Writing the thesis

The University has specific requirements regarding the content and length of theses. Of particular interest in some fields may be the following note:

(ii) Prior publication Prior publication of material arising from research undertaken while holding the status of Probationer Research Student or the status of a student for the M.Litt., M.Sc. by Research, or D.Phil., is fully acceptable, but the inclusion of published papers within a thesis may be subject to special regulation by the board concerned. Candidates should note that the acceptance of such material for publication does not of itself constitute proof that the work is of sufficient quality or significance to merit the award of the degree concerned. This remains a judgement of the relevant board on the recommendation of its examiners. (General Regulations Governing Research Degrees: Section 6 (1. ii))

The University also has specific requirements with respect to the style and format in which the thesis is submitted. This information is included in the GSO.20a document (Notes of guidance for research examinations for students submitting their thesis) which can be obtained from the Progression Forms webpage. 

In some subjects special thesis regulations cover the possibility of submitting a thesis in an unconventional style (e.g. by a series of papers) as a variation to the normal options (see Appendix A of GSO.20a).

It is worthwhile for students to think ahead and give consideration at a relatively early stage of thesis drafting to matters of format and style in relation to the University's requirements, remembering also that submission of an electronic copy of the DPhil thesis in addition to traditional bound copies is now a requirement once the candidate has been given leave to supplicate (see ORA - Oxford Research Archive e-Theses).

Issues that may need attention in digital theses include the following, which are covered by Training on ORA for DPhil students:

  • Copyright and other intellectual property rights
  • Special fonts
  • File formats
  • Under certain circumstances, a requirement for embargo on access

Help on the deposit of electronic theses is also available for supervisors and there is a useful Thesis Workflow Diagram

The Skills Hub web site can help you to find courses, web sites, events and resources available to suit different areas of skill development, including communication skills such as writing. As well, the Language Centre provides writing courses for researchers whose first language is not English.

Writing as a difficult task

This DPhil graduate articulates a perception shared by many – that writing the thesis is arduous.

Throughout my time as a PhD student, I encountered many, many people who had either gone through the PhD process themselves, or were going through it, and almost the universal narrative of the experience that they were giving me was that the writing was extraordinarily arduous, that it was frustrating, that I needed to be prepared to deal with delays and setbacks, and that it was a chore; it was something that had to be done for the sake of the final product. So this made a lot of sense to me, and was the preconception that I carried into the work. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

This difficulty in writing is often referred to as ‘writing block’ as described by this student:

My supervisors tell me to stop reading and start writing, but it’s… It’s easier to go read something else, so to look at the literature again, than it is to write something new. I think it’s hard. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Writing block can be experienced not only by research students but more experienced academics as well. Two of the most common reasons for writing blocks are:

  • Having trouble getting started (due to procrastination and/or anxiety)
  • Having trouble finishing (due to perfectionism and/or anxiety)

Writing early and regularly

One way of developing the writing habit is to set regular intermediate writing targets; these can begin as early as the first year, as this supervisor describes.

Over the summer [of the first year], they have to write a…rather large, 7,000 word, literature review forming the basis for their particular area, and that also gets read by another Faculty member. The idea is that this will form the sort of literature review part of their thesis when they get to writing it. (New supervisor, MPLS)

Another strategy is breaking the thesis into manageable chunks, such as thinking in terms of chapters rather than a whole dissertation, as this student describes:

Because I’ve been writing as I go along – each time I’ve done an analysis, I’ve written the chapter that goes with it, and we’re allowed to submit, em, paper chapters, where the chapters are basically paper format, so whatever I submit to a journal, I can also submit in my thesis, once I’ve reformatted it to be standard format. (Doctoral student, STEM)

While this approach might seem more easily achievable when the thesis consists of a series of papers, even when it takes the form of a monograph, such an approach can work as long as the student understands that there will be successive revisions:

If I think about my actual thesis, the words that I have on the page now, I think the only bits that have made it through from the first year are the introduction, which was basically a literature review, and then just the data that I collected - none of the data analysis. I had to redo it all this year. Now I know exactly what questions I’m asking, I had to redo it all, so that, I suppose that’s very different, as I’ve gone through my PhD. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Clarity about the writing task

Writing regularly and frequently throughout the doctoral journey can help reduce anxiety about writing, but it is essential that the writing tasks asked of the student are clear.

Well, the first big sticking point was when I sent her away to write something, and I waited and I waited and nothing came back. I eventually realised she wasn’t quite sure what to do. Of course, I thought that we had talked about it, but probably very quickly and using language she wasn’t quite clear on. So usually the solution is that we need to meet and quickly talk about why she’s not able to progress, and then re-formulate a solution for that. (New supervisor, Social Sciences)

One way of limiting such miscommunication is to ask the student to send you, shortly after the meeting, a brief descriptive text that summarizes the direction of the discussion, ending with a description of the writing task (i.e. the recommended practice of students acknowledging their agreed next steps, by email, following formal supervisory meetings).

A good orientation strategy

It can be useful for students to review several recent theses in the discipline (not for the content but rather to look at how the text is put together, i.e. the basic composition processes). This gives them a general sense of similarities and differences (what is common and what is unique to each thesis). It will also help them to have a better understanding of the originality and significance required in their research, plus a view of the quality required in their thesis.

Thinking of the reader

The thesis is a communication with specific readers. Audience problems can be acute in dissertation writing as students can be so immersed in sorting out their ideas that they forget that examiners have not been privy to the development of their research over time. Thus examiners are unlikely to know:

  • the ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘so what’ of the students' research
  • the particular meanings students have assigned to certain terms, concepts, theories
  • the decision-making lying behind the structural organisation of the thesis text
  • the focus, objectives and arguments of the overall thesis and those of individual chapters.

The supervisor and student can use the following questions to critique the thesis:

  • What precisely is the focus of the research?
  • What is the specific objective or aim?
  • Why is investigating this topic worthwhile?
  • How will this be achieved?
  • What concepts are key and how have they been defined?
  • How does the structure of the inquiry relate to the structure of the thesis (and chapters)?
  • Why do the results of this study matter? In other words, what is the overall argument of the thesis (or chapters within it)?

Use of the literature

Special attention needs to be directed to the use of the literature as this is the focus of many examiners’ assessments. Research suggests that examiners use the following criteria in this regard:

  • Coverage: accurate and inclusive representation of relevant material
  • Working understanding: a familiarity that demonstrates, at a minimum, a reasonable level of analysis and synthesis
  • Critical appraisal: weighing up the body of knowledge
  • Connection to findings: demonstrating a disciplinary perspective; weaving the literature into the study

Coverage alone is not sufficient to achieve a pass. It is essential for there to be some use of the literature that signifies a working understanding and some critical appraisal. Use of the literature that is considered outstanding includes extensive critical appraisal and excellent integration of findings.

Student writing feedback groups

Students often find it useful to form a thesis writing feedback group in which they meet regularly (say monthly), review each other's work and provide constructive feedback (using, for instance, the questions above). Groups of 2-3 work well.

Reading the draft(s)

These tools are useful for both student and supervisor.

  • Check the content and presentation of the thesis.
  • Review format and style in relation to the University's requirements for thesis submission. See Oxford Information (above).
  • Use the Thesis Workflow Diagram to ensure that all the necessary pre-submission checks have been made, e.g. copyright permissions, etc.

Finishing: Allowing enough time for revision

Some students find it difficult to finish. Setting completion deadlines well in advance of thesis submission can help in this regard. As well, ensure that students understand the need to finish writing early enough to be able to then step back and critique the thesis as a whole. To be able to stand back and look at the work from someone else's perspective is the key to successful revision, a process in which all dedicated writers vigorously engage.

Plagiarism

Promoting the highest standards of academic integrity means helping students learn what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid unintentional plagiarism. The Education Committee’s Study skills and training web pages aim to help students understand the issues more fully and they include: Plagiarism with useful examples of what constitutes plagiarism, and why it is so important to avoid it; and Time Management, Research and Library Skills, etc. which advise on developing a range of academic skills which lead to the production of sound work.

An online Avoiding Plagiarism Tutorial is available.

Books on thesis writing

Students may find the following useful:

This book can be helpful for supervisors:

 

Based on examiners' reports and interviews it is clear that experienced examiners look for coherence across the doctoral thesis and that they value:

  • Critical analysis and argument
  • Confident and rigorous writing
  • A self-critical approach
  • Originality, creativity and a degree of risk taking
  • A comprehensive and scholarly approach
  • Sound presentation and structure
  • Appropriate methodology

Structuring such a large body of work can pose difficulties for students, but as Craswell suggests (2005, p187), there are four basic questions that can be applied when structuring at any level of the text, questions to which students will need to have answers by a final draft:

  • What? – the research focus (precisely what the subject of discussion is, with some indication of a breakdown of the subject into topics).
  • Why? – the research purpose (precisely why the candidate is discussing/ investigating those topics) and their objectives or aims.
  • How? – the methods or procedures used, plus the structure of the thesis and each chapter within it.
  • So what? – the implications of the findings/ discussions, why they matter. This should, in certain disciplines, lead to identification of the overall argument of the thesis (or chapters within it), as well as set directions for a discussion and implications chapter.

The final point, the 'so what' issue, often appears to pose considerable difficulty for students. As one experienced supervisor was heard to suggest: 'Students can complete their doctorate and still not be able to identify what was significant about it!"

This last comment speaks directly to use of the literature. Regardless of discipline, examiners tend to place considerable emphasis on use of the literature in making a decision about the quality of the thesis. Criteria used include: coverage (relevant material), working understanding (from reasonable analysis and synthesis through in-depth integration), critical appraisal (weighing up the body of knowledge), and connection to findings (demonstrating a disciplinary perspective). In assessing the thesis, examiners expect a good working understanding and some critical appraisal of the literature for a pass. Use of the literature that is considered outstanding includes extensive critical appraisal and excellent integration of findings.

While the above factors are consistent across the disciplines, the specific characteristics can vary considerably within and across disciplines.

The above text was based on:

Craswell, G. (2005). Writing for academic success: A postgraduate guide. London Sage.

Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Holbrook, A., Bourke, S., Fairbairn, H., & Lovat, T. (2007). Examiner comment on the literature review in PhD theses. Studies in Higher Education, 32(3), 337-356.

Leik, Ilona. (1998). Academic writing: Exploring Processes and strategies. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lovitts, B.E. (2007) Making the Implicit Explicit: creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. Not available electronically.

Mullins, G. and Kiley, M. (2002) "It's a PhD, not a Nobel prize": How experienced examiners assess theses, Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.