How to write a thesis you can defend easily

An unavoidable part of the thesis-writing process is that at some point an expert in the field is going to read and assess your work.

You could be asked to defend or justify any part of your thesis… they might point out mistakes or question the validity of your arguments… or even ask whether the research question is one worth answering.

Naturally, the thesis defence this can be a daunting prospect, but there are things you can do during the writing process to make the future defence easier.

1. Anticipate criticism

By anticipating criticism, you can strengthen your defences against it.

What other approaches or interpretations could be made? If you acknowledge them and give a reasoned justification for why you did what you did or think what you think, then your defence is built into the thesis.

It shows that you can take an objective view of your research and have considered many options, acknowledging and addressing any weaknesses before the examiner has a chance to.

2. Try to prove yourself wrong

Be active in examining doubts, rather than letting a sense of unease sit at the back of your mind.

If you have reached a surprising conclusion, you should be the first to question whether it is true. Check and recheck your data. Try to think of alternative explanations and ways to test them. Show your work to others and get them to question it- you don’t want the defence to be the first time you get feedback on your research.

If your conclusion survives that process, then you will be able to defend it with far more confidence.

3. Be clear about what you are claiming

As I’ve said before, the examiner can disagree with you, but they should never misunderstand you.

Make a clear statement about what you are trying to say, so that both you and the examiner know what you are defending.

This can be difficult, and sometimes you can end up writing in circles if you are unsure about what you want to say. If that’s the case, slow down and imagine someone has just asked you, “so what are you trying to say?”

4. Only cite literature you have read and understood

If you misrepresent someone else’s work, and the examiner notices, you could be in trouble.

Never include things just for the sake of increasing your bibliography.

5. Stick mainly to what you know

Your thesis is unique, as is your experience and expertise. Focus on what you know well (and if you need to learn something new, go and learn it before you write about it).

It’s better to bring the examiner into territory where you are strong, than to stray into weak areas because you think that’s where they want to be.

6. Focus on the work, not the outcome

It’s hard, but try not to worry about the defence too much. Instead, focus on doing the work to the best of your ability.

You cannot predict or control what an examiner will ask you.  All you can do is give each section of the thesis the care and attention it deserves.  If you do that, then the chances are it will work out OK.

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See also: How to prepare for your thesis defence

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Will the examiner tear my thesis apart?

You’ve done years of research, you’ve got the results, you’ve done the analysis, drawn your conclusions… But what if the examiner tears your thesis apart?

Obviously you want to avoid the humiliation of having your thesis torn to pieces. So here are the 7 deadly sins of thesis writing to avoid at all costs.

1. Lies

Any hint that you’ve fabricated results, or tried to cover up major problems by lying, and the examiner will tear you apart.

If you feel tempted (or pressured) to lie about your research in your thesis or in published journals, it’s really time to have a good look at your situation, and talk honestly with someone you trust. The temptation is understandable, but it’s just not worth it.

2. Bullshit

Distinct from outright lies, bullshit involves trying to give the impression of expertise in a subject you actually know very little about.

It’s tempting to try to appear like you know everything, but it’s far better to give more detail on subjects you are genuinely expert in.

3. Plagiarism

Even if you get away with plagiarism in your thesis, you can lose your doctorate if someone finds out later. This happened to the German defence minister in 2011.

It is sometimes hard to paraphrase other people’s writing, so it’s better to try explaining the idea to someone verbally then writing about it in your own way.

Never sit with the paper in front of you and try to rearrange sentences to make it look different. It just doesn’t work.

4. Misrepresentation of other people’s work

You will have to write about other people’s work, and give references to back up your arguments. It’s very, very important that you know what these references actually say, because the examiner will tear you apart if you misrepresent other people’s work (especially if it is the examiner’s work).

Don’t cite anything you haven’t actually read.

5. Getting the basics wrong

It’s OK to have the occasional mistake, but if you make a fundamental mistake in your assumptions which then undermines your conclusions, then you are in trouble.

6. Ignorance

While you aren’t expected to know everything, you should have a good knowledge of relevant developments in your field and some knowledge beyond your highly specialised niche.

It depends how broad your field is, but at the very least you should be aware of who the top people are and the most highly cited papers.

7. Lack of insight

What does it all mean? How does your work relate to the wider field? What are the limitations of your research and what open questions remain (or are raised)?

You have to give the examiner an idea of what and how you think, beyond just the dry technical details.

You have to be willing to commit to what you think, and know that you can defend it.

It will be OK!

If you avoid these 7 sins, as long as the basic research is OK (it doesn’t have to change the world), and as long as you write honestly and don’t stray too far from what you are expert in, then you should be OK.

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