How to guide a PhD

Should Universities Teach Their Researchers How to Write?

Apr 12, 2016 Source:

Groucho Marx, on his quiz show You Bet Your Life, once had a contestant with a heavy accent, who claimed to be a linguist that could speak 11 languages.  On hearing this, Groucho quipped in a lightning fast repost,

"... which one are you speaking now?"

Anyone who has read or examined enough Doctoral research theses might be tempted, on occasion, to ask the same question.

In the case of university research, there are two languages that need to be mastered in order to create a good thesis or research paper – the obvious one for many researchers being English, and the not-so-obvious one being the language of research or, more specifically, the lingua franca of the field in which it is undertaken.  Without a modicum of erudition in both of these, even high quality research can go awry under examination.

The question is, who should teach research students how to write-up their work in a rigorous and disciplined manner?  The obvious list of choices includes:

A more basic question might be why researchers even need to be taught research writing skills when they enter into postgraduate programs?  After all, what have they learned in the 17-18 years of preceding education?  The answer is not enough - at least in terms of the discipline and rigor required for a Doctoral thesis.

Looking at the issue of research writing more broadly, we don't expect researchers submitting a Doctoral thesis in English literature to be proficient in semiconductor physics or nanotechnology, so why should we think that it's fair to expect someone submitting a Doctoral thesis in semiconductor physics or nanotechnology to be proficient in English grammar?

At its core, at least as far as areas such as business, economics, engineering and the sciences are concerned, written research communication isn't really about creating Shakespearean quality literature but, rather, about transferring information from the mind of a researcher to another person in the most accurate, honest and succinct form.  

When one looks at the issue of research writing outside the humanities, one isn't really concerned with teaching students about grammatical semantics, dangling modifiers or split infinitives.  The odd misplaced preposition, missing apostrophe or incorrect participle isn't a show-stopper as far as thesis examination is concerned.  Moreover, in the age of automated, online citation systems, little effort is required to get students acquainted with referencing techniques. 

Teaching researchers how to write in the modern world is, more appropriately, about the science and structure of research communication and documentation. Importantly, because each field has its own peculiarities, there is no one more appropriate to teach these skills than the research supervisor.

Research writing isn't really something that can be subcontracted out to an English-language support unit at a university, in the naive hope that fixing  grammar and spelling will address the overall research writing issue.  Someone needs to teach research students about the form of research writing - and that someone has to be the supervisor.

In 1973, Tom Koch, in Mad Magazine, wrote an extremely funny, and excruciatingly accurate, article entitled Rewriting Your Way to a PhD.  The article shows how Wilfred Eftie (Grade 2A) kept rewriting his essay about a summer vacation on his uncle's pig farm in Kansas (My Sumer Vacashin) until he managed ultimately to get it into a form suitable for a Doctoral thesis (A Qualitative Analysis of Swine Vision as it Pertains to Human Behavioral Response in Osborne County, Kansas).  The fact that the article is still resonating 43 years later gives testament to its underlying truth that, often, form triumphs over substance.  More specifically, Koch's article suggests that if one makes a Doctoral thesis sound impressive and complicated enough, nobody will notice any lack of substance.

 After decades of mulling through Doctoral research theses from my research students, and after having been called in to numerous interventions for other academics, whose student theses have been returned by examiners as unsatisfactory, I have been able to make various observations.  The first is that, like most good satire, the Mad Magazine article does have considerable merit.  Research theses which have good form but limited substance are more likely to do well under examination than those that have great substance but poor form.  And, for those countries and universities where there is no subsequent forum for defense in the Doctoral examination process, this situation can have dire consequences for a research student.

A research supervisor's first priority is naturally to ensure that the research undertaken by his/her research students does indeed have substance.  However, there is also a critical supervisory role in teaching the science of research writing – in other words, the form that will convince readers of the substance of a student's research.

Without an understanding of research-writing form, the greatest piece of research discovery becomes an irrelevance because peers will not accept – or, more accurately, will not appreciate – its true significance.

So, what are the key elements of teaching research students about research writing form?  Below are 7  which I have found to be a recurring issue in research theses, particularly at a Doctoral level.


1. The Central Research Theme

In my view, the most important element of teaching form in research writing is getting a student to appreciate the concept and importance of a succinct and well-articulated central research theme for a thesis.  That is, one or two simple sentences, free from technicalities, jargon, formulae and acronyms, that explain the nature and objectives of the research.

The central research theme is the benchmark measure for every inclusion and exclusion in a thesis.  Every sentence, graph, table, chart, equation, image, flow-chart needs to be assessed against the central research theme.  If the item is relevant it is included – otherwise it should probably be excluded.

Without a clearly-articulated central research theme, a thesis can become a morass of unconnected thought-bubbles – replete with unnecessary inclusions and, often, missing important corroborating information.

On every occasion where I have been called in to unscramble a thesis which has been savaged by external examiners,  the fundamental, underlying problem has been that the research student has neither understood nor been able to articulate the central theme of his/her research in a simple, coherent form.  Sometimes, a research student has come up with a ridiculously complex and convoluted central research theme, which is difficult to use as a benchmark measure – the end result being chaos in thesis structure, and dubious inclusions/exclusions.

The moral of all this is that supervisors need to spend sufficient time with their students to ensure that they have a clear and unequivocal central research theme against which they can write a thesis of (potentially) hundreds of pages, in a systematic and disciplined form.  An experienced research writer may be able to get away with writing a document based on a vague idea floating around inside his/her head - a research student generally cannot, because they haven't developed sufficient writing discipline/rigor at the time they prepare their dissertation.


2.  Understanding the Thesis Reader

A research thesis/dissertation is not written for a general audience, or even a field-specific audience.  It is written for a small subset of field-specific readers – that is, people in a field who may have strongly held views about particularschools of thought.  Having the student understand the various schools of thought, and various antipathies between them, should inform the student's writing style and ability to balance learned opinions in a fair and impartial way.

Research students also need to understand that, unlike a book, a thesis/dissertation is not generally intended for readers who are seeking the unfettered opinions/views of the author.  The thesis is a vehicle in which a research student needs to present independently verifiable information, which is balanced and genuinely reflective of the universe of views available.

An important role for supervisors is therefore to get their students to understand their reading audience – not by name necessarily, but certainly by disposition.


3. A Thesis is Not a Research Afterthought

There are common elements in almost every field of business, economics, engineering and scientific research.  Typically, these include

Around 2/3 of a thesis can probably be written once an initial, comprehensive review of literature has been established and a hypothesis/methodology defined.

The point here is that the science and discipline of research writing – in the context of the thesis – should start very early in the research program.  And it is at the outset of the program where a supervisor needs to institute an iterative process to ensure that the lingua franca and rigors/disciplines of his/her field are mastered by the student in terms of writing.  Maximum effort early on leads to long-term time savings - for both the supervisor and the student.

Having examined numerous theses, it becomes glaringly obvious when students have written a dissertation in a cram-session after the research event – and have then tried to rationalize why major omissions in the work aren't as bad as they might appear.

The thesis is not just a historical document, it needs to be a template and framework for the research that is to be undertaken.


4. Simpler is Better

Research students, in their eagerness to impress an examiner, often make their research writing far more complex than it needs to be to convey their research story.  Generally, a surfeit of formulae, source code and long, convoluted sentences serve to make the obvious and the simple utterly incomprehensible.

In their quest to impress with verbal complexity, some research students make their Doctoral theses look like an explosion in a thesaurus factory.  Far be it from me to engage in floccinaucinihilipilification over the excessive use of big words in theses. However, nothing says expert to an examiner more than the use of simple turns of phrase and commonplace words.

The challenge for a supervisor here is that it is difficult for a student to convey expertise through simplicity unless a clearly articulated central research theme has been developed as the basis for writing the thesis in the first instance.

Some years ago I encountered a world-renowned British scholar who said that he got really annoyed with theses that were intended to impress him with their complexity.  So frustrated did he become with students trying to over-impress that eventually he gave up on trying to read the work at all and just sent back a re-work message as follows:

"I find myself in a situation where I appear to be too stupid to understand your thesis.  Either re-write it in a simpler form so that even I can understand it, or perhaps seek a smarter examiner elsewhere."


5. Balancing a Thesis

At its core, the objective of a well-written research thesis is to tell a compelling research story – one of balanced, impartial, systematic investigation and discovery.  Sometimes, research students can't differentiate between what contributes to the compelling narrative and what is just peripheral noise.  Hard decisions have to be made about what goes into the body of a thesis and what goes into the appendices – even when all the information appears to be relevant.  Will an examiner be interested in reading pages of vector calculus, chemical formulae or computer source code?  Or will these just distract from the narrative?  Would it be better to just show interesting formulae/coding highlights in the body of the work to preserve the narrative, and shift the details to the appendices?

An important part of research writing involves balancing the requirements of a compelling narrative against comprehensive disclosure.  Only a research supervisor can teach these skills to a student in a field-specific context.


6. Better to be Accused of Repetition than Omission

After unscrambling numerous research theses that had been savaged by examiners, it often became apparent that unwarranted criticisms had arisen because of a lack of repetition in the thesis.  Examiners accused research students of omission when it was, in fact, the examiners who had forgotten key points already made earlier in the work.

Examiners often read a thesis chapter every now and then – sometimes, the content of a preceding chapter is largely forgotten by the time the next one is read, days or weeks later.  For this reason, there is a tidy profit for the research student in some level of repetition within a thesis.  Applied judiciously, a restatement of key aspects of previous chapters, reminders of various themes, and so on, can make the thesis more readable in the context in which it is read by examiners.


7.  Ditch the Draft

For a research student, particularly one at Doctoral level, disciplined research writing needs to start on Day 1 of the program - not a few days before a final thesis is submitted at the end.  Supervisors need to enforce this discipline from the outset of the program by insisting that all written research submissions come up to a benchmark standard.

There is no bigger time waster in postgraduate research than The Draft.  Students waste hours generating a half-baked document, with incomplete references, poor layout, missing sections, ill-conceived ideas, and so on.  A little extra effort could turn The Draft into a serious document.  Supervisors, realizing that The Draft is half-baked, spend hours trying to decipher what has been intended, and then come up with their own half-baked piece of feedback.  Neither party makes any real contribution to instilling the discipline of research writing.

Since the demise of the Remington typewriter and carbon paper, the rationale forThe Draft has long gone.  Making every piece of research writing into a Final Version forces the writer (i.e., student) to think about structure, relevance, validity of arguments, inclusions and exclusions. And, of course, no matter how well written each individual thesis segment is, changes will still need to be made along the way.  But, with each well-considered , disciplined submission, a research student's research writing skills will improve significantly as well.



With all these points in mind, you may be wondering about my all-time favorite thesis extract.   Well, there are many to choose from but this remains one of the greats:

"Plural experiments were conducted - 3 in total.  The vast majority of results (i.e., "2") were positive.  The vast minority of results (i.e., "1") were negative..."

 I guess you can't blame a guy for trying to impress.  And, with the numbers 1 and2 being described as vast, one could only imagine that the best description of a number as large as 3 was plural.  Astrophysicists take note for the next time you need to generate a research paper with big numbers.


Dr. Dario Toncich