Many PhD students are now in the final throes of writing their thesis. Turning years of research into a single, coherent piece of work can be tough, so we asked for tips from supervisors and recent PhD graduates. We were inundated with tweets and emails – and @AcademiaObscura helpfully created a Storify of the tweets. Below is a selection of the best tips.
1) Make sure you meet the PhD requirements for your institution
“PhD students and their supervisors often presume things without checking. One supervisor told his student that a PhD was about 300 pages long so he wrote 300 pages. Unfortunately the supervisor had meant double-spaced, and the student had written single-spaced. Getting rid of 40,000 extra words with two weeks to go is not recommended.” (Hannah Farrimond, lecturer in medical sociology, Exeter University)
2) Keep perspective
“Everyone wants their thesis to be amazing, their magnum opus. But your most important work will come later. Think of your PhD as an apprenticeship. Your peers are unlikely to read your thesis and judge you on it. They are more likely to read any papers (articles, chapters, books) that result from it.” (Dean D’Souza, PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Birkbeck, University of London)
3) Write the introduction last
“Writing the introduction and conclusion together will help to tie up the thesis together, so save it for the end.” (Ashish Jaiswal, PhD in business education, University of Oxford)
4) Use apps
“Trello is a project management tool (available as a smartphone app) which allows you to create ‘boards’ on which to pin all of your outstanding tasks, deadlines, and ideas. It allows you to make checklists too so you know that all of your important stuff is listed and to-hand, meaning you can focus on one thing at a time. It’s satisfying to move notes into the ‘done’ column too.” (Lucy Irving, PhD in psychology, Middlesex University)
5) Address the unanswered questions
“There will always be unanswered questions – don’t try to ignore or, even worse, obfuscate them. On the contrary, actively draw attention to them; identify them in your conclusion as areas for further investigation. Your PhD viva will go badly if you’ve attempted to disregard or evade the unresolved issues that your thesis has inevitably opened up.” (Michael Perfect, PhD in English literature, University of Cambridge)
6) Buy your own laser printer
“A basic monochrome laser printer that can print duplex (two-sided) can be bought online for less than £100, with off-brand replacement toners available for about £30 a pop. Repeatedly reprinting and editing draft thesis chapters has two very helpful functions. Firstly, it takes your work off the screen and onto paper, which is usually easier to proof. Secondly, it gives you a legitimate excuse to get away from your desk.” (James Brown, PhD in architectural education, Queen’s University Belfast)
7) Checking is important
“On days when your brain is too tired to write, check quotations, bibliography etc so you’re still making progress.” (Julia Wright, professor of English at Dalhousie University, Canada)
8) Get feedback on the whole thesis
“We often get feedback on individual chapters but plan to get feedback from your supervisor on the PhD as a whole to make sure it all hangs together nicely.” (Mel Rohse, PhD in peace studies, University of Bradford)
9) Make sure you know when it will end
“Sometimes supervisors use optimistic words such as ‘You are nearly there!’ Ask them to be specific. Are you three months away, or do you have six months’ worth of work? Or is it just a month’s load?” (Rifat Mahbub, PhD in women’s studies, University of York)
10) Prepare for the viva
“Don’t just focus on the thesis – the viva is very important too and examiners’ opinions can change following a successful viva. Remember that you are the expert in your specific field, not the examiners, and ask your supervisor to arrange a mock viva if practically possible.” (Christine Jones, head of school of Welsh and bilingual studies, University of Wales Trinity St David)
11) Develop your own style
“Take into account everything your supervisor has said, attend to their suggestions about revisions to your work but also be true to your own style of writing. What I found constructive was paying attention to the work of novelists I enjoy reading. It may seem that their style has nothing to do with your own field of research, but this does not matter. You can still absorb something of how they write and what makes it effective, compelling and believable.” (Sarah Skyrme, PhD in sociology, Newcastle University)
12) Remember that more is not always better
“A PhD thesis is not a race to the highest page count; don’t waste time padding.” (Francis Woodhouse, PhD in mathematical biology, University of Cambridge)
13) Get a buddy
“Find a colleague, your partner, a friend who is willing to support you. Share with them your milestones and goals, and agree to be accountable to them. This doesn’t mean they get to hassle or nag you, it just means someone else knows what you’re up to, and can help to check if your planning is realistic and achievable.” (Cassandra Steer, PhD in criminology, University of Amsterdam)
14) Don’t pursue perfectionism
“Remember that a PhD doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Nothing more self-crippling than perfectionism.” (Nathan Waddell, lecturer in modernist literature, Nottingham University)
15) Look after yourself
“Go outside. Work outside if you can. Fresh air, trees and sunshine do wonders for what’s left of your sanity.” (Helen Coverdale, PhD in law, LSE)
• Do you have any tips to add? Share your advice in the comments below.
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MA Dissertation Proposal Form 2009 (EXAMPLE)
(This proposal form should total no more than 1000 words, not including bibliographical information included in suggested literature.)
Mr John Smith
MA International Relations
To investigate the motivations and objectives within the George W. Bush administration for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
To consider the range of motivating factors that came into the thinking of the administration. This will be done by looking at the relevant - published - primary sources and a selection of the secondary materials.
"What are motivations?" and "What are objectives?" How do we assess these? How much overlap is there? Where are the useful distinctions?
Make the point
- "Public justifications" vs "Private validation" - Assessing motivations of key protagonists is difficult given their capacity for secrecy and the absence of corroborating documents due to them not having been released. (Indeed quite a number may not be available for many years given that there is Presidential discretion in what is placed in Presidential Libraries).
- "unintended consequences" (value of six years of hindsight) - Iraq has proved to be a recruiting sergeant for insurgent Al'queda, took the eye off the ball in Afghanistan and has allowed Taliban to regroup.
Possible Chapters (second order analysis/questions (?))
What was the threat from Iraq?
- Saddam Hussein - "Rouge leader" snubbing (US led) world order - could not be tolerated by the administration and the legacy from 1991 for both Saddam and the US. For Saddam, he had shown that he had stood up to the US and survived, indeed prospered - as the Republican Guard was still at his disposal and he was able to exploit the "Oil for Food" programme to his personal benefit and the detriment of millions of Iraqis. For the US, according to the administration Saddam had failed to comply with the resolutions ending the 1991 conflict.
Link to International Terrorism - unproven and tenuous
WMD programme - He had used them previously on Al Habja and had had a dedicated Chemical Weapons programme. Plus previously he had been developing the nuclear programme up to 1982 and the Israeli attack on Osirak.
- Saddam's rhetoric was that he had them and he would use them. He had said he would make Kuwait a bloodbath in 1991.
- The UN inspection regime had been thwarted in their operation - despite not finding anything. Ref: Hans Blix
- The danger of believing opposition HUMINT.
Message to Rogue States (Axis of Evil)
Iran - made approach after 9/11 but since Axis of Evil speech have become increasing recalcitrant especially re. Israel and wiping it off the face of the map. Plus have been supporting or at least condoning the insurgency/division of Iraq between Suni and Shia.
Syria - seemed to work as they have been more conciliatory but have possibly been supporting challenges to Israel.
North Korea - as ever very difficult to ascertain but until recently had been working to South Korea's Sunshine policy. In hindsight may have heightened the development of their nuclear programme (and was a late addition to the "Axis" to prevent it appearing anti-nuclear.)
Libya - unnamed but Gadaffi had been long time critic and with help from British track-two diplomacy, Libya decommissioned its WMD programmes.
International dimension "Coalition of the Willing"
Relationship with UN - resolution 1441 a justification/John Bolton as US Ambassador to UN - a fundamental distrust of the UN born out of its difficulties in the 1990s (legacy of Somalia, failures in Bosnia and Rwanda and the "Oil for Food" corruption.)
Middle East Peace Process - the MEP was not prioritised in the administration and perception of being under the influence of the Israel lobby (often overstated amongst the multitude of lobbyists in a $4bn industry).
Democratising the Middle East - a new iteration of the "Domino effect"; was this a substantive agenda in western understandings of "Democracy" when the administration supported/was dependent on the Saudi and Pakistan regimes - both of which would struggle to be considered democracies in a number of respects.
"Coalition of the Willing"
- Blair bringing a key ally to the party in the shape of the UK capability (Special Forces and Intelligence), but also "legitimacy" despite his difficulties domestically.
- Old Europe and New Europe - the eagerness of New Europe to join in while the French/Germans were reluctant - countering the "We are all Americans now" Le Monde headline September 12th.
Why March 2003?
Post 9/11 context - The impact of the 9/11 attacks on the psychology and emotion of the United States ("Why do they hate our freedom?")
American Exceptionalism - tradition of Manifest Destiny.
George Bush - as a "War President" and the US was on a War footing - what about his "beliefs"?
The Players: Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and then Paul Wolfowitz and the "Neo Cons" / Vulcans.
The logistics were in place in the Middle East - the mission could be done operationally.
Post-Afghanistan hubris - had shown that the United States could do expeditionary warfare with a combination of Special Forces and overwhelming air power.
Fulfilment of "Bush Doctrine" - the concept of pre-emption and Rumsfeld's "Transformation" of the military at the Pentagon.
The "stars" were aligned - means and opportunity - The question became not "why", but "why not"?
- The Bush Administration was disposed to consider the threats - and the perception of threat - but not preordained to invade Iraq.
- 9/11 heightened senses: as it were to "look for monster" and in Saddam they found someone.
- The administration's internal dynamics narrowed rather than broadened choices
Concern not to be too narrative - this needs to retain critical analysis without just criticising.
Relevant Primary Sources
National Security Strategy 2002 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/nsc/nss/2002/ and 2006 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/nsc/nss/2006/
State of the Union Speech Jan 2002 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020129-11.html and audio http://www.archive.org/details/SOTU_2002
West point address June 2002 http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020601-3.html
9/11 Commission Report http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/911Report.pdf
THE SECURITY COUNCIL, 27 JANUARY 2003 Report Executive Chairman of UNMOVIC, Dr. Hans Blix http://www.un.org/Depts/unmovic/Bx27.htm
Likely Secondary Sources
Ivo Dadler and James M. Lindsay, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (2005)
G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Tony Smith, The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism for the Twenty-first Century: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century (2008)
Bruce Jentleson, With Friends Like These: Reagan, Bush and Saddam, 1982-90 (1995)
Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2008)
James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004)
Alexander Moens, The Foreign Policy of George W. Bush: Values, Strategy and Loyalty (2004)
Illan Peleg, The Legacy of George W. Bush's Foreign Policy: Moving Beyond Neoconservatism: Moving Beyond Foreign Policy (2009)
Rob Singh and Tim Lynch, After Bush - The Case for Continuity (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Tony Smith, A Pact with the Devil Washington's Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise (2006)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835/1840)
Bob Woodward, Bush at War (2002), State of War (2004), State of Denial (2006)