Planning a PhD Thesis
Updated 2021. Links to online material with some comment. Core information is ok although some links may have expired.
Structuring and Writing a Dissertation
Oftentimes, when new acquaintances hear that you are, for example, an amateur astronaut, their first question is "how do you get into being an astronaut?". It's always a difficult one to answer. If you're interested in something, learning about it, learning how to do it, well, it just happens; in my experience, it's easy to learn when you're interested. In Colin Powell's experience, the important thing when you're stuck is to do something. He's right, of course! Start reading about how to do it, start watching how others do it, start doing it ('learning-by-searching', 'learning-by-interacting' and 'learning-by-using' the three types of learning used to varying degrees by the Dutch and Danish wind energy industries).
Applying these ideas to structuring and writing a thesis, you could do worse than to take a sample of dissertations written by people you know and respect. Flick through them and note down the structure. Or you could start by reading published advice. Paltridge, in his paper Thesis and dissertation writing: an examination of published advice and actual practice, presents an analysis of fifteen doctoral theses from a range of disciplines and the advice given in eight recent publications from around the English-speaking world (listed in the bibliography below). From these books he identifies four generic thesis structures: Traditional Simple (IMRAD: Introduction, Method, Results and Discussion), Traditional Complex, Topic Based and Compilation Based (see Table 1 below). Of the fifteen manuscripts examined, six were tradtional, four complex, four topic based and just one was compilation based.
My own sample of eight PhD manuscripts from the School of Computing here at DCU was interesting. Of the eight, five were of the traditional complex form and the remaining three were structured as either traditional complex or topic based (making the distinction was difficult based solely on chapter titles). None of the theses used the traditional simple form. This may be because of the nature of computing dissertations; the IMRAD format is possibly too constraining. Partridge writes "The traditional: simple type thesis ... was more common at the master's level than at the doctoral level where students either carried out more complex types of study, or ones which were more appropriately reported on in a different kind of way". As with most things in life, there is a balance to be struck. Almost any type of scientific or engineering study can be presented using the IMRAD structure. At the same time, it may be that a more complex form will better present a particular project. The important thing is to communicate clearly and credibly. Norton's concluding advice about scientific report writing applies equally to the art of writing a dissertation: "... the purpose of the report should be to carry some fact or theory so interestingly ... so clearly that the busy world will stop to read it, and having read it will pause to think, for the ability to make men think in a new way should be the aim of every writer".
I find Hardy Hoover's Essentials for the Scientific and Technical Writer very useful. There is a pleasant parallel between the advice offered by Hardy and Syd Field's suggestions in The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting. Both recommend getting the structure, your story, right before setting out: the long way around being the shortest way home, to cliché a little. They're both correct. Hoover's four rules for defining the structure of a piece of writing should be followed: (1) Include Every Topic Required by the Subject, (2) Exclude Every Topic Not Required by the Subject, (3) Working from the Top Down, Divide Each Topic into All Its Subordinates, and (4) Order Each Group of Coordinates Properly. Both Hoover and Field recommend using three-by-five inch cards for organising thoughts and storyboarding. I find a text editor works just as well.
There is much online advice of varying quality about thesis structure. As far as I can see, all fall into one of the categories defined by Partridge and most advocate the traditional simple (IMRAD) approach. Some of the better sites that address the issue of structure include (linked inline and also from the references listed below): How To Write A Dissertation or Bedtime Reading For People Who Do Not Have Time To Sleep; PhD Thesis Structure and Content, A [perfect] PhD Thesis for London University / Computer Science UCL (an odd number of chapters is recommended, this is something I have to admit I found odd); The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing, MIT (IMRAD recommended); Thesis Writing Manual, Rensselaer (IMRAD recommended); How to Write a PhD Thesis, The University of New South Wales (IMRAD recommended); The Researcher's Bible, The University of Edinburgh (recommends IMRAD/Complex); A Structured Approach To Presenting Phd Theses: Notes For Candidates And Their Supervisors, The University of Queensland (recommends IMRAD/Complex); Advice for Finishing that Damn Ph.D., University of Waterloo, Canada (IMRAD/Complex); there can be only six..., MIT (IMRAD). The objective of thesis writing is neatly summarised by the University of Queensland's Student Support Services in Putting it All Together as "Once upon a time researchers believed that ... (literature review); But then I thought that maybe ... (aims); so, what I did was ... (method); and I've discovered that ... (findings); which changed the way we ... (contribution to knowledge)". Bunton's article, The structure of PhD conclusion chapters, provides a good basis for structuring the final chapter(s).
From Australia again, I came across an interesting paper by Allyson Holbrook et al., Investigating PhD thesis examination reports. The authors took a sample of 301 dissertations from across a range of subjects and looked carefully at the examiners' reports. Of relevance to thesis structure and writing are the criteria that the authors conclude differentiate high-quality and low quality theses. To summarise their findings: high quality dissertations often deal with significant and challenging topics, take an original approach and realise a significant contribution to the field, display an expert use of the literature in the design of the study and discussion of its results, report clearly and incisively on the literature, and are eminently publishable. Low quality theses may be of questionable integrity, with inadequate literature reviews (in terms of focus or coverage) containing inaccuracies and omissions, and may have manifest editorial inadequacies. Credibility is very important. About 9 of the the 301 dissertations studied were rejected. This represents an overall failure rate of close to 3%.
Finally, be sure to check local requirements. Dublin City University's regulations and requirements for completion of a degree through research are online.
Table 1: Paltridge's Four Thesis Types
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Traditional Simple (6/15)
Topic Based (4/15)
Traditional Complex (4/15)
Compilation Based (1/15)
Books used in Paltridge's Study
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Davis, G.B. and Parker, C.A., 1997. Writing the doctoral dissertation: a systematic approach (2nd ed). , Barron's Educational Series, Woodbury, NY
Evans, D., 1995. How to write a better thesis or report. , Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Madsen, D., 1992. Successful dissertations and theses. A guide to graduate student research from proposal to completion (2nd ed.). , Josey-Bass, San Francisco.
Mauch, J.E. and Birch, J.W., 1998. Guide to the successful thesis and dissertation. Conception to publication. A handbook for students and faculty (4th ed.). , Marcel Dekker Inc, New York.
Phillips, E.M. and Pugh, D.S., 1994. How to get a PhD (2nd ed.). , Taylor & Francis, London.
Preece, R., 1994. Starting research. An introduction to academic research and dissertation writing. , Pinter, London.
Rountree, K. and Laing, T., 1996. Writing by degrees: a practical guide to writing theses and research papers. , Longman, Auckland.
Sternberg, D., 1981. How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation. , St Martin's Press, New York.
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Field, Syd. 2003. The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting, Ebury Press, ISBN: 0091890276
Hoover, Hardy. 1980. Essentials for the Scientific and Technical Writer, Dover Publications
Powell, Colin L. Persico, Joseph. 1995. My American Journey: An Autobiography. Random House, New York.
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Wind turbine development 1973-2000: A critique of the differences in policies between the Netherlands and Denmark, Linda M. Kamp, Wind Engineering, Volume 28, Number 4, June 2004, pp. 341-354(14) (doi:10.1260/0309524042886414).
The Art of Writing Scientific Reports. Norton, F.H. 1921. NACA Technical Memorandum No. 7. Reprinted from The Scientific Monthly, December 1920. Notes: Available online at the NACA archives (UK Mirror linked).
Thesis and dissertation writing: an examination of published advice and actual practice, Brian Paltridge. English for Specific Purposes, Volume 21, Issue 2 , 2002, Pages 125-143 (doi:10.1016/S0889-4906(00)00025-9).
How To Write A Dissertation or Bedtime Reading For People Who Do Not Have Time To Sleep, Douglas E. Comer, Department of Computer Science, Purdue University, Indiana.
PhD Thesis Structure and Content, A [perfect] PhD Thesis for London University / Computer Science UCL, Christopher D. Clack. 1997. Department of Computer Science, University College London.
The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing, Section 2.9.3, Leslie C. Perelman, Edward Barrett, and James Paradis, Mayfield Publishing Company, Inc., 1280 Villa Street, Mountain View, CA 94041
Thesis Writing Manual, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), 110 8th St., Troy, NY 12180.
How to Write a PhD Thesis, Joe Wolfe. 2005. School of Physics, The University of New South Wales, Sydney
The Researcher's Bible, Alan Bundy, Ben du Boulay, Jim Howe and Gordon Plotkin. 2004. School of Informatics, The University of Edinburgh.
A Structured Approach To Presenting Phd Theses: Notes For Candidates And Their Supervisors, Chad Perry. 1995. Paper presented to the ANZ Doctoral Consortium, University of Sydney, February 1994.
Advice for Finishing that Damn Ph.D., Prof. Daniel M. Berry. 2001. University of Waterloo, Canada.
There Can Be Only Six..., Lorin Wilde and Andy Lippman. 2002. MIT Media Lab.
PhD ... First Thoughts to Finished Writing, Student Support Services, University of Queensland. 1997.
Investigating PhD thesis examination reports, International Journal of Educational Research, Volume 41, Issue 2, 2004, Pages 98-120 Allyson Holbrook, Sid Bourke, Terence Lovat and Kerry Dally (doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2005.04.008)
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Wikipedia: Doctor of Philosophy , Wikipedia. 2005.
Writing a Dissertation , Brian Stone, Dublin City University. 1998. Notes: very useful and complete advice.
How not to get a PhD .., Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh. 2002. Guardian Newspapers Limited. Notes: "Discover how to avoid failure in this extract from Estelle M. Phillips' and Derek S. Pugh's How to get a PhD".
Useful Things to Know About Ph. D. Thesis Research, H.T. Kung. 1987. Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University. Notes: Prepared for "What is Research" Immigration Course, Computer Science Department, Carnegie Mellon University, 14 October 1987.
How Theses Get Written: Some Cool Tips, Dr Steve Easterbrook. 2003. Dept of Computer Science, University of Toronto.
Writing and Presenting Your Thesis or Dissertation, S. Joseph Levine. 2005. Michigan State University. Notes: There are also Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic versions at this location.
Using LATEX to Write a PhD Thesis, Nicola Talbot. 2004. School of Computing Sciences. University of East Anglia.
Useful Advice for Graduate Students, John J. Grefenstette. 2003. School of Computational Sciences, George Mason University. Notes: Collection of links. See also Organization of a Dissertation Proposal
Panel Discussion on GP thesis I wish I had written, William Langdon. 1997. University of Birmingham. Notes: Wednesday, 16 July, 1997, 11:30 - 12:30 pm, Genetic Programming (GP97), Stanford, California, USA
How to do Research At the MIT AI Lab, (a whole bunch of current, former, and honorary MIT AI Lab graduate students), David Chapman, Editor. 1988. Massachusetts Institute Of Technology Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.!, Ronald T. Azuma. 2003 (v. 1.08). Department of Computer Science, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. Notes: The Feynman Problem Solving Algorithm: 1) Write down the problem. 2) Think very hard. 3) Write down the solution.
How to write a thesis statement, Writing Tutorial Services. 2004. Indiana University.
On Being A Scientist: Responsible Conduct In Research, Committee On Science, Engineering, And Public Policy. 1995. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. Notes: Text version.
John Swales as mentor: The view from the doctoral group, English for Specific Purposes, Volume 17, Issue 1, 1998, Pages 67-86 Margaret Luebs, Kirstin M. Fredrickson, Sunny Hyon and Betty Samraj (doi:10.1016/S0889-4906(97)00030-6) Notes: This paper discusses John Swales (a well known linguist) as a supervisor. Some interesting insights into students' and supervisors' expectations.
How (and How Not) to Write a Good Systems Paper, Roy Levin and David D. Redell, ACM SIGOPS Operating Systems Review, Vol. 17, No. 3 (July, 1983), pages 35-40. Notes: General observations about the faults evident in conference submissions.
Burnout Prevention and Recovery, MIT Views, 1994. Notes: This document's path looks far from secure for the future, read while you can [August 2005].
How to Do Research, Silvia Miksch. 2005. Information & Software Engineering Group, Institute for Software Technology and Interactive Systems, Vienna University of Technology.
Countdown and Thesis Examination, Draft Report. Guilhaus. 1998. University of New South Wales.
FLL Thesis Format, Foreign Languages and Literatures Thesis Format Adviser Web Site. 2005. Purdue University. Notes: From FLL Thesis Format Helps, "The document entitled "Curling the Quote Marks" tells how to replace straight or typewriter quote marks with curled or typographer's quotes (also referred to as "smart" quotes)".
Form of the Doctoral Thesis, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. 2000. Harvard University.
Hints for PhD Defenses, Henning Schulzrinne. 2003. Dept. of Computer Science / Dept. of Electrical Engineering, Columbia University.
Olin Shivers' Dissertation Advice, Olin Shivers. Maintained by Robert Marks, Australian Graduate School of Management, University of New South Wales.
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Advice Collection, Tao Xie and Yuan Xie. 2005. Department of Computer Science, University of Minnesota. Notes: A very complete collection of useful links.
Research and PhD, Internet Studies @ Curtin University. 2004. Notes: Useful links.
Niall McMahon, August 2005 (Updated 2021).