Structuring a thesis

Five tips to improve your PhD thesis

  • Text Hover
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 a 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 fo the thesis you're writing. They'll help you reach the standard required and, hopefully, produce higher quality writing. 

This is not a normal blog subscription

Each day we send a short, thought-provoking email that will make you think differently about what it means to be a PhD student. It is designed to be read in thirty seconds and thought about all day. 
Be critical

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:

Who?
Where? 
What?
When? 
Why? 

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 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. But, 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: no words on the page is better than lots of words on the page.
  • Text Hover

Your PhD Thesis. 
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


Your goal is your reader's life as easy as possible, so letting them know in the introduction what is about to follow is a good tactic. It is in the introductions and conclusions that you create the link between one chapter and the next. In particular, these are where you link a particular chapter to the broader aims and objectives, to the wider literature and to the rest of the thesis. 

Having your PhD proofread will save you time and money

Our top-rated PhD proofreaders check your writing, formatting, references and readability. The goal? To make sure your research is written and presented in the most compelling manner possible. 


That way, you'll have complete peace of mind prior to submission and save yourself months of costly revisions. 

Author


Avatar

Dr. Max Lemprière is the founder of The PhD Proofreaders. He is an expert in presenting PhD research in the best possible way and maximising students' chances of success.