Saturday, March 22, 2014

More PhD Thesis Advice From Examiners and Supervisors: 50 Top Tips

thesis-writing-300x225by , Anne Bruton's Blog:

'How to impress your PhD examiners'

This advice has been collated from emails sent to me (Anne Bruton) in response to a request I sent round Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Southampton staff, while I was writing a piece on a Friday afternoon in March 2014 called “How not to irritate your PhD examiner”.

You can read this here.

These responses are largely written from the viewpoint of an external examiner, that is, someone who does not know you, and can only judge your work from the thesis you have submitted.

Some of the advice may seem flippant, or harsh - but all the advice is given with the best of intentions. PhD examiners want you to pass. Your aim as a student is not to give them reasons to fail you. This advice may help in that aim, but comes with no guarantees.

At times the advice is conflicting - this is partly because different disciplines have different expectations (which is why you should have been reading published theses in your field), and partly because examiners are individuals just like you, so we all have our own views.

From the emails I received I have collated 50 Top Tips from PhD examiners, plus a further 20 Top Tips from PhD supervisors. The names in brackets are the authors of each email. Enjoy.

50 Top Tips from the staff of 2014 (Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Southampton):

1. Stick to the thesis word limits of the institution/ programme and follow the presentation guidance (Judith Lathlean)
2. Avoid verbose writing and remember that more is sometimes less. Size matters - the thesis should be as long as it needs to be, but as short as it can be (Peter Griffiths)
3. Write to express, not to impress (Lisa Roberts)
4. The thesis should be as concise as possible. A heavy, thick thesis gives most examiners a heart-sink moment (Joy Conway)
5. Why say in 100 words what you can say in 10? (Steve Ryall)
6. Keep the contents page brief, with main headings only (Lisa Roberts)
7. Be clear in the introduction what the thesis is about, what it is intended to achieve, and what field it is intended to contribute to. This will tell the examiners how they should understand and thus assess the thesis (Carl May)
8. Ensure adequate signposting throughout the chapters/ thesis to help guide the examiners through your work (it is very likely that they will have read it at different time points and perhaps over a few weeks) (Maggie Donovan-Hall)
9. Signpost the direction and progress of the thesis. Use chapter titles, headings and subheadings to clearly identify what the examiner is about to read. Regularly explain the direction of the work and summarise what has been shown thus far (Carl May)
10. Using sub-headings to help signpost the reader is a good idea, but not to 4th and 5th order (Lisa Roberts)
11. Keep headings short and ensure they are not longer than the paragraph they refer to (Lisa Roberts)
12. Some repetition of sections from a review of literature might be expected but not in multiple chapters (Jill Whitall)
13. Check that your reference list exactly matches the references you use in the thesis (Lisa Roberts)
14. Visual representation of a concept/ result is often very powerful e.g. flow chart of a clinical trial design. A DVD can be as effective as an appendix (Joy Conway)
15. Think long and hard before thanking God in your acknowledgements - God may not wish to be associated and your examiner might not be impressed by the authority (Peter Griffiths)
16. Acknowledgments should be kept short and sweet. Acknowledging supervisors and collaborators is diplomatic and to be expected. Gushing phrases about a life partner are not required - particularly when followed by poetry (Joy Conway)
17. Try to avoid ending the sentences with prepositions (Steve Ryall)
18. Remember your examiners are likely to be at a stage when their eyesight is failing - so don’t be tempted to use tiny fonts (Catherine Pope)
19. Most theses are improved by the removal of the word ‘very’. Similarly remove all hyperbole or superlatives - cautious understatement is good (Mandy Fader)
20. Don’t use acronyms at all if you can avoid it. If you must, only use well known ones - don’t make up your own. Provide a glossary of any essential acronyms at the front of the thesis (Peter Griffiths, Joy Conway)
21. Never use the word ‘interesting’ (or similar) on the basis that only the reader can decide what is interesting (Catherine Angell)
22. Datum is singular, data are plural (Mary Gobbi)
23. Avoid sloppy editing and proof read properly (Peter Griffiths, Alan Glasper)
24. Spell your supervisors name correctly (Peter Griffiths)
25. Do not rely on spell check and if English is not your first language (or it is but you are not fluent) have someone you trust read through. It should not be the supervisor’s job to be your copy editor and proof reader at this point (Anne Bruton, Jill Whitall)
26. Don’t put important stuff in Appendices - if it needs to be read it needs to be in the main thesis (Peter Griffiths)
27. Be consistent in style (e.g. number of decimal points reported) (Peter Griffiths)
28. Know what an apostrophe is, and when it is (and isn’t) used (Lisa Roberts)
29. Remove track changes comments from the supervisor from the final thesis (Lisa Roberts)
30. Avoid rhetorical questions (Lisa Roberts)
31. Avoid defining patients by their condition e.g. ‘back pain patients’ (Lisa Roberts)
32. If humanly possible avoid referring to yourself in the third person ‘… the researcher ...’. In almost all cases we will know it is you and you can write in the third person, but better to use the first person in order to avoid tortuous and inelegant language.
33. Always write in the third person, except in a reflective piece (Anne Bruton, Mandy Fader, Pete White)
34. Never use the word ‘issues’ (Anne Rogers)
35. It is important that your thesis has a plot line with a beginning, a middle and an end (Alan Glasper)
36. Metaphorical characters in your story must not simply disappear, they need to be accounted for, and if new characters are introduced their provenance needs to be explained (Alan Glasper)
37. If your research is linked to a wider study, make sure it is clear which aspects relate to your PhD and what you carried out yourself (Maggie Donovan-Hall)
38. Don’t write in the thesis … ‘I wasn’t allowed to undertake my data collection on X in the NHS, so I had to resort to using the private sector. The systems of X are very different in the private sector but I had no choice. I still believe however that my results are valid in the NHS …’ (Judith Lathlean)
39. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print (George Orwell via Jane Burridge)
40. Never use a long word where a short one will do (George Orwell via Jane Burridge)
41. Use 5p words not 50p words (Jill Whitall)
42. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out (George Orwell via Jane Burridge)
43. Never use the passive where you can use the active (George Orwell via Jane Burridge)
44. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent (George Orwell via Jane Burridge)
45. Avoid the use of verbose language. Examiners will recognise this as ’fluff’. Clear, simple English all the way (Joy Conway)
46. Ideas need to flow and make sense, not hop around like a kangaroo (Steve Ryall)
47. Linking sentences between paragraphs are good (Steve Ryall)
48. Avoid repetition (Steve Ryall)
49. Avoid over referencing famous philosophers. Above all, keep clear of Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau Ponty unless you have actually read and understood them. This is unlikely, so just avoid referencing them (Carl May)
50. There is a law of diminishing returns. Constantly rewriting and correcting parts of the thesis that your supervisor believes are completely satisfactory is likely only to introduce error. If you do decide to rewrite important and substantial parts of the thesis in the days before submitting it, avoid intoxicants (Carl May) 

20 Top Tips from supervisors:

1. Write from the beginning, write everyday (Anne Rogers)
2. Spend time writing a very clear, short abstract of your work which can act as a reminder of what you are supposed to be writing about (Anne Rogers)
3. Do a plan. Make sure that you know what you want to say in each section, how this links with the previous/ next section and how this fits with your overall submission i.e. is it relevant. (Pete White)
4. Always put your writing through the spellcheck/ grammar check before giving it to your supervisor (Steve Ryall)
5. Don’t rely totally on spellcheck (Anne Bruton)
6. Put stuff that gets in the way of the flow of the narrative into foot notes which you can then delete most of later (Anne Rogers)
7. Read a classic novel before your write up your thesis e.g. Jane Eyre. (Alan Glasper)
8. Please read BOOKS not just scientific research articles - engage with an individual’s or discipline’s body of work on a topic and research her/ him/ them, understand how ideas evolved over time, contextualise geographically, temporally, culturally (Julie Wintrup)
9. Know the names and gender of people whose work is seminal to your research and refer to them, let their names trip off your tongue - if they are important your examiner will know them and will expect you to as well (Julie Wintrup)
10. Understand the difference between: the medically-derived concept of Evidence Based Practice; a systematic review of the literature; a literature review; piling books by the bed and trusting in osmosis during sleep (Julie Wintrup)
11. Rather than telling students what to avoid doing, supervisors should tell them what to do (Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield)
12. Students, irritate your supervisor: ask them to explain, to give you examples and don’t say you understand until you really do understand. And ask why (Julie Wintrup)
13. Publish ahead of the viva (Joy Conway)
14. It is good to include a summary of any papers/ presentations/ outputs from the research to date for examiners to see (Lisa Roberts)
15. Come to see me when you have ideas to discuss, not when you want me to tell you what it means (Steve Ryall)
16. This is an academic piece of work, don’t write ‘like what you might speak’ and avoid colloquialisms (Steve Ryall)
17. Read the thesis out aloud - because what you think makes sense may not when you actually read it out (Steve Ryall)
18. Read your thesis out loud  and if you can’t breathe - break the sentences up (Catherine Pope)
19. Have experimental chapters in as close to paper submission form as possible, preferably already published of course (Jill Whitall)
20. Keep multiple copies (electronic and hard). One copy in the freezer in case your house catches fire (Jill Whitall)

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