Chapter 4: Drafting and Completing the Thesis 

Although some universities and departments offer doctoral programs that no longer require the candidate to produce a lengthy written project based on original research, writing a thesis is for most doctoral students the culmination and peak of the work done to achieve a doctoral degree. A doctoral thesis should in every way indicate that you have achieved the intellectual and professional attainments and abilities required to be formally admitted into the scholarly community in your discipline and field. Your thesis therefore needs to reveal your understanding of scholarship in the area and how your own research fits into that scholarship; it needs to use sound methods and present a sustained argument to make an original contribution to knowledge; it needs to demonstrate logical analysis of the results you achieve and discuss them and their implications in reasonable and sophisticated ways; it needs to provide accurate and thorough references to and, in many cases, quotations from the sources you consult; and it needs to be written in clear and correct English sentences using effective and consistent styles and formats (for more information on writing scholarly English, formatting various elements of your thesis and providing references and quotations, see Chapters 5–8 below).

If you have prepared chapters and a list of references for a proposal stage in your thesis process, you have already made a good start on the thesis itself, and you have also had the opportunity to revise and refine your writing based on the feedback you received from your supervisor and committee members. In this chapter the writing of the thesis is treated as an extension of the writing you have done for your proposal, and it is assumed that you will follow a similar procedure by submitting the separate chapters and other parts of your thesis to your supervisor first and then very likely to other committee members as you work. By so doing, you will be able to benefit from their expertise as you proceed and thus deal with any problems, necessary revisions or required shifts in direction at once. It may be tempting, of course, to draft the whole thesis according to your own plan before sharing it with your committee, and for a few doctoral candidates this approach might work well, but, in practical terms, there usually is not enough time to rewrite the last year’s work if you discover that you have followed a path and drafted a thesis your supervisor and thesis committee are unable to approve, so it is always best to keep them up to date with your written progress.

Before discussing the individual parts of the thesis you will be writing, however, I would like to pause a minute to reflect on the task of writing itself – not the content or style of writing, but the physical act of actually sitting down and producing useful text. I have not said much about this up until this point because I assume that as a doctoral candidate you both want and plan to write your thesis, that the rewards of so doing are significant enough to motivate action and that you will know yourself and your most efficient ways of progressing better than anyone else can. Yet procrastination, writer’s block, poor working habits and unavoidable distractions can hamper even the best intentions and affect even the most disciplined writers, so perhaps a few helpful words on getting the writing you need to do done are not out of order here. Although it may not suit all doctoral candidates, it can be useful to establish a routine for yourself that includes a certain number of hours each day dedicated solely to writing, and during those hours you need to be at your computer actually writing your thesis.

You may also or instead want to set a daily target to determine how much you need to write each time you work on the thesis: this might be a minimum word count, a set number of paragraphs or sections, or the discussion of a specific topic or problem, depending on what works best for you and the structure of your thesis. It is important that distractions do not pull you away during the opportunities you have to work, so try to time and place your work when and where you will encounter the least number of distractions, and if those distractions tend to come from your computer itself via games, videos, the internet, email, Facebook and other social media, you will need to exert considerable self-discipline or choose to work at a computer that does not offer such distractions (one not connected to the internet, for instance). If you have trouble getting started when you first sit down to write, reviewing your outline or table of contents can be helpful for resituating yourself, and so, too, can revising the last couple of paragraphs you wrote the day before, which tends to take an author seamlessly into the concepts and challenges of the new paragraphs that need to be written.

Sometimes, however, despite the best intentions and the most rigid routine, an author becomes completely blocked and unable to start writing. This frustrating state is often a symptom of the search for perfection – the perfect words, that is, in the perfect order – and overcoming it can be as simple as acknowledging the futility of that quest and getting on with the less glamorous reality of writing. Aiming for perfection in the first draft of a chapter may be an ideal, but that perfection is rarely attainable, particularly at an early stage in the thesis process, and the hard fact is that your study needs to be transformed into text, becoming carefully structured sections and chapters as well as a logical overall argument, if you are to earn your degree. Writing some parts of your dissertation will inevitably be easier and quicker than writing other parts, and some days your writing will be better and more thoughtful than it is on other days, but you will be able to return to your text and make revisions – indeed, the feedback of your committee members will in most cases necessitate it – so a strategy that acknowledges what is ‘good enough for now’ and recognises ‘perfection’ as relative can be extremely effective. Such an approach should not encourage you to ignore essential aspects of your work and its presentation, but it can allow you to move ahead as you draft your thesis, rather than fretting and wasting time over each little detail at too early a stage. Remember that worrying about not writing will not solve the problem – it is, in fact, as counterproductive as worrying about not sleeping when suffering from insomnia. The only true cure for writer’s block is writing, and the very process of writing can generate both thought and argumentation and often achieve what seems impossible as you sit with fingers poised waiting for that perfect first sentence to march across the page. 

4.1 Preparing an Outline or Thesis Plan: The Working Table of Contents

If you included a timeline and table of contents as part of your proposal submission, you will already have a good basis for an outline or plan of your entire thesis. However, by the time you sit down to plan and begin writing the thesis as a whole, you will have survived the proposal process and presumably have conducted and analysed a good deal more of your research, so you may very well have changed your mind about certain aspects of your thesis and therefore need to revise your ideas about the shape the final manuscript will assume. Perhaps you have decided based on the feedback you received from your supervisor and committee members during the proposal process that you ought to have two chapters describing your innovative methodology instead of one.

Maybe the results of the research you have conducted since the proposal meeting have provided you with more or more kinds of relevant data than you expected and you will need to add an additional chapter to present or discuss those results, or it could be that the nature of your results indicate that reporting and discussing those results should be combined into one chapter instead of divided into separate chapters as you originally intended. Whatever structure seems most appropriate for reporting your research at this point should be developed regardless of what your plans for your thesis had been during the proposal process, but since these changes can result in a somewhat different thesis, they should be discussed with your supervisor and perhaps other committee members, so be sure to provide your supervisor with a copy of your new outline and to set up a meeting to discuss the implications and acceptability of your plans. Keep in mind as well at this point (and as you draft the chapters of your thesis) the length requirements or limitations set for your thesis by your university or department.

Structuring your thesis outline as a working table of contents can be an effective approach whether you are revising the table of contents you used in your proposal or starting afresh. Every main part, chapter and section of the thesis you envision should be listed, just as the table of contents for this book lists every part, chapter and section of this book, and a brief summary of the planned contents should be included immediately under each title or heading. Your university or department may have guidelines indicating that certain sections or parts are required, so do ensure that you examine any such guidelines carefully and include all necessary sections and parts. The titles and headings you use should be (early versions of) those you anticipate for the finished thesis and should be formatted in effective and consistent ways that distinguish heading levels and clearly indicate the overall structure of the thesis (for more information on constructing headings, see Section 6.1). Paragraph headings often do not appear in a table of contents, however, and will probably not be needed for your outline even if they are for the final thesis, but you can certainly include them if you are able to anticipate them at this point or if they are required. Such a detailed outline not only shares your plans with your thesis committee in an accessible and orderly fashion, but also serves as an effective working template of the thesis that can help keep you on track as you draft the thesis. Your time will also be well spent because your outline can ultimately be transformed into the table of contents you include in the final version of the thesis (see Sections 1.1.5 and 3.5.2 and Section 4.6.2). You will need to remove the summaries from each chapter, part and section, of course, when you prepare the final table of contents for your thesis, and you will probably have to make some other adjustments as well, such as revising, adding and deleting headings as your work on the thesis progresses, but such changes are easily achieved. Please note that because a thesis outline structured as a working table of contents usually contains summaries of the planned content as well as the headings and subheadings for a thesis, a table of contents that is automatically constructed in a program such as Word (see Section 6.1.1) is not usually appropriate in this context.

4.2 Title, Abstract and Keywords: Setting the Stage

The title, abstract and keywords for a thesis are often written after the rest of the thesis has been drafted, so you may not want to worry about them at this stage. I include them here, however, to preserve the correct order of the parts of a thesis (see Section 1.1) and because it can be extremely useful to write a first draft of these elements before you begin writing the thesis. A concise and informative title, for instance, can help you focus on the central themes of your thesis as you work, and if you were required to submit a proposal, you will already have designed a title that can be used for your thesis, though it may need a little refinement to reflect any differences between the thesis you were planning at the proposal stage and the thesis you are now drafting (see Section 3.5.1 for more information on creating an effective title). The title may also change to some extent while you are actually writing the thesis, so do not hesitate to make informal notes associated with your title when new ideas and more engaging wording come to mind or to change the title as appropriate, especially once the entire thesis is drafted and you know (at last) exactly what it contains. Remember that your title will be used by search engines and thus is extremely important for indicating to potential readers what they will find in your thesis: it can, for instance, determine whether they actually consult and read your thesis and/or use it in their own writing or not. However, do be aware that in some cases changes to your title will not be allowed after the proposal stage because your thesis will at that point be registered with your university by its title, and any changes would be an administrative matter that is best avoided, so do look into this possibility before altering your title in any way.

The abstract and keywords will not normally have formed part of the proposal submission, so these will definitely need to be tackled for the first time. Again, they can be left until the thesis is drafted, but as an abstract necessarily summarises the thesis, taking a first run at it can be helpful for focussing your thoughts on the key issues associated with your research. In addition, since a good abstract usually undergoes several alterations and refinements, it is best to start the process as soon as possible. As I mentioned in Section 1.1.2, a carefully prepared abstract should briefly and comprehensively summarise the contents of the thesis; it should situate your research in both its physical and intellectual contexts; it should inform the reader about the problem(s) or concept(s) investigated and the essential features of the methodology used and the participants involved; and it should report the basic findings, implications and conclusions of the study as well as mentioning any limitations and recommendations for future research. An abstract should report, not evaluate, what will be found in the thesis and it should not contain information that is not present in the thesis. Bibliographical references and abbreviations should not be used in an abstract unless absolutely necessary (if references are required, they will need to be complete bibliographical references, and any nonstandard abbreviations will require definition), and tables and figures should never be included. Like the title of the thesis, the abstract needs to be concise, informative and as engaging as possible, but it also needs to be densely packed with detailed information, and since abstracts are generally very short (between 100 and 400 words long, with 150 to 300 words most common) and any word limits for the abstract set by your university or department must be observed, writing an effective abstract can be challenging.

Depending on university requirements, which should always be consulted, a thesis abstract can be a single paragraph or it can be divided into separate short paragraphs. The latter is called a structured abstract and usually features headings for the individual paragraphs that are similar to the main chapters or sections of the thesis (for more general information on headings, see Section 6.1). The first paragraph might, for instance, be entitled ‘Background,’ the second ‘Methods,’ the third ‘Results’ and the final paragraph ‘Conclusions.’ These headings can appear immediately above the paragraphs or be formatted as paragraph headings that open the separate paragraphs; either way, they tend to use a special font (bold or italic), and if they are paragraph headings, to be followed by a full stop or a colon that usually features the same special font (e.g., ‘Methods. The primary methodology used in this thesis was’). If your university or department does not indicate a specific format for your abstract, there are a number of ways in which to determine an effective format: you could consult your supervisor for advice on the matter; you could check the format of abstracts in journal articles within your discipline or subject area; you could look up abstracts in theses already completed in your department or discipline; or you could simply design your abstract according to the method that works best for your topic and thesis. Although the general contents of an abstract are standardised, exactly which details you record is largely up to you, but remember that they must accurately reflect the specific content of your thesis and provide readers searching for research on your topic with the information they need to decide whether your thesis is relevant for their interests and work.

Remember, too, that the abstract is usually the first piece of prose that readers of your thesis will encounter, so it needs to be well written in clear, grammatically correct, properly punctuated and complete, ideally elegant, English sentences, which is no easy task when packing so much detailed information into so few words. Every sentence should bear the maximum amount of information and meaning possible, with minimal use of minor words, and each main word should be chosen with great care, primarily for its precise denotations, of course, but also for its potential connotations. Generally speaking, the passive voice should be avoided in abstracts because it tends to be less precise than the active voice (see Section 5.4.7), and precision in as few words as possible is a necessity in abstracts. However, in some fields the passive voice (which tends to emphasise the object of research rather than its agent) has become rather standard in abstracts, so do check with your supervisor and department to see which voice is preferable for your abstract. The first sentence of an abstract is particularly vital for gaining both the interest and the confidence of your readers, so it needs to be polished to perfection in both content and style (on scholarly writing and sentence structure, see Section 5.4). It may be helpful to think of the abstract as an appetiser that precedes the thesis (the main course). You want potential readers to be tantalised by what the abstract says and how it says it – to enjoy the texture and flavour of the words and sentences you use in your appetiser and thereby develop a hearty appetite for the thesis (dinner) that follows. You do not want them to feel glutted by too much nourishment that is too richly seasoned (as is the case if too much information or specialised terminology is packed into the abstract) or repulsed by a dull product of so low a quality that they leave the table before dinner arrives (as may well be the case if the written style of an abstract is poor and its meaning is unclear). For these reasons, the abstract will usually require more than one thorough revision and considerable polishing as you work on the thesis and receive feedback from your committee members.

It is also useful to start putting together a list of keywords (or ‘key terms’; see Section 1.1.3) before you begin writing the thesis, because as terms that potential readers will use to find your thesis, they are a lot more important than they may seem. Between three and ten keywords are normally required (with three to eight being most common) and they are generally arranged alphabetically, separated by commas, semicolons or, occasionally, middots (points raised above the line) and sometimes capitalised (usually with only their initial letters uppercase, though block capitals are sometimes used), so do check your university or department guidelines for the appropriate number and format. The keywords you choose should be terms that represent central concepts in your thesis and that will probably be entered in search engines by readers seeking information of the kind contained in your thesis. Abbreviations such as acronyms and initialisms should be avoided unless the abbreviation is more common than the full term (as is the case with ‘NASA,’ ‘AIDS,’ ‘CD’ and ‘IQ’) and is therefore likely to be used instead of the full term in searches. Although specialised terminology should not be used unnecessarily, if discipline-specific terms are likely to be entered as search words by potential readers, it is appropriate to use those terms as keywords, which should reflect the current terminology and language within your discipline. By creating your keywords early in the drafting process, you can ensure that you use those terms frequently in your thesis, and it is easy to add, delete or replace a term during the writing process if necessary.

PRS Tip: Although the abstract for your thesis may seem too small a piece of writing to send off for professional proofreading, it is a crucial part of your thesis and usually requires far more than a basic competence in writing formal scholarly English. Everything you include in your abstract in terms of content must be necessary, precise and informative, while the writing style you use must be correct, consistent, accomplished and, in the best of worlds, eloquent. The passive voice, abbreviations and bibliographical references should be avoided if possible, and while detailed information on your aims, methods, results and conclusions is required, too many details and data will overburden your readers (or potential readers) and defeat the purpose of the abstract. With so many elements to juggle, you may well wish to seek some objective critical advice, so remember that PRS proofreaders are always available to help you. No piece of writing is too short to receive detailed attention, so do feel free to send your abstract alone for proofreading or to send your abstract to PRS several times as you work at revising and polishing it. You could, for instance, send a new version with each chapter of your thesis as you draft them, and your abstract could thereby benefit from the repeated attention of a single proofreader or the advice of several proofreaders. However you wish to engage the assistance of the PRS proofreaders, your abstract (and any other parts of your thesis) will undoubtedly be improved through the careful attention of an expert in scholarly English writing.

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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