Honestly, it’s impossible to nail down all the nuances of writing a PhD thesis, as there’s always going to be plenty of variation between topics and disciplines. That said, there are plenty of general principles to follow when writing a killer PhD, similar to how there are mindsets you can adopt for doing good research. In this article, we’ll cover a couple tricks you may not have considered. Even if you have, perhaps a different take will shed a new light on them. Let’s get going.
Having a clear idea of what you’ll be exploring from the get-go is a big help. To this end, you’ll want to choose a thesis statement (interchangeably called ‘research question’) that allows for some exploration, rather than merely a yes or no answer. Questions or topics beginning with ‘to what extent’ or similar are inherently open to many points of discourse, or in the case of the sciences, analysis of contrasting past experiments. It’s incredible what a suffix like this can do for an otherwise mundane question, but it pays to remember this is just one way among countless others to create an open question.
Poor example: Is Jupiter a gas giant?
Good example: To what extent is Jupiter a gas giant?
Obviously, both refer to well-trodden ground and wouldn’t make for much of a PhD thesis. Regardless, the structure of the latter question allows for some discussion. In assessing extent,
you have the opportunity to consult primary sources on observations we’ve made, the depths of its clouds, the thick layer of hydrogen and helium and the uncertainty as to whether or not we know for sure its made entirely of gas. Where the former question really only allows for an answer like ‘yes to the best of our knowledge,’ the latter can become more inclusive of conflicting sources if there are any. Basically, any opportunity to explore conflict or ambiguities between and inside primary sources is marvellous fodder for a PhD. Open-ended research questions make this happen.
After determining a central question or dilemma of your thesis, make it clear within your thesis statement what you intend to argue. In doing so, try not to use opinionative language. By this we mean anything suggesting a highly anecdotal basis, like how you feel about something. Saying you don’t believe in something because you hate the idea of it is hardly conducive of productive discourse after all! Delve as deep as you can into your rationale for believing.
At these early stages, it’s perfectly acceptable to not have a position on your thesis statement prior to doing your research. In this case, you can return to it later. If you’ve already gone deep, compiled plenty of primary sources and have reached a conclusion, delve into the epistemic basis of that conclusion, namely why you’re sure of it. To what extent are you sure of it? This is helpful in checking and double checking if you’re right to conclude what you have, in conjunction with discipline-specific methodologies of course. A physics paper shouldn’t run on raw rhetoric, after all! This will also help with discussing and pre-empting criticisms later.
You can even counter objections by baking them into the thesis statement. For example, the Jupiter question could become, ‘knowing the lack of confirmation regarding the composition of its interior, to what extent is Jupiter a gas giant?’ This contributes to the stereotype of thesis statements being indecipherable to those outside their discipline, but for sound reasons!
It doesn’t hurt to come up with several possibilities for a thesis statement or central position either. Once you’ve got a nice platter in front of you, evaluate them against each other with the help of your supervisor. They’ll be able to help you formulate better ones, improve the ones you have and set you on the right track.
Even if it’s an absolute mess, the act of structuring your thesis is a form of planning. It’ll get you thinking about where each piece of information fits best. No doubt this structure will undergo extensive changes throughout its development, but that’s life. Having a strong basis to build upon will make this process easier, even if you do end up throwing the whole thing out in a month!
So what does a good ‘baseline’ structure entail? Well, it’s going to vary quite substantially between topics and disciplines. That said, just throwing in headings, subheadings and notes are what make all the difference. They’ll help you visualise how your findings fit together. It also
pays to remember you don’t have to write in chronological order, nor should you. If you’ve got an idea for chapter five on your mind, just jot down the structure for chapter five, add notes and flesh it out as little or as much as you’d like. Leave those introductory paragraphs and abstract until later, potentially even near the end of writing. If something ends up looking odd later on, it’s better having something to change than writing something that does fit from scratch.
You can even feed your supervisor into the process. By using some kind of collaborative editing software and inviting them to make suggestions or edits, you’re opening yourself to periodic feedback.
You can use your structure to inform this. For instance, if you currently expect chapter four of your PhD to have ten parts, that’s ten deadlines you can set. You can even break those up into smaller deadlines depending on the scope of each chapter. Whatever your approach, deadlines allow you to budget your time responsibly and understand the obligations you have to… well, yourself! Nobody wants the last few months of their PhD to be hell on earth, so getting in early with plenty of planning is crucial to avoiding that outcome. Granted, this isn’t always possible. Particularly when there are layers of bureaucracy, slow correspondence between colleagues and other general setbacks to consider. The best you can do is organise your writing time around what you currently know. If something gets in the way, that’s life, but not having a plan to begin with is worse.
You can talk to your supervisor once you’ve built a calendar or timetable of deadlines to see if they think it’s realistic. Get their feedback and do your best to implement it. After all, it’s all wasted time if you’ve just built a timetable for show!
Specifically, it’ll be people who aren’t necessarily in your industry. They’ll be skimming over your abstract and thesis statement, sure, but that first page or two is your chance to engage what could be laymen with your paper. Always keep this in mind, saving the highly technical, industry-specific language for the rest of the paper. Feel free to use that kind of language as liberally as you please the rest of the way, but to start with, pretend you’re writing for the Economist. This means it’s safe to assume your audience is educated to some extent. You don’t go out of your way to read a thesis unless it has attracted at least cursory interest, after all. Even so, explain the purpose of your thesis, its structure or any other opening details with care.
This is beneficial even for an audience of industry professionals. It’s hard to slog through a thesis when the opening is dull, poorly explained or too saturated with industry lingo, depending on how specific that lingo is. If your writing is in regard to a field within a field within a field (perhaps even deeper), it may be best to treat even experts as initiates.
Even if they are familiar, it pays to have compelling reasons for your research, with your enthusiasm for those reasons, apparent quite early. If nothing else, your reader may become attracted to the passion you’ve shown and why it’s exciting, useful, interesting or otherwise. If you can do that, it becomes far easier to get into the nitty-gritty statistics and research to follow. After all, papers unread may as well have been unsaid.
You’ve got a license to go nuts with your thesis. It’s unlike any other paper you’ve likely written in that absolute pain-staking detail is expected. Makes sense! This is your chance to represent your work in the best possible light. Why not lend as much descriptive power as possible to it? However, as tempting as it is to just dump everything you’ve learned indiscriminately, you should still be mindful of your readers and cut whatever doesn’t need to be there. At the very least, consider restructuring or moving the material to an appendix or separate paper for further reading. Your thesis can be long, but opting to make it shorter is generally a safe path to greater legibility. Even among well-versed experts, the subject matter is likely taxing enough without verbosity piled on top. Make the reader’s job as easy as possible, wherever possible.
Even if you’ve got a massive thesis with technically perfect grammar, it’ll still look wrong without consistent guidelines. You might be thinking how that’s even possible if you’ve got perfect grammar. Well, there are plenty of variations between styles of writing and phrasing, each of which can be accurate. Take the classic Oxford comma for example. For those who don’t know, this is the use of a comma before the word ‘and’, typically at the conclusion of a list.
Regular list: Cheese, milk and eggs.
Oxford comma: Cheese, milk, and eggs.
Whilst some publications advocate for its use, others will be completely intolerant. Your university likely has a whole list of nuances bundled into its own style guide. This often constitutes more than just grammar. As you know quite well by now, preferences for styles of referencing can vary greatly between universities and even professors within the same university. Confer with your supervisor to see if they have a preference, or if they know of some style guide unique to your niche, faculty or institution.
If you haven’t been provided a style guide, make executive decisions as and when grammatical or referencing decisions arise and note them down. Whenever you encounter similar circumstances in the future, you’ll be able to refer to your notes and ensure consistency. This will make your paper just that bit stronger… and your readers will thank you! Some other common style considerations:
Do as you see fit, provided each choice has sufficient reasoning behind it. Don’t dwell too long on these sorts of things of course, but enough to yield a consistent ruleset. Once you’ve got that rule set sorted, it’ll also make proofing the entire thesis easier. Try not to think about that part right now. You’ll survive!
This means clear labelling conventions for just about everything. You can even create your own style guide for folder and file hygiene. The purpose of this is to ensure you’re always using the current version of your thesis, research and other materials. This will also help with remembering where material from earlier versions you may use later is stored. Monitoring your files like this is also valuable for compiling your references, when you accessed them, what they contain and where you thought to utilise them.
By ‘protect’ we mean backups. Keep all your critical resources on multiple hard drives, as well as in the cloud. To many this is common sense, but it pays to remember. Nobody wants to be the outlier who lost their thesis, references or findings to a computer hiccup. Although if you are someone who wants that to happen, we have a three-digit number you can call!
You’re in the big leagues. Even something small like adding italics or unintended emphasis to a quote can cost you academic integrity, so keep everything you quote on-file somewhere verbatim. This will help when you proof the whole thesis later, as checking against the source material is far easier than trying to determine from memory if the quote is accurate (or having to dig for it later). Furthermore, add context to whichever separate document you’re storing these quotes in. These will help you determine whether or not you’re using the quotes as their author intended, or if the context isn’t quite right.
This goes for just about any cited material too. Statistics and conclusions from other research ideally shouldn’t be paraphrased at all to ensure you’re representing them with the highest degree of accuracy. After all, their authors likely puzzled over the optimal wording for their findings similarly to how you’re finding the best words for your thesis. Provided it’s clearly a quote you’re using, there’s no harm in just using the findings or quotes as-written. More often than not, it’s just safer.
No, not to conduct a cheeky spot of plagiarism! The purpose of this is to learn how others have structured their work, why it works and perhaps even ask the authors why they made some of the decisions they made. Their topics are likely to be removed from what you’re doing, but that’s fine. The point is to simply draw inspiration from successful graduates.
You will inevitably come across flaws in your work, many of which you may acknowledge in your thesis. Getting to that point requires extensive thought and note-taking. Whenever you think of a potential objection, jot it down, no matter how inane it may seem at the time! The objective is to eventually have a near-comprehensive list of potential issues. You can then attempt rebuttals or solutions to these. There will come a time when you’ll have to defend your thesis, so familiarise yourself with as many issues as possible (after trying to fix them, of course). The more eventualities and potential questions you may be asked you can compile, the better prepared you can be. Your supervisor will be invaluable for this. They’ll be able to point out plenty of issues you may not have seen and perhaps even help you formulate answers. That will depend on the nature of the work and which side of the bed your supervisor woke up on, of course!
It’s also not too outlandish to ask others for feedback. If you’ve got colleagues or friends who are willing to progressively read portions of your thesis where you suspect there may be issues, they may be able to assist with proofing and fact-checking. There will always be paper-wide concerns a piecemeal reader won’t be able to assess, so it’ll be up to you to levy objections of that nature against yourself.
The first thing to go during a PhD… is everything. You may feel like it’s necessary to sacrifice sleep, exercise, cooking healthy meals or whatever else to fit writing in. The truth is, none of it will be as good if you’re not setting yourself up for mental and physical well being. Honestly, this is the main reason why we recommend the previous advice. It all serves to keep your life balanced in some way or another so you aren’t needlessly stressing or rushing to tie up loose ends two weeks out from expected completion. There will be stress already. No reason to create more! You’ll keep yourself alert and happy if you take care of yourself, with every routine being mandatory in your mind. Non-negotiable.
So how can you make that happen? Well, enforce your lifestyle schedule the same way you would for your thesis. Treat research and thesis-writing as a full-time 9 - 5 job, but outside of that you can enforce blocks of time for exercise and leisure. Many of you are already doing this, but too many PhD students absolutely fry their brains by not managing their time. It’s easier in the long run to put your health first. If you do that, you’ll give yourself the best chance at a fantastic thesis.
They don’t have to be perfect. Just like how everything else we’ve talked about will start rough, so too will the bulk of your thesis… but that’s OK. Facing a blank page is often one of the most difficult things to do. If you haven’t got an idea fully fleshed out, that’s fine. Just write it down where it’ll likely fit best, presuming it makes the final cut. If your research is incomplete, just chuck the data in there as a placeholder and reference point. Perfectionism in the early and middle stages of writing your thesis is the bane of progress. Rapid, continual development of an imperfect work is the best method for making steady, measurable progress. After all, your idea of ‘perfect’ may not even exist! The only way to know is to start with something imperfect and work your way up.
Your supervisor will likely be quite forgiving when you do this. They understand the process it is iterative and will help flesh out each half-formed idea, no matter how embryonic! If for no other reason, just writing everything and anything that comes to mind can serve to refine each of your ideas.
We hope to have clarified some techniques you may already have learned or given you new ideas on tackling your thesis. There’s of course plenty more that can be done, but these should put you well on your way to writing a killer PhD thesis. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is! No matter where you happen to be currently in your journey though, we wish you all the best. Take it easy, doc.