a thesis (often) needs A Big Idea


Everyone knows that the thesis has to make a contribution. No probs. Well yes, there are actually probs. At the end of the research it can be hard to find one. Contribution, where is it?

You’re exhausted from generating all that data and trying to make sense of it. You have descriptions of what you think you can say – and categories. Categories galore – themes and key points. And you can talk about how at least some of this is new. But you can’t seem to get past what you have done. You are just too close to your data.

The too-close stuck-ness often appears at one or two points in thesis writing- (1) not being able to work out how to break the results up into chapters or (2) not being to write a ‘discussion’.

What’s stopping you? Well maybe what’s missing is The Big Idea that is going to make everything come together and hang together.

A good (social science, arts and humanities and some sciences) thesis depends on you finding your Big Idea. The one sentence which sums up what it is that you think you now know that you didn’t when you started. The one sentence that lets you construct the chapters and say what they add up to.

Let me give you an idea of how The Big Idea might work. Suppose I have researched people who are writing their PhDs. I’ve interviewed them and read their texts.

I can see from the interview transcripts that the interviewees often experience periods where they are unsure of what they are writing. I can see that most of them are reluctant to make claims that are too bold. I can see that most of them struggle with structuring their text and they fall back to the default IMRAD structure. I look to see what is lacking from their accounts and I see people variously not yet knowing how to write a big argument and not feeling suitably expert.

What Big Idea might encapsulate that set of results?

In this case it was – yes this was an real research project done by Barbara Kamler and me – it was the notion of text work/identity work. The idea that text and identity work were inseparable and produced and reproduced each other. Gaining authority over the text led to the doctoral researcher feeling more like a researcher. Presenting at a conference as an expert on a topic made the researcher feel more like a researcher and they carried that sense of authority back into their writing and wrote a little differently.

So if we had written our research as a thesis or scholarly monograph, then Barbara and I would have structured our text around The Big Idea of text work/identity work. And it might have looked a bit like this:

  • The problem – doctoral writing and doctoral researchers struggling with writing
  • Introducing key concepts – writing as a social practice, theories of identity,
  • Reporting methodology research design and audit trail of the research
  • Writing in progress, identities in formation– the various processes used by doctoral researchers to get on top of their text
  • Texts in formation – analysis of some texts and interview material to show where and how doctoral researchers were able to make identity and/or text shifts or were stuck
  • The literature review and discussion of results as key sites for text work and identity work
  • Introduction and explanation of the notion of text work/identity work, examining the practices and organisational cultures that supported and hindered tw/iw formation
  • Concluding by naming the contribution – text work/identity work with implications for practice and policy, referring back to the discussion.

Well, we didn’t write this book.

(But a lot of the material can be found in the book we did write for supervisors Helping doctoral students write.)

Finding the Big Idea isn’t always easy. And of course some people do get away without one. However, most people do need The Big Idea to make their argument.

The Big Idea is your one minute answer to the question, What did you find in your research? And you don’t have to wait until someone asks you this question. You can ask it of yourself, particularly as you are working with your data, what it is that you think that you can see emerging? And as you get to the point where you start writing, ask the What did you find? question then – it’s a really helpful start to planning your thesis structure.

Focussing on Your Big Idea is not as scary as ‘making the contribution’, ‘discussing the results’. The Big Idea is a scaffold to the necessary thinking and writing. Getting hold of it and saying it in simple straightforward words also helps you write an abstract or a road map, plan chapters by amassing the pieces necessary for storyboarding or writing chapter Tiny Texts. That’s because starting with your problem and working right to the Big Idea – drum roll, Ta Da – gives you the red thread that will guide the reader through the text.

Do I write like this? Oh yes absolutely. I always sort out my Big Idea when I start to write a paper or a book.

And it was actually my own PhD supervisor who taught me that The Big Idea was helpful as a writing process. He once gave me twenty four hours to come back to him with my thesis chapter outlines. He didn’t suggest I needed a Big Idea, as I remember it, but I found I had to have one to get my task done within the time limit he set.

And afterwards I learnt that getting The Big Idea and an outline made my writing go really quickly. (Thanks Richard.) So I do the same. I always ask for The Big Idea from the doctoral researchers I work with too.

See also:

Take home point

PhD contribution

Original contribution

Photo by Rids on Unsplash


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, argument, Big Idea, contribution, thesis. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to a thesis (often) needs A Big Idea

  1. Always such wonderful suggestions for me to pass on to doctoral candidates that I supervise and to put in to practice, personally, in my own writing. Thanks once again, Prof Thomson.


  2. AliFly* says:

    Oh Pat! I could KISS you! You’re always wonderful but this time you’ve outdone yourself! The timing for this could not be more perfect! I read this blog then literally went and wrote my concluding Big Ideas for my thesis. THANK YOU thank you Thank You!


  3. Tobeka says:

    AliFly Pat was Saviour when I was writing my last chapters and I used her brilliant ideas and I made it. I graduated my PhD in 2017. Thank you Pat.


  4. Jumal Ahmad says:

    Thanks for sharing. Very helpfull


  5. madnecessity says:

    this is exactly what I need to read right now


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