The best two books on doing a thesis

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I started my PhD at the University of Melbourne in early 2006 and finished in 2009. I did well, collecting the John Grice Award for best thesis in my faculty and coming second for the university medal (dammit!). I attribute this success to two ‘how to’ books in particular: Evans and Gruba’s “How to write a better thesis” and Kamler and Thomson’s “Helping doctoral students write”, both of which recently went into their second edition.

I use both of these books in my teaching practice and refer to them often in my blog posts. My old copies had been photocopied so often they had nearly fallen apart, so I was glad to get a brand new copy of each. Both of them have been substantially refreshed, so it seems like a good time to finally give them a proper review.

I picked up “How to write a better thesis” from the RMIT campus bookstore in June, 2004. I met this book at a particularly dark time in my first thesis journey. I did my masters by creative practice at RMIT, which meant I made a heap of stuff and then had to write about it. The making bit was fun, but the writing was agony.

My poor supervisors did their best to help me revise draft after draft, but I was terrible at it. Nothing in my previous study in architecture had prepared me for writing a proper essay, let alone a long thesis. I had no idea what one should even look like. What sections should I have? What does each one do? In desperation, I visited the bookstore and “How to write a better thesis” jumped off the rack and into my arms.

I’ll admit, my choice was largely informed by its student friendly price point: at the time it was $21.95, it’s now gone up to around $36. In my opinion that’s a bit steep, given that the average student budget is still as constrained as it was a decade ago, but you do get a lot for your money.

David Evans sadly died some years ago, but Justin Zobel has ably stepped into his shoes for the revision. What I’ve always liked best about this book is the way it breaks the ‘standard thesis’ down into its various components: introduction, literature review, method etc, then treats the problems of each separately. This enables you to use it tactically to ‘spot check’ for problem areas in your thesis.

The new edition of the book has remained essentially the same, but with some useful additions that, I think, better reflect the complexity of the contemporary thesis landscape. It acknowledges a broader spread of difficulties with writing the thesis and includes worked examples which illustrate the various traps students can fall into.

A couple of weeks ago I was sent a review copy of Zobel and Gruba’s new collaboration: “How to write a better Minor Thesis”. This is a stripped down version of the original book, with some minor additions, but designed specifically for masters by course work and honours students who have to write a thesis between 15,000 and 30,000 in length. It’s a brilliant idea as, to my knowledge, there hasn’t been much on the market for these students before. The majority of the book is relevant to the PhD and since it’s only $9.95 on Kindle you might want to start with this instead and upgrade to the more expensive paperback if you think you want more.

My introduction to Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson’s “Helping doctoral students to write: pedagogies for supervision” was quite different. My colleague at the time, Dr Robyn Barnacle, handed me this book when I was in the first year of my PhD. By that time I was a much more confident writer and I was ready for the more complex writing journey this book offered. And “Helping doctoral students to write” does tackle complicated issues – nominalisation, modality, them/rheme analysis and so on – but not in a complicated way. This is largely because it’s full of practical exercises and suggestions, many of which I use in my workshops (for an example, see this slide deck on treating the zombie thesis).

Although “Helping doctoral students write” has more of a humanities bent than ‘how to write a thesis’, it steps through a broad range of thesis writing issues with a light touch that never makes you feel bored or frustrated. It argues that the thesis is a genre proposition – an amazingly powerful insight – and the chapter on grammar is simply a work of brilliance.

I’ve given this book to engineers, architects, biologists and musicologists, all of whom have told me it was useful – but I find total beginners react with fear to sub-headings like ‘modality: the goldilocks dilemma’. For that reason I usually save it for students near their final year, especially when they tell me their supervisor doesn’t like their writing, but can’t explain why.

“Helping doctoral students to write” is not explicitly written for PhD students (the authors are in the process of doing one). The new edition is an improvement on the old in many ways and well worth buying again if you happen to own it already. The new edition is around $42, which is ok but I think the Kindle edition is over priced (why do publishers keep doing this when many people like to own both for convenience?). It’s a great book for the advanced student who is prepared to roll up their sleeves and do some serious work. Not only will this work pay dividends, as my award attests, it will stand you in good stead for being a supervisor yourself later on as you will be able to diagnose and treat some of the most common – yet difficult to describe – writing problems.

Pat Thomson, is, of course, the author of the popular ‘Patter’ blog, so you can access her wisdom, for free, on a weekly basis. I should own up to the fact that Pat and I met on Twitter, as many bloggers do, and started to collaborate. I’m still in awe of Pat’s knowledge, experience and good humour. I sometimes pinch myself that we have become friends (in fact, she gave me my new copy of the book when I last visited the UK), but I hope this isn’t the only reason the new edition mentions the Whisperer in one of the chapters (squee!).

If I hadn’t already had deep familiarity with this book before I met Pat I would definitely have to say I have a conflict of interest, but I can hand on my heart tell you I would recommend it anyway. Pat and Barbara have written another, truly fantastic, book “Writing for peer review journals: strategies for getting published” but that’s a review for another time 🙂

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