This is the first in a series of posts about writing a good Higher Degree by Research thesis, Australian-style.
It’s not uncommon for students starting a higher degree by research (PhD or Masters) to feel overwhelmed by the thought of converting an early, rather vague area of interest into, basically, a small book within two to three years. It’s also not unreasonable—that’s a big ask! The trick is to accept that and then find a way to move forward out of that initial freeze-up as easily as possible. These are the three best tips I know for doing just that:
1. Write early, write often
Perhaps the single best thing my PhD supervisor Joy* ever did for me was look at me three months into my candidature and say ‘You need to start writing now’. This wasn’t because my ideas were brilliant. To be honest, at that point they were embarrassingly naïve. But I was engaging with the literature and starting to formulate arguments, and as soon as you start doing that…you need to start writing. And by ‘writing’, I mean producing structured, fully referenced academic prose, with an argument, that you can give to your supervisors for discussion and feedback.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. The things you write at this point will probably never make it into your thesis—not even years later in heavily revised form. But that doesn’t mean it’s wasted effort. These early pieces can serve as springboards for new ideas, or help you identify research paths you don’t want or need to go down…or produce a seed that eventually grows into a paper, a chapter, or the thesis statement of your entire project. And it will get you into the habit of writing regularly and developing your ideas section by section, which means that you’re unlikely to get to the end of years’ worth of reading and experiments and freeze up at the thought that you somehow have to transform a small mountain of notes into 75,000 words of fluent prose by the end of the year.
2. Narrow your focus, then broaden your reading
At the start of your candidacy you face an enormous amount of reading—so much that if you let yourself get buried under it you may not find your way out (sadly, I’ve seen this happen). As with writing, the trick is not to try to do all the reading at once, or to do it all before you start writing. Instead, break your reading down into stages.
Stage one—the first six to twelve months of your candidacy—is mostly about getting to grips with your field, and finding and defining the gap in the literature that your thesis will fill. Spend the first few months just reading within your field and writing about aspects of it that are relevant to your topic. This will help you define your research focus. Once you’ve started to develop a sense of the specific argument you’re chasing down, you can think about roughing out an initial thesis plan**. Then you can move into stage two, which involves reading more widely and incorporating that reading into your writing. Again, you don’t need to do this all at once. Work out which areas you’ll need to read into for each section of your plan, and explore them systematically, writing as you go.
This probably makes the process sound rather neater than it really is. In fact, reading is an ongoing thing, bits of reading for one part of the thesis will overlap with bits for another part, and you’ll find yourself hunting down new references right up until your final draft. But thinking, and working, in sections is the key to getting your own work onto the page and your thesis developing consistently.
3. Lurk in the library
When I was doing my PhD I had to rely on interlibrary loans to get access to some of the journal articles I desperately needed, so let me be clear about this: online academic databases are the greatest thing ever. But they’re not the be-all and the end-all. Among other things, when you’re searching a database for papers, it’s all to easy to only find what you’re looking for, and when you’re aiming to broaden your reading, this can be a problem.
This is why I recommend heading over to the library every now and again and spending a few hours in the stacks instead. You won’t get lost, I promise, and you can find some great things by exploiting the peculiar serendipity created by the Dewey Decimal system. Start by looking for something you know you need or want to read, and then drift out from that point. Pick up books that are on roughly the same topic, and books that just have interesting titles. Browse introductions; skim chapters. Flick through bound journals that look like they might publish papers in your field. It’s amazing what you can find by chance that you didn’t realise you needed—or wanted—to look for. Not to mention, a decent lurk in the stacks is a great way to take a break when your brain feels overstuffed with thesis things. Just don’t forget to go back to your desk eventually and write about what you’ve found!
Remember, you’ve got two to three years to write this thesis in. It’s okay to take your time.
Next week: Developing your thesis plan…
*You’ll probably hear more about Joy as I write this series, for the very good reason that she was an absolutely amazing supervisor (still is, actually) and I learned a lot from her.
**I’ll write about that next week.