Thesis Writing — Finding Your Voice

The art of writing a great thesis starts before you put the first words on a page.

Writing a thesis is a rewarding experience, and the reward can be amplified if you find your voice early on. In the process of correcting a few PhD theses, I have been considering the best way to teach my students how to write.

The traditional way of encouraging students to write a good thesis is reactive, we correct documents that are submitted to us. Often starting with the easiest chapter first (maybe a methods document), and building from there. Perhaps I can encourage my group in a more active manner, and enhance their story-craft at the outset. I hope that I can help them develop more informed voice before they start.

Scientific Story Telling

Writing a thesis is the an exercise in art of scientific story telling.

A thesis is a story.

The principal aim of a thesis is to communicates to an audience that you are a suitable candidate for your degree, but this document can also teach you how to communicate more effectively, launch your career and to act as a sign-post for the next generation.

To help with the crafting of your story, perhaps you could write some notes on the following:

  1. What is the intended audience of my thesis?
  2. Who evaluates my thesis, and what are they looking for?
  3. Are there other audiences who might read my thesis, and what are they looking for?
  4. How do I keep my audiences interested and are there narrative tricks?
  5. How will my audiences consume my thesis?
  6. How does my thesis fit within the bigger picture?
  7. Are there any methods or strategies I can use to simplify the art of writing my thesis?
  8. How can I use this document to my advantage?
  9. How am I best going to receive feedback on my writing?
  10. What factors may limit the quality or quantity of feedback I receive?
  11. What chapters am I going to include in my thesis?
  12. What is the purpose of each chapter (how are they distinct from each other, and how do they complement the thesis as a whole)?
  13. What is the point of a figure?
  14. How do I make my figures useful and effective in supporting my thesis narrative?
  15. How are sub-figures useful?
  16. What is the point of a table?
  17. When would I use a table as opposed to a graph (and vice versa)?
  18. What style issues will likely irritate my supervisor / examiners / readers?

Seek advice and support

Do not hesitate to ask for advice on the art of writing your thesis, as well as the content.

You might want to discuss this as part of a group, or share you responses with your supervisor to match and rationalise each others expectations. You could also ask group mates and researchers (including post-docs) for advice.

During the process of your writing you should seek feedback and advice from those who are familiar with your field and examination system. If possible, read some prior theses (or sections from them) with the questions above in mind.

Remember — the first draft of any thesis will have lots of corrections. The trick is to keep on writing and to use each draft to refine your argument and writing style to better reflect your talents and hard work!

Best of luck! The other side is worth it.

The 2017 PhD graduates from the Imperial Micromechanics Groups — from left — Ben (Exp-PI), Mitch, Zebang, Vivian, Fionn (Comp-PI), Victor

You can head over to Twitter to follow Dr Ben Britton as @BMatB, or keep up to date with the group’s work via @ExpMicroMech. We can also be found over at http://www.expmicromech.com