don’t send your PhD examiner to sleep

It’s 7. 30 pm and Pat is in the lounge room reading. She is examining a thesis but finding it hard to stay awake. Big Brother wonders what the problem might be and summons her to the diary room.

“Well Big Brother, it’s like this. It’s this thesis, I ought to find it interesting but I don’t. There’s something about the way it’s written that isn’t working for me.

Where do I start? How about there are just too many references and citations. I can’t get through a paragraph without tripping over the brackets. I’m not sure why there’s so many. A few indicative key references would be perfectly acceptable. I get to the end of a page full of names and dates and I want to give up. No more. Enough already with the name dropping.

And there’s so many statements about what’s going to happen next and what just happened. I’ve told you this and next I’m going to tell you that. Honestly, I don’t need so much guidance. I wonder if the writer realised they could let the headings and subheadings do some of the work. The headings they have are pretty meaningless – in fact a lot of them are just a waste of space. And instead of useful subheadings there’s just soooooo much now-I-will and I-just-did. This writer needs to take their foot off the signposting pedal. You need some of this kind of steerage of course but there’s got to be a balance. It’s as if the writer put all of this now-and-then in to keep themselves on track when they were drafting, and then forgot to take it all out before they handed the thesis in.

I can’t tell you how many passives and overly complex sentences there are. Idea after idea packed into paragraph-long sentences. Each phrase a point. I can’t take it all in. And one of these immense idea-loaded sentences follows after another after another. Give me a break.

Big Brother, you know that Foucault wrote about this? He must have examined some tiring doctoral writing too. He said

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but bring a work, a book, a sentence, and idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes ‐ all the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms. (Foucault, The masked philosopher. 1977, p 323)

Good eh? I love that bit about handing down sentences. That’s just what this thesis does. Hands down sentences. And I really do want to go to sleep when I read them.

I guess that the writer thinks that good academic writing is like this. Kind of impersonal and distanced. Professional. Stuffy. Lacking in personality. I can’t tell where the writer is, what they think and what they stand for. They were probably worried about putting themselves out there but you know, I’d much rather read something with a bit of character that doesn’t cover everything, than do this kind of dead see-scroll.

Big Brother, do I have to read this? Couldn’t I do something else now like watch reality television?

What’s that? My challenge is to read another 100 pages before I can go to bed? Unfair. Unfair.”

It’s 9.30 pm and Pat is in the lounge room reading. She is examining a thesis but finding it hard to stay awake.

PS: To the three people whose theses I am currently examining, this is a retrospective fiction for doc researchers still writing. 🙂

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, signposts, thesis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to don’t send your PhD examiner to sleep

  1. Pingback: Don't send your PhD examiner to sleep | Researc...

  2. Julia Molinari says:

    “Mirror mirror on the wall, why do I read myself in this warning call” – I’m very glad you have said all this, but, in defence of this ‘fictitious’ thesis writer, here are some further thoughts:

    – yes, the writer was probably told to write like this (or read it somewhere)

    – writing such a lengthy tome means that both the writer and the reader are picking it up, putting it down, picking it up again at various points, in various locations and over a long period of time and the signposting is probably there to remind the writer as much as it is there for the reader

    – could interdisciplinary academic writing possibly be lending itself to excessive signposting?
    I have not come across any evidence for this, but I do wonder about the effect that interdisciplinary research may be having on academic writing practices … in the sense that the writer is already having to cater for multiple readerships during the phd, so, by the time the thesis is subjected to the examiner’s critical eye, it has already been ‘groomed’ to be as unambiguous as possible for yet another reader …

    Thank you!


    • pat thomson says:

      It’s pretty un contentious advice really, don’t over reference or signpost, use subheadings, don’t try to be too ‘scientific’….


      • Interesting stuff, especially as I am in writing mode right now. I do wonder if the number of citations has something to do with how controversial or new what you are saying is or at least, how confident you are. I tend to swing between writing too much without citations and having people ask where on earth I got stuff and over citing and sounding like I am making no contribution of my own. Any advice for finding that sweet spot?


      • pat thomson says:

        I’m a footnote fan so I often use them to do the big bulky shoring up you need to evidence some claims. That doesn’t interrupt anyone who just wants to read through.


      • Sounds like switching reference systems would work too. Thanks for the idea, I will see what happens when I use it in my methods chapter. I have a complicated stats model to explain in a thesis in a field that swings between social sciences and humanities and doesn’t have many statisticians. Footnotes sounds like a good way of dealing with it. Thanks.


  3. michaelmunnik says:

    Point-Scoring Pedant Alert: I love Foucault’s sentence about handing down sentences, too, but the verb form that follows needs to be “sends” not “send”.
    Thanks for writing this. Submit inside of three weeks, and this is the kind of editing I’m up to now.


  4. Jane S says:

    Ooh, Pat ~ you must be psychic!
    I’m despairingly re-wrangling draft thesis. Tho’ inspirational Muse has gone AWOL, am currently obsessed with the 1.1, 1.1.2. method of presentation, + removing sub-sub-clauses whilst trying to retain what a Canadian colleague termed ‘its freshness.’ Alas, the grammar police are rendering the prose legible but awfully dull. ;-(
    Harvard in-line refs are the devil. Loathe them. They interrupt natural flow.

    Love the Foucault, and the *bon mot*, ‘dead see-scroll.’


  5. roomie55 says:

    I love your writing. Somehow you write about stuff that I EXACTLY need to hear at the current moment. Thanks Pat… Am such a fan 🙂


  6. I love reading this blog. I start my PhD program in September and reading this gives a little reminder of what I will be going through, lol.


  7. ucfhistory says:

    Never can go wrong with Foucault. 🙂

    I agree with this post. How can departments encourage innovation and discourage dullness?


  8. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    That mystical “balance” is a hard target to hit indeed! *said the student in his 4th LR revision process” 😦

    Thanks Pat, great do’s & do nots to get out from this fictitious yet (realistically) realistic piece.


  9. Kip Jones says:

    I tell ’em, “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em then tell ’em what you told ’em”…BUT only at the beginning and end of each Chapter. That’s so the reader can put it down and go to sleep between Chapters.


  10. emily says:

    Thank you for your blog. I am currently finishing up my thesis and it was pushed upon me that I needed to open and close each chapter with a ‘what I told you, what I will tell you’ bit. (to the point where I believe one of my supervisors would not let me submit without it.) That theses without this opening and closing statement to each chapter are not proper theses. But I don’t like it either because I think people are more intelligent than that and can understand that the chapter titled literature review will be just that and that the subheadings will lead them logically through the information. How distract-able are reviewers that they cannot come back to a thesis after a sleep and understand it without these repetitive signposts? We seem to manage to read other texts without such signposting, why is reading or writing a thesis different? Granted the time between reads may be longer than a sleep, but I don’t see how a few sentences saying “I’ve just told you about …, now I will tell you about …” adds anything but words. Everywhere else, academic writing is praised for succinctness as most journals have strict word limits and so we get to the point. Yet this is the instruction set down upon candidates, and sadly, my chapters currently have it too. Maybe I can buck the trend…


    • pat thomson says:

      You do need to have some sign posting in the thesis, and it’s customary to provide an overview at the start of what’s to come and a kind of crunching of key points at the end. That helps the reader as long as it’s not too long and repetitive. It’s what comes inbetween in the actual chapter that’s really the issue. Ive seen work that does the Same open and close for each section, and it’s mechanistic and unnecessary. If the argument us really complex, you may need a bit of signposting in the middle too. But headings are pretty helpful in the chapter proper.


  11. maelorin says:

    trying to “find your voice” is tricky. some disciplines are less rigid than others when it comes to writing style.

    and having re-read my own writing after long bouts with certain literatures, i find myself adopting language and grammer that reflects what i’ve been reading. sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

    since i’m tryong to complete a thesis largely/substantially including publications, there are some things to be said for having reviewer’s comments to work with along the way.


    • Jane S says:

      ” […] after long bouts with certain literatures […]”
      Oh, agreed, maelorin!
      Alexandre Dumas, père, in French and a Brontë in English? – fatal!
      Purple prose to be excised. Entertaining, but NOT academic. 😉


  12. pat thomson says:

    Yes absolutely, finding the voice isn’t easy. Being aware of the need to is half the battle though.


  13. Pingback: Writing retreat!!! | I'm not superwoman but I can sing a bit.

  14. Pingback: Blog roundup – some recent favourites on argument and voice | Doctoral Writing SIG

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