Thesis Research


“A thesis is a first attempt to be a scholar.” 1


The requirements for a PhD degree may differ widely among disciplines and schools, but the preparation of a thesis is a standard requirement for all PhD students whatever the subject. The thesis is an indispensable component of the doctorate journey and one of the more visible products of the years of self-motivation and hard work spent on a project, as well as the self-imposed isolation from society. Indeed, for a PhD student, the thesis is a valuable record of the time spent thinking about and exploring their specialized topic. In addition, the thesis is the most tangible goal for a newly-admitted PhD student who has just ventured into the academic world, as the successful completion of a thesis usually marks the completion of the degree.


Pain, easing pain
Anybody who has prepared a PhD thesis will never say that it was a simple and pain-free process. As mentioned previously, the preparation of a thesis varies from one discipline to another. This also holds true for the form of the thesis, whether it is a single manuscript that is focused on one unified research question or a combination of several research papers on related topics. The time spent on writing a thesis also differs. Whereas Arts students may draft their thesis proposal as soon as they begin the first semester, Science students will likely not sit down to write until their final year. However, a common factor in thesis writing whatever the discipline, is that rather than being a distinct act, it is an enduring and recursive process, which can result in a progression of mixed feelings. The most common and inevitable feeling, regardless of experience or ability, is probably one of pain. Pain is felt, for instance, when just two pages ‘survive’ of the thirty-page draft the student submitted to their supervisor for review; or when an entire month is spent preparing the body of a chapter, which the supervisor then reads and rejects as being unsatisfactory. Indeed, the pain can hit at any time when a novice writer runs out of ideas, hits a dead end, suffers self-doubt, receives a negative response or simply exhausted his/her energy.

What causes the pain? The obvious reason is that writing itself is difficult.  Good academic writing, a goal that many academics strive for, is the product of years of practice and training. In reality, most PhD candidates are good at thinking and planning their research, or having an internal intellectual debate, but trying to express their thoughts on paper, in a clear and coherent, well-structured and logical manner, is a different story. Academic writing is an act of discipline, which requires a combination of precision, coherence, structure, and organization. The writer Stephen King says “writing is refined thinking,”2 which in turn demands a higher level of input, diligence, and self-discipline.

In addition to writing being difficult, another area of concern is the amount of mental energy demanded during writing. Even accomplished writers cannot guarantee quality work all the time. Pain can come from various psychological obstacles, which might manifest as procrastination, writer’s block, or self-denial. In the case of writing a thesis, if these mental barriers are not well handled, then they might have grave consequences: not only could the quality of the thesis be affected, but the students’ confidence and commitment might also be compromised.

In this situation, how should a supervisor proceed to help the student manage the pain? The solutions are diverse, but the overall goal is the same - to cultivate the necessary mindset and develop the key basic habits of an academic writer.  Is there any advice or guidance that the supervisor gained from his/her own mentor, which might be still be applicable to the students today? Is there a standard or particular style, or indeed some tactic knowledge of the field that will save the students unnecessary detours? Are any resources available on campus for students to receive systematic training and constructive feedback in their writing skills? Getting answers to the above questions might offer some pain relief for academic writers in training.

Some of the pain may also be eased when students understand that writing is largely a case of rewriting, and revision is the rule rather than the exception. In this respect, supervisors may offer encouragement by sharing their own experiences, perhaps by showing the student his/her own thesis drafts (with the comments for improvement from their supervisor), or the reviewer’s comments from recently rejected manuscripts. Supervisors may also get their other students involved, to give comments and feedback, or even help with editing. This benefits everybody involved; the more junior students are better prepared if they assist others through the pain of writing a thesis before it is their turn.


Counting down, writing up
Towards the end, thesis writing is a time of trade-offs and decisions, and often compromises have to be made. At this stage, the student and supervisor may have divergent ideas in terms of priorities, expectations, and career planning, and as a result there might be conflict. In order to alleviate potential problems before they start, it is usually a good idea to make an explicit and mutual decision to have a “write up” count down. This typically involves endorsing the start of drafting, finishing a work plan, clearing any major final blocks, drafting an end-game plan to schedule writing and other necessary tasks, and finally seeing the first draft in its entirety. The supervisor and student may have different ideas with regards to their estimation of the time required to achieve certain goals: for example, the student may be too anxious about the time or too ambitious about the quality of the finished thesis; while the supervisor has his/ her own work schedule to consider when setting the boundaries.

With the current trend of marketization of academic research and training, which cares more about efficiency, the product and the outcome, and is in favor of “producing” a PhD in shorter time, it causes serious consequences to the PhD candidates and their theses.  Such a trend does not work favorably for some students or some research projects, which require a longer time to come to fruition, and this may lead to a lot of extra pressure for the candidate to rush their work.  Indeed, the end of financial support is sufficient motivation for many students to complete and submit their thesis.  On the other hand, the supervisor has a duty to ensure that the thesis is of high enough quality to at least meet a certain standard of acceptability.  After all, neither the supervisor nor the students are willing to receive a ‘fail’ from the thesis committee.  On the whole, the quality of a thesis is determined by the quality of the research that precedes the writing.  Thus, the decision to submit a thesis is not usually a last-minute call, but instead follows a continuous process of monitoring from which the supervisor can tell from an early stage if there might be problems.


Publish, or polish
In most disciplines, getting the research published is not a pre-requisite for graduation. However, having a publication is certainly advantageous for graduates, from many points of view. The first question, though it sounds redundant, is why publish at all? Is it for the long-term academic career plan or to disseminate knowledge? The necessity of having publications really depends on the student’s own prospects, for example, whether they want to stay in academia conducting research after they get their PhD or not, or how prestigious a university they aspire to go to, to do a post-doc or for their next job.

The supervisor has to exercise discretion in deciding whether to encourage the student to publish, or to save time and concentrate on their thesis work. Certainly, having a publication underscores the academic accomplishment, for both the student and supervisor, and the process is instructive for an aspiring academic. However, the process of preparing a manuscript is time-consuming and an added burden when done at the same time as writing a thesis. This is another area of potential conflict between the student and supervisor, especially if one is more enthusiastic than the other for getting the work published.

In many ways, the opening quotation (made by George Watson) is rather more romantic than practical. Even though it straightforwardly describes the purpose of thesis research, it does not depict the endeavors, struggles, and conflicts involved, and it provides little useful guidance for students. The suggestion that a thesis is a “first attempt”, indicates that it is an unknown, challenging, and uncertain task for the student. The supervisor is the main person who will take care of such “unknowns, challenges and uncertainties” for the duration of the research and throughout the preparation of the thesis. However, it seems that the thesis is more a means to train an independent researcher and is less valued than a publication per se, which has an overall higher value in academic circles. Perhaps what supervisors might offer during the process of thesis writing is what they have experienced, what they have achieved and what they consider to be most important from their point of view.


1 Watson, G. (1987). Writing a thesis. London: Longman, p.3
2 King, S. (2001). On writing: a memoir of the craft. London: New English Library.



Appendixes: Interview reports

On Thesis Writing (PDF)
Submission, Graduation, and Publication:
Dealing with the Quality, Timing, and Expectations (PDF)
By Yan Liang, Research Assistant, CUHK