keeping your thesis reader/examiner on track

I’m currently reading my fifth doctoral thesis for the year. I realized a while ago that I’ve now examined at least fifty doctorates. I guess that’s a lot. I recently decided to go back to my examination reports to see if there was any common pattern in my responses – and there was.

The most common thing I asked of doctoral researchers was to attend to the really simple signposts that help keep the examiner/reader on track.

The reason it is important to help the examiner through the thesis is in part because we often don’t read the text in one sitting. I generally read two or three chapters at one go and then have to wait to find another block of time, often much later. I’m prone to taking a thesis on trains and, given that I live in the middle of the country and this means two hours at least to get almost anywhere I have to go, I can usually get through about half a thesis on a good train journey. But I still need to find an equivalent four hours to finish it off, another few hours to cogitate and then more time to write the report. And that assumes that the thesis is a straightforward read, and I don’t have to spend loads of time trying to work out what’s going on.

So here’s a few things that examiners need you to do so they can keep focused when reading your thesis. These might be blindingly obvious, but according to my records they often seem to be ignored. Most people do some of them, but not the lot.

(1) Get the research question up front. Don’t make the examiner wade through pages of introduction and background before finding out what the thesis is about. There’s nothing worse than reading twenty or thirty pages wondering what the connection is between the text and a possible question. This may mean writing a kind of mini introduction – an introduction before the introduction – which leads into the question before you go on to the context, rationale and/or warrant.

(2) Do provide a road map to the thesis at the end of the introduction. However don’t make this so long that the examiner feels like they’ve already read the text before they have. And don’t make it just a set of openers. Make a short summary of what’s in each chapter which shows the examiner the shape of the argument to come. So don’t say Chapter three outlines my methods, say Chapter three positions my study within the ethnographic tradition, provides details of the toolkit of observation, interview, image- making etc… Then stop.

(3) If your personal story is part of the warrant for the thesis, or it is important for the reader to know about you, or if it is a convention in your discipline to provide one, then put this up front in the introduction. If the examiner expects to understand something about what you/the researcher brings to the study, don’t make them wait for chapters before telling them, leaving them wondering who is writing and what this might mean for what they are reading.

(4) Do provide a table or very succinct summary of the data that you are using. What is it, how much of it is there, how long is it, where was it generated, who is it from – whichever of these is relevant to your study – put it in! There is nothing worse for an examiner than having to scrabble around trying to work out the actual basis for the research. A good audit trail can cut out a lot of wondering and examiner frustration.

(5) Do end each chapter with a crunchy statement of what you want the examiner to remember. What is the major message that you have established? What do they need to hold in their mind before going on to the next chapter? A crunchy statement is not the same as a conclusion, and it’s not a summary of the entire chapter – it’s the overall point you have argued. Putting this in is really important for examiners who have to stop at the end of a chapter and then pick the text up again some time later. They can simply go back to the last piece of the previous chapter and recap the point before going onto the new one.

Leaving these things out won’t produce a failing thesis, although you might get asked to put some of them in as corrections. However, they do make a real difference to the reader. And if that reader is the examiner, then you want to make it as easy as possible for them to follow what you’ve done, how and why. Well you do. Don’t you?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in dissertation, doctoral research, examiner, reader, signposts, thesis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to keeping your thesis reader/examiner on track

  1. Tine S. Prøitz says:

    Thank you! This is exactly what I need right now. It is so easy to get astray while working on the extended abstract, this will keep me focused.


  2. Elinor says:

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve saved this advice in my ‘how to write…’ folder!


  3. Very useful!!! Totally agree with the “crunchy statement” point – nothing worse that finishing a chapter and having nothing to spur you onto the next.


  4. nickhopwood says:

    Reblogged this on Nick Hopwood and commented:
    And what could be more important than keeping your thesis examiner / reader on track?
    I was jointly supervising some students with David Boud last night and he mentioned the ‘no delayed gratification’ rule in thesis writing: be up front and clear from the start! No twists, hidden surprises!


  5. Pingback: Defending research choices in doctoral writing: getting the habit at the start of the research | Doctoral Writing SIG

  6. I like what you’ve written, Pat and it concisely makes points which I frequently make, reinforce, and reinforce again to thesis candidates. But recently, a doctoral candidate and I developed a ‘fresh’ strategy for checking out, chapter by chapter, whether or not what has been written in each chapter aligns with what the candidate has said they would do (espousal versus practice, if you like!). While I recognise that, in effect, I’m piggybacking on your blog, I think there is merit in offering some procedural comments. I think that the procedural steps outlined below fit with the things you’ve written, Pat, and they go something like this:

    1. Take the first (introductory) and then the last (concluding) chapter and run each chapter separately through a tag cloud. There are many free versions of tag clouds but a useful one is and you can and should regulate the number of tags/words you generate within the cloud.

    2. Now compare the two separate tags – do they more or less align? What key words stand out and what, if any tags might be missing given your familiarity with what’s in between? What does that tell you about what you’ve told the examiner you would do and what you’ve actually delivered?

    3. Now, you have some heightened understanding if you use the information you’ve generated in mind when you decide, judiciously, to make revisions which will align your espousals with your deliverables.

    3. Next, use a similar strategy of creating tag clouds on a chapter-by-chapter basis. You should be able to better gauge whether or not you’ve actually done what you said you’d do. But bear in mind that tag clouds are, as with all computer ‘whizzidings’, guiding tools which you drive as aids to writing – they’re never perfect – but they can help. (If you own NVivo, you can generate tag clouds within the application and by double-clicking on a word, you can be linked straight to the source, i.e. to where you have used that particular tag.)

    4. Finally, please, please, please use the very useful checklist that Pat has outlined in her blog.

    The usefulness of the points you’ve made, Pat have certainly prompted me to pen this ‘off-the-cuff’ response. I need to add that my thesis protege and I intend to develop and share this procedure on my own website ( within the next week or so. (She, the candidate, has already drafted some notes for us to work with. She is beginning to achieve time to do so as she has now submitted!)



  7. Ooops, sorry about the numbering. Can you edit that, please, Pat? Thanks. Jens


  8. Pingback: happy birthday to patter… a reflection on the last two years | patter

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