A few days ago, The Guardian Higher Education Network asked for tips on finishing a PhD thesis. I lobbed out this sound byte:
More is not always better. A PhD thesis is not a race to the highest page count; don’t waste time padding.
It struck a chord amongst those listening and appeared in their compilation of 15 top tips.
I thought I’d elaborate a little on what I meant. Here are a few of my dos and don’ts for crafting a svelte and meaty thesis.
Don’t repeat the literature just because it looks impressive.
Nobody likes a smart alec. I know you spent ages learning all sorts of difficult theory to understand that derivation of Smith’s Laws; you want the kudos. Who wouldn’t? But your examiners know it too, and probably much better than you do. Impress them with what you’ve done with it, not with what you’ve read about it.
Do repeat the literature if it helps you make a point.
On the other hand, if the derivation of Smith’s Laws contains a piece of logic you need later, don’t cut it out just because it isn’t new. Reminding your readers of how the old logic works will help them understand how you’re using it.
Don’t spell out the same argument twice.
Copy-and-paste should be banned in all academic writing. If you use a very similar argument more than once, don’t repeat it in full—just state the differences. It will be easier to understand and will improve logical flow.
Do assume your readers are intelligent.
Along the same lines as the last point, your readers don’t need to have every last crossed-I and dotted-T handed to them on a platter. An examiner will quickly bore of hunting for the real logic amongst the undergrowth of banality, and the good bits will end up seeming worse.
Don’t cut things out because they’re “unsexy”.
You are trying to impress people with your dedication and research skill, not by how many of your chapters have trendy ideas in them. If you have a section of work that’s important to your later results, but, for whatever reason, doesn’t get the adrenaline pumping by itself, then don’t just cut it out of spite.
Do make use of appendices.
If all that really matters in that “unsexy” section is its end result, consider annexing it. Putting important-but-dry material in an appendix lowers the intellectual mass of the main text and keeps your best work front and centre.
Don’t assault the reader with a thousand figures.
You’ve got all this data, and it depends on all these variables, and some of it makes straight lines some of the time. Plot, plot, plot—show every angle and let the reader decide what’s important, right? Wrong. Two choice graphs backing up your results will carry far more weight than when they’re jostling with eight more.
Do replace a thousand words with one figure.
Your figures—graphs, diagrams, photos—are not fluffy afterthoughts. In fact, they will probably be the first things a reader will scan through. Replacing a paragraph of text with one carefully constructed diagram will do wonders for both immediate and long-term clarity.
Don’t skimp on the introductions and conclusions.
Introductory and concluding material is not the place to economise. You are giving your work context and value. Knowing how everything fits together will help both you and your readers to understand just what it is you’ve done.
Do keep to the point.
Giving your work context and value is not a license to describe every paper since 1921. Make sure every paragraph is adding value beyond lengthening your reference list and page count. There’s no need to describe the state of every subfield from A to Z; more citations do not equate to a better-rounded thesis.
Have pride in what’s inside your thesis, not in how much it weighs. It’s the culmination of an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears, and it deserves the royal treatment (as do you!). Good luck!