowly. Therefore practice is essential. Are you doing
enough each year? You should aim to be doing more writing than you were at
undergraduate level (level 4 students - 9 x 1 hour essays and 2 long pieces of
10,000 words?) - not less
- set goals in writing - work to achieve these goals
- another reason to practise writing relentlessly is that you will use it in
almost any job you do in future: writing is the nature of white collar work.
If you teach school, you have to write endless reports on children. If you
work in any service industry you'll be writing bids/proposals for clients. If
you find a rich man/woman to support you being a mother/father, you'll probably
end up writing to teachers, head teachers, your MP etc. to make things you want
- a thesis = approx. 80,000 words (1/2 book). This is bigger than anything
else you will have written. How should you work up to this? Again set writing
goals for the year
- a thesis needs to contain a `bigger' thought - not just a compilation of
[Steve has a
document on the web
that includes some basic (relatively low
level) advice on writing. Though written for undergraduates writing critical
reviews, at least some of the remarks, e.g. about introductions and titles,
apply to theses.]
Reading other theses will give you an idea of what is expected. It might not
be immediately obvious whether they are good or bad, but this may not matter in
respect of learning to write your own - you can learn from a bad thesis as well
as a good one. [And with practice you will become better at
Writing reviews of theses you read will improve your understanding of them.
One technique is to dip into the thesis, then put the key points on one side of
A4, for example:
- number of different studies
- number of subjects
- major conclusions
- worst weakness
[Prof. Kennedy's on-line notes have a section, "What template can I use to
review research?", which gives a checklist of other things you might want to
consider when reviewing papers etc. It can be found at
What is a thesis?
- an argument designed to shepherd the reader to a final conclusion. All
elements of the dissertation should lead to this final goal
- at the start of the third year, try writing down a concise resumé
the back of a postcard) of the structure of the argument! The main thrust of
the argument must be clear in your head so that you know which elements you
need to select for inclusion in the dissertation. Possibly one could attempt
this exercise at the beginning of the Ph.D.? However, while building a
structure at an early stage might be a valuable exercise, a disadvantage of
laying out the structure too early is that the research itself may show up
unexpected findings. Consequently, this will affect the structure of the
argument and a great deal of "rejigging" of the dissertation will be necessary.
Also, it is important to make a distinction between a plan and a structure: a
plan is there to give direction to your work; the `argument' of the thesis, and
hence its structure, will probably change and develop as your research
Who reads Ph.D.s and how do they read them?
- very few people will read the dissertation from cover to cover. The vast
majority will select particular sections to read and they will probably have a
focused question in mind
- the logical structure of the dissertation is of vital importance. In
particular, the way you "glue" sections of the dissertation together will play
an important role in guiding your reader through particular sections. It is
good advice then to consider your reader when writing. One way to guide the
reader through the dissertation is by skilful use of conclusions and
introductions. For example, in chapter introductions, clearly state the
importance of that chapter and its role in the thesis
- bear in mind that the logical structure will need to change as the argument
is restructured. Remember that a high level argument has a logical structure
and an argument. Are there any holes in the argument?
The introduction: when should you write one?
- the introduction, in full prose, should be both the first thing and last
thing you write. Having said that, some people may benefit more by working with
an ongoing framework of the introduction throughout the course of the Ph.D.
What role does the introduction play?
- the introduction should constitute the first chapter of the thesis and has
several functions. These include:
- introducing the general topic: What kind of topic is this?
What is and is not included in this topic?
- introducing this specific research
- to preview, or provide a summary of the dissertation (e.g. a "map" of the
Although there are no "rules", in the prescriptive sense, for writing your
introduction there are certain conventions. Remember that the reader may be
trained in a discipline that is different to your own. Consequently, s/he may
have different expectations. It may be useful to label or 'flag' any aspect of
the topic that is not mainstream. In multidisciplinary topics, it is
particularly important to make it clear which perspective you are viewing the
topic from. You may also wish to signal any breaks from convention (i.e. make
it clear to the reader that you are breaking with convention and doing
something unusual or original).
It may be useful to include a table of studies in your introduction - this will
help the reader to see at a glance whether they want to read further.
It is always useful to get others to read your work and to get feedback from
them. This will help you to get a feel of how others understand your work and
Some points to think about before you hand your work to be read:
There are various methods that you can use to edit your own work:
- use your readers carefully
- try to get the most out of them by checking your work first
- it's advisable to give your work to a first year student
(to get the spelling and perhaps clarity fixed) and then make the
relevant corrections before handing the work to your supervisor
- most importantly make sure that you understand the criticisms the reader
makes and actively make the required changes.
Volunteer yourself to be a reader, this will give you an idea of how others
write and it won't make you feel bad when you ask them to read your work!
- leave your work for a few days and then re-read it with `fresh eyes'
- a more radical approach would be to rewrite your work, this process will be
time consuming and not always appropriate when deadlines are approaching, fast!
When writing up make sure you leave adequate time to read and edit your work.
Make sure you use your supervisors as final draft readers and don't hand them
your first draft. Run your first draft by another student.
Considering these points will allow you to get the most out of your work and
help develop a thesis that appeals to a wide audience.
If you want other people to read your thesis, and revise it based on their
comments, then you need to allow time for this when planning your schedule.
It is possible to write thesis chapters a year or two in advance, but be aware
of the amount of modification that may be required to reflect a changed
position. Some of the parts which are most tedious to write, such as the
methods section, will probably require little revision. Even if the chapter
content does not need much revision, however, the "glue" relating the chapter
to the rest of the thesis will probably need revised.
Leave plenty of time to prepare your bibliography/list of references. Taking
full references of material as you read it will save time and trouble later.
Keeping these in an electronic format should make it easier when you come to
cite them. [I can highly recommend EndNote (or another bibliographic
reference manager) - as well as providing a database for storing references, it
can automatically produce fully formatted references and a bibliography in a
One technique for managing your time is to set your deadline, then work
backwards to where you are now:
- set out the tasks you want to complete, and the processes you need to go
through. (Treat this as a guide, don't stick to it slavishly)
- assess the time that's available, and put in lots of slack time
- use techniques such as chunking
- put in milestones, and check your progress against them.
One of the major difficulties can be assessing how long things will actually
take. (Steve's rule of thumb - estimate the time YOU think it will take then
Know how you work: plan your work to take advantage of when you work best,
whether first thing in the morning or late at night (you may have found this
out from your undergraduate days).
Getting past the fear of starting:
Schedule sessions every three months for postgraduates to meet and review each
other's reading and writing - get (and give!) supportive and encouraging
- you can use "fear" or "treats"
- assess what you need to do, and how long you have to do it -
panic yourself into starting!
- promise yourself a treat when you've completed a certain task
- allow yourself to write badly at the first attempt
- intermediate writings - not everything you write has to be to full academic
standard - less formal writing can act as preparation for more formal writing
- personal notes - for your own use
- notes for friends - can be understood by people who
have some knowledge of the topic
- [Julia Cameron talks about this and other aspects of writing in her
book, "The Right to Write" (Pan Books, 2000)]
Good to hear that others also feel very fearful of writing and feel what they
write is rubbish at first.
Reminder to keep practising - reassurance that with practice will get better.
Very helpful tips - read other theses, and get others to read your own work.
See also the section on student feedback.
I half a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea
It plane lee marks for my revue
Miss steaks eye can knot sea
Aye ran this poem threw it
I'm shore your pleased two no
Its let her perfect inn it's weigh
My checker tolled me sew
A checker is a blessing.
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when aye rime.
Each frays comes posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours over every word
To check sum spelling rule.
Bee fore a veiling checkers
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we're lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.
Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
There are know faults with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear
Now spelling does not phase me,
It does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped words fare as hear
To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should be proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaws are knot aloud
Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too please.
- The overall topic is writing;
- reading is my
answer for how to train yourself on academic style, common structures of PhDs,
and experience of common problems in finding your way round a PhD (try to do
- time management is part of writing, especially something
as big as a thesis.
- Focussing on thesis argument structure is really how
critical thinking applies to PhDs, and is also important for composing the
"glue" sentences throughout the thesis.
Another way of cross-checking the content is to consider a list of study skills
- Academic writing: clearly the main focus here.
- Time management: an explicit topic here, though not given more than a small
- Exam technique: I could have advised on vivas, but that was
not the topic here.
- Memory, note-making and (re)organisation. Not a heading here, but it did
come up and was discussed a bit; partly under the writing they did, and the
issue of the extent of re-usability of what they write for the thesis. Perhaps
this deserves more space, as the kind of note-taking i.e. private writing you
do is rather different for a PhD: developing ideas is more important than
summarising papers written by others.
- Critical thinking. Not mentioned by that term; but in fact my emphasis on
working on the essential skeleton of the logical structure of their thesis
argument, and constantly organising and flagging their writing in relation to
it, is actually just exactly critical thinking about what their argument is,
and what its strengths and weaknesses are.
Group sessions should begin with self-introductions. [did this]
Start by getting people to think of their starting point on the topic: here,
what their current notions and worries about writing a PhD are. [did this]
Connect with (i.e. recall to mind) their experience so far of writing.
Discover what they want and allow some chance of adapting what you say to
address that. All teaching should include interaction between the learners'
views and concerns and the teacher's. This was represented by the initial
trawl of their concerns, and to a small extent by my remembering to refer back
to those at appropriate points. However really only about 5 mins out of 130
for this: should probably do better. [did this in part]
All teaching should connect to practice: both action and experience
(perception) by the learner. The recalling their past experience and anxieties
is one attempt; the exercises/activities at three time scales are another.
But perhaps more should be attempted. The reading/critiquing exercise needs
improvement. We could have done in-class exercises for each person on drafting
a) thesis titles, b) classic one or two sentence introductions to a thesis, c)
fantasy concluding paragraphs.
All teaching needs to be the trigger or seed for further activities by the
learner: see next major section below.
[Did this, but these students feel they don't have time for this: see next
Midge suggested it could have been run with an alternative structure: split
the two hours into two one hour sessions a week apart:
Student feedback on this session was basically: topic found very useful,
design of session mostly OK, though the reading/critiquing exercise should be
improved. One thought it "a good idea to have the homework, because you have
to think about what you're writing - I found thinking about the seminar
afterwards for your [feedback request] questions even more useful."
- Week 1: set the agenda, and suggest aims/issues/standards.
- Homework: Get people to come back with prepared answers to a) exercises b)
critiques of something e.g. a piece of writing, and a thesis.
- Week 2: Disucss the homework. Generally: do on the spot exercises and
discussion of ways and means.
But the key problem is time for them which is a problem for setting
further work. In particular one wrote:
These notes were written by Midge in response to the followup request for
feedback that I sent out. Midge is in her second year, and her viewpoint, as
she comments below, is different partly because of that.
"Any tips on how to manage the nightmare of the first six months when
your days are so broken up with faculty lectures, departmental
lectures, seminars, SUPPORT, lab demonstrating to try to earn a bit
of extra cash. I find it extremely difficult to make any progress on
reading or writing unless I have about 2.5 hours uninterrupted peace
to concentrate. Since I've been here this seems to be virtually
impossible to find. I know that this is a part of academic life in
general, but I think it's been particularly bad for us so far. I
think the worst is over now for us, as a lot of the faculty and
departmental lectures stop after easter and so I am confident that I
will be much more efficient in my time management when I have more
freedom to organised my own day. However - for next years intake, it
might be helpful to have some advice ready for them, or at least warn
them what they're in for."
I realised while I was thinking about the seminar, for your questions, that in
some ways I learned as much from doing that as I did from the seminar itself.
That's not meant as a criticism of the seminar, but a thought that both parts
were equally valuable, at least for me.
Would it be practical to keep the two hours (or would you need more?), but
split over two weeks, where the emphasis in the first week is on what it's all
about, and in the second week is on the messy, hands-on actual doing of it,
with time in between for reflection/homework? (I guess what I mean is that
there can be a huge gulf between knowing what you're supposed to do, and doing
it - like Barbara's time management? - also that I find interactive exercises
useful.) Or is it better to have a bit of both in each session?
I had wondered if you could ask people to write an abstract before the seminar,
circulating them beforehand, and everyone could prepare some comments for
discussion at the seminar. Then I thought that maybe this wouldn't work, as
you might need time to build up trust within the group before people would do
this usefully. Perhaps this might be appropriate if the seminar was split over
Other things it might be interesting to ask people (in addition to what they
feel is good and bad about their writing):
- what is their piece of writing that they're most proud of, and why? (not
necessarily 'academic' writing); and the one they're least proud of, and why?
- what's the best piece of advice they've ever found, or been given, about
writing, and why?
You could maybe ask people in advance what their main problems are, so that the
emphasis of the session could be adjusted slightly depending on the needs of
the group. (But is there an advantage in having spontaneous answers - less
time to deceive yourself?)
As an example, I think my main problems are:
putting off 'higher-level' writing because I think it will be hard, and
being worried I won't do it well (the only way to get past this is to do it,
and do it, and do it)
taking ages to write things
lack of critical content - most of the writing I've produced is 'this and
this and this' - - more bringing out key points rather that critical treatment
- probably because that's the type of writing I'm more used to doing (am going
to read Critical Reviews notes)
lack of self discipline
In relation to asking them about their problems you could ask what they would
most like to know, or would find most useful.
In my case this might be, for example:
advice on improving self-discipline - maybe sharing any tips people have
found. (Although I guess this is another thing you've just got to do, and do,
and do till it becomes easier...)
making commitments to other people helps, as you don't want to (be seen
to?) let them down
Maybe this is where having the postgrad group meeting would help (or
alternatively, Procrastinators Anonymous?!?). You each agree to do something,
and circulate it to the others before the meeting, and everyone prepares
comments on other folks' things ready for the meeting?
- would it be worth doing this more frequently than every three months, or
would that be too intrusive? (probably too much if you have to read everyone's
stuff as well as doing your own research)
- is this similar to the setup of a 'reading group'?
(This may be too much like undergraduate stuff - I'm not sure what Psychology
students have done already. Maybe most people just want to be left to get on
with it, and find this type of thing too low level. Maybe it could be a
voluntary thing. (Back to Proc. Anon...))
You could ask people generally (as opposed to only problems) what they would
most like to know, or have known when they started. Or things they have found
that work for them?
In my case:
ideas about intermediate writings (Steve)
the notion that you have to be willing to let yourself do it badly (Julia
Cameron's book, also Barbara Weightman, also section on "How to Start Writing"
in Kennedy's How to Do Research that talks about getting
past writer's block: web reference
that "hanging out on the page" works (Julia Cameron's book)
writing short summaries or essays on each area of information I got would
be good for me I think - maybe this is what's expected when writing up notes,
but I think in my case essays might be better. Although this is probably
something that should be able to be taken as read at postgraduate level, I
think I need practice in doing this, especially in the `critical' sense.
People who've done Psychology as a first degree, or another area where essay
writing is the main method of submitting work, probably wouldn't need as much.
(Or am I making the wrong assumptions about Psychology degrees?)
In terms of participation:
- it would have been good if more people had taken part in more discussion
- it might have been useful to have had any `opposing' views identified
beforehand - not just things that would come up in discussion, but any more
fundamental issues. This might have allowed more balanced discussion (not in
terms of the `sides' of the argument, but in terms of the time it took up).
But you'll probably get differences of opinion anyway, so maybe it's not worth
the extra effort!
Postscript:I guess my experience of writing might be different to most
Psychology students, and
I'm in second year (!)
I was reading the page yesterday, and I thought the comment about the
time was very valid - I'd completely forgotten what it was like last
year. (I only had to attend the lectures, but I think ESRC students
are required to do most of the assignments as well, so it's no wonder
they don't want to do any more.) Could it be done in Term 3 next
year, or at the beginning of Year 2?
I thought the two hour session was very useful and gave everyone the chance to
discuss key areas of difficulty. The formal structure of the meeting was less
clear to me but this may be explained by my arrival ten minutes after the
start. During the first hour, discussion centred around clearly identifying
the areas of difficulty and I think this process is particularly relevant
for thesis writing: in categorising the problem one determines the range of
solutions available. I believe our differences of approach came through very
clearly and I hope our disagreements were sufficiently polarised! I loved the
poem introduced by Mairghread, it was new to me.
There were three time scales for activities / exercises for the
- During the class
- What are your current goals for this session; current anxieties about
- Write down the list of things you have written so far this academic year,
along with the approximate size of each, and type of writing.
- Who do you think the audience for your thesis is?
Have you yourself ever read a thesis?
- Write down: when should you write the introduction to a thesis: as the
first or last part you write?
- Critique a piece of writing (a rough memo I had). [Do this better next
- What is your piece of writing that you're most proud of, and why? (not
necessarily 'academic' writing); and the one you're least proud of, and why?
- What's the best piece of advice you've ever found, or been given, about
writing, and why?
- What they would most like to know, or would find most useful.
- Spend 5 minutes doing a draft personal plan for your reading and writing.
- Draft a/your own thesis title: or rather 6 versions of it.
- Draft a 3 sentence summary of your thesis, particularly the essential
structure of its argument.
- Homework within the next 7 days
- Writing up notes about the session
collaboratively. The idea is to collaborate in a full set of notes: divided
between the participants, one of whom also acts as editor (collecting the
contributions). They are then put on the web as a joint resource.
Still better is if these are discussed (e.g. over email) within the 7 days and
revised; and that the notes are not merely a record but are extended with
comments, questions and so on.
- Feedback on the session, partly for the presenter, partly as a reflection
exercise. This time I asked:
- Should I have reduced the material to one hour?
- Should I have dropped the interactive exercise element of it?
i.e. should I (a)keep it as it was; or (b) cut the exercises but kept the
coverage; or (c) cut the things covered but keep some interaction.
- Should it have been more interactive (specific suggestions even more useful
than just yes/no)
- Other points or topics I missed out that you think should be included?
- What is your opinion so far (obviously your opinion on this in 6 months
may be more valuable) on whether it was a good idea to get you to write up
notes on the session as homework?
- That is an example of setting work in relation to the class. What is
your opinion on the most useful amount of this (in number of items and time
taken)? For instance, each class could require reading or writing in advance,
and afterwards; or one, or none at all.
- What was the best thing about the session?
What was the worst thing about the session?
And how could I do that thing better?
- Long term
- Each student should set themselves both reading and writing targets for
the year, or for their whole PhD. Perhaps I should have had this as another
exercise within the session: the first drafting of such plans.
- They should review them periodically: a suggestion for this review is to
get together as a group every 3 months for a joint review.
- Run seminars on thesis reviews: The presenter would have chosen the
thesis to be important to her; read it carefully, and written out a detailed
review, which she also presents a version of verbally. The others would have
spent a fixed time e.g. one hour in advance looking at the thesis. In an hour
you can read the abstract, intro, and conclusions; dip in and check whether
these are honest summaries; dip in and discover basics including the number
of studies, number of subjects, validity of the study, etc. If you can't
discover this in an hour, that is a criticism of the way it's written.
- Other things
- TLS may offer a
workshop on writing your thesis.
- You may ask for help from
So what, in hindsight, was my essential message?
You need to practise writing.
You need to practise reading PhD theses
(not least so you know what being the audience for a thesis is like).
You need to practise reviewing / reshaping the essential logical skeleton
or argument of your own thesis or research.
And eventually write your thesis in the light of all three of these.
Web site logical path:
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