PhD Thesis: Overcoming the Final Hurdles

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As a doctorate student at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, Katrien Pype underwent some of the trauma experienced by many PhD candidates. There was the constant lack of self-confidence, which she says may not be apparent to many, and there was the period when she was not convinced that she had gathered enough or sufficiently interesting materials on her field trips.

"In hindsight, these should not be seen as real obstacles," she says. "After all, lacking self-confidence incited me to continue reading what others had done and were researching, and it allowed me to keep track with the ever expanding literature on themes such as religion in Africa, cultural anthropology and media studies."

"With regard to field material, I hardly dared open my notebooks and analyse my data. Instead, and this is probably the best example of procrastination, I began working on issues that did not deal with my core subject. But here again, this work was not at all idle, and I managed to publish two articles during that time."

Gloom and doom!

Katrien Pype finished her PhD last year and is now a postdoctoral researcher and a Newton International Fellow at the Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham. Her experience mimics recent studies which suggest that rather than being a period of pleasure gained from feeling one's knowledge expand, and the anticipation of a fulfilling academic career, the route to a PhD is too often filled with gloom, loneliness and uncertainty. In addition, many PhD candidates complain that teaching responsibilities are slowing down the final stage of their thesis. Many research students also complain that they are not receiving enough financial backing from their institution and that some supervisors do not provide PhDs with the necessary academic support.

From initial draft to submission

So, given all these hurdles, what can PhDs do in order to see through the final stages of writing up and defence? The first draft is only the beginning for a PhD thesis and experts say editing, revision, coherence and excellent presentation are the most essential factors in earning a PhD. This will include spending weeks and even months looking and rearranging the initial draft, so as to ensure that you will have little or no problems at your viva. They advise you to start editing early, set achievable goals for submission, get help from friends, partners and other candidates, and to anticipate that everything including the final printing will take longer than expected.

Although it is seen as boring by many PhD candidates, Dr Pype suggests looking after your bibliography.

"Since you're in a flow when writing up and you want to make an argument, you may end up paying too much attention to the content, that you just write references in brackets or in a different font from the rest of the text, so at the end it may take a lot of time to get the references right," she says. "But with internet and Google Books you can sometime trace exact quotations online, but often, you find yourself returning to the library to get a particular page or to verify a spelling mistake in a quote!"

Dr Pype's view is shared by Erik Borg, a PhD candidate who just handed in his thesis a few weeks ago at the University of Coventry. A researcher at the university's Centre for Academic Writing, Mr Borg suggests final checks should be given to partners and friends to examine for things like coherence and grammatical mistakes. He also points out that there may be significant problems in formatting the text.

"My thesis had more than forty illustrations, plus text samples, tables and other illustrations, and wrestling with Microsoft Word was a significant issue," he says.

Referencing and coherence

Mr Borg advises fellow PhDs to consider using reference management tools such as EndNote in order to avoid any problems with the bibliography.

Dr Rowena Murray, reader in the educational and professional studies department at Scotland's Strathclyde University and author of three books on PhD studies, advises candidates to check their thesis' presentation for coherence. She says the final product must match from start to finish, and that the match should be explicit.

"The conclusion must be developed throughout the whole thesis," she says. "Check out for consistencies and links between every chapter and argument. You also need to stress and evidence how your work is contributing to knowledge."

Dr Pype advises that you communicate with other scholars working on similar topics as this can help you get the right focus and even to discover a scholar who is asking similar questions to you.

"My main advice would be to talk to as many people as possible, inside and outside academia about the problems or hurdles you're faced with," she says. "Often, these people will not be able to do much more than to comfort you, but anyone who has finished his or her PhD will recognise this."

Dr Pype also advises that you try out your ideas and seek new ideas at academic gatherings.

"I would certainly advise PhD students to travel and to attend conferences and symposia, not always to present your own work, but to exchange ideas, as such meetings can sometimes be life-changing," she says.

Preparing for Your Viva

When you are satisfied you have done all that you can with editing, Dr Murray advises that it is important that you understand your institutions' PhD awarding criteria in relation to your own work. As you prepare for your viva, she advises that you work even more closely with your supervisors and get people around you on board.

"Look at the examiner's criteria," she says. "And most importantly you should have a realistic practice of answering questions."

Dr Murray suggests you practice possible follow-up questions with colleagues and partners. In addition, she points out that during viva, some candidates may not elaborate enough on their thesis to the examiners.

"You should not assume that the examiner knows your work," she says. "The mistakes some PhDs make is that they don't always argue their case enough in term of debate. Your work and what you say need to be valid to the examiners."

Further readings:

MURRAY R, Moore S (2006) The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-335-21933-0.

MURRAY R (2005) Writing for Academic Journals. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.

MURRAY R (2003) How to Survive your Viva. Maidenhead: Open University Press-Mc-Graw-Hill. ISBN 0-335-21284-0.

MURRAY R (2002, 2nd edition 2006) How to Write a Thesis. Maidenhead: Open University Press-McGraw-Hill.

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