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Writing your thesis

Contributions from Becky Champion, Steve Draper, Barbara Howarth, Gurprit Lall, Liza Paul, Midge McLundie, Barbara Weightman.

Contents (click to jump to a section)


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 Steve Draper. Four first year postgrads attended: Liza Paul, Barbara Howarth, Becky Champion, Gurprit Lall. In addition a second year postgrad Midge McLundie attended, and also Barbara Weightman 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 problem with writing [Midge]

People's experiences/problems/issues when writing

The practice of writing:

Handling the information that you gather:

Communicating your ideas:

Time management:

Problems that can be seen in previous examples of theses

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 behind them.

A lack of consideration about what a thesis is, and how to communicate it to a reader:

A poor quality of writing:

In summary:

Writing (volume) [Becky]

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.

Points about writing:

[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 [Midge]

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 discriminating??]

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:

[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 Also ]

Argument structure [Barbara]

What is a thesis?

Who reads Ph.D.s and how do they read them?

The introduction: when should you write one?

What role does the introduction play?

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.

Editing and revising your work [Gurprit]

Using Readers

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 writing.

Some points to think about before you hand your work to be read:

Editing your own work

There are various methods that you can use to edit your own work:

Strategies for Ph.D. students

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!

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.

Managing your time [Midge]

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 Word document]

One technique for managing your time is to set your deadline, then work backwards to where you are now:

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 double it!)

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:

Comments/suggestions from the session

Schedule sessions every three months for postgraduates to meet and review each other's reading and writing - get (and give!) supportive and encouraging feedback.

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.

A little poem about spell checkers...

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.

Design rationale of the teaching [Steve]

Content / curriculum

Another way of cross-checking the content is to consider a list of study skills topics:

Learning activities / methods

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. [did this]

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. [addressed this]

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 subsection.]

Alternative structure

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

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."

But the key problem is time for them which is a problem for setting further work. In particular one wrote:
"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."

Further feedback comments from Midge

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.

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 two weeks?

Other things it might be interesting to ask people (in addition to what they feel is good and bad about their writing):

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:

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:

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?

(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:

In terms of participation:


  • 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?

    Feedback comments from Barbara Weightman

    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.

    Learning activities (exercises)

    There were three time scales for activities / exercises for the participants:

    Last word [Steve]

    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.

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