Writing your Thesis
This section draws on the presentation made by Professor David Gavaghan, Director of the MPLS Graduate School, on the Completing your DPhil course; and material from Dr Louise Baron, who delivers the Thesis and Report Writing course for the Division.
Getting started on writing your thesis can be a daunting prospect. However by the time you are entering the final stages of your DPhil you will already have done a great deal towards it. You will also have done a variety of writing – for example a literature review, reports for your supervisor, possible articles for publication or things like funding proposals.
Do start drafting parts of your thesis as early as you can so that it is an ongoing and iterative process rather than a large project to get done at the end; and read theses written by others – particularly those in your own field - to give you ideas on how to approach it.
When you are ready to start drafting, think about these questions. Try actually writing the answers rather than just thinking, as this often helps you clarify things.
- What is a thesis? What is its purpose?
- What makes a good DPhil Thesis?
- Have you got a plan for writing up? If not see the suggestions below
- What problems are you experiencing / do you think you will encounter in writing up? How can you plan to approach those problems?
- How long do you expect it to take you to finish? Double it!
- What help do you need / expect from your supervisor and how will you get it?
Whenever you write anything, always keep your audience in mind, and make it as easy as possible for them to understand and follow your narrative and arguments. The main audience for your thesis are your examiners, and they will want you to succeed. However they are busy people, so while you are planning, structuring and writing your thesis always consider how to make your story interesting for them, and easy to follow.
There is lots of useful information about thesis regulations and requirements on the division’s Submitting your Thesis page. You must also make yourself aware of your department’s requirements for your thesis.
See also the University Examination Regulations.
A simple and effective structure to follow is to say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you have said. This can apply to the structure of your whole thesis, to each section and to each chapter.
There will also be conventions for structure in your department and your own field, so it’s crucial that you find out what these are, but in general you should aim to organise your thesis so that it follows the trajectory of your argument and narrative. This means you may not write about your research in the order that it happened – you may organise your content in the way that makes following it easy.
It is important to plan your structure and to follow your plan, but don’t worry if you find you need to change the plan as you start to write – flexibility is important. A good place to start is to outline your main sections and chapters and what will go in each.
Your thesis should give a clear account of the research you have done; it’s your opportunity to tell the examiners and the wider world about what you have done, the conclusions you have come to, and the implications / potential impact of your research.It is ‘a statement of your position on a question, supported by the story of how you got there.’ (Dr Louise Baron.)
It should also demonstrate how your research fits into and contributes to your field. The University's standard for the DPhil is 'that the student present a significant and substantial piece of research, of a kind which might reasonably be expected of a capable and diligent student after three or at most four years of full-time study in the case of a full time student, or eight years in the case of a part-time student.'
Think about the story or narrative you want to tell, how to engage your audience with it, and how the narrative will flow. This will help you with your structure.
If you want to make engaging with your thesis easy for your audience, it’s essential that you make your written language as accurate and easy to read as possible. This applies regardless of whether your first language is English or not. If you need help with your written language, the division runs a Core Skills Scientific Writing course, and / or if English is not your first language, you could look at the help on offer from the University's Language Centre.
- Aim first and foremost for clarity
- Make sure your grammar, punctuation and spelling are accurate
- Keep your sentences short and straightforward
- Don’t get too wordy! Look at your sentences and ask yourself if they could be articulated more simply
- Use straightforward words, avoiding more formal ones. Over formal words won't necessarily make you sound more clever.
You must proof-read your thesis, and if necessary get it proof read by others. Asking others to read and comment on your thesis is an excellent way to get feedback. IMPORTANT: See the section on proof reading in the division's pages on Submitting your Thesis.
Managing the process and your time
We’ve already touched on planning your structure – you also need to have a plan to manage your time. here are some hints and tips on how to do it.
1. Use your planned structure to break down the thesis into smaller tasks and sub-tasks, then estimate how long each will take. Then double it! – it’s not that everything will take twice as long, rather that it’s important to build contingency time into your plan for the tasks that take longer than you expect.
2. Then ring fence time for each section of your plan into your calendar. Blocking out time in your calendar makes it much more likely that you will do what you plan. You will also find that if you put specific tasks, such as ‘Write methods section’ into your calendar, rather than the broader ‘Write Thesis’, you will make better progress.
3. Observe your energy levels and the times during the day when you are at your most productive, and plan your thesis writing for those times.
4. When you have finished a task, take a break, go away from your writing and do something else.
Hugh Kearns’ article Waiting for the Motivation Fairy takes a lighthearted and helpful look at how to stay motivated during the writing process.
See the Time Management pages for more general information and hints and tips on managing your time.
Finishing your Thesis
Your thesis is such a large piece of work you will almost certainly always feel that there is more you could do to improve it, but it is very important to remember that good enough is good enough - try not to be too much of a perfectionist.
Vitae’s pages on Knowing when your Thesis is Finished provide some useful ideas to help you with this.
Also remember that your DPhil is yours, so while your supervisor is there to support and advise you, the final decision to complete and submit your thesis is yours.
Other resources and ideas
Vitae pages on Completing your Doctorate