Dissertation Guide

Our comprehensive guide to the process of writing a dissertation or thesis. Back to Student Resources

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When should I start writing?

“As a supervisor I want to see writing straight away. Talk is important, strategy is important, and an overall framework is important, but I have to see writing, continuous writing (not just in note form), to gauge ‘have they got a grasp of what they are doing?’ in the full sense – writing as thinking, writing as knowing. We all have favourite terms and ‘grasp’ is one of mine because it’s that sense of getting hold of something, and I can only gauge that by reading what is down on paper. The output from a PhD is almost exclusively textual.”

“The thesis is a massive problem if you’re not clear fairly close to the outset what your problem is. It’s an old chestnut but it’s surprising how many students are still not clear that the problem’s the problem, and how many supervisors fail to focus on the clarity of the problem at the heart of the thesis. When I was a postgraduate student, we had an old Germanic professor who was a rather terrifying figure. When he first met new PhD students, he would confront them with “What is your problem?” He wanted them to tell him, as succinctly as they could, what they were concerned with, what they were grappling with at the heart of the thesis. Not knowing what the problem is, or not having pinned it down sufficiently well, is at the heart of so many of the struggles faced by PhD students.”

“I found it extremely useful to be writing academic papers as well as the dissertation. First of all, I was getting practice at writing. I started writing my PhD in the first year – I started writing a literature review. I didn’t use any of that material in the final PhD but it was good to have some consolidated notes on relevant readings. Those readings appeared in the final thesis but what I wrote about them was quite different. Also, that writing helped me to think through the journal articles that I was publishing at the time.”

“If you haven’t written for a while then you have to find a way of turning habitual non-writing into habitual writing. I suppose the metaphor is the nervous, poor swimmer getting into the water. Some poor swimmers stand at the edge, plucking up the courage to dip a toe in. You have to force yourself into the water. What you mustn’t do, of course, is try to dive into a bucket of ice-cold water from a great height. You need to build up confidence and get into the habit, and once you’ve got the habit you need to keep it going.”