How to write Thesis Background Tutorial 2019
This tutorial explains how to write a thesis and thesis background with the best examples. And also explains 20+ research hypotheses and Literature Review techniques used to write a thesis.
Depending on the nature of your thesis, the background sections or chapters can take any of several different forms. However, their functions are always the same.
To provide the context for your own work and to be the starting point for an examiner to think about your position in relation to the work, that is, to be the ‘you’ that you were at the start of the research project.
The four most common elements in the background chapters are:
Establishment of a context to locate a study in time, location, or culture.
Identification of current theory, discoveries, and debates, including an evaluation of those most useful and salient to your topic, as well as a nomination of gaps in the literature.
Understanding of current practices and technologies in your field that highlight, and perhaps synthesize, a selection of the appropriate methods to gather data for your study.
Preliminary investigations are done by you or others to help clarify research techniques, formulate hypotheses, or focus areas of investigation for the major research program to follow.
Before Starting Thesis Background we Discuss some tips of Thesis Writing:
Write early, and write often. Keep your research in parallel with your writing so they grow in parallel. Begin to develop your thesis as part of the process of initiating your research. Create a table of contents as early as possible.
If you do delay writing until after you have done your own work—although this is not the safest way to produce a strong thesis!—make sure that you are writing to the structure advocated above.
Start with confidence. Write your introductory chapter first, then put it aside while you work on other parts of your study. Come back from time to time to revise your aim and scope so that they align with the changes you make as you go along.
Let your writing drive your development of a literature review. Make sure that it is structured and critical. Use a rich mix of strategies for exploring the literature, including online academic tools, traditional libraries, and non-academic resources such as Wikipedia.
In the early stages, your research questions may develop or change. This is a good thing.
Some chapters are harder to write than others. A concrete chapter on your analysis, say, may be easy to produce and give you a sense of accomplishment; completing the background chapter will mean that the most difficult part of the thesis writing is behind you.
Within individual chapters:
Start with an introduction that tells the reader why this chapter is included in the thesis, what you intend to achieve in it, and how you intend to do this.
Develop the chapter in an appropriate and logical way to achieve the aim stated in the introduction. Avoid applying the same rigid template to every writing problem.
Write a formal conclusion or summary section. Make sure that conclusions include a statement of the implications of the findings. Check that you have argued for the conclusions or findings in the body of the chapter. Check that these conclusions respond to the aim stated in the introduction to the chapter.
Remember that it is your writing that will be examined. Other tasks may not be productive unless they lead to material for your thesis. Be aware of the tension between creating and critical thinking, and consciously exploit it to help you develop a strong thesis.
There are many excuses for not writing. Most are a form of procrastination. Make plans, and stick to them. Audit yourself and seek to understand and resolve reasons for lack of progress.
When you find an effective writing habit, use it. Make good use of your supervisor; think of her or him as a resource as well as a mentor.
Developing Critical Thinking
One approach to thesis writing requires students to review the literature and produce a chapter entitled Literature Review’, thorough and polished before they are permitted to proceed with their own work.
The idea is that, informed by a literature review, they would be able to see just where previous researchers had drawn un-warranted conclusions or had disagreed with each other, and would then be able to design brilliant experiments to resolve these problems.
You certainly should read the literature before you leap into a full-scale research program, and should also attempt to write down your understanding of it. This is a good way to learn how to follow the important arguments through and to understand the agreements and disagreements.
But until you have done some work of your own—perhaps collected and analyzed some data, for example—it is not possible to be ‘critical’ in the sense implied by ‘a critical review of the literature’.
It follows that you will not yet be able to design those brilliant experiments that have so far eluded the other researchers in your area. You may be able to design a research program, but almost certainly it will be tentative.
With luck, the results of this preliminary program may help you to design a better set of surveys or experiments next time (by which time you will have thought about it a bit more, and will have gone back and re-read the literature).
It also follows that your reviewing of the literature is an ongoing process. You should still be reading it when you are setting out results, discussing your findings, and writing conclusions.
How do you convert your initial ‘literature survey’ into a critical review of existing theory that will lead logically into the work that you design and undertake yourself?
A review of current theory serves three purposes: it gives the background information required to contextualize the extent and significance of your research problem.
It identifies and discusses attempts by others to solve similar problems, and it provides examples of methods they have employed in attempts to get these solutions. Make sure you deal with all of these.
The first purpose is the most straightforward. Its sole purpose is to establish the parameters of your argument. Guide yourself through this section of the research by asking the four standard journalist’s questions: Who? What? Where? And when? Keep this section short, and do not get caught up in unnecessary detail.
Simply put, it provides a map of the territory you are seeking to cover. It signals to your readers that you intend to follow the scope of your investigation and are confident enough to guide them through the complexities of the topic.
First attempts to review existing theory often stop after an initial draft. But when you have put your problem in the context of ongoing research in the area you have hardly started! Identifying and discussing possible solutions to your problem is the second purpose of your review. This is where you need those critical skills.
It is likely (and expected) that you will have read much more widely in the topic area than you need for your review. Your initial journey through the literature will have helped you to gain a better understanding of the many complex facets of your central problem.
But you do not need not to write about all of them in full. Keep in mind the aim and scope of your thesis: How does what you are reading relate to achieving these?
As you read, write the act of writing forces you to come to grips with conflicting ideas and focus your attention on the most important arguments. Eventually, you will gain a sense of what parts of the previous research are leading you towards possible ways of dealing with your problem.
As you develop a stronger sense of the field, strive to filter the good from the bad. What you are doing at this point is creating an internal set of criteria on which to accept or reject arguments and, through this process; you are developing the skills of critical thinking.
By now you will probably have written many fragments and mini-reviews, and it is time to write a serious first draft of your ‘critical review of existing theory’. Before you triumphantly hand this to your supervisor for criticism, it’s a good idea to put it aside for a week or so and work on something else.
Then come back to it and try to rework it into a second draft in which you attempt to articulate the criteria you have been developing, and demonstrate to readers just how sharp your criticisms are. Share your work with colleagues and read their work too.
That is, you should read, and think, as an examiner. With experience, researchers accumulate a toolbox of questions that they use to evaluate the work of others, and of observations of common ways in which other work is flawed. Consciously building this toolbox can help us become better at critical thinking.
Effective critical thinking depends on effective reading.
For me, reading a piece of research literature seems to fall into phases. The first phase, counter-intuitively, is fairly uncritical. I try to get a sense of what the researchers were trying to do and whether the problem is genuinely interesting and then to understand how they undertook the work.
Once I have a broad grasp of what a paper is about, I begin to look at issues such as whether the results really support the conclusions and whether the experiments look robust.
A big question is whether the work is significant; some papers are genuinely remarkable, but most are an incremental contribution and need to be analyzed from that perspective.
In considering whether the work is dependable, it also helps to consider the reputation of the authors, which may seem unfair—anyone can do great work—but a senior researcher is unlikely to knowingly put their name to flaky or insignificant work, while a more junior researcher may be desperate for any kind of publication.
Some papers are plain wrong or misguided. The fact that they are published means that someone believed in them, and it is certainly the case that high-impact journals are more trustworthy than fringe publications.
But you should always be skeptical. It is up to the author to convince you that the work is correct. At the same time, a paper can have strong results even if you don’t understand it.
What he should have been doing was something between these two extremes.
How can you determine what to omit, and what to include, as you establish context? I suggest three rules:
1. Don’t include material that the reader does not need in order to understand what will follow. Although we need some chemistry to understand the effects of bicarbonate soda in baking, there is a lot that is not relevant to the problem.
2. Don’t include anything in your main text if it is going to interrupt the development of the flow of logic in your argument. There may be some things that have to be included in the thesis, but that should be in appendices rather than the main text.
3. Include anything that is genuinely clarifying.
The 95 % Syndrome
As students get further and deeper into their projects, they often fail to realize how expert they have become in their area. They have absorbed the key ideas that dominate their particular field and have come to take them for granted.
When they start writing about their own research, which is about the extension and modification of these ideas, they assume that the reader will be just as familiar with the basic ideas as they are, and they don’t bother to explain them properly. They assume the 95 percent and concentrate on the 5 percent.
Understanding Current Theory, Discoveries, and Debates
Examiners will be sensitive to instances in which major contributions are neglected, or their significance downplayed. Summarize their contributions completely and honestly. But remember also to point out how these other studies may have advanced the discipline.
For example, one student of mine, Raymond, had a tendency to write about all previous papers as in one of two classes: a few papers were insightful, ground-breaking, and of critical importance; the rest were, in his view, more or less misguided, confused, foolish, or wrong.
He often failed to see how they made useful contributions (perhaps in a context that was now outdated, which however does not mean that the work was invalid), possibly because of a lack of appreciation of the fact that much research is incremental.
At times he almost seemed to want to be a giant-killer who was bringing down the inflated reputations of esteemed researchers. The net effect was that his criticisms could seem inconsiderate and harsh, that is, they lacked balance.
Throughout this second section of your review, keep in mind that you are engaging in a conversation with other academics. Engagement is the key concept: it is a spirit of ‘give and take’ that respects the value of multiple perspectives.
It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that the function of this section is mere to ‘report’ or ‘describe’ previous studies in an effort to show that you have ‘done your homework’.
Rather, you should interweave various studies to build up the argument that the problem you are tackling is not yet solved and still raises some interesting and unanswered questions.
Eventually, you will come to an understanding of the most recent thinking in the field. At that point, briefly summarize the main points that are still troublesome. You have identified the ‘gaps’ in the theoretical framework and areas that have remained relatively unexplored by previous researchers.
This summary should be setting the ground for the questions or hypotheses that you will be identifying in your chapter on design of your own research. In a sense, these are the gaps that you are trying to fill with your own original contribution.
Understanding Current Practices and Technologies
In the third section of background material, you will need to examine the approaches and techniques others used in research in your topic area. From your previous reading and your attendance at research seminars in your department.
You will probably have become aware of the flaws in research design, research methods, and the reporting of results that can mar an otherwise competent investigation.
Once you get to know some of the common mistakes, stay alert to them as you review previous studies. Use your knowledge of such mistakes to point out how a previous investigation may have made only a limited contribution to solving the problem you have posted. (If the contribution had not been limited, you would not have to conduct an investigation—somebody else has already solved the problem!).
Where appropriate, point out the limitations to those approaches; remember, one of the attributes of a Ph.D. thesis is that the student is aware of limitations.
No method is ‘perfect’, but your review should lead to an understanding of which methods can be used to achieve solutions to your problem. You will need to draw on this in your next chapter, where you select appropriate methods for your own research program.
In some disciplines, a key purpose of this part of the literature review is to establish baselines. The aim of your work may be to improve on the state-of-the-art: a more sensitive test for contamination, for example, or reduced energy consumption in food preparation.
The very presence of these comparative terms here (improve, reduce) suggests that there is something you are comparing against.
This is your baseline. You need to know what the current best competitor is, and later you will need to test whether your approach has advantages.
Perhaps obviously, there is little value in showing that your approach is better than something which is already known to be poor—so you need to use your literature review to show that your chosen baseline really is the best that is currently available.
You may then even undertake some preliminary investigation of this baseline, to establish its strengths and limitations, as I now discuss.
Where should an account of this preliminary work appear in your thesis? If you have used it to help you to formulate hypotheses that you have called on when designing your principal research program, you could report the preliminary work as one of the background chapters.
If it appears to form a major element of the principal work itself, you should set it aside for reporting later as part of the ‘Design’ and ‘Results’ chapters.
If you report preliminary investigations in a background chapter, it will have to contain sections on the hypothesis used, the design of the work, the results, and the conclusions drawn from them.
In either case, be sure that you make clear the need for its inclusion—you don’t want to appear as if you are trying to pad out your work by including irrelevant material.
As I recommended earlier, there is much to be gained in writing the background chapters before or during the time when you are carrying out your own research program.
However, when you have finished your own research it is time to rewrite the background chapters. You are now much clearer about several things that you were when you first wrote them:
You understand the links between your own work and the work of others who went before you.
You now know what assumptions you made, perhaps unconsciously, about your study area. These can now be made explicit.
You are aware of the issues surrounding the application of current methods in your field and have explicitly pointed out their limitations.
• In your efforts to understand and interpret the results of your own work you will have reached a new level of understanding of the work of others—this is what is meant by a ‘critical’ understanding.
For example, if you were working in the area of ‘sustainable architecture’, you would by now have realized that many people writing about it had been using the words as a vague catchphrase, and you need to go back and make some careful definitions.
Most likely you designed your own work without being completely conscious of the research questions or even the hypotheses that informed it. This possibly sounds silly, but my experience with students is that this is what often happens.
This gives us a framework for how you should tackle the revising of the background chapters, as explained below.
Ensure that the ways that you are going to use words and ideas are carefully defined. Where these are fundamental to your own work, the development of these ideas in the literature or even in the history of ideas must be discussed.
For example, in her thesis on landscape heritage, Jan had to trace through the development of the notions of heritage and landscape. Both of these words have a host of everyday meanings, but it was fundamental to her research that the reader understood precisely how she was using the terms.
There needs to be an appropriate formulation of the research questions or hypotheses that you used to help you to design your own research program.
When students present me with a proposed work program and I ask what it is based on, they sometimes reply that it is obvious, or that it just came to them. These responses may be true from where they stand, but will not convince examiners.
They have to be argued out. What apparently happens is that our unconscious mind works on various fragments of ideas from different sources that come to us from our reading and our senses, and makes connections that our rational mind will not. These connections emerge not as new rational thoughts but rather as proposals for action.
We then implement these proposals in the form of research designs without actually making the underlying logic of them explicit as research questions or hypotheses.
If this happened for you, you now have to work backward from your research program to why you did it the way you did, that is, what your research questions or hypotheses were.
You then have to work back further to where these questions or hypotheses came from, and ensure that at the very least the conclusions of your background chapters prepared the way for them. You then have to make sure that the appropriate material is present in the background chapters to enable these conclusions to be drawn.
You have to be ready to cut material out of background chapters if it is not used elsewhere in the thesis. The background chapters are not an end in themselves, they are merely the context for your own work. I have already mentioned some tests for what to include and what not to include in descriptive chapters. Be ruthless!
If you are not making use of material either as background to your own work or as context for the discussion of your results, take it out. A survey of literature on a topic unrelated to your own work will not please an examiner looking for evidence of critical thinking.
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To provide all the background material needed for your own research:
Historical, geographical, and other descriptions of your study area.
Definitions and usages of words and expressions as appropriate to your thesis.
Existing theory and practice for your research topic.
In some cases, preliminary reviews, surveys, correlations, and experiments following what other workers have done.
The conclusions to these chapters should lead clearly to the research hypotheses or research questions that you pursue in your work
Writing your background material:
Write first drafts in the first year of your project. Use the style, referencing, and so on that you intend to use in the final thesis
Many researchers, particularly in the experimental sciences, put this writing off until they have finished their research. Don’t delay. Writing early drafts helps to sharpen up your research design.
These first drafts will probably not be well structured, as you are not yet on top of your topic. Be prepared to restructure them later, after you have done most of your own work. This double handling is not a waste of time, as it will make a fruitful contribution to your own research.
As you revise, make sure that the background does lead to your research questions or hypotheses.
What you should include:
All necessary definitions and ways that you use words or ideas in your own work. Don’t assume that the examiner will know this. This is particularly important in cross-disciplinary research.
All the necessary geography, context, and history.
All the arguments that are in the literature, and some tentative judgments on where you stand (but don’t enter the argument yet; wait until you have described your own work).
Everything necessary to justify the conclusions or summaries to the chapters, which in turn have to lead to your research hypotheses or questions.
What you should not include:
Descriptive material that will never be used later in the thesis. Your first draft may contain a lot of this. Be ruthless: take it out!
Your own contribution to thinking about the theory. By the time you come to revise these chapters, you should be in a position to make such contributions. Resist the temptation, and save these contributions for your discussion chapter.
Any foreshadowing of what you will be doing in your own research. You can’t do this until you have designed your own research, which can’t be done until you have finished all these chapters. Don’t get ahead of yourself.
In a typical thesis (or research paper), data and argument are used to build a case. That is, a logical narrative is used to persuade the reader that the claims of the thesis are reasonable and are supported by evidence.
From this perspective, maybe half of a thesis can be viewed as a sequence of three components: first, how the data was gathered and what it is intended to represent; second, what the gathered data looks like; third, how it should be interpreted.
If you have been undertaking quantitative work—bench experiments, surveys, measurements, and so on—clearly you will need to report the outcomes of your investigations.
What should you include in the ‘results’ chapters, and what should you leave out? At this stage of the research, you will have analyzed and interpreted your results, and now you need to use them to present an argument to the reader.
If your work is more qualitative—case studies or reviews, for example—you probably still need to present an objective review of what you have found, and it may well be in the form of a ‘results’ chapter.
In either quantitative or qualitative work, such a chapter provides a basis for the analysis or discussion that completes the body of your thesis. In this blog, we study the Results and Discussion section of a Research Paper and Thesis in great Detail.
How to write Quantitative or Qualitative Data?
A common categorization of research is that it is either quantitative or qualitative, or perhaps more accurately, whether it is closer to one or another of these extremes.
The experiences of two students I worked with are good examples of the challenges in quantitative work. One, Jorge, had had the luxury of being able to test his idea (a way of reducing the time required to compute some kinds of simulations) over a great many data sets.
He had small sets he had used for preliminary measurements and much larger sets for the final evaluation. However, the data was not always consistent, and statistical evaluation of the data and visualization to confirm his understanding of the statistics, had played a part in forming conclusions.
As a consequence Jorge had some hundreds or more of graphs and tables to draw on, reflecting tens of thousands of automated experiments (and he could easily have run many times that number), and now he needed to use this material to construct a narrative. Despite the strong quantitative basis, however, the data fell into cases that needed qualitative analysis.
How convert Data to Results?
You have a hypothesis; you have been busily gathering data and drawing inferences, and, informally at least, linking the data to your original goal. Now you have to take this action and use it to persuade the reader to agree with your thinking. The process starts with your data.
One thing that these examples illustrate is a critical but hidden issue: each of these students had been making decisions as to what body of material they were thinking of as ‘the data’, and we're managing that data somehow. That is, before you can begin analyzing your data, you have to have some data to analyze.
A first step is to decide what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’. This is perhaps most obviously an issue in Don’s case—what actually constitutes a ‘meal episode’? What is the basis for choosing novels to analyze? What literary traditions should be sampled?
A next step is to systematically organize the data. I cannot emphasize this enough. You need to create spreadsheets in which the data is laid out in a regular way, or build files in which material has been categorized by key criteria, or draw pictures showing how the data items relate to each other, or something else; but whatever you do, get the data under control.
When a student walks into my office clutching a big pile of scruffy printouts, or shows me a Windows folder full of files with no idea of what the file names mean or what is in them, or has lost track of which version of the data is correct, or which graph is current, I know the student is in trouble.
A casual approach to managing your data may not seem to create issues early on, but leave things too long and the complexities will compound and soon get out of control.
Materials that are in a mess suggest that the thinking is in a mess. This is a good point for self-reflection: if you find that your arrangement of the materials has become chaotic, then maybe your grasp is chaotic too.
Take yourself back to first principles, ask basic questions about the data and what it is supposed to represent, think about how you would like to see it organized—and then make it happen. Remember that core skill of research is careful thinking. Take heed of signs that suggest that you can improve, and act on them.
A good presentation of results rests on having the data—which as I noted above may be voluminous and contradictory—organized and under control. And this, in turn, rests on clear principles for what the data is: what is valid, what is included or excluded, and so on. The lesson for your thesis is that the reader needs to know too.
An examiner won’t trust your results unless they understand that your data is fair. A clear presentation of how the data was chosen, what its properties are, and so on, is essential to establishing trust with the reader, and, just as importantly, satisfying yourself that your data is complete and correct.
This presentation should not be haphazard. The presentation should educate the reader. You may believe that your task is to include every single data point or case that you recorded in your work—but doing so is almost certainly a mistake.
You have used this data to draw conclusions as objectively as you can; now the task is to use representative examples drawn from the data, and example analyses of the data, to persuade the reader of the validity of these conclusions.
In any case, even when the data is limited it is surprisingly difficult to capture it all within the confines of a thesis. In Don’s case, even a brief explanation of a single ‘meal episode’ might take a page or two; in Dai’s case, a single transcript of how his method was used in the course of a study of a chemical structure might take ten or more pages.
Jorge’s raw results had millions of individual data points, and thousands of secondary products could be built on these, such as tables and graphs showing the cost of his simulation method under different assumptions. The inclusion of all the data is unlikely to be feasible.
And what would be the point of simply dumping the data into the thesis? It is unlikely to be meaningful to the reader. Here are the things the reader needs to know, some of which may have been covered in earlier chapters:
How the data was gathered—where it was sourced from, what aspects of it were measured, what it consists of, what the guidelines were, what permissions were required, what restrictions apply, and so on.
How the data might be obtained by a reader—whether directly from you, or from what external source; or how similar data might be created.
What the results look like—by example; or by the graph, to show, say, the distribution of values; or by tables of typical instances. For example, a common strategy is to list out the categories into which the data can be placed, and give an example of an item in each category.
Summaries of the complete set of results, in as rich a way as possible.
Notes of issues such as known gaps or incompleteness in the results, or where the data may be uncertain or unreliable.
Analyses of the results, using discussion, argument, statistical tools, and so on, as appropriate to the work.
Interpretation of the analyses, completing a transformation from data to knowledge (more on this later).
Note by the way that many disciplines, and most institutions, have research guidelines that concern how data is managed and described. Make sure you are familiar with these guidelines as you work through your data presentation.
Two key concepts in every aspect of managing data and presenting results, which I have touched on a couple of times in, are variables (or parameters) and category. These concepts reflect our understanding of the data. We want to understand what kind of data we have—what sort of ‘meal episode’, for example.
Assigning instances to categories lets us discuss and analyze data in a consolidated way. Variables determine the behavior of the data, and we have understood what is going on when we can accurately predict how variables and data values interact. These concepts underpin how we proceed with data analysis.
And it is not only the reader who is learning. Your presentation of results is part of your process of interpreting them—writing the results chapter is part of a cycle of understanding, not an endpoint. Your aim is to educate others, but self-learning is likely to be part of the process, even at this late stage of thesis writing.
But don’t go to the opposite extreme. In one thesis I examined the candidate had discovered the power of a chart-drawing facility. His results chapter contained over a hundred charts plotted by trawling through all of his data sets and plotting every variable against every other possible variable in an effort to analyze the data.
His readers were given so much information, at such a low level, that they were totally overwhelmed, and learned nothing about the system being investigated. The candidate should have confined himself to plotting charts that tested his hypotheses or that demonstrated something significant.
Development of a proposition or initial hypothesis, which is used to shape the gathering of some observations.
Formation of a definite hypothesis.
The building of tools and use of them to gather measurements to be used as evidence.
Construction of an argument that uses the evidence to give a case for or against the hypothesis.
The conclusion by developing a new theory or framework.
(As an aside, too many students—and some supervisors!—confuse theories and hypotheses. Theories are the outcomes of research. They represent our most certain comprehension of the universe: the theory of relativity, the theory of evolution, and so on. They are the things in which we have the greatest confidence.
A hypothesis is an unconfirmed supposition. Another, arguably worse, confusion is between theory and speculation; some people think they are theorizing when they propose new untested ideas, but from a more formal perspective they may be doing little more than guessing. While such sloppiness is fine in conversation, it has no place in a research thesis).
The HEAT analysis of the research process points toward what you should include in the results chapter and what you should leave out. Raw measurements do not convey knowledge unless you explain or display them in a suitable way, and should be left out or just possibly relegated to appendices.
Results displayed in the form of tables or figures that enables you and the reader to make sense of it becomes information and should be included. Having presented the information, and explained how it is linked to the initial hypotheses, you can draw some inferences from an examination of the information.
This will include considering the individual sub-hypotheses that you put forward, and proceed to interactions between the variables that you may not have expected and, if you are lucky, to some totally unexpected results.
A typical results chapter consists of argument and narrative supported by illustrations, that is, graphs, diagrams, pictures, and tables. But why are you using them?
The immediate answer to this question is typical: ‘I include a figure when it expresses the point I wish to make more clearly than does the written word’.
On this principle, illustrations are likely to play a role in many parts of your thesis. I discuss them here because the results chapter is one place where they are not just helpful, but essential.
Readers use several complementary channels of communication simultaneously, some using words and some using visual images. They do not use one at a time, switching from one to the other; rather, they use all of them at the same time, perhaps giving one more attention than others at any given moment. This leads to some rules about the visual material:
The reader should not have to read the text that refers to the illustration to understand what the illustration is meant to demonstrate.
Although an illustration should always be ‘called up’ by the written text, it should make sense by itself. In the caption, you should explain the context and how the illustration should be interpreted, and draw attention to features you wish the reader to note, even if you have discussed these in some detail in the text.
Don’t cram in too much detail. When I ask students their view on the functions of tables, for example, they often reply that it is to record data such as experimental readings in a systematic way. This being so, a table might have to contain large amounts of data, perhaps extending over several pages.
In my view, such data should not go in the main text, but rather in an appendix. A table in the main text must be a complementary channel of communication, and illustrative rather than exhaustive—that’s why they’re called illustrations.
Reserve the use of illustrations for things that are important. The reader will focus on them and assume that they are the most significant part of your work; use of illustrations for minor outcomes can skew the reader’s understanding of your argument.
Put in a table only when the patterning obtained by arranging things in rows and columns tells the reader something better than or different from a written description.
If the data in your table seems to you to demonstrate some trend or correlation, you should consider displaying the trend by means of a graph, and banishing the figures to a table in an appendix.
A diagram should be a net aid to understanding. If the work of explaining a diagram that illustrates, say, risk factors in the diet is more work than simply explaining the risk factors, then the diagram is an unhelpful burden and should be discarded.
It can be helpful, though, to develop such diagrams for your own benefit, as they can clarify your understanding and help you focus in on what you are trying to say. That said, never overlook the possibility that a pertinent diagram can greatly improve your presentation.
There are three kinds of figures: diagrams, graphs, and images such as photographs. This blog is not the place to give detailed advice on the preparation of such materials, but it is important that you be aware of some general principles.
Some authors like to describe aspects of their work as line diagrams made up of boxes, circles, arrows, labels, and so on. Such diagrams can be a powerful way of explaining relationships, but they are inevitably simplifications of complex situations and may degenerate into caricatures.
A diagram may be a useful way of illustrating the biology of food digestion, for example, but that doesn’t mean that a diagram is a right way to show the connection between the sociopolitical factors that control foodstuff quality.
Graphs are used to demonstrate trends or correlations; so you need to think carefully about what you are trying to demonstrate. Usually, you will be either confirming an established model or developing a new one, and you should have this in mind when plotting your graph. A common error is the introduction of an extraneous variable.
In a striking example of this, the authors were trying to demonstrate that reducing the lead emissions into the urban air from the combustion of petrol would reduce the lead concentration in the blood of children.
A picture speaks a thousand words, we’re told. What words does a poor picture speak? One thing that really bugs me, and forgives me if I have said this already in some form, is the fact that some students appear to be comfortable with including truly appalling illustrations in their work.
I am always astonished by the students who labor for days or longer over a fragment of text but are comfortable with a jumbled, clumsy picture that doesn’t really illustrate anything.
Unfamiliarity with tools is certainly part of this problem, as is the ‘but I am not an artist’ excuse. Perhaps they say to themselves that artwork is out of their expertise, and use this as a reason to quickly sketch something without even seeking advice.
The elementary tools for drawing figures and graphs with which most students are familiar, when used in an elementary way, are designed to be used by people whose use of computers is, well, elementary. They are used by children even before they can read and write.
That is not to say that these tools can’t be used better—but their default settings are certainly not intended for pictures that are to be included in research publications. The vast majority of them are online at a permanent URL; your bad artwork can survive for a long time.
There are many specific things that I find jarring. This list is far from exhaustive:
Lack of principles. Does a box represent an individual, or a collection, or an action? What is the difference between a black arrow and a colored fat arrow? Do the colors have any significance? Why so many fonts and font sizes? Why are they so different from each other, and so much bigger or smaller than the regular text?
Congestion. Lines that cross each other unnecessarily; arrows that end in space, or just inside the thing being pointed at; lines that might be pathways, but might be part of a boundary. Things under other things.
Clipart. Are comical sketches (drawn by someone else, and often not very good) really what you want as the most visible feature in your thesis?
Badly rendered photographs.
Graphs with grid lines and unnecessary boundaries, poorly captioned legends, and too many lines. Missing data, out-of-proportion marks and line widths, poor use of space, and inappropriate sizing can all make a graph impossible to read, or worse, impossible to take seriously.
There are many good software tools for presentation, some of them free, in addition to those that are included in the common word-processing packages. Take the time to ask around and evaluate the options; you may be surprised at how much difference there is between them.
Many of the principles noted above for figures are just as applicable to tables. They should be self-contained, with detailed captions; they should not be amateurish.
Choices need to be made about what grid lines to include or omit, how to align data in columns, what is important, and so on. Complex tables can present particular difficulties, when, for example, the data is multi-factorial but needs to be represented on a two-dimensional piece of paper.
How to write Outcomes and Results?
Data comes from sources and experiments. Only include data that is derived from a process that you have described, that is, the reader must understand where your data comes from. Describe the data fully.
Have clear criteria for inclusion and exclusion of data and results. These should be independent of what the data shows, that is, it is not acceptable to only include data that confirms your hypotheses!
Make sure you have used the right kind of analysis mechanism for your data. For example, tools or approaches for large data sets may be unsuitable for sparse or irregular data.
Build a clear argument from data to knowledge. As you build this argument, be aware that interpretation of the results may lead you back to the data collection process.
Do not include raw, undigested data in the body of your thesis. Put it in an appendix, or better, back in your filing cabinet.
Display your results in an informative, appropriate way, either through charts, tables, diagrams, or carefully constructed arguments.
In doing so, make sure that the presentation makes it possible for the reader to see whether your hypotheses have been tested or your questions answered.
Be open about shortcomings or limitations of your data or results.
Figures should be reasonably self-contained.
Use examples from elsewhere to guide your design of illustrations. Don’t be content with word-processor defaults, which often look unprofessional, and use the right tool for the task.
There are excellent web pages with examples of illustrations—though choosing the right query to find them can be a challenge; ‘data visualization’ worked well for me for graphs, for example.
Wikipedia lists graphics software packages. Some of the best packages require that you write scripts in simple programming languages.
Tips for Discussion or Interpretation
This is probably the part of your thesis where it is most important that you show your ability as a critical thinker. Examiners are particularly impressed by candidates who are alert to shortcomings and limitations in their own work; indeed, why respect someone who shows no critical insight and seems to think that their accomplishments are without flaw?
Step back, ask the questions of your work that you would ask of the work of other people, and use the answers to make your discussion penetrating and insightful.
Structuring the Discussion
How can you design a structure for the discussion that will enable you to get logically to your conclusions when you don’t know what they are? Indeed, if you had no idea what the conclusions were, it would not be possible. The key to writing the discussion is for you to bring these unconscious conclusions to the conscious realm, and commit them to screen or paper.
Your rational brain can then sort them out and do its best to make sense of them. You can then use them to design the structure of the chapter on the assumption that they are the conclusions. This is how to do it:
Begin by brainstorming.
Write down all the things that you know now that you didn’t know when you started the research; a single sentence for each item. These can be big ideas, little ideas, snippets of knowledge, insights, answers to questions, whatever. Don’t worry about whether you are responding to the aim you set yourself in your introductory chapter.
That would be a rational approach, whereas you are engaged in a process of dredging up unconscious conclusions. Consider asking your supervisor or a colleague who is familiar with your work to sit down with you while you are listing these conclusions.
The presence of another person, chipping in and asking questions, may help you to uncover your hidden thoughts. You should end up with a totally undifferentiated list of maybe 20 or 30 ‘conclusions’.
Give a heading to each group.
These headings will form the section headings in your discussion chapter. The function of each section is to argue for the conclusions that you will be drawing later. Examine these headings to see which order they should go in.
Each section will contain several points, as identified by the separate conclusions that you have already listed for that section. These could form sub-headings within the section.
Sort these sub-headings into a logical order, reject ones that are obviously irrelevant, add others that you now see you missed by your earlier haphazard identification process, and coalesce points under one heading if this makes sense (you should not have more than three sub-headings within a section).
You will now have a tentative structure for the discussion chapter and may give your creative brain permission to write the text, using this structure as a framework. When you start to write, you will not be stepping out into the void.
This balancing of the rational and creative parts of our brains by writing creatively to a rational structure will work only if you treat it in this way. There will be an ongoing tug-of-war. Often your creative mind will take you away from the rational structure. When this happens, don’t assume that the creative mind is always right.
Similarly, don’t assume that the rational mind is always right. But you cannot leave it unresolved: you must bring either the structure or the wayward text into line.
This problem will be particularly acute in this chapter because the rational structure you are using is tentative, is itself based on conclusions garnered from the creative mind.
Remembering Your Aim and Scope
A function of the discussion section is to respond to the aim you set in the introductory chapter. Before they start a detailed reading of your thesis, most examiners will flip from your introduction to your conclusions to see how your concluding ideas line up with your original ones.
They have been asked to do this in the suggested criteria for examination: Are the conclusions and implications appropriately developed and clearly linked to the nature and content of the research framework and findings?
Writing with Authority
By now you have earned the right to comment on the field, and you can (and must) do so with authority. How can you demonstrate this authority? In this chapter, you need to address three areas with a critical eye: current theory, current practice and the conduct of your own study.
First, you should make sure that you place your thesis within the context of the field you are working in. In addition to making links from the research framework to your own study, you now have to suggest ways to expand that theoretical point of view.
To start, I suggest that you question or illuminate the accepted definition of potentially controversial key concepts and phrases.
The expansion, or possible contraction, of existing categorizations of key factors in your field, is another area you should consider. For example, the results of a project on the way refugees access welfare services in Australia might suggest that we need to go beyond financial and medical problems to include family problems.
Or the results of a study aimed at developing plans for recycling might indicate that city planner should consider personal and social identity, which would call for an examination of how this might be incorporated. One of your major contributions to the field will be the development and discussion of such factors.
Because you have earlier developed an awareness of the limitations of current practices both through your review of earlier studies and your own application of them, you are now in the position to suggest ways to improve them.
What would you have done differently, and why? Here you can act as a guide for further researchers. Tell the readers what worked well, and what did not.
In many theses, you will find a section entitled ‘Limitations of the Study’. Whether you put this in a separate section or discuss it where appropriate as you go along, you must deal with it.
This section need not be set in an apologetic tone; rather, it should acknowledge areas that you yourself thought were weak and deal with them in a straightforward way. It is where you show your ability as a critical thinker.
Discussion or Interpretation
The task of the discussion chapter is to enable you to reach your conclusions. Drawing up a tentative list of conclusions will help you identify an appropriate structure.
Begin by writing down all the things you know now that you didn’t know when you started the project. Rearranging this list will give you the titles of the main sections of your discussion.
Make sure that your exposition of new theory or ideas places your thesis within the context of the field you are working in. This will require that you not only draw on your own results but that you view these against existing thinking as expounded in your background chapters.
Acknowledge any limitations on your findings. Theoretical results may need validation before their suitability in practice is known, for example. Shortcomings or uncertainties should also be acknowledged.
If the thesis involves a case study, check that you have dealt with the problem of generalizability, or issues of transference, for your findings to similar situations.
How to write Conclusion of Thesis?
You stated the aim of the research project in your first chapter. These conclusions must indicate how you fulfilled that aim and must arise inescapably from the argument in the discussion chapter.
Researchers often state conclusions that they have failed to argue for. They had become convinced of them in the course of their research but, because they did not follow a process such as the one I described in the previous chapter for structuring the discussion, they had omitted to back them up in their writing.
If you followed the suggestion I made in the last chapter, you will have a set of conclusions that emerged out of each section of your discussion, rather than the ones that you dredged out of your unconscious mind when you started the procedure.
You can now write these down as the conclusions to your research, knowing that you have argued rigorously for all of them and that you have got them in perspective through your argument.
Also, if you put them down in the order in which they emerged in the discussion, they will be in a logical order, because you arranged the discussion in a logical order.
In some disciplines, it is customary to use the conclusions chapter to briefly examine the implications of your findings, such as their likely impact on future work, on other research areas, or on the practice of a profession. In some fields, examiners expect that your thesis concludes with an agenda for further research.
Note, however, that it is fine for such a discussion to be speculative, but it shouldn’t be fanciful. It may also be appropriate to sketch future research directions that your conclusions imply, or to suggest additional work that your investigation left incomplete.
When it is poorly done, such a discussion can appear absurd; when it is done well, such a discussion can powerfully communicate to the examiner your understanding of the importance and limits of your work.
I have already hinted at the first rule. If the discussion chapter is where you draw together everything you have done in your whole research project (not just your own experiments or surveys, but also your reviews and analyses of the work of others), then you should draw your conclusions solely from the discussion chapter.
If you find yourself wishing to include conclusions that you have not worked over in the discussion, you have either omitted something important from the discussion or, more likely, you are still hankering after more than one aim.
There should be an only minimal discussion in the conclusions chapter. If you find yourself wanting to engage in further discussion, and are even still quoting from the literature, you should have incorporated this material in your discussion chapter.
The conclusions can be a good place to tightly link together the themes that have emerged in your thesis, but a detailed analysis should take place elsewhere.
The conclusions should respond to the aim stated in the first chapter. If you take your problem statement and then the aim from your ‘Introduction’, and follow these with your ‘Conclusions’, the result should be a mini-document that reads logically.
When looking at the first draft of a thesis from one of my own students, or examining a thesis from some other student I always put it to this test.
It often reveals that the writer omitted to state the aim, and it is only when one reads the conclusions at the end that one can start to deduce what the unstated aim must have been.
Summaries are not conclusions. when talking about conclusions to individual chapters. It was important there; it is even more important here.
Repeating what I said earlier: summaries are a brief account of what you found out; conclusions are a statement of the significance of what you found out—what you concluded from it.
If you are merely summarizing the argument developed in your discussion chapter, you will feel quite unhappy with your conclusions. There will be no sense of closure. Also, you will almost certainly have failed to respond to the aim of the whole project. (Sometimes this happens when the aim is too modest, or even woolly.
For example, when researchers say that their aim is to investigate the properties of a system, they may end up with a list of properties, a summary. This is hardly research.)
Conclusions should be crisp and concise. The conclusions chapter may be only two or three pages long—which helps to give the sense of closure mentioned above.
Rules about conclusions:
You should draw your conclusions solely from the discussion chapter.
There should be a little further discussion in the conclusions chapter.
The conclusions should respond to the aim stated in the first chapter.
Summaries are not conclusions.
Conclusions should be crisp and concise.
The conclusions can be used to briefly explore the implications of your findings.
Some graduate students, when they have typed that last full stop in their concluding chapter, print out a clean copy of the entire thesis and give the whole thing to their supervisor to read.
Although this gives students a strong sense of completion, and of self-congratulation for all of the hard work they have put in, there are reasons why this is not a good idea.
First, the supervisor should have been giving feedback chapter by chapter, and may already have expressed complete satisfaction with some chapters while asking for an extensive revision to others; if a supervisor thinks a chapter is done, there is no need to ask her or him to read it again.
Second, quite possibly your supervisor should only see your complete thesis after any other reviewing is complete—in particular after you have reviewed it.
If you can see that further revision is necessary, why waste your supervisor’s time doing work that you can do yourself?
I recommend this not only because it is a unique and necessary experience, but also because the comments that you get back from your supervisor from a document that is in good shape will be more useful than the comments from one that is still full of problems.
Also, as noted earlier, your supervisor has many commitments, while you only have this one. Handing over the thesis chapter by chapter means that you can continue to work while you wait for the feedback; a supervisor who is given a complete thesis may not return the manuscript for months.
What I do with the first draft is parallel to what I expect the examiner of a thesis would do, or what I would do if I were refereeing a paper submitted to a conference or a learned journal.
The only difference is that, because I am your supervisor, I am now fairly familiar with the drift of your argument and with the approach, you have taken, and I have to guard against reading things into the draft that you have not clearly explained.
When you are reading your own work, this is even more of a problem. For that reason, you should put it aside for a few days before you read it as a whole.
By itself, I did not see this way of generating text as a problem—her approach certainly helped her to make interesting connections and guesses. What was a problem was her lack of understanding that the resulting ‘brain dump’ was unreadable?
In one particularly trying instance, I spent several long evenings marking up one of her chapters in a great deal of detail, in the hope of explaining to her how to reduce her rambling but informative text to something more punchy and concise.
The feedback was in terms of grammar, word choices, organization, the flow of ideas, and comments on missing or unnecessary text, which we reviewed together in a meeting.
But her ego had been hurt, and after our meeting, her response was to throw away the draft, including all my comments, and start again! I hadn’t made a photocopy (another lesson learned) and between us, a great deal of work was lost.
The new version was not much better than the original, and, though it was hard to be sure, I felt that some of the insights were forgotten. I later found out that she had decided that my extensive comments—there was a lot of ink on her draft—were a way of telling her that the manuscript was rubbish.
In other words, she overreacted. On a smaller scale, I suspect that some degree of overreaction to supervisor feedback is common.
Thesis Tasks and Structural Editing
First, I look at the overall structure. There should be a table of contents that corresponds with the chapter titles and main section headings in the text. The table of contents should tell me straight away whether there are any major logic problems.
If it is not informative enough, I go to the beginning of each chapter and read the introductions in order.
This will probably help, but it may reveal that the introductions themselves are inadequate. (I will already have done some reviewing of this kind while the thesis was in the early stages of preparation).
Finally, I read the introductory chapter as if I were a reader seeing it for the first time. I ask myself: Is this telling me why the work is being done? Is it clear what the aim of the work is?
Is there an adequate sketch of how the writer intends to achieve this aim? Is the scope of the thesis clearly delineated? Again, if any of these points are inadequate, I note the problems in the margin. Then I go straight to the conclusions and ask myself whether they respond to the stated aim. If they don’t, I note the disparity.
The Main Text
Next, I read the whole draft from beginning to end, noting spelling, grammar and typographical errors as I go, and also noting things such as obscurities, pullulating patches of purple prose, and places where the argument seems to have logic gaps.
At the end of each chapter, I write a few lines about how the chapter shaped up in the context of everything that preceded it.
The conclusions or summary of the chapter are particularly important here. One of my most common comments on them is that the author is still writing a list of the chapter contents, rather than giving me, the reader, a sense of how the chapter is advancing my comprehension of the argument in the whole document.
By the time I have reached the end of the thesis, a sense of the integrity (or lack of it) of the whole document has usually built up. If there is a problem, it may be obvious.
If it is not obvious, I repeat the first step—the examination of structure— but now with knowledge of how the whole argument has developed; or has failed to develop.
There may be major gaps in the argument; there may be material present that is not part of the argument and that should be relegated to appendices; there may be repetitions that should be eliminated or consolidated; there may be material that would have been better located elsewhere in the document.
There may be conclusions emerging strongly at the end that the author should have emphasized more, or had failed to argue for in the discussion; and so on. Before handing it back to the author, I write a few pages on these larger problems.
Thus the author now has two sets of comments: detailed comments in the text on points of grammar and expression; and general comments about the structure of the argument.
We discuss the latter, and the student gets to work on the second draft. As the student produces revisions of various parts aimed at solving particular problems, we discuss them.
I usually find that a complete re-reading of the second draft will not be necessary until after the second, more detailed, part of the finishing process that I am about to describe.
Dotting the ‘i’s and Crossing the ‘t’s
Although the second draft is now essentially complete, you still have some weeks of detailed, rather tedious work to do. Don’t skip it—tedious or not, it is essential. The items that you need to check are listed below in the form of a check-list.
You may even want to photocopy this checklist and tick the boxes when you have completed each task. If you have used your word-processing software to its fullest many of the jobs will already have been done.
Your thesis may include text that you already regard as ‘finished’, in particular, material drawn from papers that were written during your candidature.
Some students seem to think that such text doesn’t need checking, but you would be surprised how much change can be required due to the need to integrate the paper into a complex thesis. Make sure that all text is checked to the same level of detail.
The first few pages, before the start of Chap. 1, are preliminary pages that set the context of the thesis and help readers to find their way into it. They will include some or all of the following, generally in the order given below:
Check that it contains the title, author, place, month and year, and the degree for which the thesis is submitted, and any university-specific requirements.
Check that the title of the thesis accords with your aim. If you decide to be clever, two risks may arise here: (a) You may be tempted to use an eye-catching title that could disorient the examiners.
This might make you feel pleased with yourself, but it is better to make sure that your thesis passes! (b) The work is difficult to locate for future researchers because the title contains obscure, or perhaps very common, terms that result in unproductive searches for a reference.
Check if you are officially still using the title that you nominated to the university at the start of your project. Almost certainly the thrust of the project will have changed over the course of your candidacy, and you should change your title accordingly.
Needs to be present, and should contain summaries of the three main components of the project, an individual paragraph to each: (a) why you did the work and what you were trying to achieve; (b) what methods you used and what results you obtained; and (c) what you concluded from it.
Table of Contents
Have you listed all chapter headings and headings of main sections within chapters? (Many authors also list sub-section headings. I suggest that you don’t; they clutter up the table of contents and rob it of the power to demonstrate the structure of your thesis).
Have you listed all end matter (References, Appendices, and so on)?
Check the styles for table-of-contents entries, and change them if necessary to make a neater, more informative Table of Contents. It’s a good idea to look over several completed theses to see how other students have done this. Then you can select for yourself what works well and avoid what works badly.
Optionally, the Table of Contents includes lists of figures and tables; these are not essential but are valuable in a thesis with a lot of technical material.
Preface and Acknowledgments
A preface should give any information about the preparation of the thesis that you feel to be necessary, for example how you came to embark on the project. Prefaces are seldom necessary for theses. If you do have one, any acknowledgments should appear as part of it.
Acknowledgments recognize help received in the execution of the research and in the preparation of the report or thesis.
If you are fortunate to have received financial assistance, don’t forget to acknowledge the organization that granted you a scholarship or other funding.
Most universities require certification that the work in the thesis is your original work, and has not been used for the award of any other degree.
If you have published work from your thesis in journals before making a final submission, you must list complete references to such articles.
You need to do this to avoid possible accusations of ‘self-plagiarism’ or submitting work that is not entirely original, and you will need to clearly identify the extent to which the papers are your own work as distinct from that of your co-authors.
The Main Text
If you have been following the methods I advocated in the preceding chapters, everything appearing in this checklist should already have been done. But do check.
If you have just picked this book up and have not been following my suggestions, I strongly urge you to use this checklist. If you find any of the suggestions puzzling, go back and read the chapter concerned.
Aim and Scope
Can the aim be located in the table of contents?
Is the reason for doing the work outlined?
Does the aim follow clearly from this problem statement or rationale?
Are constraints stated that limit the scope of the investigation?
Is the aim followed by a brief outline of the way you intend to go about achieving it? (This refers not only to the experiments, surveys or investigations that you will design yourself but to the whole of the project, including reviews of theory and so on).
Do the conclusions you draw in the last chapter relate clearly to your aim?
Do the introductions to chapters and sections clearly state their purpose?
Is there any material in the background chapters that do not contribute directly to the later development of the report or thesis? (If there is such material, it should be relegated to appendices, or omitted altogether).
Do the background chapters justify the formulation of the hypotheses or research questions?
If you are using a case-study approach, does the reason for selecting the case study, and a description of it, appear among the background chapters? (It should not, as it is part of your research method, and such material should not be described until you have selected your method).
Design of Your Own Work
Do your hypotheses or research questions spring logically from your reviews of theory or practice, or from your preliminary surveys or experiments?
Do you discuss the possible methods for enabling you to test your hypotheses or answer your questions?
Do you explicitly select a particular method or methods, and justify your selection through your review of possible methods?
Do you explicitly design experiments or other research programs to implement the selected method or methods?
Are tests for your hypotheses or ways of investigating your questions unequivocally built into your research programs?
If you have decided on a case-study approach, have you justified this decision adequately?
Have you justified the selection of your case-study activity or area in terms of its representativeness or typicality or other appropriate criteria?
Unless offset by a colon and designated as such, does the name of the case study appear in the title or aim of your thesis?
Are the results of your experiments or surveys or other own work clearly presented and explained?
Are displays, such as graphs, tables, and figures uniform in style and number?
Are the major trends or findings outlined? (You should not be discussing the implications of them while you are reporting them. For a short paper this might be appropriate, but for a thesis, you should keep them separate).
Do you discuss your own findings in terms of their implications for one of the four areas of possible contribution, particularly with respect to modifying or extending existing theory or practice?
Does the discussion permit you to reach all of your conclusions?
Are all your conclusions justified by the preceding discussion?
Are you forming new points for discussions while drawing your conclusions? (You should not be).
Do your conclusions respond to your aim, as set out in your first chapter?
Are your conclusions merely summaries of findings, or do they draw out the implications of your own work in terms of improved theory or practice? (They should).
You will have to satisfy yourself that the format you have used helps readers to find their way through the thesis and, in particular, that it is consistent. Most books on writing theses give a chapter or more to this, with strict rules about the numbers of spaces before headings.
The method for emphasis of major headings, the use of numbering systems, the spaces between paragraphs, and so on. Most such properties are managed by effective use of templates in a word processor, as discussed earlier.
Figures and Tables
Check all the figures and tables. All will have a caption that should consist of several parts: a title (which will appear in the lists in the preliminary pages); explanatory material that draws attention to or explains certain features of the figure or table; and a citation giving the source of the material.
You may lump all the figures, including graphs, diagrams, plates, photographs, and maps together in one list and the tables in another, although in the past it has been customary to make a separate list of photographic plates (a practice that predates the use of high-quality, computer-generated copies of photographs).
Any Figure or Table
Does it add an extra dimension to your ability to give a piece of information, demonstrate a trend or communicate an idea?
Is it simple or cluttered? Do the important points that you are trying to make emerge clearly?
Does it, together with its caption, make sense by itself, or does the reader have to read the text to make sense of it? (One should not have to).
Do you draw attention to important points in the caption?
Is there a reference to the figure in the text before the figure itself?
Have you acknowledged the source or the information on which it is based?
Have you identified examples of ‘good’ figures in other people’s work, and applied the lessons to your own work?
Graphs (or Charts)
Does it have both axes clearly labeled?
Is the text legible?
Are lines and other features appropriately labeled?
Have you sought out and followed guidelines on design and preparation of visual materials?
Have you arranged it in some way that makes it more than a collection of data? Would the reader see patterns or trends? (There is no justification for having tables otherwise).
Is it vertically and horizontally consistent?
Are there unnecessary lines?
Are all rows and columns labeled?
Have you considered relegating the data contained in it to an appendix and plotting the main trends as a graph?
Notes and References
If you have used the numbered notes system of references, and you have used your word processor to automatically number or renumber notes, you should not have to check that the note numbers correspond to the reference numbers in the text—this should have been done for you.
It will enable you to collect your notes at the foot of each page or at the end of each chapter or at the end of the main body of text (but collected separately for each chapter), before your ‘References’. Give your list a heading ‘Notes’, as a section-style heading if at the end of each chapter, or a chapter-style heading if at the end of the text.
However, there is still some checking to do:
Re-read the notes to make sure that you have not deleted any accidentally, and that you wish to keep the ones you have.
Check whether you need to revise any of them in the light of revisions to the text.
Whichever system you use, you should include a full list of sources such as papers in journals or chapters of books that have been cited. The list should be in alphabetical order of authors’ surnames and should contain sufficient detail to enable the reader to find the material in a library. You should check your list for three things:
Is your reference list in alphabetical order?
Do the entries conform to an established style?
Do all the references cited in the text appear in the list?
You should head this list simply as ‘References’ in the style of a chapter heading. This list is often placed after the chapters but before any appendices, presumably on the grounds that the appendices really are something tacked on to the end. As the appendices themselves may have references, there is a case for reversing this order.
If you leave the references in the customary place, you should devise some logical method for overcoming this problem, perhaps by having a short list of relevant references at the end of each appendix. Check to see that you have dealt with this problem adequately.
You may have ended up with a rather mixed bag of appendices after completing your first draft. Some of them will have been written for very good and valid reasons to support material in the text. Others may be leftovers from earlier thinking, and because you were rather attached to them you were loath to throw them out.
Check your appendices against these rules, and throw out any that are no longer justifiable.
Check the presentation of each appendix that you decide to keep, as follows: (a) Does it start on a new page? (b) Does it have a title that indicates what it is all about? (Just calling it ‘Appendix 3’ is not good enough). (c) Is the style used for the title the same as that used for chapter headings?
Is there a preamble that explains briefly what its function is and what it is all about?
Does the preamble refer to the part of the main text? If it doesn’t, find the part of the text that it supports and make reference to it. If you can’t find it, or if the connection is very weak, throw out the appendix altogether.
If you have a glossary, it is customarily placed at the end, after all the appendices. In other theses, it is placed near the lists of tables and figures, which may be part of the table of contents.
And don’t forget: Your thesis needs to consist of your work, not other people’s. If you have text that is drawn from papers that are co-authored with others, make sure that they understand that it is being used in your thesis. Only include figures and tables if you have permission to do so;
if you are not the author of a figure, you must ask the authors and publisher if you can use it. If you have access to a tool for checking for plagiarism, consider using it.
If you are including material from papers you have written, it should be material you were responsible for; if one of your co-authors wrote a section without significant input from you, then it should not become part of your thesis.
Before You Submit
When your supervisor has ‘signed off’ on every chapter of your thesis you have only finished the first draft of your thesis. You still have two major tasks ahead of you: checking the structure and checking the detail.
From the first draft to the second draft:
Check the structure of the thesis as a whole.
Read it through in detail yourself. Check the logic flow. Look for gaps in the logic, repetitions, things in the wrong order. Fix these up to the best of your ability.
Then (and only then) ask your supervisor to do the same. If possible, find a friend whose opinions you can rely on but who is unfamiliar with your topic to do the same. Fix up the problems they identify.
Checking the details:
You now must check to ensure that you have done everything properly. A check-list is given in this chapter; you can find other such checklists online. Depending on how systematic you have been earlier, this task may take several weeks. Allow time for it in your thesis completion schedule.
Be professional. Do not use material that is not your own without proper citation, and be aware of ethical concerns that lie at the core of academic research.
Students enroll in a research degree to develop as researchers, make discoveries, and, ultimately, write a thesis. More broadly, a fundamental goal underlying research study is that of transformation, from knowledge consumption to knowledge production, from dependence to independence, from student to colleague.
You would not be doing a graduate degree unless you thought it was going to lead you into the world of professional investigation or of research and scholarship.
By submission time, you may well be planning further steps in all of these areas, and perhaps even contemplating writing a book or obtaining your own funding.
On the other hand, you may be looking forward to working with an employer whose agenda does not include scholarly work, and your Ph.D. candidature might be your one chance to get your research published. In both cases, then, you need to be planning to publish as you study.
In some universities, activities such as teaching and so on are explicitly structured into the research program. In others, the formal part of the program consists only of research and the other development activities are something the student needs to independently explore. Either way, these are critical skills that you should acquire before you can embark on a career as an academic.
Rather less positively, being a research student is sometimes said to involve ‘surviving your thesis’, and thus another group of important skills is learning to anticipate and manage stress, and developing the ability to work to long-term deadlines in a sometimes chaotic and high-pressure environment.
Disseminating Your Research
The goal of the research is to create or modify knowledge. But whose knowledge? It isn’t productive to do research and then keep the outcomes to yourself; part of the aim is to make others aware of what you have found.
The purpose of research can be viewed as being intended to have an impact, that is, to change the minds of others. Successful research influences people to behave differently and undertake new activities.
But, you might respond, there are many ways of having influence. In the political sphere, much of what is said is intended to persuade people to have one view or another; the same is true of advertising;
And the same is true of all sorts of attention-seeking activities, from fraudsters to alarmists. What makes academic research different is the systems of checks and balances.
For example, it is widely regarded as unethical to use the media to publicize research outcomes before the work has been referred, and there is an expectation that published results are the outcome of objective analysis that is consistent with the best practice of the rest of the academic community.
The influence of work is due to the strength of the rational argument that supports it. These kinds of constraints determine how work is disseminated: not in newspapers, or blogs, or mailing lists, but primarily through standard academic forums.
An underlying question is: Why disseminate? There are several good answers to this question.
To get knowledge of your work into your academic community, as discussed above. I said it earlier, but it is worth saying again: this is why we take the time, not just to write about our research.
But to write well. People won’t trouble to understand your ideas if they have to struggle with your writing, while clear, lively writing creates the impression that what you say is worth understanding.
To fulfill the obligation of a publicly funded researcher to make their work widely available.
To create an academic track record of publications and presentations. Without a track record, it is impossible to pursue an academic career.
To get feedback on your work as it develops.
Kinds of Dissemination
Researchers use four main mechanisms to tell their colleagues about their work: journal publications, conference presentations, talks in forums such as workshops, and academic seminars. The different forms of publication are one aspect of academia that really does vary drastically from the field to field.
In some disciplines, only journal articles are regarded as substantial publications, and conference presentations are little more than an opportunity to talk about current work.
In other disciplines, conference papers are seen as at least as important as journal papers and are much more timely. In some conferences, there are fully published, indexed proceedings, and most of the authors get a chance to give a 15 or 30-min talk on their work.
In other such conferences, most of the authors present their work as a ‘poster’, literally by standing in front of a large poster they have designed that summarizes what they have done and explained it to whoever stops to listen.
In such conferences, only a select few are given a speaking opportunity. Historically, in some disciplines published papers could not be included in a thesis; happily, I believe this rule is now more or less extinct, although some supervisors would argue that it was a good thing.
Academic seminars, though less formal than journals or conferences, are a vital component of academic communication. Most Ph.D. students are encouraged or re-quirked to give seminars in their departments during their studies. I think it is even more important to take the opportunity to give seminars elsewhere, in other universities in your city or places you visit when traveling.
I cannot count how often I’ve heard that a student’s work was influenced by comments they got from a group of academics they met while visiting another university.
If you make regular preventions, you are likely to sharpen your critical thinking; and the scrutiny your work has undergone in a presentation, both from yourself and from your audience, will bear fruit in your writing. Of course, you need to present to a professional standard, and with confidence.
Some people write books, but this is more typically an activity of an experienced researcher. There is a view in many disciplines that a book should be primarily the product of a mature, balanced reflection, not just an opportunity to advance a single point of view.
Some Ph.D. students do publish their thesis as a monograph, though, and if you have such an opportunity you should certainly consider taking advantage of it.
The issue, then, is to choose what to disseminate, and when. If you leave all thoughts of publication until after you graduate, the chances are that you will not publish at all.
The way to overcome this is to develop a plan for disseminating material from your project early in your study—perhaps as soon as the topic of your work is clear.
The way to think about this plan is as a series of graded challenges, where the aim of each challenge is to capture some key element of the work in the form of a paper or presentation. In my Ph.D., the list of challenges I made up as I wrote my thesis had these components:
Primary research problem.
Advanced hypothesis and background.
Outcomes of the central study.
Further directions based on the central study.
Spin-offs for other areas.
Notice that you could write the material in the first point almost at the beginning of a Ph.D., and material in the second and third points long before the thesis is finished. Writing this material early will help to shape your thinking.
In your dissemination plan, the first challenge is probably a seminar presentation or short paper that could be written within the first 9 to 12 months of your candidacy. Most departments will require you to hold your first research seminar within this period.
Some students develop a couple of variations of a standard presentation about their work—one version for other people in their discipline, another for a more general academic audience. Then, if they get invited to present at short notice, they have something ready. I think the discipline of maintaining such a seminar is a good one that every student should consider.
After your first publication, consider writing another paper every 6 months or so, and integrate the feedback from responses to these papers into your thinking about your project. As you read this you may be thinking, ‘but I have a project to do and very limited time to do it in. I don’t have time to waste on writing papers’.
Not so: I guarantee that every hour spent on writing papers will make your thesis easier to write, and the act of trying to get a perspective on your own work instead of being continually immersed in it will greatly improve the quality of your thesis.
In the papers that are written early in your Ph.D., you should focus on only one problem (or theme) at a time, and avoid taking on the ‘big picture’; leave that for the last paper you write on your thesis topic. In general, you should prepare such papers with your supervisor as co-author, so discuss your ideas for a paper with her or him, and develop a plan.
This will probably consist of developing a list of section headings together, with you writing a draft to the agreed structure. Your supervisor should then criticize the draft as any co-author would, but in addition, you can expect to get some guidance about paper writing.
In a paper, you are reporting the same material as in a part of your thesis, perhaps part or all of one of your chapters, but to a broader and quite different readership.
In the thesis, you are addressing the examiners, and your task is to convince them that you know what you are talking about. In the paper, you are addressing a far wider range of people.
They are reading it because they are interested in your field, and they assume that you do know what you are talking about before they even start reading. Indeed, your paper would not have been published had the reviewers not been convinced of this.
You are limited to a few thousand words, and you will have to leave out a lot of material that you would include in a thesis.
The challenge then is to tell the story concisely. An introduction to a thesis chapter has the task of telling the reader how the chapter fits into the overall plan, whereas in the paper you are introducing the same material as being important in its own right.
So you will have to cover previous work done by others. In the thesis, you had written an extensive review of the literature in an earlier.
You will have to cover this material in the introduction to the paper, but in perhaps as little as 500 words rather than 10,000. The readers will have to be satisfied with bold statements about this earlier work and your interpretations of it, with deeper critical analysis reserved for a few key points.
You then have the challenge of presenting the work, again in a more concise form, and it may be that some lines or argument are only noted rather than explained in detail. The ultimate goal is to produce a piece of work that is reasonably self-contained, with enough narrative and evidence to persuade the reader of its value.
Some conferences publish unreformed papers, but the principles are much the same. If your work is to be made available to others, it should be cohesive and complete.
A challenge faced by research students is of writing papers in collaboration with other people, in particular, their supervisors. Writing joint papers is tricky because two or more people are making the decisions. If your joint work is to be really fruitful, you have to acknowledge these difficulties and deal with them.
Students need to appreciate that the bulk of the effort may be theirs, while the credit must be shared; supervisors need to acknowledge that, even in the cases where they are largely responsible for the aims and shape of the work, it is nonetheless a shared outcome.
Joint publication not only acknowledges the contribution made by your supervisor to the development of your research (and to your development as a research worker), but also commits him or her to a significant contribution to the paper.
Research ethics guidelines have clear protocols for reportage of joint work. These are no more than the commonly accepted rules that permit people to work cordially together, and it is arguably more important to recognize that each of the parties in a joint enterprise will bring to it strengths to address and weaknesses to overcome.
In short, a good professional relationship is far more important than a set of rules. Who is to write what? Who will keep the project moving? Whose name will go first? Who will make contact with the editor of the journal? My advice is to resolve these issues openly and early, so that there are no misunderstandings.
Seminar and Conference Presentations
Oral presentations involve several challenges: choosing what to say, the transformation of written work into a spoken form, competent delivery, and dealing with nerves. Your first seminar presentation may be the most difficult one.
You are certainly not on top of your project yet, or comfortable with your knowledge of the research area, but you have to convince your university that the project you are working on is suitable for a Ph.D. study and that you yourself ‘have a Ph.D. in you’. How will you proceed?
Don’t assume that you can take for granted that your audience will know what the project is all about. Start with your problem statement and aim. Then follow with the background, but a much-reduced version of it, because you want to concentrate on your own work. Sketch your ideas and methods, then give a progress report on the results of your own work.
In your final seminar before you present your thesis for examination, you should follow the same pattern, starting with the background and aim, but concentrating more on the findings and their implications.
In developing a presentation, there are several simple principles to keep in mind. One is that ‘talk is a conversation with educated friends’.
You are not giving a political speech or presenting a legal argument, or convincing people to buy something they don’t need or that doesn’t work, or trying to crush an opponent in a debate, or delivering stand-up comedy, or being a newsreader.
That is, there are dozens of kinds of public speaking, and you need to find the right model. In my view, thinking of the presentation as an informal, intelligent explanation is the right one.
When you practice your talk, for example, you should be able to model your choice of words on what you would say to your colleagues in the corridor, should they ask you for a quick explanation of what you are doing. There is no need to be excessively formal, or excessively showy.
The broad pattern of talk is much like that of a paper: introduction, background, approach, results, interpretation. But each of these must be approached in a quite different way to that in a paper. The introduction, for example, might begin with a dramatic statement that sets the context for the whole talk.
A colleague of mine recently began a talk by saying ‘the such-and-such institute just received $10 million in funding for a supercomputer to process this data; with these new methods, maybe one day it could be done on a thousand-dollar laptop’. A strong result allows an opening of this kind; so does a controversial problem.
Other topics will have their own strategy, but the fundamental point is that you can design a delivery strategy for a talk on just about anything.
Expect to be nervous. Most speakers are. A key point to remember is that people are at your talk, for the most part, because they expect it to be interesting—they are not there to criticize, or to be aggressive or unhelpful.
Likewise, the audience will have plenty of experience of novice speakers, and won’t have unrealistic expectations. The best cure for nerves is, one, to know your topic well and, two, to start speaking.
If you have brainstormed the talk well, and have good material to speak to—and, ahead of time, you should have ensured that you do have something sensible to say about every slide—then those nerves should quickly ebb away.
As mentioned above, you should never read your notes aloud or read from your slides. By all means, use notes to prompt yourself (though many people find them more of a distraction than a help), but direct reading rarely works, even if you have used a professional scriptwriter.
And, while I am on this topic when you are speaking never turn your back on the audience. Don’t hide from them; face them, and make them want to listen to you.
Being a Graduate Student
The primary reason to undertake a graduate degree, particularly a Ph.D., is to establish yourself as an effective researcher, but a broader outcome is that a Ph.D. prepares you for life as an academic.
To a lesser extent, this is also true of Masters Degrees and minor research theses: completion of a thesis hones your ability to make judgments and work independently and shows that you have skills that are essential to success as a researcher.
But being a researcher involves other skills too. Some of these are close to the core activity of undertaking research, such as refereeing of papers that other researchers have submitted to conferences or journals.
Effective refereeing (or re-viewing) is a genuine challenge. Ideally, a referee would be expert in every aspect of the paper being examined, but in practice, this is rarely the case, and often there is no such expert!
Thus the referee can be in the awkward position of having to make an informed judgment on a paper, while, in all likelihood, knowing less than the authors about some aspects of the research area.
This judgment needs to identify the flaws that might prevent publication while ensuring that genuine innovation is recognized rather than ignored due to trivial failings. Another intimidating aspect of refereeing is that it can involve making a decision about the quality of work of people who are considerably more experienced than you are.
However, writing of referee reports is excellent training for the task of writing your thesis’s literature review. You may get to see the reports written by the other referees, which is usually an interesting experience if only because of the extent to which referees notice different problems and form contrasting opinions.
If the article is revised and sent back to the referees for further review, you will have an opportunity to see how your criticisms are received and responded to—sometimes these responses will be reasonable, and sometimes they won’t.
Your lack of experience may make the task of reviewing more difficult, but it should not stop you taking on refereeing assignments. So long as you are honest about the extent to which you are knowledgeable.
For example, any diligent reader can make useful comments about readability or the completeness of a bibliography—the editor will appreciate your efforts.
Teaching is a key academic skill. Acquisition of teaching experience is not a key part of doing research, but learning to communicate is—and if you plan to continue in academia, it may be essential to have a track record of teaching.
Delivery of lectures or tutorials, development of teaching materials, and related activities such as one-on-one coaching, are all effective ways of getting feedback on your communication skills.
One thing that I have noticed is that teaching is a great way of building your confidence, not just in public speaking but in general interaction with other students and academics. If it makes sense to take on teaching assignments during your research then my suggestion is that you do so.
Another academic activity is mentoring. It may not at first be obvious that learning to mentor is an important part of being a research student, but I think it is a core skill. Why? One reason is that a large part of succeeding as a research student is your interaction with your supervisor—whose guidance is a form of mentoring.
A wonderful piece of advice I was given early in my Ph.D. was to learn to ask the questions my supervisor would ask, to anticipate what my supervisor would want, and to solve issues that my supervisor would be concerned about.
In other words, I was being advised to try and put myself in my supervisor’s role, and regard him as leading by example.
From this perspective, a research study is a form of apprenticeship, where skills are passed by practice and example from master to novice. By becoming an academic, you must also become a mentor.
Opportunities for mentoring vary from discipline to discipline and might include coaching of undergraduates, involvement in small research projects, or partnering with junior research students. Such mentoring can have many benefits, not least of which is that they can lead to lifelong working relationships.
As a supervisor, I notice that my students who are themselves mentors are better than other students at understanding what I require of them. That is, their experience of mentoring may be helping them to understand the student-supervisor relationship from both perspectives, and to build a more effective partnership with me.
Such students are good at knowing when to seek advice—and will happily seek it when appropriate to do so—and are also good at knowing when guidance should not be sought, that is, they should try to answer their questions for themselves.
It is not clever to batter away at a problem if a few minutes of someone’s time is all that is needed to point you in the right direction, but nor is it clever to ask for guidance on every little momentary issue that troubles you.
A mature student sets problems aside for later consideration, resolving some and sharpening others for future conversations with a mentor, rather than seeing every unknown as an obstacle for which guidance is required.
What are the skills of an effective researcher, and how are they acquired? The answer to this question lies in the background of the students who enter research degrees, which, quite simply, is highly variable.
People who decide to undertake research may have come straight from another degree (which might have been their first degree after secondary school), or may have been in the workforce for decades in one capacity or another.
Thus a new student might be expert in recent academic knowledge, but inexperienced in terms of independence and skills such as writing; or may be skilled in the practice of their discipline, but out of touch with the latest developments.
The research may be interdisciplinary in some way (for example, technological research projects with applications in medicine), and thus the student may be highly knowledgeable in aspects of the work but have no background in other aspects.
Some Ph.D. students have experience of research, which however may be limited to a few months of closely supervised work in a tightly defined project; others have broader experience but have never grappled with the difficulties of undertaking a project independently.
Thus, in the course of the research degree, not only must you undertake research, but consciously seek to identify where you are weak and design ways of becoming more competent.
You might, for example, take an undergraduate subject, set yourself a program of reading in an unfamiliar area or establish or join a study group.
At the start of your project, as well as developing research questions and getting familiar with the literature, you may consciously decide to learn basic skills, by for example working through elementary tasks in the lab, exploring a document archive, or establishing an effective online working environment.
The Arc of a Research Degree
A minor thesis may only require a single semester, and completing it is a sprint from start to finish. Three or four months is not a long time to find and read the key papers in an area, undertake a study, and produce a polished report on the work.
Most students find that they have to be highly focused from the first week, with a systematic working schedule that fills not just their days but to some extent their weekends and evenings. Such a working pattern can be stressful but is quickly over.
For longer research degrees, in particular, Masters and Ph.D.s, a sprint cannot be successful; few students have the energy or resources to work 70 or 80 h a week for a year or more. Such degrees truly are a marathon.
An effective pattern is as follows. In the beginning, expect to work at a steady pace—if you are studying full-time, this will be little different, in most cases, from the kind of pattern people have in an office job. Maintain some outside interests and a social life, but make sure they do leave enough time for your study.
The final phase, perhaps as long as 9 months in a Ph.D., is very different and requires total commitment and focus. As you create a complete thesis you need to be familiar with every detail of your work as presented in a sequence of chapters, and this requires the removal of distractions.
You may have to give up your outside interests and social life and make sure that your partner, or children, or parents, or whoever it is you live with, is aware of your needs and constraints.
This phase can be very stressful—I’ve known students who share an office to come to blows over trivialities such as a habit of tapping a pencil on a desk—which means that you need to learn to identify safety valves and when to make use of them.
Make sure that the good work you are doing in your project gets published.
The only way to ensure this is to have a dissemination plan. The plan should be geared to publishing while you are still working on your project.
Regularly give research seminars. Doing so gives you feedback on your project, and will also form the basis for conference papers and papers in learned journals.
Research papers have a different set of rules and conventions from theses. To publish papers, you need to address a different readership using these different conventions.
Papers written on the basis of work done as part of your project should, in general, be written jointly with your supervisor and possibly other colleagues too. You need to do this in a way that respects the input of both parties.
Spoken presentations are entirely different from written presentations of the same material. Never just read your written paper to the audience or even the same paper with bits left out.
Take the effort to develop your skills as a speaker; these skills will be essential to your professional life.
Being a graduate student:
Think and act like the professional researcher that you are striving to become, taking responsibilities for your work, seeking collegial advice when needed, and maintaining a sustainable regimen of work. Seek to rectify your weaknesses.
Consider taking on other academic commitments, such as teaching, reviewing, and mentoring.
Balance life and work commitments, paying particular attention to the demands of partners and another family.
Anticipate that ‘life’ will seemingly get in the way at times, and learn to cope.
Expect the write-up phase to be a committed, focused slog where you have eliminated distractions.
Online resources. There are many excellent websites on how to give spoken academic presentations, including material on topics such as:
Overall techniques for giving talks.
Learning to speak with confidence, and overcoming stage fright.
Effective data presentation.
Good style in slide design (regardless of whether your preferred tool is Power-Point, OpenOffice, Beamer, or whatever).