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«The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Gordon Rugg Marian Petre THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH Gordon Rugg and ...»

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Over the course of the last few years you will almost certainly have realized that the real issues in the topic you’re studying aren’t the ones that you expected at the start, so the literature review you write in year three will be very different from the literature review that you wrote in year one. This is completely normal and healthy; it would be worrying if you studied a topic for several years and concluded that your initial hunches were as accurate a set of insights as those obtained by several years of study. It’s highly likely that this is what happened to Thucydides, who stopped writing his great work in mid-sentence and then almost certainly returned to rewriting his opening chapters, to identify themes whose importance he had missed originally. By this stage, you will probably feel remarkably little sympathy for a humourless pedant who died centuries before Christ was born, but if a genius of his stature encountered this problem, then there’s no shame in your encountering it too.

WRITING STRUCTURE 99 So, what is the implication for you? The implication is that you will, if you have any sense, seriously consider writing your introductory and discussion sections again, from scratch, at this stage. This will allow you to make sure that your narrative spine is good, with each section leading neatly into the next, rather than looking like a collection of random things strung together more in hope than expectation. You can, for instance, pose a neat set of questions in the introduction, make sure that each set of tables in the results relates clearly to one of these questions, and then discuss the answers to the questions one by one in your discussion section, with all the potential loose ends neatly tied off.

Using the cabinet-making analogy again, you need to polish the final work.

Make sure that the first pages the examiners read are all pages which display your skills – good references, evidence of expertise, good presentation etc. Allow plenty of time for this. Fixing minor punctuation errors in your references is not conceptually taxing, but it takes a lot of time if you have made a lot of minor errors.

The rest of this chapter covers some of the questions whose answers you may be keen to know, but which you are too embarrassed to ask anyone. It also covers some of the questions to which you should know the answers, but which you may never have thought of. As always, the final word on this should come from your supervisor; we are describing general principles, but your particular thesis may be non-standard in ways which require different treatment.

Some classic mistakes, and how to avoid them

• Don’t leave it all till the last minute. Plan ahead, and allow plenty of contingency time, including time for the binding of the finished article.

• Don’t waffle. It’s your responsibility to be clear, not the examiners’ responsibility to divine your meaning.

• Don’t try to evade an issue by vague or ambiguous wording – examiners are very good at spotting this and will grill you mercilessly about it in the viva.

• Don’t simplify. Write for fellow professionals, or you’ll come across as not understanding the full complexities of your area.

• Don’t use big words if you aren’t absolutely sure of your meaning. A big word, wrongly used, will make you look like an idiot. Examiners will almost certainly know bigger and more esoteric words than you do, and will not be impressed by your ability to misuse a thesaurus.

• Don’t follow the conventions of another discipline or country in the style of your write-up. If you don’t know the conventions of your discipline, find them out. If you disagree with them, then do so after you’ve got your PhD, not in your write-up.


• Finally, and most important, don’t forget the three golden principles:

don’t lie; don’t try to be funny; but above all, don’t panic and blurt out the truth...

Dissertation structure: core concepts What is the dissertation’s organizing principle? Many are evident in existing

work, for example:

• identification of gaps, leading to gap filling;

• unfolding of evidence (one study leading to another);

• theoretical motivation leading to hypothesis-driven investigation leading to refinement of theory;

• refinement or iterative development (iteration on a model; iterative development of an application);

• practice-based (historical progression, with reflection);

• problem leading to empirical research leading to emergent theory.

Although many first drafts are organized chronologically (in terms of how the ideas developed and the research was conducted), this is rarely the most appropriate structure. The archetypal empirically-based dissertation

structure is:

• introduction;

• literature survey;

• methodology/research approach;

• presentation of empirical study/implementation;

• results/discussion;

• conclusions and further work, where the methodology/study/results sequence may be repeated for additional studies or iterations.

Some familiar problems with structure are:

• conclusions not foreshadowed;

• methodology entangled with data and discussion;

• evidence too dispersed;

• results not distinguished from interpretation and discussion;

• two topics whose relationship is not established;

• failure to ‘close the loop’ (i.e. failure to link back to theory, to show how the question/problem was addressed or to relate the outcomes to the objectives).

WRITING STRUCTURE 101 The dissertation: some common questions, some checklists and some questions to ask yourself Length How many chapters, and how long?

A maximum dissertation length (typically around 100,000 words) is specified by most institutions. Sometimes you can use appendices to extend the limit. However, it’s worth remembering that the examiner has to read it all.

The number of chapters should be determined by the structure of what you have done (usually one chapter per discrete chunk of work), and the length should be as much as is needed to give a proper scholarly account of what you have done, and no more.

Structure This topic recurs throughout this book. A brief set of questions to ask yourself


• Is the argument clear and strong?

• Is everything that was included necessary to the argument?

• Conversely, is everything included that was necessary to the argument?

• Does the text flow, or does it read like a shopping list?

Headings Headings are the ‘signposts’ to the argument: they should reveal the structure and suggest the content of the thesis. Headings should therefore be descriptive (and should be long enough to be so). Good headings are clear and informative. A good test is to look over the table of contents to see how much you can anticipate about the research just by scanning the headings. In Avic’s words, when describing ‘elegant’ headings: ‘Just looking at that I could tell what I could expect’.

Some useful questions to ask yourself about the headings in the table of

contents are:

• Where is the problem stated? Can you tell what the problem is?

• Where is the methodology described? Can you tell what was actually done in the research?

• Where is the evidence presented? Can you tell what kind of evidence it is?

• What is the approach or stance adopted for the work?

• Is a new model or theory presented?

• What is important about this research?

• What are the conclusions?

102 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH The research question This is the central part of your thesis; it is horribly easy to forget to state the research question explicitly, precisely because you are so familiar with it that you cannot imagine anyone else not knowing it. Some things to ask yourself


• Where does the statement of the specific research question occur in the introductory chapter? (i.e. how long does the reader have to wait to discover what the particular focus of the dissertation will be?) Is there a one-sentence or a one-paragraph statement of the thesis?

• Is the statement of the research question clear and concise?

• Is the statement of the research question phrased as aims, objectives, questions, goal, problems to be solved, challenges to be addressed, or in some other form?

Theory and evidence Theoretical context provides the rationale for your work; evidence underpins your claim to have made an original contribution to knowledge. You might

want to ask yourself the following questions:

• How is theory presented in the dissertation?

• How is theory used in the argument?

• Is it clear what theory the research relates to?

• How well is the design of the research related to theoretical underpinnings?

• Is it clear how the research contributes to theory in the domain?

• What are the proportions of theory and evidence?

• Is the evidence presented objectively?

• Are the premises stated?

• Are the methods described in a way that allows replication/repetition?

• Is the interpretation distinguished from the data?

• Does the interpretation-as-evidence follow from the data?

• Do the conclusions follow from the evidence?

Introduction This is where you should (a) create a good first impression and (b) show your reader that there is a good reason for your spending several years of your life

researching this topic. Typical ingredients of an introduction are:

–  –  –

• general statement of contribution;

• indication of research approach;

• plan for the remainder of the dissertation: overview of argument.

Final chapter(s) Your goals here reflect those in the introduction: you use the final chapter(s) to show the reader that you have achieved something worthwhile over the last few years, and to create a good closing impression. Typical ingredients of

the final chapter are:

• summary of results (may be compared explicitly against objectives stated in the introduction);

• discussion about how the results generalize;

• discussion of limitations (phrased positively);

• statement of contribution to knowledge;

• future work (phrased strongly and positively);

• speculation (in moderation).

Literature review This reviews the literature, as opposed to simply reporting it. Where should the literature review appear? The answer is in another question: what is the

literature review for? The answers to that question are:

• to frame the research (setting it in the context of existing theory and prior research, showing how it is motivated and showing why it is needed and significant);

• to distinguish this research from other work;

• to establish authority.

Given that the literature review should frame the research, it makes sense that it should be presented at the beginning of the dissertation. Many dissertations add additional, specific references throughout the work – for example, elaborating a technique or providing corroboration or contrast within a discussion section. Some distribute the literature review throughout the dissertation on an ‘as needed’ basis, in effect providing an introduction and literature review for each major part of the research – this can be effective, but is also risky. It is unusual and inadvisable to leave the literature review to the end (such a dissertation would not normally be considered to be well written).

The review should contain:

• an arguably comprehensive/representative collection of literature;

• seminal papers;

• selective papers relating strictly to the focus of the thesis.

104 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH The range of literature needed is discussed throughout this book, as is the desirable number of citations. The required range of publication dates is also discussed throughout this book.

Citations should take the following forms:

• a methodical, ‘objective’ summary of a given paper;

• single-sentence statements;

• direct quotations;

• collective paraphrasing – grouping papers as members of a line of thinking;

• editorial paraphrasing – choosing to report what serves the argument (i.e.

reporting what the paper has to contribute to the argument, not what the paper is about in its own terms).

The report of the paper should be distinguished from its interpretation.

You should ask yourself whether the literature is just reported or whether there is analysis and sense-making.

The key to the literature review is establishing a well-founded base of 50–150 papers on which you can draw reliably.

TablesHow are tables used? What are they used for? Some uses are:

• summary (e.g. of results, statistical analysis, literature);

• comparison (e.g. a comparison of research methods and outcomes across a number of studies);

• providing context and assisting navigation (e.g. through a line of argument, through the dissertation);

• establishing categories and establishing what those categories include;

• providing a framework (e.g. for ideas and their relationships or for techniques and their applications).

Tables can’t just stand in isolation – they must be described in the narrative and relate to it. Remember to check that the tables are labelled in the required format, and that they are labelled consistently.


How are illustrations used, and what are they used for? Illustrations are used:

–  –  –

• to clarify;

• as part of a sinful attempt, usually futile, to cover up for bad writing;

• to provide a conceptual map (a navigation aid through ideas, arguments or processes);

• as comic relief (usually inadvisable – remember the second golden rule about not trying to be funny).

Appendices What sorts of things go into appendices? Answer: supporting material that

doesn’t need to appear in the focal argument, such as:

• data;

• detailed statistical analyses;

• instruments (e.g. questionnaires);

• examples;

• code (if the PhD involved writing software);

• glossary of terms.

Remember: examiners read appendices. Kind examiners read them to find reasons to spare you; unkind examiners read them to find evidence of sin.

Perspectives on writing

• Writing is difficult, and it takes time. Do the calculation: how many useful sentences can you write in five minutes? If you extrapolate how long it will take you to write the article, chapter or whatever you are writing, you can then plan your writing schedule more realistically.

• Writing is about getting the ideas straight, where ‘straight’ is the operative word (see our discussion of narrative spine, or ‘red thread’ on pp. 120).

• Writing imposes certain demands: substance (something meaningful to say); linearity (a clear sequence of reasoning and evidence); and completeness (no gaps in the story).

• Dodgy material (sloppy thinking, poor mapping to theory, dodgy results) makes writing difficult.

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