In this post, historian Dr Andrew Foster provides research students with a general guide about the main elements of writing up a PhD thesis. The advice Dr Foster gives is based on years of discussions with research students in seminars and workshops about the constructive key points for students to consider when writing up the thesis, in consultation with other subject-specific handbooks and the advice of tutors.
Format: Given that there is no such thing as a ‘natural’, ‘correct’ or ‘best’ format for a given thesis, have you explained fully why you have adopted your chosen structure, and why it works for you in spite of pitfalls to which you might draw attention? Have you expressed clearly the rationale for your thesis, the emergence of your key questions, hypotheses, research methods and sources?
Title: Is the title you have finally adopted (assuming you have reviewed it regularly), really the one under which you wish to be examined, and have your key questions altered slightly over time? Is that title clear about your focus and any qualifications regarding people, place, time, key questions and concepts?
Structure: Do your chapters proceed ‘logically’ and pan out fairly evenly in length (bearing in mind the attention span of readers), while providing helpful subheadings/clear sections, etc? Does your thesis proceed smoothly and clearly?
Writing styles: Have you established your own clear voice in the thesis? Have you adopted slightly different writing styles in accordance with different sections of the thesis, most notably the introduction, the conclusion and the abstract, and possibly any literature review? Have you tried to maintain a positive, active and exploratory tone in your writing, and avoided a passive, negative approach with difficult passages? Have you maintained a reasonable balance between description and analysis/reflective commentary in your writing? Have you watched out for consistent use of tenses and grammar?
Footnotes/endnotes: Are your footnotes/endnotes accurate, sufficient in number and helpful? Will they they enhance confidence in the thesis? Have you considered a good range of uses for such notes (a) for precise references to material, (b) for cross references to material elsewhere in your thesis, (c) for acknowledgement of advice of friends and colleagues, (d) for definitions or extra material that would clutter the main argument, but are useful for the reader to know? One tip here: if a footnote extends beyond a few sentences, consider carefully if it really needs to be in the main text. Finally: be consistent!
Supporting apparatus: Do you make good use of tables, maps, diagrams and illustrations and are they appropriately captioned? Are you clear about where these are positioned – in the main text or in appendices?
Appendices: Appendices call for careful decisions concerning what to place in chapters and what to put at the end of the thesis: one simple rule is if material relates just to one chapter then place tables, etc., there; if to the whole thesis, that material deserves an appendix. Words of warning: material placed in an appendix should always be discussed in the thesis: an appendix is not a ‘dumping ground’ for material you cannot think how to use. As another rule of thumb: keep appendices to a minimum.Think carefully about what kind of material you wish to place in appendices and about how you caption and footnote them.
Bibliography: Has the bibliography been laid out in a sensible and appropriate fashion with regard to the specialist thesis involved? Does it conform to institutional/faculty/departmental requirements? Does the bibliography enhance confidence in the overall thesis and has it been drawn on fully in any ‘literature review’?
Abbreviations and glossaries: Is there a table of abbreviations and perhaps a glossary of terms – and do they work?
Acknowledgements: Have you duly acknowledged help given by others and permissions granted to use material from libraries, archives, interviews, etc.?
Abstract: Have you provided an appropriate short abstract of the thesis (check subject requirements re. purpose and length) and does that perform the task of describing the contents, approach and significance of the thesis, such that readers will see its relevance for them and want to refer to your work? You should consider this as a different form of writing from the rest, in which you need to ‘blow your own trumpet’ about what you hope you have achieved.
Ethical considerations: Have you observed ethical guidelines relating to your field, obtained necessary permissions in consulting material or interviewing subjects, and fulfilled agreements concerning how you are using, quoting and possibly protecting anonymity of sources? If interview material is incorporated in an appendix, has it been suitably transcribed and fashioned in accordance with ethical guidelines? Have you observed any relevant ‘data protection’ protocols pertaining to your field?
Statistics: If statistics have been involved, have they been fully explained and their use justified? Have any experiments and laboratory procedures been adequately described, explained, justified and fully employed in the analysis? Have these paid full regard to any necessary ethical procedures?
Some final thoughts: Writing a thesis involves taking many decisions along the way: have you fully explained all of yours? It is a truism that you will rewrite your introduction and your conclusion more times than any other chapter. Do check one more time at the end that these two match, that the introduction sets the thesis up well, while the conclusion does offer reflections on a range of issues raised in the thesis, rather than lamely re-capping chapter conclusions. Consider how well your conclusion offers ways forward, captures the significance of what you have achieved, and places your work in context – by reference to key literature in your field – and philosophically. Ensure that you come across as a ‘reflective practitioner’ in your field.