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About this book

From proposal to examination, producing a dissertation or thesis is a challenge. Grounded in decades of experience with research training and supervision, this fully updated and revised edition takes an integrated, down-to-earth approach drawing on case studies and examples to guide you step-by-step towards productive success.

Early chapters frame the tasks ahead and show you how to get started. From there, practical advice and illustrations take you through the elements of formulating research questions, working with software, and purposeful writing of each of the different kinds of chapters, and finishes with a focus on revision, dissemination and deadlines. How to Write a Better Thesis presents a cohesive approach to research that will help you succeed.

Table of Contents

1. What Is a Thesis?

Abstract
Simply defined, a thesis is an extended argument. To pass, a thesis must demonstrate logical, structured, and defensible reasoning based on credible and verifiable evidence presented in such a way that it makes an original contribution to knowledge, as judged by experts in the field. Among the many types of scholarly productions, theses are an oddity: each one is different, and there are no standard or generic constructions. Most of those who supervise theses have written just one, and, despite the effort they take to produce, the only people who carefully read a given thesis are the project supervisors, the examiners, and an otherwise rather select audience of specialized academics.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

2. Thesis Structure

Abstract
Karen was undertaking a PhD in engineering to investigate whether a new type of plastic was safe to use as cookware. When she started her lab work, she decided to begin writing her thesis, but despite her determination she was having trouble. I knew Karen well, and she was a very good student who had been interested in new plastics ever since her undergraduate studies several years ago.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

3. Mechanics of Writing

Abstract
Given a structure, the next challenge is to actually begin writing. Strategies for writing are the subject of the next chapter. In this chapter, I take a brief detour and consider some of the tools of writing and communication.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

4. Making a Strong Start

Abstract
In the first months of a typical PhD (or, to a lesser extent, the first weeks of a minor thesis), you need to get into the habit of thinking and working like a research student. Your supervisor may set you some reading and introduce you to what your predecessors have done and to the complexities of your chosen field. In a technical discipline, you might choose one of these papers and identify how you could attempt to produce similar results; in a history project, say, you might start exploring what primary sources are available. To consolidate this reading, and to ensure that you understand it with sufficient depth, you may be asked to write a review showing how the field has been developing and what the current challenges and problems are.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

5. The Introductory Chapter

Abstract
Imagine, for a moment, that your thesis is an important person you are meeting for the first time. It would be normal to be introduced as questions raced through your head: Where are you from? How did you get here? What are you doing here? What type of person are you? What have you done so far, and where are you going? As in social settings, I’ve noticed that students are sometimes in a rush to ‘get started’ and fumble the all-important first impression. Take some time to write the introduction properly, and revise it on a regular basis as your research project matures. Introductions are crucial, and it speaks for you as you strive to join an international community of scholars.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

6. Background Chapters

Abstract
Depending on the nature of your thesis, the background sections or chapters can take any of several different forms. However, their functions are always the same: to provide the context for your own work and to be the starting point for an examiner to think about your position in relation to the work, that is, to be the ‘you’ that you were at the start of the research project. The four most common elements in the background chapters are:
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

7. Establishing Your Contribution

Abstract
Think back to when you began your research project. In all likelihood, you wanted to do research because you were intrigued by or eager about something. Perhaps your ideas were vague or ill-formed, and even possibly you were happy to join any existing project in a broad area. But soon you developed a definite problem that you were working on, with the intention of making a contribution to your field.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

8. Outcomes and Results

Abstract
In a typical thesis (or research paper), data and argument are used to build a case. That is, a logical narrative is used to persuade the reader that the claims of the thesis are reasonable and are supported by evidence. From this perspective, maybe half of a thesis can be viewed as a sequence of three components: first, how the data was gathered and what it is intended to represent; second, what the gathered data looks like; third, how it should be interpreted. How to present ‘what the gathered data looks like’ is the subject of this chapter.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

9. The Discussion or Interpretation

Abstract
Phil had reached the discussion chapter of his thesis, and we were talking about how he might shape it. The aim of his PhD project was to determine whether agricultural forestry could make a worthwhile contribution to the rehabilitation of degraded tropical uplands. He had spent a year on field research in Sri Lanka and, in the end, carried out two major research programs: a comparative study of existing land uses, and an economic analysis of a particular agroforestry system sponsored by a German aid agency. He had written chapters of his thesis describing the results of these studies, as well as the appropriate background chapters, but now found himself in trouble trying to pull it all together. Luckily, he had followed some earlier advice to keep his introduction and conclusion in alignment. I asked him whether he knew what the overall conclusions of his research project were. ‘More or less’, he replied. ‘Enough to write them all down?’ He hesitated, but ‘yes’ was the eventual answer.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

10. The Conclusion

Abstract
You stated the aim of the research project in your first chapter. These conclusions must indicate how you fulfilled that aim, and must arise inescapably from the argument in the discussion chapter. Researchers often state conclusions that they have failed to argue for. They had become convinced of them in the course of their research but, because they did not follow a process such as the one I described in the previous chapter for structuring the discussion, they had omitted to back them up in their writing.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

11. Before You Submit

Abstract
You have just typed the last full stop of your conclusions. Finished at last? Wrong—you still have many weeks of work to do. You have two major tasks ahead: you must revise your first draft in response to the criticisms of supervisors and friends and, when you have done that, you must check the details of the whole work.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel

12. Beyond the Thesis

Abstract
Students enrol in a research degree to develop as researchers, make discoveries, and, ultimately, write a thesis. More broadly, a fundamental goal underlying research study is that of transformation, from knowledge consumption to knowledge production, from dependence to independence, from student to colleague. You would not be doing a graduate degree unless you thought it was going to lead you into the world of professional investigation, or of research and scholarship.
David Evans†, Paul Gruba, Justin Zobel
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