Tuesday, 18 November 2014

How to write a bad thesis and to spend years of misery doing so

The discussion group took a break in August and I've only just got round to blogging about the July session.  Shame on me!

Duration of a PhD

Elaine Toms volunteered to be interrogated on the subject of theses and began by referring us to an article from the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.  The article "Caught in Thesis Purgatory" described the trials of a Canadian Masters student trapped in a cycle of revisions and rewrites.  The system in Canada is clearly different from the UK, but one thing was clearly the same: writing a thesis usually takes longer than expected.  According to most UK universities, a full-time PhD normally takes three years.  Prof Toms observed that this is very much an exception - a point reinforced by the fact that HEFCE assesses PhD completion rates by the percentage of students who finish within seven years and the percentage who finish within 25 years!

The University Handbook

This offers some generic guidelines about PhD theses, and departmental student handbooks offer more specific guidelines (such as on formatting and thesis length) but these are often out of date and should be verified.  Elaine also gave a reference to an article on How to write consistently boring scientific literature, to aid the surprisingly few academics who aren't naturally gifted in this field.

Doctoral Development Programme

The DDP offers courses to help students develop the skills needed to complete a PhD, and to equip them for the job market.  However, Elaine noted courses should be selected strategically.  Students should not go for "every spice in the cupboard".  Also - although a long list of training is offered, not all courses are available all the time.

Upgrade Report vs Final Thesis

Upgrade reports are now called Confirmation reports. They should answer the questions "Is it likely that the student is good enough?"  "Is the research idea good enough?"

In other words, they should shows promise, which isnot the same as saying that the ideas are fixed and crystallized.  Another question that a confirmation report should answer is "Why is this problem important?".  In answering that question, it show demonstrate a clear understanding of the problem and a grasp of the literature.

Methodology and Methods

Methodology - What is the research philosophy?  How and why were the methods chosen? 
Methods - A good methods chapter is like a recipe -  it should be follow-able.  eg, Why is focus group more appropriate than interviews?  What questions will be asked?
(Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage.)

Research questions

A good research question should be concise, answerable, focussed.  More specifically it should be:

  • Pragmatic, so it can be answered in the time available;
  • Novel (so literature must be well covered in order to demonstrate novelty). 
  • Appliable - Will it help to discover things not already known?  Does it have practical implications?
  • Answerable - Eg, it must be ethical and it should be practical (eg no problems with privacy or security).

Objectives and Research Quetions

A Thesis should have 3-5 aims with a set of RQs for each one.  Answers to RQs should be clearly mapped onto Objectives.

Results and Discussion

Give data in a results chapter and interpretation in the discussion  This allows the reader to draw conclusions, then compare them with the author's.

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