Writing the dissertation
Remain actively engaged with each other during the writing process.
Supervisors and supervisees should communicate regularly while the dissertation is being written, because most of the strategies for success involve planning and regular work, such as reading drafts, giving and receiving feedback, and respecting a schedule of revision. The process must usually be interactive to have a successful (i.e. better than passable) outcome.
Reading and assessing the draft(s)
Reading drafts of dissertations requires time, patience, and critical ability of supervisors. With regard to the content, the criteria below can be used as a checklist by the student to ensure that the work is worthwhile, and by the supervisor to focus while reading through the drafts.
- Evidence of an original investigation or the testing of ideas
- Competence in independent work or experimentation
- An understanding of appropriate techniques
- Ability to make critical use of published work and source materials
- Appreciation of the relationship of the special theme to the wider field of knowledge
- Worthy, in part, of publication
- Distinct contribution to knowledge (Moses, 1985)
Providing clear and constructive feedback
It is essential that, when students ask for help with their writing, supervisors provide clear and constructive feedback. See Giving feedback for more information.
It is also a good idea to ask your students to send you, shortly after each supervisory meeting about their dissertations, a brief descriptive text that summarizes the direction of the discussion. (See the Starting out page.)
Allowing enough time for final revision
Some students find it difficult to finish. Setting completion deadlines well in advance of dissertation submission can help in this regard. As well, ensure that students understand the need to finish writing early enough to be able to then step back and critique the dissertation as a whole. To be able to stand back and look at the work from someone else's perspective is the key to successful revision, a process in which all dedicated writers vigorously engage.
Teaching how not to plagiarize
Promoting the highest standards of academic integrity means helping students learn what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid unintentional plagiarism. This does not become less important at higher levels of research and education. See Integrity and ethical practice for further information.
Writing early and regularly
Supervisees can work with their supervisors to set regular intermediate writing targets; these can begin as early as the first year. For example, you can write summaries of the articles that you have read, which could serve as a basis for a scholarly literature review. Another strategy is to write “bits,” as this PhD student learned:
I’ve been doing the analysis and looking at the data for years and …now was the only time I had to actually write it out. …I wish I had been doing more writing during the process but I always felt like I never had enough information and I never knew enough, but the truth is I should have been writing bits of this like long, long before. …That is something that I also learned from the postdoc in our lab because …she would constantly just write little bits and not with the intention of writing a manuscript or whatever, just to write about a topic she was reading about.
Another strategy is breaking the dissertation into manageable chunks, such as thinking in terms of chapters rather than a whole dissertation.
Reading other dissertations
Students should consider reading, as if they were reviewers, several recent dissertations in the discipline—not for the content but rather to look at how the text is put together, i.e., the basic composition processes. This gives them a general sense of similarities and differences (what is common and what is unique to each document). It will also help to create a better understanding of the originality and significance required in doctoral research, plus a view of the quality required in a dissertation.
Thinking of the reader
The dissertation is a communication with specific readers. Audience problems can be acute in dissertation writing because students can be so immersed in sorting out their ideas that they forget that examiners have not been privy to the development of their research over time. Thus examiners are unlikely to know:
- The “what,” “why,” ”how,” and "so what” of the research
- The particular meanings that students have assigned to certain terms, concepts, theories
- The decision-making lying behind the organization of the dissertation
- The focus, objectives and arguments of the overall dissertation and those of individual chapters.
The supervisor and student can use the following questions to critique the dissertation:
- What are the readers expected to know?
- What precisely is the focus of the research?
- What is the specific objective or aim?
- Why is investigating this topic worthwhile?
- How will the aims and investigations be achieved?
- What concepts are key and how have they been defined?
- Why do the results of this study matter? In other words, what is the overall argument?
Creating peer-review writing groups
Students can take the initiative to form a dissertation writing feedback group in which they meet regularly (e.g., monthly), review each other's work and provide constructive feedback (using, for instance, the questions immediately above). Groups of 2 or 3 work well. See also Giving feedback and Reading and writing.
Although these strategies can help in completing a quality dissertation in a timely manner, there are always difficulties and challenges that hinder students from achieving this. Students and supervisors should be aware of these difficulties and challenges, and find ways to overcome them. The following excerpts, all from the 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys at McGill, illustrate several difficulties related to dissertation writing as identified by supervisors. For instance, students may be stuck at ABD (All But Dissertation):
I had one very problematic graduate student … [who] had finished everything except writing, but then never wrote up his thesis.
Or they may rush themselves to submit the dissertation:
A PhD student in the final program stage became concerned to complete the thesis hurriedly, 6 months sooner than I thought he needed to achieve maximum impact of his thesis work.
Also, some students have difficulty acting on criticism and advice:
[The] student would always agree to my critiques of his work when we met, but never take it into account in the next version of his thesis.
Finally, other commitments may distract students from dissertation writing:
Too many work commitments ‐‐ failure to complete thesis in required time.
See the Reading and writing page for some strategies to enhance the dissertation writing process.
Myth: "Writing should be easy—just a way to transfer information."
Most of us might want writing to be easy, but if it were only to transfer information, we would miss the opportunity to learn through writing and, in some cases, create new knowledge. The difficulty of writing is partly the result of its complexity; many related skills are involved in writing, and so good writing is the culmination of many types of learning that are often simultaneously applied.
Writing as a difficult task
A perception shared by many doctoral students is that writing the thesis is arduous. This student talked about her frustrating experience of revising the final dissertation chapters:
[My supervisor said,] “It's wrong, redo it ...I don't know what more I can tell you other than it is wrong and you need to do it better.” And I said “Well that is not helping anymore.” And she was like “I'm sorry there is nothing more I can tell you.” Thanks for nothing. So I started rewriting in shorter and shorter drafts [and her response became] “Better, but not quite there yet,” until she said it was fine.
Many students have similar experiences in dealing with supervisors who cannot articulate why some writing is better than other writing. The shared challenge is to gain a vocabulary and set of examples of practices to avoid or develop. Try not to be discouraged, whether you are a supervisee or supervisor, because having written well is a satisfying experience.
Upon reflection, most writers will admit that writing is rarely simple or easy. It is a highly complex activity, requiring sophisticated and sometimes intuitive skills in creativity, pattern recognition and other forms of memory, logic, planning, critique, and of course language usage. Sometimes these skills can be applied simultaneously and seemingly naturally as you write, but sometimes you apply them incrementally, with the labour-intensivity of a craft.
Writing not only reflects thinking; it also affects how we think, demanding us (in most contexts) to be definite in our language and precise in identifying relationships between ideas. Perhaps most importantly, it can affect the thinking of its readers and create new knowledge to share with them.
If you are having trouble getting started (due to procrastination and/or anxiety), or if you are having trouble finishing (due to perfectionism and/or anxiety), you might be experiencing what is often called “writer’s block.” See the Reading and writing page for more about this difficulty.
For an amusingly ironic essay on this subject, consult the following:
- Martin, S. (1998). Writing is easy! Pure drivel. New York: Hyperion.
What examiners want from dissertations
Examiners of dissertations want good writing, which means writing that is confident, rigorous, and organized. They also want basic questions to be answered: What is the focus and your conclusion? Why did you choose the topic or problem to solve? How did you solve the problem or otherwise contribute to the scholarship? And why are your findings significant?
Based on examiners' reports and interviews it is clear that experienced examiners look for coherence across the doctoral dissertation and that they value:
- Critical analysis and argument
- Confident and rigorous writing
- A self-critical approach
- Originality, creativity and a degree of risk taking
- A comprehensive and scholarly approach
- Sound presentation and structure
- Appropriate methodology
Structuring such a large body of work can pose difficulties for students, but, as Craswell suggests (2005), there are four basic questions that can be applied when structuring any level of the text, questions to which students will need to have answers by a final draft:
- What? – the research focus (precisely what the subject of discussion is, with some indication of a breakdown of the subject into topics).
- Why? – the research purpose (precisely why the candidate is discussing/ investigating those topics) and their objectives or aims.
- How? – the methods or procedures used, plus the structure of the dissertation and each chapter within it.
- So what? – the implications of the findings/ discussions, why they matter. This should, in certain disciplines, lead to identification of the overall argument of the dissertation (or chapters within it), as well as set directions for a discussion and implications chapter. (p.187)
The final point, the “so what” issue, often appears to pose considerable difficulty for students. As one experienced supervisor was heard to suggest, “Students can complete their doctorate and still not be able to identify what was significant about it!"
While the above factors are consistent across the disciplines, the specific characteristics can vary considerably within and across disciplines.
The text of this page was based on:
- Craswell, G. (2005). Writing for academic success: A postgraduate guide. London Sage.
- Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Leik, Ilona. (1998). Academic writing: Exploring processes and strategies. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Lovitts, B.E. (2007). Making the implicit explicit: Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. Not available electronically.
- Moses, I. (1985). Supervising postgraduates. Campbelltown: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia.
- Mullins, G. and Kiley, M. (2002). "It's a PhD, not a Nobel prize": How experienced examiners assess theses, Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.
Getting help with dissertations
McGill offers two options regarding the format of the doctoral dissertation: traditional and manuscript-based (article-based). See the Thesis guidelines page on the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies website. On the same site, also check the General requirements for Master's and doctoral theses.
The Faculty of Arts also supports a peer-review dissertation writing workshop, and the McGill Writing Centre offers services to all students.
Students may find the following books useful:
- Thomson, P., & Walker, M. (2010). The Routledge doctoral student's companion: getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences. London: Routledge.
- Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. New York, NY: Routledge.
This book can be helpful for supervisors:
- Kamler, B., and Thompson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervisors. Abingdon: Routledge.