Thesis know how – don’t write an essay

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Examiners do not want to read a thesis that contains a lot of mini-essays. To understand the problem with the thesis-as-essay, imagine the examiner reading a methods chapter. It starts off badly. While not in these words, the writer basically says … first of all I’m going to tell you all about the differences between quantitative and qualitative research, then I’m going to tell you all of the possible methods I could have used for my research, then I’m going to tell you a lot of things about the interview…. at this point the examiner rolls their eyes and goes off to make a cup of tea.

The vast majority of examiners don’t want a summary of what you learnt in your methods courses. You passed the assignments right? So you don’t need to do them again. The examiner doesn’t want you to trawl the literatures. What they want to know is what methodology and methods you’ve chosen, why these ones, and what your selected approaches will allow you to do/not do.

Why do doctoral researchers write essays in their theses?

It’s probably not too surprising that so many doctoral researchers have a successful essay-writer headset. They approach key thesis tasks – locating the work in the literature, establishing the epistemological and methodological basis for the research, describing the particular approach taken – with the essay as the implicit or explicit model.

One possible explanation is that the thesis-as-essay writers might be stuck in this mode. Most North American and European doctoral programmes begin with course work. This doctoral course work generally requires the same kind of essay writing as undergraduate and Masters level courses. So when writing the thesis follows on from course work, the danger is that the thesis writer remains in this course work mode. They need support to move from one position, the essay writer, to the other, the thesis writer.

Another reason for writing the thesis-as-essay might be that the doctoral researcher is doing not only what they believe is required of them but also what they’ve learnt to do well. Doctoral researchers are by definition likely to have been successful at essays – knowing how to produce the good essay got them into the doctoral programme in the first place. As good students, they want to keep on keeping on. Unless they are told that the thesis is not the essay, then they will do what they know from experience to have worked for them.

How is an essay different from the thesis?

In the standard essay assignment, a question is asked or a proposition is put, and the student must provide the answer(s). Essays are externally assessed against how well the essay writer can answer the question/address the topic and demonstrate both their familiarity with material/literatures and their capacity to martial evidence to produce a coherent and convincing answer. Bonus points can often be garnered for originality, high levels of criticality and/or interpretation, introduction of additional material which signifies additional reading and effort, elegance of expression and so on. Essay writers basically remix what other people have said.

If the work that the undergraduate and Masters level essay does is to display other people’s knowledge so that it can be seen and checked, literally ticked off, this not what is required in a doctoral thesis. The doctoral examiner assumes that the thesis writer has already demonstrated that they know about methodology, methods, the specific literatures needed for their study. The doctoral examiner now wants to see how the doctoral researcher selects from what’s available, justifies their choice and above all uses the knowledge available to them to support and locate their own inquiry . The doctoral examiner expects the thesis writer to work the available literatures in the interests of their particular project.

The thesis is the place for the researcher to ask and answer their own question and to work with and on those literatures that are relevant to their research field, methodology and methods. The thesis is the place for the doctoral researcher to be the expert, calling on other experts to support their work and their case. Doctoral researchers do not repeat other people’s words, rather they are engaged in directing and managing a conversation about their own work.

The thesis is an argument, not an essay.

Author Bio: Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham. Her research is centred primarily on how schools might change to be more engaging and meaningful for more children and young people.

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