So you are writing your thesis about the research that you have done. And what you write now is is likely to be a little different from the expanded proposal you wrote to confirm your candidature. And a little different from draft chapters you wrote a while ago. As I suggested in my last post, this difference is not as daunting as it sounds, although of course there is always the small matter of having to produce more words.
However, you have one big advantage. You are writing about research that you have done, not the research you want to do.
And this means that while you will still have some thinking to do through the thesis writing process, you do already know the general shape of your results, and you have some idea of what these might say to the existing body of work on the topic. As well, you may have a pretty good idea about any implications your research has for policy and practice. And you may well have a good idea about what research could follow on from it. And finally, you can look back to where you started and see what you now know that you didn’t know before.
You just need to make this into a thesis text. Simple 😉
But here’s the thing. The thesis is not usually a chronological story of how your research took place (unless you are doing action research or some forms of experimental research or some versions of ethnography where you have decided to tell it how it happened in the order in which it happened). The thesis is not a blow by blow account. It is about where you are now – you are telling the reader/examiner about what you now know.
Understanding that you are writing from the point of knowing is good. It means that you can write your introduction in the light of what you know you are going to be able to say in answer to your research questions. You can highlight the need for the answer knowing that this need will feature again in the conclusion where you talk about the implications of your work, the what-comes next. And you can write about your methodology and methods for real, talking about the actual approaches, choices and decisions that you made. These is not hypothetical writing, you did what you are writing about.
The area where it seems hardest to decide what to write in the thesis seems to be the literatures. But the approach is the same – you just stay focused on the fact that you now know the general shape of your results. So you know that you need to include the literatures that your results speak to. Let me elaborate a bit so you know what I mean.
Example 1: You’re researching doctoral supervision. If you’ve concluded that some doctoral researchers don’t have difficulties with their supervisors and you have some clues about why, then you’ll need to write about the supervision literatures and point out where and how relationships are talked about as poor and as good and why – because that’s the discussion you’re contributing to.
Example 2:You’r e researching the doctoral experience. If you’ve concluded that the vast majority of doctoral researchers struggle financially, then you’ll need to talk about the themes in the literatures about the experiences of doctoral researchers, pointing out where finances do and don’t appear. That’s the literatures that your work speaks with.
The literatures you’re contributing to are not the only literatures you need to include. Of course you also need to discuss the literatures that led you to your conclusions. Your building blocks. These may include a theoretical or conceptual framing, as well as literatures which informed your research design (survey or interview questions or observation schedules for example) as well as the literatures that were most useful in analysis. It is customary to put a discussion of building block literatures early in the thesis, although there are some exceptions to this – it’s not a rule. It is customary to tell the reader/examiner most of the key literatures in an early chapter so they know what’s coming up. You may of course decide to vary from custom, but it’s always good to talk through convention-bucking with your supervisor.
You also need to be aware of what to omit. As thesis writer you are telling and showing the examiner a completed piece of work. It’ll be well and truly done by the time they get the bound text. To get to this point, you may well have abandoned some initial ideas and literatures. It’s important to consider how much of this you still need to talk about in the thesis text, and how much you should confine to the cutting room floor. It might be helpful to justify your design for instance by talking about how you modified your initial ideas as you got into close contact with your participants or as circumstances changed. But there might be no need at all to tell anyone that you read a whole lot of stuff about what you thought might be important but turned out wasn’t at all relevant. That was learning. It wasn’t a waste, but it doesn’t have to be in the thesis text.
But there is another thing that’s important besides what you do and don’t include. All of this post-field work thesis writing needs a different kind of meta-commentary than went in your proposal. You are not now proposing something that you hope will get approval. You are confidently putting a case for your completed research to be seen as worthy of the doctorate – you want to show that it has been designed well, carried out ethically and thoroughly, and it makes claims for a contribution based on the results. So you need to look at how you stage this argument, making sure you both guide and persuade the reader.
In sum your thesis text has to include what is relevant and exclude anything that isn’t on point. And you need to create a strong argument top line to carry the reader/examiner through to your claims.
And a caveat. As always, this post is general. Your circumstances are specific and I don’t know them. You always need to think further about any advice you read and consider how much it applies to your work, and if so how – or whether it just doesn’t fit. And, as always, your supervisor is there to help you sort that question out.
Photo by Elias Maurer on Unsplash
Thankyou Pat for this insightful and timely advice (both the first and second parts). I’m just about to revise the methods section again and rewrite my literature review.
At the beginning of the candidature I wrote a very long literature review, thinking it’d set me up. Recently I went though it again and was dismayed how little of it can be used. I feel better knowing this is normal! It also dispels a myth that by writing a literature review at the start you can get it out of the way.