How much is enough when writing a PhD thesis?

By James Hayton,
February 21, 2012
I'm James, I'm a former physicist (PhD, Nottingham, 2007) and author of "PhD: An Uncommon Guide to Research, Writing & PhD Life".
Since 2010, I've been helping PhD students all over the world overcome barriers in their research and writing
My strategies have helped thousands of PhD students just like you to build confidence, write better and finish on time

So you're working away on your thesis, trying your best to keep your eyes open, get the words down and meet the deadline.

But there's that nagging doubt... how do you know whether what you're writing is good or not?

How do you know if your arguments are deep enough, or if you've covered enough of the literature?

There is no number. There is no magic formula. Everyone's PhD is different, and so all you can do is tell your own story.

But there is one element that you cannot live without, and which will help you to know what to include and what to leave out.

Insight

Insight is what separates you, the PhD candidate, from the undergrad student just following instructions or rote learning.

It's not the same as technical knowledge. It's the way you think about the subject, the way you interpret and explain the results.

Being factually correct isn't enough. The examiner wants to see something they don't already know; not just in terms of results or concepts, but they also want to see your perspective.

They want to see how the technical detail and the literature background informed the decisions you made in your research and how it relates to your analysis.

This is why it's so hard for anyone to tell you exactly what's required, because you can't put a number on how much insight is enough.They don't want a bibliography with 1000 papers in if they aren't relevant.

The examiner isn't going to care whether your thesis is 130 pages or 150 or 300... In fact if your writing lacks insight, they would probably prefer it to be as short as possible.

How to show insight

  • Stick mainly to things you know about
  • Avoid including random facts for no reason
  • Show how the ideas in the literature informed your research and your analysis
  • When writing, spend time thinking about exactly what you want to get across
  • Try to find the key concept that runs through the section or chapter to tie it together

and

  • Tell your own story. Because ultimately, it's all about you.
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