How to make your dissertation ‘speak’ to experts


Most people come into a PhD program with well developed writing skills but a  dissertation – or as it is called in Australia, a Thesis, is a very particular kind of writing challenge. All thesis writers must bend their existing skills to the appropriate ‘thesis style’. Ironically, the people I have seen struggle the most with the conventional thesis style are journalists.

You might expect such accomplished writers to rock this part of the PhD challenge. But there’s a simple – and revealing – reason why journalists can find thesis writing challenging. Journalists are used to a writing for a general or ‘lay’ audience. The journalist’s role is primarily to inform and explain a situation or idea to people who don’t know a lot about the topic. By contrast, the thesis is a piece of writing by an expert intended to inform and persuade other experts.

The expert reader is notoriously difficult audience to please, which is why I often write these kinds of comments on my PhD students’ drafts:

Text reads: “Although it should be plural, in practice we make it singular. English is stupid”

As a supervisor, I am fairly relaxed about grammar ‘rules’ – most of them are made up anyway. I’m more interested in helping my students make a text ‘socially correct’ than grammatically correct. By ‘socially correct’, I mean making text that conforms to the expectations of its intended readers.

Expert to expert communication in academia is one of the most difficult genres of writing to master. You can assume your expert reader will have some background understanding of the research methods, and general knowledge relevant to your topic. However, it’s important to recognise that even an expert reader will not know as much about your topic as you do. They may have read about your method and not used it – or they might have 30 years of using that exact method, almost every day. Your expert reader might have an encylopedic knowledge of the history of research in your topic – or they might know almost nothing.

It’s impossible to know in advance how much your expert readers know because examiners are chosen for their ability to learn something new from your text, not for what they know already. Not everyone will be able to learn something from your thesis. I could read the words of a quantum computing thesis, but I would not have a hope of understanding the meaning. Therefore every thesis will be tailored to a specific expert audience.

The primary purpose of any thesis is to inform and instruct other expert readers so knowledge can be expanded. Focussing on the idea of a thesis as a pedagogical (or teaching and learning) device is helpful, especially when it comes to deciding what to include and what to leave out. You will need to include a certain amount of background information to help your expert reader understand – and be persuaded by – your findings and interpretations. However, in expert to expert writing, there’s a chance you are including information your reader will already know. There’s a fine line between an interesting, instructive text and a didactic and boring piece of prose. You’ll need a number of strategies to negotiate this writing challenge.

Let’s take jargon as a starting point. Generic writing advice says you should use it sparingly – most journalists will, rightly, leave it out. However, in expert to expert writing, you must use jargon: otherwise your reader might make the mistake of thinking you don’t know the ‘right’ terms and acronyms to use. Jargon is ‘insider language’ that signals to an expert audience that you are a member of their ‘academic tribe’. However, every field is full of jargon. Your expert reader may not encountered that particular piece of jargon before – or they might have forgotten it. It’s a good idea to include a short explanation of the lesser known jargon, perhaps in a footnote, or include a glossary where you can explain the concept more fully. The important thing is to aid the reader who needs a reminder, without interupting the flow of the text.

Another problem in expert to expert communication is how to handle a lot of necessary, but cumbersome background information. For example, one of my students is using a relatively uncommon analysis technique in the field of research education: machine learning natural language processing (ML-NLP). Most researchers in higher education studies use interviews or standard survey techniques, so it’s a fair bet that the examiners of her thesis will not know anything about this area of computer science. The amount of explanation needed to help a reader unfamiliar with the principles of ML-NLP is onerous: at least another thesis worth of text. Writing the methods section of this thesis is tricky. Trying to teach the expert reader how to do this technique would crowd out important findings. In this case, my student needs to create trust in the reader by giving them enough material to grasp the key concepts if they really want to.

There are a couple of ways to get your reader to trust you: extensive referencing and footnotes pointing to sources where the concepts are explained in plain English is one strategy. The other approach is to include an extensive technical appendix that is part instruction manual. Handily, an index like this is not usually included in the word count of a thesis. Realistically, most readers will not access and teach themselves the concepts. However, providing the reader with the tools gives the them confidence that the writer, at least, knows what they are doing!

Most of the expert to expert writing moves are subtle and carried out at the sentence by sentence level. For example, here’s a comment I left on a recent student draft:

Text reads in part: “When you say something really obvious, it’s good to tell the reader you know they already know this. It’s part of the rhetorical repertoire we need when writing expert to expert communication”

In this case, my student needed to point out a very obvious interpretation of a finding in order to build a more sophisticated argument. My comment was recommending she bring the expert reader ‘in on the joke’. She could do this by using text strategies like:

“As we might expect, …”

“As is commonly understood, …”

“Obviously, …”

I like to think of these little sentence starters as the text equivalent of this old gif:

These little sentence starters send signals to your reader, specifically that you know they already know something, but you’re saying it anyway because you both know you have to in order to be taken seriously as an expert. This kind of sophisticated text strategy positions you as an expert talking to another expert – not a student trying to prove that you have learned something.

Sometimes I wonder how anyone manages to get through writing a thesis – it’s honestly exhausting attending to this level of detail. If you’re the kind of student who says ‘screw all that!’ I salute you – but know that not conforming to reader expectations always carries a risk. I hope you have a supervisor who knows enough about expert to expert communications to leave detailed comments in your margins. If you don’t, refer to Kamler and Thomsons’ excellent book ‘Helping Doctoral Students Write‘ for a lot of excellent advice on how to recognise these opportunities in your own text.

It’s all very clubby and cozy to use these kinds of text strategies in your thesis, but be careful. Only use the word ‘obviously’ if what you are saying really will be obvious to another expert reader – otherwise you can come across as smug and opinionated. But that’s a post for another time!