How to write Thesis Background Tutorial 2019
This tutorial explains how to write a thesis and thesis background with the best examples. And also explains 20+ research hypotheses and Literature Review techniques used to write a thesis.
Depending on the nature of your thesis, the background sections or chapters can take any of several different forms. However, their functions are always the same.
To provide the context for your own work and to be the starting point for an examiner to think about your position in relation to the work, that is, to be the ‘you’ that you were at the start of the research project.
The four most common elements in the background chapters are:
Establishment of a context to locate a study in time, location, or culture.
Identification of current theory, discoveries, and debates, including an evaluation of those most useful and salient to your topic, as well as a nomination of gaps in the literature.
Understanding of current practices and technologies in your field that highlight, and perhaps synthesize, a selection of the appropriate methods to gather data for your study.
Preliminary investigations are done by you or others to help clarify research techniques, formulate hypotheses, or focus areas of investigation for the major research program to follow.
Before Starting Thesis Background we Discuss some tips of Thesis Writing:
Write early, and write often. Keep your research in parallel with your writing so they grow in parallel. Begin to develop your thesis as part of the process of initiating your research. Create a table of contents as early as possible.
If you do delay writing until after you have done your own work—although this is not the safest way to produce a strong thesis!—make sure that you are writing to the structure advocated above.
Start with confidence. Write your introductory chapter first, then put it aside while you work on other parts of your study. Come back from time to time to revise your aim and scope so that they align with the changes you make as you go along.
Let your writing drive your development of a literature review. Make sure that it is structured and critical. Use a rich mix of strategies for exploring the literature, including online academic tools, traditional libraries, and non-academic resources such as Wikipedia.
In the early stages, your research questions may develop or change. This is a good thing.
Some chapters are harder to write than others. A concrete chapter on your analysis, say, may be easy to produce and give you a sense of accomplishment; completing the background chapter will mean that the most difficult part of the thesis writing is behind you.
Within individual chapters:
Start with an introduction that tells the reader why this chapter is included in the thesis, what you intend to achieve in it, and how you intend to do this.
Develop the chapter in an appropriate and logical way to achieve the aim stated in the introduction. Avoid applying the same rigid template to every writing problem.
Write a formal conclusion or summary section. Make sure that conclusions include a statement of the implications of the findings. Check that you have argued for the conclusions or findings in the body of the chapter. Check that these conclusions respond to the aim stated in the introduction to the chapter.
Remember that it is your writing that will be examined. Other tasks may not be productive unless they lead to material for your thesis. Be aware of the tension between creating and critical thinking, and consciously exploit it to help you develop a strong thesis.
There are many excuses for not writing. Most are a form of procrastination. Make plans, and stick to them. Audit yourself and seek to understand and resolve reasons for lack of progress.
When you find an effective writing habit, use it. Make good use of your supervisor; think of her or him as a resource as well as a mentor.
Developing Critical Thinking
One approach to thesis writing requires students to review the literature and produce a chapter entitled Literature Review’, thorough and polished before they are permitted to proceed with their own work.
The idea is that, informed by a literature review, they would be able to see just where previous researchers had drawn un-warranted conclusions or had disagreed with each other, and would then be able to design brilliant experiments to resolve these problems.
You certainly should read the literature before you leap into a full-scale research program, and should also attempt to write down your understanding of it. This is a good way to learn how to follow the important arguments through and to understand the agreements and disagreements.
But until you have done some work of your own—perhaps collected and analyzed some data, for example—it is not possible to be ‘critical’ in the sense implied by ‘a critical review of the literature’.
It follows that you will not yet be able to design those brilliant experiments that have so far eluded the other researchers in your area. You may be able to design a research program, but almost certainly it will be tentative.
With luck, the results of this preliminary program may help you to design a better set of surveys or experiments next time (by which time you will have thought about it a bit more, and will have gone back and re-read the literature).
It also follows that your reviewing of the literature is an ongoing process. You should still be reading it when you are setting out results, discussing your findings, and writing conclusions.
How do you convert your initial ‘literature survey’ into a critical review of existing theory that will lead logically into the work that you design and undertake yourself?
A review of current theory serves three purposes: it gives the background information required to contextualize the extent and significance of your research problem.
It identifies and discusses attempts by others to solve similar problems, and it provides examples of methods they have employed in attempts to get these solutions. Make sure you deal with all of these.
The first purpose is the most straightforward. Its sole purpose is to establish the parameters of your argument. Guide yourself through this section of the research by asking the four standard journalist’s questions: Who? What? Where? And when? Keep this section short, and do not get caught up in unnecessary detail.
Simply put, it provides a map of the territory you are seeking to cover. It signals to your readers that you intend to follow the scope of your investigation and are confident enough to guide them through the complexities of the topic.
First attempts to review existing theory often stop after an initial draft. But when you have put your problem in the context of ongoing research in the area you have hardly started! Identifying and discussing possible solutions to your problem is the second purpose of your review. This is where you need those critical skills.
It is likely (and expected) that you will have read much more widely in the topic area than you need for your review. Your initial journey through the literature will have helped you to gain a better understanding of the many complex facets of your central problem.
But you do not need not to write about all of them in full. Keep in mind the aim and scope of your thesis: How does what you are reading relate to achieving these?
As you read, write the act of writing forces you to come to grips with conflicting ideas and focus your attention on the most important arguments. Eventually, you will gain a sense of what parts of the previous research are leading you towards possible ways of dealing with your problem.
As you develop a stronger sense of the field, strive to filter the good from the bad. What you are doing at this point is creating an internal set of criteria on which to accept or reject arguments and, through this process; you are developing the skills of critical thinking.
By now you will probably have written many fragments and mini-reviews, and it is time to write a serious first draft of your ‘critical review of existing theory’. Before you triumphantly hand this to your supervisor for criticism, it’s a good idea to put it aside for a week or so and work on something else.
Then come back to it and try to rework it into a second draft in which you attempt to articulate the criteria you have been developing, and demonstrate to readers just how sharp your criticisms are. Share your work with colleagues and read their work too.
That is, you should read, and think, as an examiner. With experience, researchers accumulate a toolbox of questions that they use to evaluate the work of others, and of observations of common ways in which other work is flawed. Consciously building this toolbox can help us become better at critical thinking.
Effective critical thinking depends on effective reading.
For me, reading a piece of research literature seems to fall into phases. The first phase, counter-intuitively, is fairly uncritical. I try to get a sense of what the researchers were trying to do and whether the problem is genuinely interesting and then to understand how they undertook the work.
Once I have a broad grasp of what a paper is about, I begin to look at issues such as whether the results really support the conclusions and whether the experiments look robust.
A big question is whether the work is significant; some papers are genuinely remarkable, but most are an incremental contribution and need to be analyzed from that perspective.
In considering whether the work is dependable, it also helps to consider the reputation of the authors, which may seem unfair—anyone can do great work—but a senior researcher is unlikely to knowingly put their name to flaky or insignificant work, while a more junior researcher may be desperate for any kind of publication.
Some papers are plain wrong or misguided. The fact that they are published means that someone believed in them, and it is certainly the case that high-impact journals are more trustworthy than fringe publications.
But you should always be skeptical. It is up to the author to convince you that the work is correct. At the same time, a paper can have strong results even if you don’t understand it.
What he should have been doing was something between these two extremes.
How can you determine what to omit, and what to include, as you establish context? I suggest three rules:
1. Don’t include material that the reader does not need in order to understand what will follow. Although we need some chemistry to understand the effects of bicarbonate soda in baking, there is a lot that is not relevant to the problem.
2. Don’t include anything in your main text if it is going to interrupt the development of the flow of logic in your argument. There may be some things that have to be included in the thesis, but that should be in appendices rather than the main text.
3. Include anything that is genuinely clarifying.
The 95 % Syndrome
As students get further and deeper into their projects, they often fail to realize how expert they have become in their area. They have absorbed the key ideas that dominate their particular field and have come to take them for granted.
When they start writing about their own research, which is about the extension and modification of these ideas, they assume that the reader will be just as familiar with the basic ideas as they are, and they don’t bother to explain them properly. They assume the 95 percent and concentrate on the 5 percent.
Understanding Current Theory, Discoveries, and Debates
Examiners will be sensitive to instances in which major contributions are neglected, or their significance downplayed. Summarize their contributions completely and honestly. But remember also to point out how these other studies may have advanced the discipline.
For example, one student of mine, Raymond, had a tendency to write about all previous papers as in one of two classes: a few papers were insightful, ground-breaking, and of critical importance; the rest were, in his view, more or less misguided, confused, foolish, or wrong.
He often failed to see how they made useful contributions (perhaps in a context that was now outdated, which however does not mean that the work was invalid), possibly because of a lack of appreciation of the fact that much research is incremental.
At times he almost seemed to want to be a giant-killer who was bringing down the inflated reputations of esteemed researchers. The net effect was that his criticisms could seem inconsiderate and harsh, that is, they lacked balance.
Throughout this second section of your review, keep in mind that you are engaging in a conversation with other academics. Engagement is the key concept: it is a spirit of ‘give and take’ that respects the value of multiple perspectives.
It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that the function of this section is mere to ‘report’ or ‘describe’ previous studies in an effort to show that you have ‘done your homework’.
Rather, you should interweave various studies to build up the argument that the problem you are tackling is not yet solved and still raises some interesting and unanswered questions.
Eventually, you will come to an understanding of the most recent thinking in the field. At that point, briefly summarize the main points that are still troublesome. You have identified the ‘gaps’ in the theoretical framework and areas that have remained relatively unexplored by previous researchers.
This summary should be setting the ground for the questions or hypotheses that you will be identifying in your chapter on design of your own research. In a sense, these are the gaps that you are trying to fill with your own original contribution.
Where should an account of this preliminary work appear in your thesis? If you have used it to help you to formulate hypotheses that you have called on when designing your principal research program, you could report the preliminary work as one of the background chapters.
If it appears to form a major element of the principal work itself, you should set it aside for reporting later as part of the ‘Design’ and ‘Results’ chapters.
If you report preliminary investigations in a background chapter, it will have to contain sections on the hypothesis used, the design of the work, the results, and the conclusions drawn from them.
In either case, be sure that you make clear the need for its inclusion—you don’t want to appear as if you are trying to pad out your work by including irrelevant material.
When students present me with a proposed work program and I ask what it is based on, they sometimes reply that it is obvious, or that it just came to them. These responses may be true from where they stand, but will not convince examiners.
They have to be argued out. What apparently happens is that our unconscious mind works on various fragments of ideas from different sources that come to us from our reading and our senses, and makes connections that our rational mind will not. These connections emerge not as new rational thoughts but rather as proposals for action.
We then implement these proposals in the form of research designs without actually making the underlying logic of them explicit as research questions or hypotheses.
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To provide all the background material needed for your own research:
Historical, geographical, and other descriptions of your study area.
Definitions and usages of words and expressions as appropriate to your thesis.
Existing theory and practice for your research topic.
In some cases, preliminary reviews, surveys, correlations, and experiments following what other workers have done.
The conclusions to these chapters should lead clearly to the research hypotheses or research questions that you pursue in your work
Writing your background material:
Write first drafts in the first year of your project. Use the style, referencing, and so on that you intend to use in the final thesis
Many researchers, particularly in the experimental sciences, put this writing off until they have finished their research. Don’t delay. Writing early drafts helps to sharpen up your research design.
These first drafts will probably not be well structured, as you are not yet on top of your topic. Be prepared to restructure them later, after you have done most of your own work. This double handling is not a waste of time, as it will make a fruitful contribution to your own research.
As you revise, make sure that the background does lead to your research questions or hypotheses.
What you should include:
All necessary definitions and ways that you use words or ideas in your own work. Don’t assume that the examiner will know this. This is particularly important in cross-disciplinary research.
All the necessary geography, context, and history.
All the arguments that are in the literature, and some tentative judgments on where you stand (but don’t enter the argument yet; wait until you have described your own work).
Everything necessary to justify the conclusions or summaries to the chapters, which in turn have to lead to your research hypotheses or questions.
What you should not include:
Descriptive material that will never be used later in the thesis. Your first draft may contain a lot of this. Be ruthless: take it out!
Your own contribution to thinking about the theory. By the time you come to revise these chapters, you should be in a position to make such contributions. Resist the temptation, and save these contributions for your discussion chapter.
Any foreshadowing of what you will be doing in your own research. You can’t do this until you have designed your own research, which can’t be done until you have finished all these chapters. Don’t get ahead of yourself.
How to write Quantitative or Qualitative Data?
A common categorization of research is that it is either quantitative or qualitative, or perhaps more accurately, whether it is closer to one or another of these extremes.
The experiences of two students I worked with are good examples of the challenges in quantitative work. One, Jorge, had had the luxury of being able to test his idea (a way of reducing the time required to compute some kinds of simulations) over a great many data sets.
He had small sets he had used for preliminary measurements and much larger sets for the final evaluation. However, the data was not always consistent, and statistical evaluation of the data and visualization to confirm his understanding of the statistics, had played a part in forming conclusions.
As a consequence Jorge had some hundreds or more of graphs and tables to draw on, reflecting tens of thousands of automated experiments (and he could easily have run many times that number), and now he needed to use this material to construct a narrative. Despite the strong quantitative basis, however, the data fell into cases that needed qualitative analysis.
Two key concepts in every aspect of managing data and presenting results, which I have touched on a couple of times in, are variables (or parameters) and category. These concepts reflect our understanding of the data. We want to understand what kind of data we have—what sort of ‘meal episode’, for example.
Assigning instances to categories lets us discuss and analyze data in a consolidated way. Variables determine the behavior of the data, and we have understood what is going on when we can accurately predict how variables and data values interact. These concepts underpin how we proceed with data analysis.
And it is not only the reader who is learning. Your presentation of results is part of your process of interpreting them—writing the results chapter is part of a cycle of understanding, not an endpoint. Your aim is to educate others, but self-learning is likely to be part of the process, even at this late stage of thesis writing.
But don’t go to the opposite extreme. In one thesis I examined the candidate had discovered the power of a chart-drawing facility. His results chapter contained over a hundred charts plotted by trawling through all of his data sets and plotting every variable against every other possible variable in an effort to analyze the data.
His readers were given so much information, at such a low level, that they were totally overwhelmed, and learned nothing about the system being investigated. The candidate should have confined himself to plotting charts that tested his hypotheses or that demonstrated something significant.
I am always astonished by the students who labor for days or longer over a fragment of text but are comfortable with a jumbled, clumsy picture that doesn’t really illustrate anything.
Unfamiliarity with tools is certainly part of this problem, as is the ‘but I am not an artist’ excuse. Perhaps they say to themselves that artwork is out of their expertise, and use this as a reason to quickly sketch something without even seeking advice.
The elementary tools for drawing figures and graphs with which most students are familiar, when used in an elementary way, are designed to be used by people whose use of computers is, well, elementary. They are used by children even before they can read and write.
That is not to say that these tools can’t be used better—but their default settings are certainly not intended for pictures that are to be included in research publications. The vast majority of them are online at a permanent URL; your bad artwork can survive for a long time.
How to write Outcomes and Results?
Data comes from sources and experiments. Only include data that is derived from a process that you have described, that is, the reader must understand where your data comes from. Describe the data fully.
Have clear criteria for inclusion and exclusion of data and results. These should be independent of what the data shows, that is, it is not acceptable to only include data that confirms your hypotheses!
Make sure you have used the right kind of analysis mechanism for your data. For example, tools or approaches for large data sets may be unsuitable for sparse or irregular data.
Build a clear argument from data to knowledge. As you build this argument, be aware that interpretation of the results may lead you back to the data collection process.
Do not include raw, undigested data in the body of your thesis. Put it in an appendix, or better, back in your filing cabinet.
Display your results in an informative, appropriate way, either through charts, tables, diagrams, or carefully constructed arguments.
In doing so, make sure that the presentation makes it possible for the reader to see whether your hypotheses have been tested or your questions answered.
Be open about shortcomings or limitations of your data or results.
Figures should be reasonably self-contained.
Use examples from elsewhere to guide your design of illustrations. Don’t be content with word-processor defaults, which often look unprofessional, and use the right tool for the task.
There are excellent web pages with examples of illustrations—though choosing the right query to find them can be a challenge; ‘data visualization’ worked well for me for graphs, for example.
Wikipedia lists graphics software packages. Some of the best packages require that you write scripts in simple programming languages.
Tips for Discussion or Interpretation
This is probably the part of your thesis where it is most important that you show your ability as a critical thinker. Examiners are particularly impressed by candidates who are alert to shortcomings and limitations in their own work; indeed, why respect someone who shows no critical insight and seems to think that their accomplishments are without flaw?
Step back, ask the questions of your work that you would ask of the work of other people, and use the answers to make your discussion penetrating and insightful.
Structuring the Discussion
How can you design a structure for the discussion that will enable you to get logically to your conclusions when you don’t know what they are? Indeed, if you had no idea what the conclusions were, it would not be possible. The key to writing the discussion is for you to bring these unconscious conclusions to the conscious realm, and commit them to screen or paper.
Your rational brain can then sort them out and do its best to make sense of them. You can then use them to design the structure of the chapter on the assumption that they are the conclusions. This is how to do it:
Begin by brainstorming.
Write down all the things that you know now that you didn’t know when you started the research; a single sentence for each item. These can be big ideas, little ideas, snippets of knowledge, insights, answers to questions, whatever. Don’t worry about whether you are responding to the aim you set yourself in your introductory chapter.
That would be a rational approach, whereas you are engaged in a process of dredging up unconscious conclusions. Consider asking your supervisor or a colleague who is familiar with your work to sit down with you while you are listing these conclusions.
The presence of another person, chipping in and asking questions, may help you to uncover your hidden thoughts. You should end up with a totally undifferentiated list of maybe 20 or 30 ‘conclusions’.
Give a heading to each group.
These headings will form the section headings in your discussion chapter. The function of each section is to argue for the conclusions that you will be drawing later. Examine these headings to see which order they should go in.
Each section will contain several points, as identified by the separate conclusions that you have already listed for that section. These could form sub-headings within the section.
Sort these sub-headings into a logical order, reject ones that are obviously irrelevant, add others that you now see you missed by your earlier haphazard identification process, and coalesce points under one heading if this makes sense (you should not have more than three sub-headings within a section).
You will now have a tentative structure for the discussion chapter and may give your creative brain permission to write the text, using this structure as a framework. When you start to write, you will not be stepping out into the void.
This balancing of the rational and creative parts of our brains by writing creatively to a rational structure will work only if you treat it in this way. There will be an ongoing tug-of-war. Often your creative mind will take you away from the rational structure. When this happens, don’t assume that the creative mind is always right.
Similarly, don’t assume that the rational mind is always right. But you cannot leave it unresolved: you must bring either the structure or the wayward text into line.
This problem will be particularly acute in this chapter because the rational structure you are using is tentative, is itself based on conclusions garnered from the creative mind.
Remembering Your Aim and Scope
A function of the discussion section is to respond to the aim you set in the introductory chapter. Before they start a detailed reading of your thesis, most examiners will flip from your introduction to your conclusions to see how your concluding ideas line up with your original ones.
They have been asked to do this in the suggested criteria for examination: Are the conclusions and implications appropriately developed and clearly linked to the nature and content of the research framework and findings?
Writing with Authority
By now you have earned the right to comment on the field, and you can (and must) do so with authority. How can you demonstrate this authority? In this chapter, you need to address three areas with a critical eye: current theory, current practice and the conduct of your own study.
First, you should make sure that you place your thesis within the context of the field you are working in. In addition to making links from the research framework to your own study, you now have to suggest ways to expand that theoretical point of view.
To start, I suggest that you question or illuminate the accepted definition of potentially controversial key concepts and phrases.
The expansion, or possible contraction, of existing categorizations of key factors in your field, is another area you should consider. For example, the results of a project on the way refugees access welfare services in Australia might suggest that we need to go beyond financial and medical problems to include family problems.
Or the results of a study aimed at developing plans for recycling might indicate that city planner should consider personal and social identity, which would call for an examination of how this might be incorporated. One of your major contributions to the field will be the development and discussion of such factors.
Because you have earlier developed an awareness of the limitations of current practices both through your review of earlier studies and your own application of them, you are now in the position to suggest ways to improve them.
What would you have done differently, and why? Here you can act as a guide for further researchers. Tell the readers what worked well, and what did not.
In many theses, you will find a section entitled ‘Limitations of the Study’. Whether you put this in a separate section or discuss it where appropriate as you go along, you must deal with it.
This section need not be set in an apologetic tone; rather, it should acknowledge areas that you yourself thought were weak and deal with them in a straightforward way. It is where you show your ability as a critical thinker.
Discussion or Interpretation
The task of the discussion chapter is to enable you to reach your conclusions. Drawing up a tentative list of conclusions will help you identify an appropriate structure.
Begin by writing down all the things you know now that you didn’t know when you started the project. Rearranging this list will give you the titles of the main sections of your discussion.
Make sure that your exposition of new theory or ideas places your thesis within the context of the field you are working in. This will require that you not only draw on your own results but that you view these against existing thinking as expounded in your background chapters.
Acknowledge any limitations on your findings. Theoretical results may need validation before their suitability in practice is known, for example. Shortcomings or uncertainties should also be acknowledged.
If the thesis involves a case study, check that you have dealt with the problem of generalizability, or issues of transference, for your findings to similar situations.
In one particularly trying instance, I spent several long evenings marking up one of her chapters in a great deal of detail, in the hope of explaining to her how to reduce her rambling but informative text to something more punchy and concise.
The feedback was in terms of grammar, word choices, organization, the flow of ideas, and comments on missing or unnecessary text, which we reviewed together in a meeting.
But her ego had been hurt, and after our meeting, her response was to throw away the draft, including all my comments, and start again! I hadn’t made a photocopy (another lesson learned) and between us, a great deal of work was lost.
The new version was not much better than the original, and, though it was hard to be sure, I felt that some of the insights were forgotten. I later found out that she had decided that my extensive comments—there was a lot of ink on her draft—were a way of telling her that the manuscript was rubbish.
In other words, she overreacted. On a smaller scale, I suspect that some degree of overreaction to supervisor feedback is common.
The Main Text
Dotting the ‘i’s and Crossing the ‘t’s
Although the second draft is now essentially complete, you still have some weeks of detailed, rather tedious work to do. Don’t skip it—tedious or not, it is essential. The items that you need to check are listed below in the form of a check-list.
You may even want to photocopy this checklist and tick the boxes when you have completed each task. If you have used your word-processing software to its fullest many of the jobs will already have been done.
Your thesis may include text that you already regard as ‘finished’, in particular, material drawn from papers that were written during your candidature.
Some students seem to think that such text doesn’t need checking, but you would be surprised how much change can be required due to the need to integrate the paper into a complex thesis. Make sure that all text is checked to the same level of detail.
You will have to satisfy yourself that the format you have used helps readers to find their way through the thesis and, in particular, that it is consistent. Most books on writing theses give a chapter or more to this, with strict rules about the numbers of spaces before headings.
The method for emphasis of major headings, the use of numbering systems, the spaces between paragraphs, and so on. Most such properties are managed by effective use of templates in a word processor, as discussed earlier.
Figures and Tables
Check all the figures and tables. All will have a caption that should consist of several parts: a title (which will appear in the lists in the preliminary pages); explanatory material that draws attention to or explains certain features of the figure or table; and a citation giving the source of the material.
You may lump all the figures, including graphs, diagrams, plates, photographs, and maps together in one list and the tables in another, although in the past it has been customary to make a separate list of photographic plates (a practice that predates the use of high-quality, computer-generated copies of photographs).
Notes and References
You may have ended up with a rather mixed bag of appendices after completing your first draft. Some of them will have been written for very good and valid reasons to support material in the text. Others may be leftovers from earlier thinking, and because you were rather attached to them you were loath to throw them out.
Check your appendices against these rules, and throw out any that are no longer justifiable.
Check the presentation of each appendix that you decide to keep, as follows: (a) Does it start on a new page? (b) Does it have a title that indicates what it is all about? (Just calling it ‘Appendix 3’ is not good enough). (c) Is the style used for the title the same as that used for chapter headings?
Is there a preamble that explains briefly what its function is and what it is all about?
Does the preamble refer to the part of the main text? If it doesn’t, find the part of the text that it supports and make reference to it. If you can’t find it, or if the connection is very weak, throw out the appendix altogether.
If you have a glossary, it is customarily placed at the end, after all the appendices. In other theses, it is placed near the lists of tables and figures, which may be part of the table of contents.
And don’t forget: Your thesis needs to consist of your work, not other people’s. If you have text that is drawn from papers that are co-authored with others, make sure that they understand that it is being used in your thesis. Only include figures and tables if you have permission to do so;
if you are not the author of a figure, you must ask the authors and publisher if you can use it. If you have access to a tool for checking for plagiarism, consider using it.
If you are including material from papers you have written, it should be material you were responsible for; if one of your co-authors wrote a section without significant input from you, then it should not become part of your thesis.
Before You Submit
When your supervisor has ‘signed off’ on every chapter of your thesis you have only finished the first draft of your thesis. You still have two major tasks ahead of you: checking the structure and checking the detail.
From the first draft to the second draft:
Check the structure of the thesis as a whole.
Read it through in detail yourself. Check the logic flow. Look for gaps in the logic, repetitions, things in the wrong order. Fix these up to the best of your ability.
Then (and only then) ask your supervisor to do the same. If possible, find a friend whose opinions you can rely on but who is unfamiliar with your topic to do the same. Fix up the problems they identify.
Checking the details:
You now must check to ensure that you have done everything properly. A check-list is given in this chapter; you can find other such checklists online. Depending on how systematic you have been earlier, this task may take several weeks. Allow time for it in your thesis completion schedule.
Be professional. Do not use material that is not your own without proper citation, and be aware of ethical concerns that lie at the core of academic research.
By submission time, you may well be planning further steps in all of these areas, and perhaps even contemplating writing a book or obtaining your own funding.
On the other hand, you may be looking forward to working with an employer whose agenda does not include scholarly work, and your Ph.D. candidature might be your one chance to get your research published. In both cases, then, you need to be planning to publish as you study.
In some universities, activities such as teaching and so on are explicitly structured into the research program. In others, the formal part of the program consists only of research and the other development activities are something the student needs to independently explore. Either way, these are critical skills that you should acquire before you can embark on a career as an academic.
Rather less positively, being a research student is sometimes said to involve ‘surviving your thesis’, and thus another group of important skills is learning to anticipate and manage stress, and developing the ability to work to long-term deadlines in a sometimes chaotic and high-pressure environment.
Disseminating Your Research
The goal of the research is to create or modify knowledge. But whose knowledge? It isn’t productive to do research and then keep the outcomes to yourself; part of the aim is to make others aware of what you have found.
The purpose of research can be viewed as being intended to have an impact, that is, to change the minds of others. Successful research influences people to behave differently and undertake new activities.
But, you might respond, there are many ways of having influence. In the political sphere, much of what is said is intended to persuade people to have one view or another; the same is true of advertising;
And the same is true of all sorts of attention-seeking activities, from fraudsters to alarmists. What makes academic research different is the systems of checks and balances.
For example, it is widely regarded as unethical to use the media to publicize research outcomes before the work has been referred, and there is an expectation that published results are the outcome of objective analysis that is consistent with the best practice of the rest of the academic community.
The influence of work is due to the strength of the rational argument that supports it. These kinds of constraints determine how work is disseminated: not in newspapers, or blogs, or mailing lists, but primarily through standard academic forums.
An underlying question is: Why disseminate? There are several good answers to this question.
To get knowledge of your work into your academic community, as discussed above. I said it earlier, but it is worth saying again: this is why we take the time, not just to write about our research.
But to write well. People won’t trouble to understand your ideas if they have to struggle with your writing, while clear, lively writing creates the impression that what you say is worth understanding.
To fulfill the obligation of a publicly funded researcher to make their work widely available.
To create an academic track record of publications and presentations. Without a track record, it is impossible to pursue an academic career.
To get feedback on your work as it develops.
Kinds of Dissemination
Researchers use four main mechanisms to tell their colleagues about their work: journal publications, conference presentations, talks in forums such as workshops, and academic seminars. The different forms of publication are one aspect of academia that really does vary drastically from the field to field.
In some disciplines, only journal articles are regarded as substantial publications, and conference presentations are little more than an opportunity to talk about current work.
In other disciplines, conference papers are seen as at least as important as journal papers and are much more timely. In some conferences, there are fully published, indexed proceedings, and most of the authors get a chance to give a 15 or 30-min talk on their work.
In other such conferences, most of the authors present their work as a ‘poster’, literally by standing in front of a large poster they have designed that summarizes what they have done and explained it to whoever stops to listen.
In such conferences, only a select few are given a speaking opportunity. Historically, in some disciplines published papers could not be included in a thesis; happily, I believe this rule is now more or less extinct, although some supervisors would argue that it was a good thing.
Academic seminars, though less formal than journals or conferences, are a vital component of academic communication. Most Ph.D. students are encouraged or re-quirked to give seminars in their departments during their studies. I think it is even more important to take the opportunity to give seminars elsewhere, in other universities in your city or places you visit when traveling.
I cannot count how often I’ve heard that a student’s work was influenced by comments they got from a group of academics they met while visiting another university.
If you make regular preventions, you are likely to sharpen your critical thinking; and the scrutiny your work has undergone in a presentation, both from yourself and from your audience, will bear fruit in your writing. Of course, you need to present to a professional standard, and with confidence.
Some people write books, but this is more typically an activity of an experienced researcher. There is a view in many disciplines that a book should be primarily the product of a mature, balanced reflection, not just an opportunity to advance a single point of view.
Some Ph.D. students do publish their thesis as a monograph, though, and if you have such an opportunity you should certainly consider taking advantage of it.
The issue, then, is to choose what to disseminate, and when. If you leave all thoughts of publication until after you graduate, the chances are that you will not publish at all.
The way to overcome this is to develop a plan for disseminating material from your project early in your study—perhaps as soon as the topic of your work is clear.
The way to think about this plan is as a series of graded challenges, where the aim of each challenge is to capture some key element of the work in the form of a paper or presentation. In my Ph.D., the list of challenges I made up as I wrote my thesis had these components:
Primary research problem.
Advanced hypothesis and background.
Outcomes of the central study.
Further directions based on the central study.
Spin-offs for other areas.
Notice that you could write the material in the first point almost at the beginning of a Ph.D., and material in the second and third points long before the thesis is finished. Writing this material early will help to shape your thinking.
In your dissemination plan, the first challenge is probably a seminar presentation or short paper that could be written within the first 9 to 12 months of your candidacy. Most departments will require you to hold your first research seminar within this period.
Some students develop a couple of variations of a standard presentation about their work—one version for other people in their discipline, another for a more general academic audience. Then, if they get invited to present at short notice, they have something ready. I think the discipline of maintaining such a seminar is a good one that every student should consider.
After your first publication, consider writing another paper every 6 months or so, and integrate the feedback from responses to these papers into your thinking about your project. As you read this you may be thinking, ‘but I have a project to do and very limited time to do it in. I don’t have time to waste on writing papers’.
Not so: I guarantee that every hour spent on writing papers will make your thesis easier to write, and the act of trying to get a perspective on your own work instead of being continually immersed in it will greatly improve the quality of your thesis.
In the papers that are written early in your Ph.D., you should focus on only one problem (or theme) at a time, and avoid taking on the ‘big picture’; leave that for the last paper you write on your thesis topic. In general, you should prepare such papers with your supervisor as co-author, so discuss your ideas for a paper with her or him, and develop a plan.
This will probably consist of developing a list of section headings together, with you writing a draft to the agreed structure. Your supervisor should then criticize the draft as any co-author would, but in addition, you can expect to get some guidance about paper writing.
In a paper, you are reporting the same material as in a part of your thesis, perhaps part or all of one of your chapters, but to a broader and quite different readership.
In the thesis, you are addressing the examiners, and your task is to convince them that you know what you are talking about. In the paper, you are addressing a far wider range of people.
They are reading it because they are interested in your field, and they assume that you do know what you are talking about before they even start reading. Indeed, your paper would not have been published had the reviewers not been convinced of this.
You are limited to a few thousand words, and you will have to leave out a lot of material that you would include in a thesis.
The challenge then is to tell the story concisely. An introduction to a thesis chapter has the task of telling the reader how the chapter fits into the overall plan, whereas in the paper you are introducing the same material as being important in its own right.
So you will have to cover previous work done by others. In the thesis, you had written an extensive review of the literature in an earlier.
You will have to cover this material in the introduction to the paper, but in perhaps as little as 500 words rather than 10,000. The readers will have to be satisfied with bold statements about this earlier work and your interpretations of it, with deeper critical analysis reserved for a few key points.
You then have the challenge of presenting the work, again in a more concise form, and it may be that some lines or argument are only noted rather than explained in detail. The ultimate goal is to produce a piece of work that is reasonably self-contained, with enough narrative and evidence to persuade the reader of its value.
Some conferences publish unreformed papers, but the principles are much the same. If your work is to be made available to others, it should be cohesive and complete.
A challenge faced by research students is of writing papers in collaboration with other people, in particular, their supervisors. Writing joint papers is tricky because two or more people are making the decisions. If your joint work is to be really fruitful, you have to acknowledge these difficulties and deal with them.
Students need to appreciate that the bulk of the effort may be theirs, while the credit must be shared; supervisors need to acknowledge that, even in the cases where they are largely responsible for the aims and shape of the work, it is nonetheless a shared outcome.
Joint publication not only acknowledges the contribution made by your supervisor to the development of your research (and to your development as a research worker), but also commits him or her to a significant contribution to the paper.
Research ethics guidelines have clear protocols for reportage of joint work. These are no more than the commonly accepted rules that permit people to work cordially together, and it is arguably more important to recognize that each of the parties in a joint enterprise will bring to it strengths to address and weaknesses to overcome.
In short, a good professional relationship is far more important than a set of rules. Who is to write what? Who will keep the project moving? Whose name will go first? Who will make contact with the editor of the journal? My advice is to resolve these issues openly and early, so that there are no misunderstandings.
Seminar and Conference Presentations
Oral presentations involve several challenges: choosing what to say, the transformation of written work into a spoken form, competent delivery, and dealing with nerves. Your first seminar presentation may be the most difficult one.
You are certainly not on top of your project yet, or comfortable with your knowledge of the research area, but you have to convince your university that the project you are working on is suitable for a Ph.D. study and that you yourself ‘have a Ph.D. in you’. How will you proceed?
Don’t assume that you can take for granted that your audience will know what the project is all about. Start with your problem statement and aim. Then follow with the background, but a much-reduced version of it, because you want to concentrate on your own work. Sketch your ideas and methods, then give a progress report on the results of your own work.
In your final seminar before you present your thesis for examination, you should follow the same pattern, starting with the background and aim, but concentrating more on the findings and their implications.
In developing a presentation, there are several simple principles to keep in mind. One is that ‘talk is a conversation with educated friends’.
You are not giving a political speech or presenting a legal argument, or convincing people to buy something they don’t need or that doesn’t work, or trying to crush an opponent in a debate, or delivering stand-up comedy, or being a newsreader.
That is, there are dozens of kinds of public speaking, and you need to find the right model. In my view, thinking of the presentation as an informal, intelligent explanation is the right one.
When you practice your talk, for example, you should be able to model your choice of words on what you would say to your colleagues in the corridor, should they ask you for a quick explanation of what you are doing. There is no need to be excessively formal, or excessively showy.
The broad pattern of talk is much like that of a paper: introduction, background, approach, results, interpretation. But each of these must be approached in a quite different way to that in a paper. The introduction, for example, might begin with a dramatic statement that sets the context for the whole talk.
A colleague of mine recently began a talk by saying ‘the such-and-such institute just received $10 million in funding for a supercomputer to process this data; with these new methods, maybe one day it could be done on a thousand-dollar laptop’. A strong result allows an opening of this kind; so does a controversial problem.
Other topics will have their own strategy, but the fundamental point is that you can design a delivery strategy for a talk on just about anything.
Expect to be nervous. Most speakers are. A key point to remember is that people are at your talk, for the most part, because they expect it to be interesting—they are not there to criticize, or to be aggressive or unhelpful.
Likewise, the audience will have plenty of experience of novice speakers, and won’t have unrealistic expectations. The best cure for nerves is, one, to know your topic well and, two, to start speaking.
If you have brainstormed the talk well, and have good material to speak to—and, ahead of time, you should have ensured that you do have something sensible to say about every slide—then those nerves should quickly ebb away.
As mentioned above, you should never read your notes aloud or read from your slides. By all means, use notes to prompt yourself (though many people find them more of a distraction than a help), but direct reading rarely works, even if you have used a professional scriptwriter.
And, while I am on this topic when you are speaking never turn your back on the audience. Don’t hide from them; face them, and make them want to listen to you.
Being a Graduate Student
The primary reason to undertake a graduate degree, particularly a Ph.D., is to establish yourself as an effective researcher, but a broader outcome is that a Ph.D. prepares you for life as an academic.
To a lesser extent, this is also true of Masters Degrees and minor research theses: completion of a thesis hones your ability to make judgments and work independently and shows that you have skills that are essential to success as a researcher.
But being a researcher involves other skills too. Some of these are close to the core activity of undertaking research, such as refereeing of papers that other researchers have submitted to conferences or journals.
Effective refereeing (or re-viewing) is a genuine challenge. Ideally, a referee would be expert in every aspect of the paper being examined, but in practice, this is rarely the case, and often there is no such expert!
Thus the referee can be in the awkward position of having to make an informed judgment on a paper, while, in all likelihood, knowing less than the authors about some aspects of the research area.
This judgment needs to identify the flaws that might prevent publication while ensuring that genuine innovation is recognized rather than ignored due to trivial failings. Another intimidating aspect of refereeing is that it can involve making a decision about the quality of work of people who are considerably more experienced than you are.
However, writing of referee reports is excellent training for the task of writing your thesis’s literature review. You may get to see the reports written by the other referees, which is usually an interesting experience if only because of the extent to which referees notice different problems and form contrasting opinions.
If the article is revised and sent back to the referees for further review, you will have an opportunity to see how your criticisms are received and responded to—sometimes these responses will be reasonable, and sometimes they won’t.
Your lack of experience may make the task of reviewing more difficult, but it should not stop you taking on refereeing assignments. So long as you are honest about the extent to which you are knowledgeable.
For example, any diligent reader can make useful comments about readability or the completeness of a bibliography—the editor will appreciate your efforts.
Teaching is a key academic skill. Acquisition of teaching experience is not a key part of doing research, but learning to communicate is—and if you plan to continue in academia, it may be essential to have a track record of teaching.
Delivery of lectures or tutorials, development of teaching materials, and related activities such as one-on-one coaching, are all effective ways of getting feedback on your communication skills.
One thing that I have noticed is that teaching is a great way of building your confidence, not just in public speaking but in general interaction with other students and academics. If it makes sense to take on teaching assignments during your research then my suggestion is that you do so.
Another academic activity is mentoring. It may not at first be obvious that learning to mentor is an important part of being a research student, but I think it is a core skill. Why? One reason is that a large part of succeeding as a research student is your interaction with your supervisor—whose guidance is a form of mentoring.
A wonderful piece of advice I was given early in my Ph.D. was to learn to ask the questions my supervisor would ask, to anticipate what my supervisor would want, and to solve issues that my supervisor would be concerned about.
In other words, I was being advised to try and put myself in my supervisor’s role, and regard him as leading by example.
From this perspective, a research study is a form of apprenticeship, where skills are passed by practice and example from master to novice. By becoming an academic, you must also become a mentor.
Opportunities for mentoring vary from discipline to discipline and might include coaching of undergraduates, involvement in small research projects, or partnering with junior research students. Such mentoring can have many benefits, not least of which is that they can lead to lifelong working relationships.
As a supervisor, I notice that my students who are themselves mentors are better than other students at understanding what I require of them. That is, their experience of mentoring may be helping them to understand the student-supervisor relationship from both perspectives, and to build a more effective partnership with me.
Such students are good at knowing when to seek advice—and will happily seek it when appropriate to do so—and are also good at knowing when guidance should not be sought, that is, they should try to answer their questions for themselves.
It is not clever to batter away at a problem if a few minutes of someone’s time is all that is needed to point you in the right direction, but nor is it clever to ask for guidance on every little momentary issue that troubles you.
A mature student sets problems aside for later consideration, resolving some and sharpening others for future conversations with a mentor, rather than seeing every unknown as an obstacle for which guidance is required.
What are the skills of an effective researcher, and how are they acquired? The answer to this question lies in the background of the students who enter research degrees, which, quite simply, is highly variable.
People who decide to undertake research may have come straight from another degree (which might have been their first degree after secondary school), or may have been in the workforce for decades in one capacity or another.
Thus a new student might be expert in recent academic knowledge, but inexperienced in terms of independence and skills such as writing; or may be skilled in the practice of their discipline, but out of touch with the latest developments.
The research may be interdisciplinary in some way (for example, technological research projects with applications in medicine), and thus the student may be highly knowledgeable in aspects of the work but have no background in other aspects.
Some Ph.D. students have experience of research, which however may be limited to a few months of closely supervised work in a tightly defined project; others have broader experience but have never grappled with the difficulties of undertaking a project independently.
Thus, in the course of the research degree, not only must you undertake research, but consciously seek to identify where you are weak and design ways of becoming more competent.
You might, for example, take an undergraduate subject, set yourself a program of reading in an unfamiliar area or establish or join a study group.
At the start of your project, as well as developing research questions and getting familiar with the literature, you may consciously decide to learn basic skills, by for example working through elementary tasks in the lab, exploring a document archive, or establishing an effective online working environment.
The Arc of a Research Degree
A minor thesis may only require a single semester, and completing it is a sprint from start to finish. Three or four months is not a long time to find and read the key papers in an area, undertake a study, and produce a polished report on the work.
Most students find that they have to be highly focused from the first week, with a systematic working schedule that fills not just their days but to some extent their weekends and evenings. Such a working pattern can be stressful but is quickly over.
For longer research degrees, in particular, Masters and Ph.D.s, a sprint cannot be successful; few students have the energy or resources to work 70 or 80 h a week for a year or more. Such degrees truly are a marathon.
An effective pattern is as follows. In the beginning, expect to work at a steady pace—if you are studying full-time, this will be little different, in most cases, from the kind of pattern people have in an office job. Maintain some outside interests and a social life, but make sure they do leave enough time for your study.
The final phase, perhaps as long as 9 months in a Ph.D., is very different and requires total commitment and focus. As you create a complete thesis you need to be familiar with every detail of your work as presented in a sequence of chapters, and this requires the removal of distractions.
You may have to give up your outside interests and social life and make sure that your partner, or children, or parents, or whoever it is you live with, is aware of your needs and constraints.
This phase can be very stressful—I’ve known students who share an office to come to blows over trivialities such as a habit of tapping a pencil on a desk—which means that you need to learn to identify safety valves and when to make use of them.
Make sure that the good work you are doing in your project gets published.
The only way to ensure this is to have a dissemination plan. The plan should be geared to publishing while you are still working on your project.
Regularly give research seminars. Doing so gives you feedback on your project, and will also form the basis for conference papers and papers in learned journals.
Research papers have a different set of rules and conventions from theses. To publish papers, you need to address a different readership using these different conventions.
Papers written on the basis of work done as part of your project should, in general, be written jointly with your supervisor and possibly other colleagues too. You need to do this in a way that respects the input of both parties.
Spoken presentations are entirely different from written presentations of the same material. Never just read your written paper to the audience or even the same paper with bits left out.
Take the effort to develop your skills as a speaker; these skills will be essential to your professional life.
Being a graduate student:
Think and act like the professional researcher that you are striving to become, taking responsibilities for your work, seeking collegial advice when needed, and maintaining a sustainable regimen of work. Seek to rectify your weaknesses.
Consider taking on other academic commitments, such as teaching, reviewing, and mentoring.
Balance life and work commitments, paying particular attention to the demands of partners and another family.
Anticipate that ‘life’ will seemingly get in the way at times, and learn to cope.
Expect the write-up phase to be a committed, focused slog where you have eliminated distractions.
Online resources. There are many excellent websites on how to give spoken academic presentations, including material on topics such as:
Overall techniques for giving talks.
Learning to speak with confidence, and overcoming stage fright.
Effective data presentation.
Good style in slide design (regardless of whether your preferred tool is Power-Point, OpenOffice, Beamer, or whatever).