“Showing” and “telling” in the thesis


The thesis must show and tell your examiner that its writer is ready to be called Dr. Yep. Dr (insert your surname here.)

What do I mean by show and tell? Well, even if these are not the usual definitions, in the context of the thesis I mean:

  • showing is when the writer provides carefully selected information for the reader, some might call this “evidencing”. That is, there is some important stuff that you need to make sure your examiner can see.
  • telling is when the writer is explicit about what the reader is to think, interpret, conclude. That is, there are some things that you need to make clear to your examiner in the text, and not leave it up to them to guess at.

Now, you don’t necessarily do show and tell together. You might do the two things at once, but very often you need to do one or the other, or make one or the other your main focus. Let me explain.

The thesis must show that its writer has done their research well. Put another way, it’s not good enough to simply tell the examiner “I did my research thoroughly and rigorously” and expect them to take your word for it. You need to show them. You have to provide enough information for them to have no doubt that you did your research well. That it meets doctoral standards. That the examiner can let you loose on the world complete with the testamur and floppy hat which attests that you have real research expertise.

The usual caveats apply here – showing you know how to do good research varies from discipline to discipline, and method to method, and text type to text type. The audit trail you provide is bespoke to your project. In some contexts, you’ll need to provide extensive data sets which can be checked, or detailed descriptions of procedures, or analytic workings of data. In other contexts, examples of data and your analytic approach will be sufficient.

You’ll also need to show the examiner that you can justify your design and your choices and the decisions you made along the way. You usually do this through a combination of description and reasoning, but you may also need to refer to research traditions and precedents (found in the research methods literatures) You’ll have to show the examiner that you understand any ethical issues, again through a combination of description and discussion of how you applied general ethical principles. And of course, you’ll need to show that you understand what your research does and doesn’t do, not only through description but also in the way in which you make claims on the basis of your results.

Similarly, you don’t just say that you have read a lot of literature and you know your field and you can pinpoint where your research sits. Yes, yes. Of course you’d never dream of doing this. You show your examiner that you know your field through the literatures that you use and cite – and many examiners do look at your reference list very carefully, and often first of all, to check what you’ve read and how much. And of course, as you use literatures to situate and support your research – constructing an argument for and about your study, grouping and categorising texts, naming pertinent debates and key figures – you demonstrate your command of the scholarship in the field. Your examiner has the evidence they need to tick off this aspect of doctorateness.

However, when it comes to the contribution that your research makes, you need to switch your attention to telling. Yes, your writing about the research must demonstrate that your contribution to knowledge is sound and defensible, but you can’t leave it to the examiner to work out what it actually is. It’s not enough to simply report what you have done. The thesis is not a set of clues from which an examiner can detect the significance of your project and work out the implications for themselves. You have to tell the examiner, in no uncertain terms, what your research achieves.

It is important that you spell out to the examiner the novelty and innovation in your work, both at the start of the thesis and at its end. What have you added that wasn’t known before? What does the examiner know at the end of the thesis that they didn’t know before? You have to be open and explicit about the importance of your work, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. You need to tell the examiner why it was worth you spending years of your life on this research. What about the question or hypothesis was most interesting or compelling for you? You need to firmly connect your results with your overall contribution – What is different about your research from other research that has already been done? You need to say what about your research is most valuable and why. Why do we need to know this about your topic? Why now? What will happen or could/might happen as a result of your research? Where does the field go next?

You may well get questions about contribution and significance in a viva. But you may also get asked to put more in the thesis if you haven’t done enough telling – in the introduction, where you set up the warrant for the research, and the conclusion, where you are expected to provide much more than a succinct summary of your “answer” to the question you posed at the start.

Yes, you’re right, this is not all that there is to showing and telling in the thesis. You may for instance in some research fields be expected to tell the examiner more about your personal professional relationship with the research, or to tell the examiner what you learnt from the process. You can work out with your supervisor what in particular you need to show and what you need to tell.

They key thing is to keep asking yourself if you have adequately addressed what matters most in doctoral examinations. Have you shown the examiner that you know how to research? Have you told the examiner why your research makes a noteworthy and new contribution?