A thesis is a big undertaking, usually 60,000 to 80,000 words. It’s likely to be the longest thing you’ve ever written, and when it’s complete, you’ll be examined on it. It’s very common to be worried about whether you can write a successful thesis. If you’re writing in English, and it isn’t your first language, that can be an even bigger worry.
The good news is that, if you get accepted for a PhD, it’s because your department believes in you. However, they don’t expect you to already have all the experience you need. You don’t have to already be familiar with the type of language expected in your thesis, or know how to structure it.
If you’ve written a dissertation for your masters’ or undergraduate degree, or even essays, you’ll have a decent starting point. Your supervisor and your institution want you to succeed, and can help you reach the level of academic writing you need. If you take the initiative and draw on the help and advice available, you can reach the level needed for a PhD.
What are the academic writing expectations for a PhD?
Different institutions have differing regulations regarding exactly how many words you can write, and what structures are permissible. In many countries, you’re expected to produce a single, coherent, written thesis. In some cases, you can complete a PhD through a number of articles published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals. Either way, you need to write something which is clear, cohesive, and written in a distinctive academic style.
The expectations of academic writing can vary between subjects. Conventions relating to the types of acceptable evidence, the scope for critiquing existing literature, or the ways in which you demonstrate the originality of your research may be very different in mathematics than in history.
The best way to familiarise yourself with the expectations is to read. Your institution is likely to hold copies of theses by successful past students, and it’s good to take a look at some, to see how they structured their work, and the type of language they used. As part of your work, you’ll be reading journal articles in your subject area, and again, it’s great to think about the ways in which they use language, discuss the literature and the original research, and justify their conclusions. But do bear in mind that some academics are not good at writing clearly. If you’re not sure whether something is a good example, you can check with your supervisor.
People often associate a thesis with complex, impenetrable language, but the best theses are no more complex than they have to be. Explaining a topic using straightforward language helps demonstrate your understanding of it, and will also make it easier for your examiners to read.
How can I write a strong literature review for my PhD?
While the structure of theses varies, you will need to look at past work in the field, and write some sort of literature review, to both show that you understand it and help demonstrate how your own research is making an original contribution.
As always, you want to make your literature review as easy to read as possible. If you are discussing a complex idea, explain it in straightforward language. Your examiners may be very familiar with a concept (although, equally, they might not be). If your own writing is convoluted or simply patches together quotes from original documents, how can they tell whether you truly understand a concept?
Like an essay, the literature review should have a clear introduction and conclusion, and a body which takes readers through the literature in a clear and logical manner. Try to make it clear what the key points are. What are the big ideas which relate to your research? Where is there consensus, and where is there disagreement? Do you take a particular view on contentious issues, and if so, how do you justify that? Where is there a lack of research? If your review answers these questions, you’re on the right track.
How should I write about my own research?
Your own research is the core of your PhD, and it’s where you will find the greatest variation in expectations between subjects. In general, in the sciences, you will be expected to write a very clear methodology, setting out your approach, while in the arts and humanities, you might well discuss debates around methods with your literature review, and the details of the approach you take with your results. You might have a discussion chapter, drawing together all your research, or you might include a discussion in each research chapter. If you’re not sure what is usual in your subject, find out, and if you want to take an original approach, get plenty of advice from your supervisor on whether it’s likely to be accepted.
What is standard is that you should divide your writing up into chapters, each discussing a piece of research or an aspect of your research. Each one should have an introduction and conclusion, and a body, usually divided into sections. Using section headings can help you structure your work, and signpost your examiner with what to expect as they read through each part of your completed thesis.
It's not all words, either. If a graph, a diagram, or a picture would help illustrate a point, then include it, and reference it in the text. These don’t usually contribute to your word count, and reference to them can really help you clarify a complex aspect of your research, or demonstrate where a key pattern or correlation can be found.
How can I write an engaging introduction and conclusion for my PhD?
In addition to each chapter of your thesis having an introduction and conclusion, you will need to write introduction and conclusion chapters for the thesis as a whole. Some people find it helpful to start the introduction fairly early on, to aid planning the structure of the whole thesis, while my preference has been to write it near the end. Either way, once the rest of your thesis is nearing completion, you will want to write your conclusion and finalise your introduction.
The introduction and conclusion are your best opportunity to sell your thesis. Because it’s a piece of academic work, you mustn’t make any wild claims that it will revolutionise your subject – there is no expectation that anyone’s thesis will do that. But you do need to show that you are making an original contribution to your subject, however small, and so you want to showcase what you have achieved.
How does the literature review show that your contribution is original and of interest? What are the key reasons for your methodological approach, and is it an original approach, perhaps applying a method in a new area? What are the key findings of your research, how do they address the questions you started out with, and how do they contribute to filling a gap in knowledge? Were aspects of your research unsuccessful, and if so, how could future research address them? Or does your work raise new questions which would benefit from further research?
If you’re just starting out, this might sound like a lot, but you have three or more years to work on your thesis, and you will be thinking about some of these questions every day, so you will end up with plenty to say.
Where can I get support with my academic writing?
Your supervisor, your department, and your institution all want you to succeed. They have nothing to gain from a student dropping out or failing to obtain a PhD. Your supervisor will provide feedback on your thesis, and this is likely to include some guidance on your academic writing; for example, the structure and fluency of your writing, its tone and clarity, and any incorrect or misleading points you make.
Your institution may well have some sort of writing centre. This may run classes in academic writing, or offer drop-in or mutual help sessions to discuss your writing. These can be invaluable, especially if you are not writing in your first language, or if it has been some time since your previous study.
In your department, other students can help; you can arrange reading pieces of each other’s work, and offer constructive feedback. Students in other departments may be able to help, but remember that expectations in their subjects may differ.
There are numerous books available on academic writing, and rather than buying the first one you see, look in your institution’s library to find one that works for you. Just about every university has some online advice, too.
Finally, once your thesis is just about there, and you’ve incorporated your supervisor’s feedback, you will want to get it proofread. Charlesworth Author Services offers professional formatting, scientific review, and can check that you haven’t inadvertently plagiarised anything. Take a look at our services here.
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