Careers Clinic: What is your top tip for writing a PhD thesis?

THE’s new Careers Clinic series brings together the great and the good of higher education to answer a burning careers question

November 9, 2020
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We asked five experts for their top tip on writing a PhD thesis. From keeping a healthy distance to writing little and often, here’s what they had to say:

“A ‘good’ PhD is a ‘done’ PhD. It is usually the first time most people have designed, executed, delivered and distributed a complex research project. Make an ambitious plan with achievable targets. Write early, read widely, get confused, and shape a manageable scope. Balance technical, conceptual and practical dynamics. Practise teaching and leading others. Work in a disciplined and professional manner. Learn to manage schedules, budgets and media. Be nice to yourself and take holidays.” – Hamish Coates, director of the Higher Education Research Division at Tsinghua University

“Funnily enough apart from the obvious elements, like having a very tight focus and a committed supervisor, my main tip would be to make sure you get enough healthy distance from your thesis. This might sound slightly odd, but working too hard can be as problematic as working too little.  Approach the PhD like a professional academic job – get up early, work solid days, do not work evenings and weekends. Caring responsibilities might demand flexibility but the general argument about a healthy work-life balance is the same.” − Matthew Flinders, founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield

“I’d suggest that you write up the whole cycle of each of your sets of results or ideas (methodology, results, discussion, conclusions). This means you’ll both generate material for your thesis as you go and will spot the gaps or flaws in your approach that only become apparent when you start to write. I wrote the whole thesis at the end, so I had to go back and fill a lot of these gaps, missing the opportunity to apply these insights to better research design while I was still doing my PhD.” − Sara Shinton, head of Researcher Development at the University of Edinburgh and director of the UKRI Future Leaders Fellows Development Network

“A PhD thesis is an argument for an original contribution to knowledge; your thesis should be built around this. This will work in different ways in different subject areas. In my area, your literature review is an argument for the gap in the literature that is addressed by the thesis. The research methods chapter is an argument for how your study was designed in a rigorous way to answer your research questions based on this gap. Your outcomes chapter(s) are an argument as to how your analysis of your data answered these research questions. And your discussion chapter is an argument as to how the answering of these research questions makes an original and significant contribution to knowledge. It is this argument that gives your thesis coherence and things that do not contribute to this argument do not need to be in the thesis.” – Paul Ashwin, professor of higher education at Lancaster University

“Write little and write often. Many of us make the mistake of taking to writing as one would take to a sprint, in other words, with relatively short bursts of intense activity. Whilst this can prove productive, generally speaking it is not sustainable…In addition to sustaining your activity, writing little bits on a frequent basis ensures that you progress with your thinking. The comfort of remaining in abstract thought is common; writing forces us to concretise our thinking. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can locate inconsistencies and/or logical mishaps in our ideas.” – Christian Gilliam, AHSS researcher developer at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Teaching and Learning

For more tips on writing a PhD dissertation, click here.

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