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?
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’?
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.