A thesis is not just a display


It’s tempting to think that the PhD thesis is the place you get to display every single thing you’ve read. To peacock-like spread out a significant dazzle of texts. Look how much I’ve done. See how well I can summarise it all. Just imagine how good my notes are and how impressive my (Endnote, Zotero etc) must be.

But that would be a mistake.

Doctoral research is all about knowledge transformation. The PhDer does not read in order to regurgitate, but rather, to do something with their reading.  To understand what this means, it might help to consider the difference between knowledge transformation and knowledge display.

Knowledge display. Undergraduate and postgraduate coursework generally demands students show that they understand a field. The way to show coverage and comprehension is usually via an extended essay. In the essay the writer demonstrates that that they have a grip on both the depth and breadth of a topic. So when the essay is assessed, the marker first of all looks to see that the  student understands the key concepts, standard debates and important developments in understandings. Students can generally garner higher scores by having a point of view, and covering more than has been given to them in lectures, readings and reference lists.

Knowledge transformation, or knowledge mobilisation as it is sometimes called, assumes that the writer has all of that – a grip on the breadth and depth of a topic, a point of view, and has done a lot of independent reading. But they then go further. The PhDer has all of the material necessary to do display – but doesn’t.

The PhDer does have to know the field in great detail. That is necessary, but not sufficient. Instead of laying it all out on the page, they do something with their knowledge. They put it to work. This might be  devising a research problem, designing a study, making sense of analysed data or simply re-reading the field in a novel way. To put it differently – knowledge transformers do something other than simply repeat, no matter how elegantly or cleverly, what they have read. And the doctoral researcher-writer does not simply tell the reader about a topic by writing an essay. They write an argument, not an essay, justifying their particular transformation – what, why and how and how it matters.

Now, understanding the difference between display and transformation helps you to think about the role of literatures in the thesis. It helps you to understand that there is no point in simply throwing in a few references to something important to show that you know it exists. If a reading actually doesn’t contribute to the larger work you are doing, don’t bother with it. Anything you reference has to help you to build your case and argument.

Understanding the difference between display and transformation also helps you to understand why it is not acceptable in a thesis to simply summarise huge amounts of a body of literature or to write as if you were explaining the whole field to someone who knows nothing. Readers of doctoral theses want to know how you have put the existing body of knowledge to work in your current project.

And yes, putting texts to work means you have to evaluate and select from everything you’ve read, and argue on the basis of that selection. Of course it’s painful if you’ve steadfastly plodded through a really difficult bit of Continental philosophy and it turns out to be useless for the particular topic and you have to leave it out. But you know you have it now, and it will probably be helpful in the future as well as contributing to your general scholarly knowledge.

Do you get punished for display? Well maybe, maybe not.

The consequences of too much display may not be drastic. Readers can get pretty bored with loads of essay like summary and/or frivolous bits of name-dropping and get impatient to find out how the material contributes to the study. Who knows where that impatience will go? Maybe nowhere…

But examiners may well ask for details about which literatures were actually important and used. And perhaps they will require some rewriting, so that display becomes less of a focus, and transformation takes centre stage. You can avoid that if you keep transformation at the forefront of your mind.