Doing a PhD and writing a thesis are not the same thing

A PhD is not, primarily, about writing; it is about research. The writing serves as a means of presentation.

To me this seems obvious, but a lot of people assume that because the final submitted product is a piece of writing, that writing is the primary aim.

So I meet students only a few months away from the deadline who have never even looked at their own data and have no experience  or skill at all in analysing, presenting and discussing research results.

They may have written hundreds of pages, and those pages may superficially look like thesis chapters, but they have nothing – absolutely nothing – in terms of  research content.

You might be a fantastic writer, but if your research sucks then you cannot write a good thesis. But if your research is good then the writing doesn’t have to be fantastic; just good enough to explain what you did and what the results were.

Do the research. Do the analysis. Discuss your results. Repeat. Then write.

Doing a PhD and writing a thesis are not the same thing

Recently, this site was included in a Guardian article listing top online resources for PhD students.

James Hayton PhD: A former nervous PhD student, now a post-doc, shares his wisdom about how to write a thesis without losing your mind.

Aside from the fact that I wouldn’t describe myself as “nervous” and the fact I’m not a post-doc, I would not say that this site is about writing a thesis. It is about doing a PhD.

Writing a thesis is part of doing a PhD, but it is not synonymous with doing a PhD. The thesis is the part that other people see, but it is only a tiny fraction of the work that should go into the research.

Yes, this applies to social sciences and humanities too

Let me make this very, very clear. This post is aimed at social scientists and humanities students too. The vast majority of students I have worked with have come from these areas, and BY FAR the most common problem is trying to write without having done the fundamental research work.

Example: someone gathering interview data but who only spends (over the course of 5 years) about 3 days actually doing interviews. The quality of the thesis will depend on the quality of the data, and the quality of the data depends on your skill as an interviewer. If you have only done 3 days of actual research, there is no way you will have developed the skill required to do it well. The writing will be exceptionally difficult because, fundamentally, you don’t have any good content to present.


See also:
Don’t neglect your data
How I wrote a PhD thesis in three months
Writing your way to a PhD

9 thoughts on “Doing a PhD and writing a thesis are not the same thing”

  1. sometimes as a social scientist, i feel following the university guidelines of linear research methods is wrong. we jump back and forth between our intro, lit review, data collection and analysis so many times but are expected to do the part one (and submit/defend it) before going out to collect primary data. interesting blog for fellow researchers.

  2. Extremely useful observation and distinction to make, I will keep that in mind as it’s changed the way I am thinking about the research/presentation of the research. I have to periodically produce 5,000 word outputs which feels, to me at least, very back to front and is frying my brain. I know its about keeping things on track but surely a lit review at the beginning will be very different to final submission particularly on a part time route.

  3. Good job, it all depends on your supervisors. As for me in AIU during my Phd , i used the survey monkey systems in my data collections and used the test re test approach also.
    Its all good doc.

  4. Depends upon your Uni and your supervisor. Mine do not seem to care little about the quality of the research but about exceptional writing. My supervisor is a lit nut. My thesis topic is educational technology..
    Leads me to think that only good writers get Phds

    Gr8 book btw

    • It’s not true that only good writers get PhDs, but then it’s also not true that only good researchers get PhDs!

      Of course you have to work to the system you are in- but also think about what you want to do afterwards. If you want to be a researcher, then focus on developing solid research skills and don’t neglect the practical work for the sake of writing.

  5. “Do the research. Do the analysis. Discuss your results. Repeat. Then write.

    Doing a PhD and writing a thesis are not the same thing”

    As a part-time PhD student, thank you….. This is now my mantra…..

  6. Thanks James, this topic makes me feel a bit better. But, it is still tough for me due to the fact that I do my PhD in English (second language). Have loads of editing, quite overwhelming.

  7. It is very refreshing to hear this advice as it echo’s my thoughts and approach to my PhD. What will make or break my PhD thesis is my data and research. I find a lot of students shy away from the field and find ‘comfort’ in writing and re writing long clever papers for supervisors. Here in my uni, I believe this may be due to the fact the field is where they have less experience and they do not like the uncertainly which it may bring. I feel like they have missed the point of what a PhD is about. It’s sad really.

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