For many PhD candidates, the doctoral thesis will be the largest piece of work they will have produced. It can therefore be difficult to ascertain exactly how much work you need to do for it. PhD students often ask, for example, how much data is sufficient for a thesis or how much they need to read and include in their writing.
There is no hard and fast rule for what goes into a thesis since word counts, structure and requirements vary considerably between disciplines, institutions and countries. However, this article will offer some guidance for planning your workload and the factors to consider to determine when you have enough material for your project.
Hone your focus, narrow your scope
Determine the scope of research that you can realistically and practically cover through the course of your research, given the resources and time that you have. Your supervisor(s) should be able to help you decide what will be enough for your project and what you can do within these limits – for example, how much data to collect and/or work with, and how much analysis to conduct.
A good – and sufficient – thesis should:
1) demonstrate an understanding of the principal debates in your field
2) contribute original knowledge to the field
3) present this original knowledge articulately and coherently, using clearly articulated methodologies and theoretical frameworks.
Use these points to help guide your work. For example, they can help you to decide how much reading is necessary for you to prove you have a clear understanding of the current work in your field. Or, they can help you work out how much data you need to collect and analyse to be able to create a significant amount of original knowledge.
Focus on answering your research questions and justifying the decisions you have taken throughout your PhD. Anything else that is interesting but does not contribute directly to fulfilling your research aims – including journal articles, extra data, alternative methods of data collection and/or analysis – is to be considered additional and can be used for future research or supplementary projects instead (for example, journal articles you might write in addition to or after your PhD).
Do also realise that you will continue to sharpen the focus of your research throughout the course of your PhD. Trust that as you read through the literature and work with your data over time, you will begin to discern what is truly useful to the core of your research and what is only tangentially interesting.
It’s okay that you can’t cover everything
It is important to acknowledge that there will always, potentially, be more work that can be done – another journal to read, another reference to cite or another set of data to analyse. However, understand that it is simply not possible for you to investigate and discuss every possible approach/outcome within the constraints of a PhD.
Examiners will understand these limits and you are not expected to produce a large amount of work that will exceed the given time frame and word count.
It is more than likely that there will be many other possible considerations you would like to include in your thesis but which are beyond your current scope. It is enough to briefly acknowledge these ideas or methods without incorporating them fully into your research. For example, towards the end of your thesis, you could discuss recommendations for future research that would include these alternative perspectives.
Remember to maintain regular discussion with your supervisor and update them on your progress. They should also be able to advise whether you are doing enough, or suggest the areas for which you may need to collect additional material or do more work. Following their guidance will be more than enough for your project.
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