Start the thesis journey with a clear understanding of where you are aiming to reach.
You will be defending a thesis that contains a set of findings and some inferences (conclusions) that you draw from them. You will be defending it to people who read your thesis, your thesis supervisor and committee, as well as the people who read it later, either in a shortened form for publication, or as a source for their own thesis or publication.
Defending it means that your evidence – your data – will speak for you. Your task is to document what it says.
This isn’t a facile statement; it is at the heart of so much confusion about how to write a thesis. It isn’t your job to persuade your reader that your initial hypothesis or claim is correct. It’s the job of your evidence/data/results. Instead, you start with a question and you design a study to address the question as carefully and thoroughly as you can. Indeed it may be the case that you modify your initial questions as your evidence begins to tell your story. At your final defence, you will be defending how you addressed the questions, so that the reader can accept that your findings are valid and reasonable. The findings/evidence/data may not be exactly what you expected when you began, but that is why you start with a question and not an assertion.
In order to convince your reader that your findings reflect a valid and believable answer to your question, you will be thoroughly conversant with the larger field of research in which your study is located. You will have situated your question as plausible and important in this field. You will have presented a way of investigating the question that your reader will agree fits the question and yields plausible answers. And you will have presented evidence to lead you and the reader to draw a conclusion about the answer to the question(s).
Your job is to set up a collection system that can appropriately address your question. The evidence speaks for you. Or, as my own supervisor said many years ago, “look after your data and your data will look after you”.
That’s it! It’s a logical sequence of presenting data so that everything leads the reader to agree with the premise that led to your research question, your evidence, and then with the conclusions you draw from it.
Here are some things that a thesis is NOT:
- A repository of all your reading, knowledge in and understanding of the literature in your field
- A persuasive argument to get your reader to agree with you, containing superlatives, emotionally loaded language and other persuasive techniques (irrespective of the evidence). Instead the facts speak for themselves.
- A political (small p) stance that you believe you should defend. Although you may end with a politically controversial conclusion, you do not start the thesis by taking a controversial stance. Your position emerges at the end, supported by the data, and is more subtle than an op-ed piece.
- Persuasion with hyperbole – the reader will not be persuaded by your opinions unless the evidence you present is itself convincing.
- A narrative with a twisted plot and a grand unveiling (denouement) at the end, like a novel. The reader needs to know from the very first paragraph (the abstract) what they are going to find.
- A piece of investigative journalism that ‘uncovers’ the malaise in the system. Again, you may start with a premise (hypothesis) that something is wrong, but your job is to challenge the ‘null hypothesis’ – that there is no reasonable evidence to support the premise. If it turns out that there is evidence to support the claim, that’s great. You will have a substantive thesis in which you discuss this finding and its implications – in the Discussion section. To be fair to investigative journalism, the job of a good journalist is also to present evidence from verifiable and trusted sources – just as in academic research.
So a thesis is not evaluated on the basis of the literature you have read and cited, nor on your ability to locate your topic in the relevant literature. It does not persuade our reader that a certain perspective or claim is true. You will indeed draw on your broad knowledge of the literature to situate your topic (see Literature review), and on the material you select and the way you present it. The ultimate purpose will be to present evidence that support your conclusions (in the Discussion) once you know what these are.
So this is what a thesis IS:
- – It tells the reader up front what they are going to read about. Your thesis presents the question and summarizes the evidence (findings) right in the abstract on page 1, then it goes on to roll out the literature that addresses the findings, the methods used to collect evidence, the findings and the discussion of what it all means.
- – It uses evidence (data, systematic analysis, logical derivations, verbatim first hand transcripts, validation) to convince the reader that you have systematically investigated the claims you set out to investigate.
- – It explores as many counter arguments as possible and shows from the evidence itself why these either do not hold or are not the best explanation.
- – It permits the reader to agree with your conclusions based on your evidence, i.e. what your data show and why you think that these best answer your initial research question.
- – In short, a thesis is the presentation of a set of evidence that adds to knowledge in your field. Your introduction to the evidence, your methods for collecting the evidence and your presentation of the evidence become the core of your thesis.
The reader will be focal as you write the thesis. The reader has a very important role from the outset of your thesis. It is this mythical person (and ultimately your very real examination committee) who need to be convinced that the questions you raise, the way you collect your evidence to address your questions, the way you present the evidence and the conclusions you reach, are sound.
So the reader is a judge who is searching for the truth in what you present. The reader in this discussion is a composite of the examiners on your committee, the people on your thesis defense committee, those who will read your thesis subsequently, and your audience when you publish your work. It follows that your thesis defense is the forum where the reader raises any questions he or she may have about the elements of the thesis, whether each element is up to the job of convincing him or her that your evidence can be trusted. Further the reader(s) will dig deeply into why you led the reader to the conclusions you present, how far they are based on evidence, whether they can be believed and trusted, or whether there are possible alternative explanations for your findings. This will take place whether you are defending in either an oral or viva examination or in a written submission, Masters or Doctoral level.
The sections of your thesis are designed to convince your reader about your findings. So the opening chapter will tell the reader where you are going to lead them. The literature you review will serve to set the context but more importantly, will set up the research question(s) you will explore. Then you present the techniques you used to uncover the evidence that addresses the research question. You then present the data/evidence that, first, shows the strength and stability of your attempt to address the question (the measures, the data collection and analysis techniques you chose). Second you present the findings themselves.
The final discussion links the finding you report back to the question and the research literature from which it came. This link allows you to draw conclusions about what you found; at this point your writing favours a claim or explanation that you want your reader to agree with, but by then you will already have established that this is the best interpretation of the data.
So the evidence you present is the most important part of your thesis. It’s OK to adjust the front end of your thesis if your findings show something different from or more interesting than the question you set out to answer.
This focus on evidence is true whether you are writing a quantitative or qualitative thesis, whether the methodology is case study or critical theory, a statistical analysis or a theoretical development. You may hold a very strong commitment to a particular viewpoint, but your job as an academic writer is to collect the evidence that this viewpoint is correct. See TiM unit 3 for a more detailed development of the thesis structure.