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A style guide? No, not a guide to the latest fashions.  Not even a hairstyle guide, in case you’re under the impression that doctoral candidates have to be beautifully coiffed.  (In fact, this may be your last opportunity to be scruffy before you have to join to real world.)

So, to explain, I mean a style guide containing boring stuff, such as SPAG.

Yes, a Spelling, Punctuation And Grammar guide.  A manual that tells you how to watch your syntactical P’s and Q’s… or is it Ps and Qs?

And then you need a style for all those citations, to be sure you reference your sources properly so you don’t get dinged with a charge of plagiarism.

Hello, Doctor…

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Before you write the first sentence of your dissertation, you need to style guide that will help you to do the most important thing of all… be consistent in your writing!

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a 10-question quiz, that will prove to you that you need a style guide. Empirical evidence, as it were, depending on whether you can answer the following correctly:

Q1. Is this a 10-question quiz, OR ten question quiz?

Q2. Title of Journal Article, OR Title of Journal Article?

Q3. Name of Published Book, OR Name of published book?

Q4. Publisher’s name and location in your reference list, OR just publisher’s name?

Q5. Three authors listed in an in-text citation, OR one author et al.?

Q6. Should you use – OR – OR — (in other words, hyphen, en-dash or em-dash)?

Q7. Behavior, OR behaviour?

Q8. Paragraphs left-justified with a space between, OR paragraphs indented with no space?

Q9. Paragraphs indented ½ inch, or 1.27 cm?

Q10. Should you write that data are collected through your research, OR data is collected?

Now, I could make you wait and give you the solutions in my next message, but I know you don’t have time to play games. So…

A1. to A5.  I want to be very prompt in clearly saying: It depends.  Sorry.  That may not be the answer you’re looking for, but different style guides have different rules about italics, capitals, in-text citations, reference lists, etc.  So, you need to choose a style guide – I mentioned this in my title and I’ll say more in a minute.

A6. The answer to this is a little trickier, because it can either be dictated by the style guide you choose, or by your university’s template.  And sometimes the university tells you to pick a style guide and be consistent. I rest my case.

A7. The answer to this is geographic, not stylistic.  Americans will always choose “behavior” in their own country, and the Brits, Australians, Canadians, and others following UK conventions will always choose “behaviour” when writing at home.  However, it gets thorny for candidates writing a thesis in a country other than their own, such as Americans enrolled in a red brick British university, or Australians at a US university. Find out what’s expected, not just for behavior/behaviour but for all style and language usage.

A8.  This can also be a choice between your style guide and your university template.  This is a good place to mention your Supervisor’s influence too, not to mention departmental protocols.  One way to help you decide this is to look at other dissertations produced by your department, or talk to your Supervisor – although Supervisors are rarely up-to-date on style guide requirements and will probably tell you to pick one and be consistent. Is there a theme emerging here?

A9.  Trick question. Mathematicians will know the ½ inch is the same as 1.27 cm. Just check with your university (and/or style guide) to find out what the rule is (literally) and if you’re using MS Word keep an eye on those indents.  Word has a mind of its own.

A10.  The answer to this is unwavering, regardless of style.  Data are plural in academic writing.  The singular is datum, if you’re wondering.  Yes, you’ll hear “Data is…” incorrectly said all over the place, including from top experts in every field.  But an academic who aims for the highest standards, including you, writes about data in the plural regardless of what style guide or template being used.


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That brings us back to the question of which style guide to use.  First, you should understand that if a university supplies its own guide or template, and your department or Supervisor wants you to use it, then you have no choice.  It’s one of the points in the doctoral journey when you just accept that you must do what you’re told.

However, if you’re advised to pick a style yourself, then there are a few popular choices: APA, Chicago, Harvard, and MLA are the most popular for academic disciplines, with Vancouver being occasionally preferred. If you’re in a professional field, such as medicine, law, music, engineering, or technology you may be given an entire manual to follow. For example, law has its own strict way of citing rulings in court cases.

How to decide?  There are some disciplines that have clear favourites.  For example, the social sciences usually choose APA.  In English literature, MLA is frequently the choice.  Once again, the best plan is to look at other dissertations from your department, talk to your Supervisor, do a little research.

After all, research is your life as a doctoral candidate.  But start with researching style guides. Don’t leave it until the end, because changing all those citations and placement of punctuation can be soul-destroying, even if you’re using formatting software to help you.

And speaking of help, our coaching and proofreading services can help with consistency in style. We are experts in using semicolons, no matter what style you’re using.

If you’re struggling to write fluently and to the standard required, check out our PhD thesis proofeading service. 

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