Five tips for writing a PhD thesis

A PhD thesis brings together numerous elements coming from several years of research: it needs a solid structure. According to Henri Poincaré, a famous French physicist: “We make science out of facts like we make a house out of bricks, but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house”. If you want to present a beautiful villa rather than a pile of rubble, here are our tips for writing your thesis.

1. Read around

It may come as a surprise to you but there are very few strict rules about PhD writing. Other than cover pages and layout which your faculty will impose, much of the control over the rest of your document is for you to decide. Over the course of your PhD, you will no doubt have thumbed the pages of other people’s manuscripts, but did you make note of the ones you preferred? It is never too late to do so and to pick out what you like and don’t like about them.

Look at dissertations from different fields and institutions. Take note of structure, writing style, referencing, chapters and illustrations. Familiarising yourself with what a good thesis looks like will help you know what you’re letting yourself in for: something which is so seldom done. Thankfully, we live in an age where content is easily accessible using online repositories such as:

Ethos.bl.uk (UK)
Thesica.org (USA)
Hal.archives-ouvertes.fr (France)

2. Keep your jury in mind

Whilst your masterpiece will no doubt be read by many for years to come, the most important readers of your dissertation are your jury. In any form of communication – written or oral – you need to know your message. To get your message across successfully in your writing, you need to focus on your primary readers. This means you need to write with them in mind as they hold the key to that all-important pass or fail. Here are some of the main things they will be looking for:

• structure they can easily follow,
• originality of your ideas,
• strong scientific reasoning,
• rigorous presentation,
• relevant and correct references.

3. Plan everything

To save time, you should be handing bits of your thesis to your supervisor for comments at intervals so that you can be working on the next bit. Overlapping your workload like this means you can stagger the proofreading process and optimise your time. Your PhD thesis need to answer four questions:

• Why did I do this work?
• How did I do it?
• What did I observe?
• What do I think about that?

The responses to these questions manifest themselves in the following form: an introduction followed by the methods, results and discussion. Think well about what you need to achieve to complete each section and then set realistic goals to complete them in the time you have.

4. Write efficiently

When writing a thesis, the primary objective is to be understood. You are by no means expected to have flowery, literary writing. You should focus on writing that is simple and flows well, getting your message across as clearly as possible. Avoid ambiguity. Limit yourself to one idea per sentence and one theme per paragraph. If a sentence is too long, cut it in half. Otherwise, your reader may have forgotten the beginning before they read the end. Finally, with the exception of necessary technical terms, favour the use of simple vocabulary.

5. Take advice

Of those who write a PhD thesis at some point in their lives, they will only ever write one. You will not have a dress rehearsal: your first try is your last. Yes, you will have written an undergraduate or master’s dissertation but nothing anywhere near as vast as your PhD. Accordingly, you need to take as much advice from people who know what they are talking about. Ask around and have as many people to read through bits or all your text to get feedback.

We also suggest that you should have different types of proof-readers, each of whom can give you constructive feedback on different aspects of your dissertation. Your supervisor should know your subject very well. He/she will be able to pick out technical errors, advise on references to include and criticise your scientific reasoning. Another scientist in a similar field can help by challenging your arguments and highlighting areas that need explanation. Then, whilst they will not understand all the scientific content, a non-scientist (family or friend) can more easily pick out spelling and grammar errors.

When your head is so entrenched in the process, you will struggle to see your own mistakes. Find people around you who you can trust to guide you. You do not have to go though this process all on your own. Remember that thesis writing training courses exist, like the one proposed by Agent Majeur. They can help you get on track with the right method and training exercises.

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