How does a thesis get written? What do I as a supervisor do to help? How does feedback work best? A set of inter-related questions that keep many of us mildly, or a lot, worried.
Well, I have an ‘ideal model’ for feedback on a thesis. I don’t always follow it. Quite often my model doesn’t work in the way I imagine it could and should, because either I or the doctoral researcher, or both of us, haven’t set aside enough time.
But it might be helpful for me – and maybe for PhDers out there – to do a bit of show and tell about my ‘magical feedback calendar thinking’. It’s really just as an example, not a best way. But because I don’t see feedback and calendars talked about very much I thought it might be interesting to put it out there.
A caveat – I’m talking here from a Social Science-Humanities perspective, and about a Big Book thesis. What happens in a lab-based project, or a PhD by publication, will differ quite significantly from what I am about to say. And lots of supervisors in my disciplinary fields won’t share my ideas either. That’s OK. The general point I’m making – that it’s helpful for supervisor and doctoral researcher to develop a calendar for writing and feedback – is applicable to everyone.
So to my little imaginary… What I most like to see by way of thesis writing and feedback are progress through these five stages:
- Written chunks of data analysis.
Writing chunks of analysis allows the doc researcher and I to discuss the ideas they are working with, potential arguments, theoretical framings and possible structures for the text. This kind of chunky writing can begin way, way before field work is finished.
2. Thesis abstract and brief abstracts for each chapter.
Writing the overall abstract and the thesis structure affords discussion of the research contribution and the way it will be set up in the thesis. How will the introduction create the warrant for the research? What will the thesis argue? How will this argument be expressed as major ‘moves’? This discussion leads naturally into considering how the argument will be choreographed as text – How will the data analysis and discussion be organised into chapters? How will the literatures be presented – separately or together? How and where will any theoretical framing be presented? What will the conclusion emphasise?
There is usually at this stage some writing of individual chapters. Draft chapter writing focuses on the mini-argument made in each separate chapter. Is the chapter argument persuasive? What is included in the chapter that ought to be somewhere else in the thesis? What is excluded from the chapter that needs to be in? What literatures are being cited, and are they enough and are they up to the job? Some preliminary feedback on writing might well happen here too – so common problems such as literature-as- laundry-list can be addressed earlier rather than later.
3. First whole draft.
Feedback on a first draft focuses on the quality of the ideas and the flow of the argument. Does the argument hold up? Are obvious objections and issues deal with? Are there any over-generalisations, false claims, under-assertions? Is the engagement with literatures and the analysis suitably critical and evaluative? I also have other things in my head at this point too. Should things that are currently in one chapter be in another? Are any obvious things left out? What might go in an Appendix? How do headings and sub-headings carry the argument? Are there any obvious writing tics and problems that can be addressed now rather than later? Does the writer have a ‘voice? Are there any stylistic tools that might help the text have more ‘life’ and ‘character’?
4. The second draft.
The fine-grained examiner-hat-on feedback. This is the most time-consuming stage for me, as it involves detailed attention to paragraphing, syntax, choice of terminology, phrasing and so on. While I continue to look at the argument and analytic sophistication, I also check to make sure the references that I think the examiner will want to see are cited. I also check the style of the referencing at this point, looking for consistency. This reading means I do lots of track changes and I need a lot of intensive time at the computer. At best, I manage about two chapters a day of this kind of work.
Sometimes stage ( 3) has to be repeated in order to get the text working before going on to (4). Because of time, a first draft may combine elements of both (1) and (2). Even (3) might be folded in under worst circumstances. Combinations of feedback stages can be pretty overwhelming, because both substantive content and form are under the supervisory lens. (See bleeding thesis.)
5. The last run-through.
This is not a proof read (that’s the doctoral researcher’s responsibility) – although if a good proof read is needed it will be obvious at this point in time. Rather it’s a final check on the argument, warrant and conclusion and, most importantly, catching up with the revisions resulting from the fine-grained read. A tracked changes final draft is therefore time-saving for both doctoral researcher and me.
Now these five stages may equate to more than a twelve-month work-plan. More days than in a whole year. 365 plus days… Scary when you think of it like that. Not only for the doctoral researcher – but also for the supervisor, particularly if there are more than one or two people on the same completion run-down time-table as I have now.
But seeing thesis development as a set of stages – even if yours are vastly different from mine – is good. It’s not only useful as a way for doc researchers to work out what to do when and what to expect by way of feedback. It’s also a guide to developing writing-feedback calendar too. Counting back from submission to the very beginning of chunks of data and putting weeks and months against them provides a real sense of the way ahead. While it might also be daunting, getting your head around the path to completion is also integral to feeling – and staying – in control. And of course, it’s absolutely critical to be realistic about how many weeks it’ll take to write the text for each sequence – and how many weeks it’ll take me to do the feedback. Needless to say, if circumstances change, or if a repeat stage is required, then the calendar has to be adjusted.
The calendar can also help PhDers to sort out where conferences fit in, what to do in between drafts while waiting for feedback and when might be good times to do some writing for publication.
But the calendar is also important for supervision. It helps me enormously if I can also plan my year around the times when I know I will be doing intensive reading and feedback of thesis work. My own book writing depends on finding times when I don’t have to do a lot of feedback work.
Now as I said already, but let me repeat, I don’t expect that all supervisors will have the same way of doing things that I do. Your supervisor may prefer that you work together on all of the chapters one by one so that they are all written to a pretty good standard – then only one draft will need and get feedback. A lot of supervisors don’t work with abstracts like I do. Your supervisor will probably have some other sequence of writing and feedback that works for them and your topic.
But feedback and calendar are a Good Thing to talk about. Setting up a writing-feedback calendar provides a VERY helpful focus for a discussion sometime towards the end of field, library or lab work.
And it’s a good thing to pin your calendar on your wall above your screen next to your research question. You get to cross off each stage as you finish them – so you see yourself creeping up on completion. Yay.
Just in case it’s of use, here’s my ideal writing feedback table, just for interest you know… you do your own version. Then make it into a calendar with actual real-life dates.
TARGET COMPLETION DATE
|FINAL DRAFT||Date handed into supervisor||Date handed back|
|FINE-GRAINED READ||Date handed into supervisor||Date handed back|
|FIRST DRAFT||Date handed into supervisor||Date handed back|
|Dates handed into supervisor||Dates handed back|
|ABSTRACT AND CHAPTER OUTLINES||Dates handed into supervisor||Dates handed back|
|CHUNKS OF ANALYTIC WRITING
|Dates handed into supervisor||Dates handed back|