Many of the guides, templates and tips on The PhD Knowledge Base are oriented towards specific sections of the thesis. That’s because each section presents its own challenges and needs its own approach.
However, there are five tips to bear in mind that apply across the whole thesis. These are tips you can use regardless of what stage of the writing process you’re at, or what section of the thesis you’re writing. They’ll help you reach the standard required and, hopefully, produce higher quality writing.
A key outcome of the doctoral journey is the development of your critical thinking and writing skills. You should hone them early, and approach everything you read critically. Critical thinking is one of the hardest skills to master in the entire PhD.
When we say, ‘You must be critical’, we mean that you must critically evaluate whatever it is you are discussing. Your job when critically evaluating is to think analytically, rather than descriptively. You need to think like an investigator. This involves asking five standard questions of each thing you read:
Asking these questions means we don’t just take what is written at face value. Instead, we evaluate, interpret, explain, analyse and comment on the text. These questions are a starting point for you to do that.
Read our guide to being critical for more.
Acknowledge your limitations
Acknowledging the things that are wrong with your thesis shows a level of maturity that your examiners are looking for. No study is perfect and, despite your best efforts, there will be limitations with yours. These may be with your methods, the generalisability of your findings, or some other aspect of your contribution, but a failure to acknowledge them shows the examiner that you haven’t fully grasped the significance and implications of your study.
This goes against our instinct, which is to present ourselves – and our research – in the best possible light. However, there is such a thing as being overly-confident in your thesis. Every thesis will have areas for improvement, and a key part of the doctoral training is the ability to both recognise them and talk about them.
This has two additional advantages. First, it will allow you to preempt criticism that may come up in your viva. By acknowledging problems in the text, you avoid any nasty surprises in the viva because you are already aware of the problems with the thesis.
Second, you can respond to and address the limitations and shortcomings in a post-doc, if relevant.
Write early and write often
Your thinking evolves through the art of writing, so the earlier you can get words on paper, the quicker your thinking will evolve. You can always edit drafts, so you’re not committing yourself to anything final. Not everything you write will be for your examiners; it’s okay to write just for yourself.
There is a danger of spending too long reading or too long conducting fieldwork, and too little time writing. Remember: some words on the page is better than no words on the page.
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.
You must let your study evolve
Chances are, the thesis you submit won’t look like the one you initially discussed in your application proposal. As we read and collect data, we learn about our discipline and our own study’s place within it. It’s impossible to understand the field in sufficient depth before we set out on our PhDs, so it’s inevitable that we’ll discover new things or realise we made false assumptions.
Don’t become too attached to your thesis and don’t be scared to let it go where it wants, even if it means shifting focus, asking different questions or adopting a different methodology.
Introduce and conclude your chapters well
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This is awesome. Thank you so much.
Good advice, thank you
This is great, thanks for explaining things succinctly!