This guest entry is written by Dr. Siân Lindsay who shares some tips on PhD dissertation writing. She works as a lecturer in educational development for the department of Learning Enhancement and Development (LEaD) at City University London. Siân is module leader on LEaD’s MA in Academic Practice programme, and is co-convenor for the SRHE Newer Researchers network and conference. Siân holds a PhD in Molecular Biology from Royal Holloway University of London and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). Siân’s current research focuses exploring and supporting the PhD student experience and her recently published research on thesis writing can be found here.
Back in late 2003, as a first year PhD student, the thought of producing a 100,000 word thesis was unimaginable and overwhelming. I consoled myself by promising that as long as I worked as hard as possible in collecting lots of data to analyse then writing my thesis would be easy. I would only start writing properly once I had all my data together and could take a holistic view of it all. But that was my mistake, because actually I didn’t get all the data I needed until the final few months of my PhD studentship. I’d left much of the thesis writing until the end and was now facing a colossal and highly stressful task ahead of me. Somehow I did manage to write my thesis in less than 6 months and then passed my viva. But, the stress in doing so had a significant impact.
My experience in part propelled me to undertake some research into the PhD student experience of thesis writing. The other factor was motivated by a need to understand why PhD students can take longer than is ideal to complete their PhD. In the UK, full-time PhD students should complete their doctorate within 4 years (this includes writing and submitting their thesis), whereas part-time students are allowed up to 7 years. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) publishes research degree qualification rates (RDQRs) for HE institutions running PhD programmes to largely demonstrate how well the 4 or 7 year deadlines are being adhered to. Notably, HEFCE positively discriminates institutions with higher rates with better funding opportunities than those with less than ideal rates. It is important to note that RDQRs are adjusted according to the particular nuances of an institution (e.g. its size, locale, number of PhD programmes etc). As an additional impetus – the stress of letting a PhD run on for too long also has really significant implications on the student: mentally, emotionally as well as financially. Based on several discussions with Senior Tutors for Research at my university, I had hypothesised that thesis writing may represent a significant hurdle in slowing down progression of the PhD (or sometimes even stopping it altogether).
I set about testing my hypothesis by interviewing PhD students who were right in the middle of writing their thesis (or had just completed it). I also wanted to know what worked for these students in writing up (and conversely, what to avoid doing) and disseminate their ideas and advice with others.
Though my study was small-scale (I interviewed 8 students), two students had approached thesis writing in a continuous way and it was very noticeable how relaxed and confident they appeared to be. Both of them as part-time students were on track to complete within 7 years, and both had been advised to start writing their thesis in their first year. Conversely, the other students had left writing until they had collected and analysed all of their data. Remarkably of these, 5 students had, or were on track to, completing their PhD in the recommended period of time. Only one student had taken 10 years to complete his PhD, 5 of which were spent writing as he attempted to juggle this task with working full-time and supporting his young family.
I interviewed the students using a series of questions and prompts that were inspired by Latona and Browne’s 2001 framework for predicting timely PhD completions, in addition to a helpful publication by Wright and Cochrane from 2000. In terms of understanding supervisory support and approaches specifically during thesis writing, these were analysed using Lee’s 2008 framework for five concepts of research supervision. Below lists a summary of some of the themes that the students described as helping their thesis writing:
- Students highlighted the support they received from their department in terms of providing adequate space and resources for writing-up. Some departments also told their students to write-up continuously throughout their study.
- Most of the students interviewed had a positive relationship with their supervisor, and during thesis writing, found it most helpful if their supervisor took an approach which Lee would describe as being functional or project-management focused, which means that the supervisor encourages a rational progression through tasks (Lee 2008). Additionally, students credited a supervisory approach which further enhanced the supervisor-student relationship. I found it interesting that little reference was made to supervisors using a ‘critical thinking’ approach, which is where supervisors challenge their students to question and analyse their work (Lee, 2008).
- Emotional and financial support from family and friends during thesis writing helped some students, whilst others also found that working part-time gave them an ‘anchor’ to the outside world and sometimes even inspired their writing. Working full-time during writing up was seen as being too much though, and caused significant delays in completing the thesis.
- In terms of individual intrinsic factors, students referred to strategies for staying motivated and organised during writing-up. Some students drew on some of the themes above to help them. For example, one student negotiated with her supervisor exactly when he was to receive drafts from her to read and organised when she would receive feedback from him. Other students used their part-time work to structure their writing schedule, whilst others organised their writing deadlines to coincide with ‘rewards’ such as vacations to help motivate them.
Whilst I was analysing the interview data, I was intrigued by two of the student’s approaches to writing their thesis continuously. This approach has been described by Rowena Murray in her self-help book as ‘serial writing’ (Murray, 2011), where writing is done in ‘instalments’. From the outset, it seems so obvious to do this, but as I know from my experience, it is difficult to do in practice. Thesis writing is typically seen as “a mopping-up activity at the end of a research project” (Richardson 1998, 345) and my findings echo that sentiment. In part I would argue that this is because the idea of a ‘writing-up’ phase is so ingrained in academic culture and even extends to fee differentials (students writing up pay significantly less in tuition fees). I would also argue that perhaps we are not fully aware of the cognitive benefits of continuous writing in the context of developing a PhD thesis. Both Wellington (2010) and Murray (2011) argue that writing continuously can actually foster the development of knowledge, which is better than demoting academic writing to a simple ‘knowledge-telling’ activity.
Writing to develop knowledge via a continuous or serial writing approach is an area of research that I will be exploring more widely in the future. I hope to better understand the strategies that students may use to achieve this. After all, the confidence displayed by the two students who had taken such an approach was palpable – they had clearly approached the thesis in the right way. Furthermore, I want to understand how supervisors and departments might support continuous writing for thesis development, perhaps adopting a greater ‘critical-thinking’ approach or phasing out the idea of a separate ‘writing-up’ stage; maybe a ‘finishing-up’ stage would be more appropriate.
- Latona, K., and M. Browne. 2001. Factors Associated with Completion of Research Higher Degrees.
- Canberra: Report for ACT: Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs-Higher Education Division.
- Lee, A. 2008. “How Are Doctoral Students Supervised? Concepts of Research Supervision.” Studies in Higher Education 33 (3): 267–281.
- Murray, R. 2011. How to Write a Thesis. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill and Open University Press.
- Richardson, L. 1998. “Writing: A Method of Inquiry.” In Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, 345–371. London: SAGE.
- Wellington, J. 2010. “More than a Matter of Cognition: An Exploration of Affective Writing. Problems of Post-graduate Students and Their Possible Solutions.” Teaching in Higher Education 15 (2): 135–150.
- Wright, T., and R. Cochrane. 2000. “Factors Influencing Successful Submission of PhD Theses.” Studies in Higher Education 25 (2): 181–195.