Day 2: Is your thesis big enough? Examination and the PhD

As we saw yesterday, the criteria for what constitutes a PhD at ANU is actually pretty vague, especially when compared with the assessment criteria or rubrics you may be accustomed to in undergraduate or coursework Masters degrees. The examination criteria that a PhD must make a ‘substantial contribution’ to the field is not very helpful. How can you know if your thesis is substantial enough to qualify? It’s a little bit like asking, ‘How long is a piece of string?’.

How big is a thesis?

It is important to have a sense of how big a thesis is, whatever stage you are at, so that you have a clear idea of what you are heading towards. Ian Brailsford (2018) reports on a study where he literally counted up the number of chapters and pages in theses at the University of Auckland to get an idea of what was usual. You can read his blog on the findings here.

How big do you expect your own thesis to be? How many chapters have you planned, and how many pages have you already written?

Does my thesis look big in this?
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The most useful way to work out what is usual in your own area is to look at some recent theses from your School or Discipline to see what was accepted for the degree. This is often very reassuring, as there can be a large gap between what we imagine that mythical (sometimes terrifying) ‘PhD thesis’ to look like, and the neatly contained, polished argument that is submitted for examination. Sometimes the scope seems quite specific and limited, or at least very manageable.

ACTIVITY: Go to the ANU library website at https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/9048 and search for some recent theses in your area. Keep a record of the links, as we’ll come back to look at these again during the week.

Have a look at 5 recent examples from your own School or related disciplines. How many pages are there? While you are there, how many pages in the bibliography?

Please share your findings via the Comments box below.

When is enough reading enough?

How many references are required for a literature review? Brailsford (2018)  also went on to count the number of references in PhD theses, again to work out the upper and lower limits, as well as the averages. One of the most important things to remember here is that the lit review is NOT a record of everything you’ve ever read that is vaguely related to the topic. Rather, it’s a neatly constructed argument that shows why your own project needs to be undertaken. (There’s lots more on literature reviews in the DoctoralWriting blog if you want further guidance on this topic.)

Is a ‘substantial contribution’ the same as ‘big’?

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The maximum length of 100,000 words at ANU gives us some idea of the size of a thesis, but again, this could mean 100,000 confused, repetitive, jumbled words. There is no minimum length, but a shorter document might in fact concisely argue for a very substantial contribution to the field. Word length only tells us how many words, not the quality of the contribution those words are making to the field.

Most people seem to write towards the upper limit by the time you do all the stitching together that is required to introduce the thesis, introduce each chapter, and introduce each section, then clearly identify conclusions about what matters.

These parts of the thesis, the signposting, hold the ideas together but do not tell us about the ideas themselves. They are crucial for the reader to understand the argument and the contribution, but they are not the actual contribution to knowledge.

A thesis by compilation/publication is generally shorter than a conventional monograph, but that certainly doesn’t mean its contribution is less substantial. In Sciences, 3-4 articles are commonly regarded as sufficient; in other disciplines, 6 articles is more common. But each article might report on a large experiment or study – size is no measure of worth! A clear, direct, concise article that sticks to the journal’s 5,000-word limit might communicate at least as much content as a verbose, rambling chapter of 10,000 words.

So, how can you identify a ‘contribution’ as ‘substantial’? Supervisors will guide you on this, but it’s worth looking at recent theses to see how big those projects were. What you see is the nicely polished version of the research, not the false starts and agonising work that wound up in dead ends. I hope that your own work will now come into focus as you realise that the final document is not quite as terrifyingly demanding as you might have previously imagined.

Tomorrow we’ll go on to look at the overarching ‘story’ of the thesis that pulls it all together into one unified project.

18 Comments

  1. The theses I looked at varied in length from 240 to 320 pages of actual thesis. The bibliographies varied from 40-100 pages long.
    A number of the recent theses weren’t available on open access, but were marked restricted access …

  2. How much signposting? Do you have any guidelines on how to signpost without chewing up too many words, without being tedious, nor insulting the intelligence of the reader (which some theses manage to do 🙂 .

    1. One of the big challenges is that there is not any exact answer to most of these questions. It’s always a matter of judgement, and different readers will respond a little differently (just like you’ll get reviewers with different opinions). Some examiners are not above letting their own personal tastes influence their reading. But the main issue from my perspective is to present something that is good enough (not perfect) to be acceptable and get you the degree. And, of course, this kind of uncertainty is not always very comfortable when it feels like there is a lot riding on it – I completely get that.

  3. The handful of theses I found that relate to my area of study ranged from 210 pages (plus 17 pages in Appendices) to 301 pages (plus a further 103 pages of Appendices). References lists ranged from 21 to 59 pages. Some of these were monographs and some by compilation.

    While not all of them stated their word count, those that did ranged from 85,300 to 96,956 words. I’m doing my thesis as a monograph and I’ve been told to aim for between 80,000 to 85,000 words; the reasons I was given for this were that more than that risks becoming burdensome to read and possibly indicates your ability to synthesise/summarise/stay focused could be improved, while less than that may appear ‘undercooked’ in terms of not have thought deeply enough (or read widely enough) about the issues at hand. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about that, Cally. Thank you.

    1. Hi Bronwyn – again, a big range in what you found. 103 pages of appendices sounds like a lot!! But – as we have to keep reminding ourselves – every project is different and every project is different. This it seems particularly important to remind ourselves that these theses all got through – that’s the only reason they are available on the library website.
      I do prefer any writing that gets to the point and doesn’t waffle – most people don’t have acres of time to read research writing and need to see the most important information pretty easily. Aiming for the midpoint makes sense to me, as it helps you stay close to the usual expectations.

  4. Theses in my field varied in length. Shortest was 208pp, then 235, 294, 338 and 382pages!

    Bibliographies also varied in length, from 6pp (single-spaced), to 10, 31, 48, and 54 pages (some including 30- 50pg of appendicies).

    Anthropology/Development studies is a frustratingly diverse dispiline!

    1. Certainly diverse, but I guess this gives you a sense of where to pitch your own version. Do you have a sense at this stage of where you would fit in relation to the theses you’ve looked at?

  5. Not as much range for me as some of the other posters!

    I have a very cross disciplinary project, but in my home school of science communication, theses I looked at were in the 171-217 page range (n=5). Others cross-disciplines, such as youth studies, also varied quite a bit.

    Bibliographies varied, too, with the science communication ones being 17-25 pages, and one youth studies thesis only clocking in at 9 pages, which shocked me as this thesis was one of the longest I saw, at 287 pages.

    Seems there’s more than one way to skin a .. thesis.

    1. Yes, indeed – which then means that you need to follow the logic of your own research in making these decisions. Decide what’s necessary and what’s really at a tangent to the key argument you want to make. One thing that can help is to remember that too much extra information can have the effect of obscuring your main ideas – it’s important that your contribution remains highlighted rather than buried under all the other material.

  6. I found three theses that were loosely in the same field as my research. Their length ranged from 150 to 300 pages, with 8 to 20 pages of references. One things stood out to me – their Abstracts were short and concise. Something I am currently trying to achieve!

    1. Hi Chiara – great to notice the Abstracts! Yes, they are usually brief and to the point. Do they follow the usual structure of:
      Broad problem area/motivation – why this topic?
      Research question/ problem statement – what did you want to find out?
      How you did it/methodology or approach – how was the research done?
      Findings – what did you learn?
      Conclusions/implications – what does it all mean and why does it matter?

  7. I ended up taking an approximate word count from each thesis, as I found that they were all formatted differently: some were double-spaced, others single. The five theses I selected were all from slightly different fields as it’s challenging to find something that reflects my methodological approach at ANU, but there are pockets of various fields that all reflect what my thesis is accumulatively. Based on that, all of them sat between 90-99,000 words, and this doesn’t surprise me because these theses often required layers of writing to achieve their purpose, so: creative practice itself, practice-explanation and documentation, and critical reflexivity using theory.

    Biographies, however, ranged from 13pages, to 50 – so similar to Shaun’s findings!

    I think more than anything, this really shows me that what matters is your thesis’ own confidence and containment: so long as my decisions are justified and well-informed, and the literature reflects the content of the thesis, then the length of the bibliography will probably be appropriate.

    1. Good insights, Rosanna! I agree that it’s important to maintain the integrity of your own project and document. Seeing the range of what’s possible will (hopefully) help you see what’s important for your own work too.

  8. Like everyone else the theses I looked at ranged in length, from 198 to 352 pages. The bibliographies ranged from 11 – 21 pages. In writing my thesis the final word count hasn’t been as much as a focus as ensuring that the project is adequately but succinctly described. It was reassuring to see so much diversity and have reinforced that each project is different, and therefore each thesis is different. It’s good to re-focus on the examination criteria rather than word count or reference count!!

  9. This is a huge topic in this thesis
    https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/204830

    Four of the chapters were published, no doubt because of the importance of the topic.

    The thesis was approx 180 pages long, shorter than most others it seems, but no doubt because the bulk of the thesis had been published already.

    The others I looked at were all over 200 pages, but none over 220 or so.

    The bibliographies I looked at were about 20 pages, but I expect mine to be longer because I use primary source documents.

    I also expect my thesis to be bigger than those theses I’ve looked at because my topic is so large and complicated.

    1. Theses by compilation (that is, that include published papers) are often a bit shorter than a traditional manuscript. This is mostly because journal articles usually have strict word limits, so they stick to the main point, whereas the traditional thesis structure allows a bit more freedom to explore some of the tangential side paths. Then it becomes a decision about what is central and necessary, and what is a divergence that distracts the reader from the key argument (possibly even obscuring the most important ideas).
      Always so many decisions to make when it comes to writing! There’s no exact answer to any of these questions, unfortunately.

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