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How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation

List of figures and tables ix
Preface x
1 Becoming an author 1
Authoring is more than just writing 2
Different models of PhD and the tasks of
authoring 5
Managing readers’ expectations 11
2 Envisioning the thesis as a whole 18
Defining the central research questions 18
Doing original work 26
3 Planning an integrated thesis:
the macro-structure 43
The whole and the core 44
Focusing down or opening out 53
Four patterns of explanation 62
4 Organizing a chapter or paper:
the micro-structure 76
Dividing a chapter into sections 76
Devising headings and subheadings 84
Handling starts and finishes 89
5 Writing clearly: style and referencing issues 103
The elements of good research style 104
Effective referencing 120
6 Developing your text and managing the
writing process 134
Drafting, upgrading and going public 135
Remodelling text 143
Organizing the writing process 148
7 Handling attention points: data, charts
and graphics 157
Principles for presenting data well 159
Handling tables 165
Designing charts and graphs 172
Other techniques for data reduction 185
Using diagrams and images 192
8 The end-game: finishing your doctorate 197
From a first full draft to your final text 199
Submitting the thesis and choosing examiners 209
The final oral examination (viva) 217
9 Publishing your research 227
Writing and submitting journal papers 227
Re-working your thesis as a book 251
Afterword 264
Glossary of maxims, terms and phrases 266
Notes 277
Further reading 287
Index 291
List of Figures and Tables
3.1 Interrelating the whole and the core 50
3.2 The focus down model 55
3.3 The opening out model 59
3.4 The compromise model 61
3.5 Three ways of viewing my home study 64
3.6 Examples of a matrix structure 74
4.1 The tree structure of a chapter 102
5.1 How PhD students’ writing can develop 105
7.1 Eight main types of chart (and when to use them) 173
7.2 How health boards compare 182
7.3 How Scotland’s health boards compared in treating
cataracts, 1998–9 financial year 183
7.4 An example of a box-and-whisker chart comparing
across variables 189
7.5 An example of median-smoothing 191
8.1 Integrating themes 200
9.1 An example of a journal article evaluation form 236
5.1 How different pressures on authors improve
or worsen the accessibility of their text 107
7.1 How health boards compare 166
7.2 How Scotland’s health boards compared in
treating cataracts, 1998–9 financial year 167
The conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott
once argued that:
A university is an association of persons, locally
situated, engaged in caring for and attending to
the whole intellectual capital which composes a
civilization. It is concerned not merely to keep
an intellectual inheritance intact, but to be
continuously recovering what has been lost,
restoring what has been neglected, collecting
together what has been dissipated, repairing what
has been corrupted, reconsidering, reshaping,
reorganizing, making more intelligible, reissuing
and reinvesting. 1
Even if we leave aside Oakeshott’s evident antiquarian bias
against any genuine or substantive innovation here, this ‘mission
statement’ is extensive enough. Indeed it is far too large to
be credible in the era of a ‘knowledge society’, when so many
other people (working in professions, companies, cultural and
media organizations, governments, civil society groups or as
independent writers and researchers) also attend to ‘the intellectual
capital [of] a civilization’.
This book is written in the hope of somewhat assisting any
of these people who produce longer creative non-fiction texts.
It is especially directed to research students and their advisers
or supervisors in universities. In undertaking or fostering the
doctorate they still pursue the most demanding ideal of original
research. ‘Nothing was ever yet done that someone was not the
first to do,’ said John Stuart Mill, and that is what the doctoral
ideal always has celebrated and always should.2 Each doctoral
dissertation or thesis is to a large extent sui generis. But this book
reflects a conviction that in the humanities, arts and social
sciences research students also need to acquire a core of generic
authoring skills that are substantially similar across diverse
disciplines and topics. While research skills training has been
formalized a great deal in the last two decades, these ‘craft’
skills of authoring have been relatively neglected and left
For Oakeshott and other traditionalists my enterprise here
will seem no more than another brick in the wall, a further step
towards the bureaucratization of modern society foreseen by
Max Weber.3 But I believe that learning the craft of how to plan,
draft, write, develop, revise and rethink a thesis, and to finish it
on time and to the standard required, is too important and too
often mishandled a set of tasks to be left to the somewhat erratic
and tangential models of induction and training that have prevailed
in the past. There is a long and honourable tradition now
of scholarship reflecting upon itself. It stretches back through
Friedrich Schelling’s idealist vision in On University Studies, to
Francis Bacon’s musings in The Advancement of Learning, and
before him to some significant reflective writings of the
medieval thinkers and the ancient Greek philosophers.4 Now, as
in those earlier times, scholars and students are not (cannot be)
immune to external influences and rationalization processes. In
modern conditions universities can privilege their existing
modes of generating and transmitting knowledge only so long
as they are demonstrably the best of available alternatives.
Of course, completing a doctoral dissertation is also too personal
and too subtle a process, too dependent upon students
and supervisors or advisers, too variable across thesis topics, disciplines
and university contexts, for any generic advice to
encompass more than a tiny proportion of what a given doctoral
student needs to help her develop as an author. But covering
this fraction in a systematic way can still be very valuable,
time-saving and perhaps inspiring. PhD students know their
own situation better than anyone else in the world. They can
build on a small amount of ‘ready-made knowledge’ (as
Schelling termed it),5 picking and choosing those elements of
this text that are relevant for their problems. I hope that this
book may also help thesis advisers (with knowledge of a range
of doctoral projects in their own discipline) to extend and systematize
their thinking and guidance to students about authoring
issues. So this book is written as a foil for students and their
supervisors, as a grid or a framework which they can set against
their own situations and experiences.
I have written up this advice in a modest but not a tentative
way, because I know no other style that will seem honest or
convincing. For some readers there is a risk that my suggestions
may come across as overly slick or didactic, as if I am seeking to
dictate what squads of PhD students should do. But I am
acutely aware that readers always will and always should construct
their own personalized versions of this text, adapting and
domesticating what works for them, and setting to one side
what does not fit. I have written like someone devising a menu
for a restaurant, wanting to offer a treatment that is challenging
and convincing, and an experience which is consistent and
as complete as possible. But I am conscious that no one (in their
right frame of mind) will pick up and consume more than a
fraction of this menu at a time.
Lastly let me stress that this book is to a large extent a conduit
for the ideas of many student and staff colleagues, whose
wisdom and suggestions I have jotted down, adopted, tried out
and probably shamelessly purloined over the years. I owe my
heaviest debt to some 30 people who have worked with me on
their own doctorates across two and a bit decades. They have
taught me so much as they developed their ideas, not just about
their thesis topics but also about our joint profession.6 In different
ways, each of them will know the frailties and limitations
of supervisors all too well, and I can only ask their tolerance of
any gloss on their experience which this volume inadvertently
gives. My next biggest debt is to colleagues at the London School
of Economics and Political Science who have co-supervised
PhDs with me or co-taught the School-wide seminar on PhD
writing.7 From their very different styles of teaching and encouraging,
I have learned much. I am grateful also to a wide range of
other colleagues, who may recognize their own ideas and inputs
scattered across these pages. Lastly I would like to thank the students
from 18 disciplines who attended my PhD writing course
at LSE over more than a decade. Their questions, challenges and
innovations have consistently stretched my knowledge, and
convinced me that we could do more to help.
I hope that the enterprise of gathering these ideas together in
one volume will seem justified for most readers, and that if it
does you will contribute to the book by e-mailing me your comments,
criticisms and suggestions for changes or additions. For
me, even in our rationalized times, the doctorate still remains a
crucial vehicle for developing new and original thought in the
humanities and social sciences, especially amongst young people,
who (as Plato said) are ‘closer to ideas’.8 If this book strikes
even a few positive chords among new generations of scholars
and supervisors, then writing it will have been worthwhile.

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