Using This Book

Chapters1, 2, 3 and 4 concern how to get started, and what decisions to make before you even begin. Chapters5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 show you how to tackle the various parts of a thesis and bring it to the point of submission. As a developing researcher, as well as writing a thesis you are probably presenting your research in journals and conferences, perhaps in collaboration with your colleagues or supervisor, a topic considered in Chap.12; in this chapter I also consider some of the other challenges of being a PhD student.I have used versions of this book as a source for graduate seminars and work-shops on thesis writing. Those who are well into their writing seem to get immedi-ate benefit from it. However, if you are at an early stage, I suggest you first read Chaps.1 and 2 and—although this may seem surprising—Chap.12. Some of it may not take on an edge of reality until you are well into your writing. As you will see, a key piece of advice (I would love to make it a command!) is that you start writ-ing as early as possible, right at the beginning of your candidature. So you should also read Chap.3, and get a sense of how best to make use of a word processor for authoring of a thesis, and of what the technicalities of thesis writing are. Make sure that you check the chapter summaries, which in some cases include discussion of useful kinds of online resources. A book of this kind must navigate the variations in terminology and spelling between institutions and countries. I’ve had to make choices that might seem contentious, but to me the important thing is to be consistent. For example, I’ve chosen program instead of programmed; degree instead of program (in another sense of the word); graduate rather than postgraduate; thesis rather than dissertation; British/Australian rather than American spelling (with the exception of the suffix ‘–ize’); supervisor rather than advisor; and PhD rather than doctorate.


Thesis writing can be challenging for students and supervisors, but one of the many rewards for both parties is to receive positive examiners’ reports. I was there when Brian found out that his PhD thesis required just a few minor corrections. He was clearly relieved after years of hard work to discover he had passed with little fuss, but he shouldn’t have been too surprised. Brian had written a thesis that, from the start, was well-motivated and purposeful; it was well situated in the field and fluent in the current debates in the discipline; was based on sound principles for data col-lection; presented results that made it clear what he had achieved; and concluded with his own insightful contributions to the field and observations on how others could pursue further research in the area. From the start, Brian knew that he had a straightforward task: to convince the examiners that his work had merit, that his data collection and analysis was sound, and that his recommendations were based on firm evidence. In practice, of course, he encountered challenges and worked hard to convey his thinking. Few people have the gift of getting it all down with ease, or with polish. Most students need guidance and editing and criticism, and many struggle during their early attempts to construct and sustain a coherent academic argument. The purpose of this book is to help you to produce a thesis that passes examination. From the start, good students tend to be independent, confident, and are in the habit of thinking like a researcher. Some students have such skills at the beginning, but most have to learn them, and do so by working with their supervisors and other students. In this book, I provide examples of what successful students have done as they have made progress in their work. I point out, too, some of the mistakes that are possible if the task of writing a thesis is not approached in the right way. My examples are based on the students, like Brian, that I have worked with for several years each.

What Is a Thesis?

Simply defined, a thesis is an extended argument. To pass, a thesis must demonstrate logical, structured, and defensible reasoning based on credible and verifiable evidence presented in such a way that it makes an original contribution to knowledge, as judged by experts in the field. Among the many types of scholarly productions, theses are an oddity: each one is different, and there are no standard or generic constructions. Most of those who supervise theses have written just one, and, despite the effort they take to produce, the only people who carefully read a given thesis are the project supervisors, the examiners, and an otherwise rather select audience of specialized academics .From the start, it is good to have a solid idea of what a thesis is, and perhaps the best place to start a discussion of theses is with their purpose. What do examiners look for when they judge your work?

Criteria for Examination  When universities send out a thesis for examination, they include their suggested guidelines for the examiners. I recommend that you get a copy of these guidelines from your own university (they are almost certainly available online) and look them over carefully. Make an effort, too, to understand the process of submission and examination. At my university, the University of Melbourne < >, the guide-lines begin by listing key attributes of a successful thesis (quoted from the university’s School of Graduate Research website, as of November 2010):