There’s nothing quite like the countdown to handing in the PhD. Puff pant, puff pant. I think I can, I think I can. But….
On the one hand, you may be absolutely sick of the sight of the text and just want to get it in and get it all over with. The danger is that you don’t spend enough time doing the last round of revising and editing. On the other hand, you might be utterly terrified about what you’ve done, convinced that it’s nowhere near ready. The danger is that you keep adding and adding and rewriting and rewriting and never get to the end.
Finishing is a really important moment. Just like a marathon runner, the doctoral researcher has to have stamina – you have to save some of your energy till the end. You have to summon up the last bit of chutzpah to finish off well.
So what does finishing look like? It’s primarily about checking what you’ve got, and adjusting where necessary. Now is not the time to start off any big new line of argument. Now is the time to be brave and call a temporary halt.
There are three areas that bear looking at: content, refining the writing and proof-reading.
Here’s a few pointers to get going with and some links to some other relevant posts. Don’t forget to ask your supervisor and other experienced people in your discipline for more! This is not an exhaustive list.
Introduction to the thesis
• Does the introduction create a compelling mandate for the study?
• Have you clearly stated the research question/problem/thesis somewhere near the start so the examiner can find it easily without having to search for pages and pages?
• If you are in a field where it is customary to say something about yourself at the start, is this section concise and to the point? No diary like rambles required! Does the personal story tell the examiner that you have been critical and reflective about your life story and its connections with your research?
• Have you just found the definitive new paper? Now is not the time to be adding swathes of new literatures to your text. If you suddenly find an important paper that’s just been written, don’t panic. Don’t rewrite your chapter now. You can mention the paper in the viva, or note it in a very short postscript. (Examiners understand that this happens.)
• If you have a conventional literature review chapter, does it read like a list? What can you tweak to foreground the ideas rather than authors?
• Have you made the connections between the literatures and your methods – what ‘stuff’ are you carrying into the study? Is there a clear statement about how the literatures have informed your thinking and design?
• Have you made the connections between the literatures and your results discussion? Have you established the aspect of the literatures that your work will speak to?
Remember this is not an essay – the examiner is interested in what you did and why.
• Is there a justification for your approach as the way to answer your research question? Are you clear about the difference between methodology and methods?
• Are you clear about what your approach allows you to see and say; do you know its limits?
• Is there an audit trail?
• Is there unnecessary verbage – an essay on poststructuralism, a big trawl through all of the possible methodologies, a long consideration of methods you haven’t used?
• Is there any material that could or should go in an appendix?
Discussion (either as separate chapter or integrated with the results)
• This is a PhD – the Ph is Philosophy – so have you done something more than describe your results – have you provided an interpretation of them, do you say what the results mean?
• Is this discussion more than a report? – it should be an argument that leads to a succinct statement of your contribution.
• Have you clearly linked your results to the existing literatures so you can establish your contribution?
• Have you economically restated the research question and provided your answer to it?
• Have you spelled out the implications of the research? Do you have a good answer to the So What and Now What questions?
• Are the claims you make congruent with your results? In other words – have you over- or under-claimed?
Does your thesis abstract clearly state the problem, the methods, the results and your claims to a knowledge contribution?
• Read the table of contents
Can you make sense of the argument by looking at the headings and subheadings? Are there any headings that are too clever by half or badly worded?
• Read the introduction and conclusion of each chapter
Is there a good don’t-forget-this summary at the end of each chapter?
Does it take a long time for any of the chapters to get going? Revise – the examiner doesn’t need a clever embellishment to get them into substance of the chapter – they need to understand what the chapter is about and to be stimulated to read it, not driven down a side road.
Does the introduction locate this chapter as the next move in the overall narrative?
Do the chapters logically follow on from each other?
Do you get déjà vu going from one chapter to the other? Revise the introduction – any links you established to help you to get the writing to flow between chapters need to come out when you write for the reader. If you haven’t lost the link backs already, do it now.
• Look at the signposting
Does the introduction to the thesis have a road map to the text?
Is there a little guide, an overview, to each chapter in its introduction?
If you are making a very complex argument, have you paused to remind the reader where you are up to?
Is there signposting you can now take out – it helped you in the writing, but is it all necessary for the examiner?
• Look at the way you have used quotations from literatures, media and/or any participants
Are there too many jammed in together? Can you say some of this in your own words?
Have you interpreted quotations? They don’t stand for and by themselves – the examiner needs to know how you’ve interpreted them. Sandwich quotations.
• Read the whole text looking particularly for signs of ‘voice’ and authority’
Are you IN the text rather than hiding behind other voices and texts?
Do you make evaluative comments?
Are there ways in which you have got beyond ‘dispassionate reporting’ to writing which signals your passion for the material?
Pick a couple of pages in each chapter and look particularly for the number of times you use the passive voice and nominalisation. Is the text overloaded with dead writing? Is this a clue you need to read the lot for this kind of impersonal writing.
• Is the manuscript in a coherent style? This includes the references – check the style guide for rules about brackets, stops, commas, capital letters and italics.
• Do all citations have dates and page numbers, if appropriate?
• Do you suffer from wandering tense, over use of particular words, incorrect subject-verb agreements – even poor spelling?
• Have you got some shockingly long sentences – break them up.
• Have you got some shocking long paragraphs – break them up around the key ideas/moves, and make sure your topic sentences are well focused.
• Have you got pages and pages of prose where all the sentences are the same length? (Zzzzz) Get some variety in there.
• Typos typos typos.
After all this, go for a walk and then start to print! And good luck. 🙂