The Bulk of the Thesis

Here’s my thing. I’ve mentored, I’ve supervised, I’ve taught, I’ve marked, and I’ve edited. I’m quite happy to see the teaching and marking part of my life go away. Neither are things I enjoy. But I hope to keep doing the mentoring or supervising in some way in the future. But the editing is the sort of thing I’ve done because someone asked me to do it, or needed me to do it. I never really thought of it as a career or even stable work. But here I am, again, doing editing. And you know what? I’m rather happy about that fact. I kind of like going through a document and making it better (though never perfect; there’s no such thing).

I bring this up because today I have started proofreading the bulk of a thesis. Or the ‘body’. The main part. The part that excludes the appendices, and references, and introductory sections, or even the conclusion. The main part of the thesis is where you show all the work you’ve done, discuss it in great detail, and demonstrate the entire point of your argument.

This might be anywhere from 20,000 words to 70,000, depending on what your subject and department are. Whatever the length of your thesis, however, the main part is going to form the majority of your words. And every one of them counts. You may have 70,000 words to play with, but superfluous ones (see what I did there) aren’t going to be appreciated by your examiners. You need to make sure that what you’re writing has a point. That it is clear and concise. If you can say it in 30,000 words, don’t take 50,000 just because you can. Most universities give maximums for theses, instead of minimums. That means that you can write any amount you need to for your thesis, but can’t go over a certain number. A lot of people find this very hard. It’s easier to write to a minimum, but much harder to know you only have a certain number of words to get your point across. So be concise (this paragraph is a bad example).

The bulk of your thesis could be 2 chapters or 7. The number is less important than what they constitute. You have to get a long list of things across in this part of your thesis. Your methodology (for most, unless you are amongst the fewer that put this in their introduction), your literature review(s), your data presentation, your analysis, and conclusions or recommendations (you will usually provide some manner of conclusions in your analysis chapter, then in more depth in your final conclusion chapter).

That is a lot to get into a thesis, and that’s leaving aside the introduction and conclusion chapters. But whatever number of chapters you have, and however many words you have for this part of the thesis, this part is often the hardest to write. Conclusions generally ‘write themselves’, because by the time you get to that chapter, you’ve been working on this for years, and analysed and thought about all your data for months. And the introduction is an intro to what you’ve already written in the rest of the thesis. An executive summary, basically. But the bulk of the thesis? That’s the important part. That’s the part your examiners really pay attention to. So that is the part you spend the most time on.

But don’t panic. Like any piece of writing, don’t ever set out to write ‘the bulk of the thesis’. Set out to write a 500 word section. Or a three-page sub-section. You will have your thesis outline already. You will know roughly what needs to get into each chapter, and then each section. Write them one at a time, in whatever order works best for you. And you will be very surprised that you end up at 50,000 words. Or 70,000. [Or a 100,000…oops.]

One small step at a time. You know your work. You know your research. You know what you need to say.

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First submission – when are you really ready?

You’re not. Seriously, I’m not trying to trip you up or scare you, but you will never, ever be ready. Not in your head. You will never feel you are ‘done’. You will never feel you are ‘ready’. You will forever think there is more you could do. More you could write. More you could research.

Your heart will tell you when it’s time. Because you will reach a day when you can’t do it anymore. When it is just too hard and you are too tired and you don’t want to get up tomorrow and still be doing your PhD. That’s when you know you’re ready. Because you are. Because your heart has told you. Listen to your head for every moment of every day from the day you start your PhD to the day you wake up and know you are ready to be done. Then start listening to your heart.

Everyone falls out of love with their PhD. Every Single Person. Some people fall out of love sooner rather than later, but everyone does it. If you’re lucky, it’ll happen later, because take it from me, not loving your PhD makes it ten times harder to do. But you will fall out of love and you will still be doing your PhD. And the longer you hate your thesis, the quicker your heart will tell you it’s time to let it go. Every single PhD ends in a divorce the day you submit. It’s mostly amicable. It’s mostly okay. But it really is ‘irreconcilable differences’. You cannot tolerate another day with your thesis. Your thesis is no longer doing you any favours. It’s time to part ways.

But really, how do you know you’re ready? What if your heart tells you before your supervisor agrees? Well, probably. I mean, maybe not. Maybe you’ll be one of those lucky ones that loves it to the time you hit your editing phase. I really wasn’t that lucky. I fell out of love in my second year, and although my thesis and I reconciled later, it was short lived. We ultimately still ended in a divorce, and I was happy to see ‘him’ go on the day I submitted. I was done. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I didn’t want to try to make it work. I just wanted ‘him’ gone. And go ‘he’ did.

But it was because my supervisor agreed. He agreed because he knew I was over it. And he knew I was ready. He knew I had a thesis. He knew it was good enough to submit. Otherwise, he would have told me to stick it out. He would have told me to keep trying to make it work. But he didn’t have to tell me this and I’m very, very glad he didn’t. I was so ready to be done.

Talk to your supervisor. Discuss – in complete honesty – the question ‘is it ready to submit?’ and whatever the answer is, be ready to work with it. If it’s not ready, it may only need a few more weeks of work. Don’t despair! It does not have to be perfect, but it does have to be a complete thesis. It has to have the things a thesis needs: originality, research, factual knowledge, grammatically sound, formally written, complete (all the chapters and parts are there), and it has to be your own. If it has all those parts, you’re probably good to go. But talk to your supervisor. Even if you have never talked to them through your PhD, this is the time to talk to them. This is the time to make them work for you. It’s what they’re there for.

But it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be good enough. You hear that a lot and it is absolutely true. It just has to be good enough for you to viva. It just has to be good enough for you to stand in your viva and defend it. It can be a long way from perfect. That is not the point of a PhD thesis.

And when it is good enough, let it go.