Thursday, 21 May 2009

Writing your thesis

Writing your thesis was the title of a PG seminar today. The format was simple: four post grads sat at the top table and explained how they'd got this far.
  1. One PG had just submitted and not yet had her viva. She advised keeping notes whenever you were formulating ideas. Discuss your ideas, do posters, join research groups, talk with fellow students. Network with fellow researchers, such as the OU network here. Her end problems had been with Word not coping with long documents that held Endnote references, but crashed or printed in hieroglyphics. It might be worth adapting the project plan to allow 60 hours a month for writing in the last six months, and allow a month for supervisors to read each draft.
  2. Another had got through her viva with minor corrections a few months ago. She waved her handwritten research journal at us. She had tabs and markers all over it, said that she would go back to it for ideas, and to see how how her ideas had developed.
  3. A third had finished, had her viva some years ago, but had been given major corrections. She had had to remove all phrases, 'It could be argued...', as well as restructure whole chapters. She was allowed a year, and had to email the chapters to the external as she made the changes, so had to keep a record of what version she was using. She also had an emotional reaction to the criticism, hated the examiner, but she said that in the end she had a better piece of writing.
  4. The fourth speaker - I don't know when she'd done hers, but her theme was for students whose first language was not English. She recommended a book for students to get: 'Supervising post grads from non-English speaking backgrounds'.
Question: What's the examiner looking for?
Answer: See the OU research students handbook. This link goes to it if you can log into the OU intranet. For a PhD, it says:
"A thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy must be a significant contribution to knowledge, worthy of publication and giving evidence of your ability to undertake further research without supervision."
Finally, an academic spoke - said he was there to defend the supervisors. He'd done his PhD so long ago, that he'd handwritten it, given it to his mother to type, and there was no software to struggle with, or to use for references.

Then there were questions.
Question: something about the literature
Answer: Keep up with the literature and draw in from widely different journals and areas.

Question: Is learning to use Endnote worth the effort?
Answer: Yes, because a) you'll have all your references in one place, b) you need only press a button to change the format, e.g. all the titles to italic, c) you don't want to be proof reading references. (I had a problem of that with minor corrections to my references in my MRes.)

Question: How do I get to start writing a chapter or a paper?
Answer: This was an interesting answer because successful PG #2 leaped up to the flip chart and sketched a circle on it. You start with the question(s) you're trying to address, make your claims, bring in the evidence you have available then evaluate. But this is an iterative, not a sequential process. You can then bring in the concepts from the literature that inform your claims, and use qualitative or quantitative evidence that you've collected as part of your research. She advised evaluating using Dunleavy's advice. I've mentioned him before, here and here but I don't know what he has to say on evaluation.

This was a seminar that provided much food for thought, so was worth going to.

Dunleavy P. 2003. Authoring a phd : How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke ; New York.

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