Some advice for postgraduate research students

General advice

Basic tips with Microsoft Word

Formatting and other issues for theses

Advice on literature reviews

Writing


 

 General advice about your thesis

Don't over-stress about the need for innovativeness/originality. If you do good quality work for the required duration of your enrollment, there should be sufficient innovativeness/originality in the thesis.

Start writing things up early on. Don't leave it all until you have finished your analysis.

Develop a structure for the written thesis at the chapter level as early as possible (within the first six months). As soon as you can, develop the structure down to the section level, but no lower until you are actually ready to write.

You should aim, if possible, to submit articles to journals well before you have finished the thesis. This will help by providing you with extra feedback on the work before your thesis goes to examiners, as well as enhancing your CV. For this reason, it is a good idea to do your thesis "by publications" if possible, rather than by a traditional thesis. Aim to submit your first paper to a journal within your first year.

For my advice on the publishing process, see this paper (66K).

For Kwan Choi's advice on "How to publish in top journals" see http://www.ag.iastate.edu/journals/rie/how.htm

It is probably worth investing in these books:

Research Without Tears, by John Creedy.

The Craft of Research, by Booth, Colomb and Williams

 Basic tips with Microsoft Word

Use the Help facility to learn about any of the following features of Word that you don’t currently know about.

Learn to use "Styles" in Word as one of the first things you do, and use styles for all your formatting, especially for headings. Styles allow you to ensure that all headings at a particular level have the same format, and they allow you to change the formatting of all similar headings at the same time.

NEVER use tabs to indent or undent lines, such as at the start of paragraphs or references. Get into the habit of using Format|Paragraph|Special|Hanging. You can do it easily by marking the required paragraphs, switching on viewing of the ruler and dragging the upper or lower pentagonal (nearly triangular) marker to the desired level of indent. Even better, define a "References" style and use that.

Learn all about the options in Format|Paragraph. Use them.

In a big project, like a thesis, sort out all the formats you are going to use very early on in the project. Create a document for yourself that records them, and define all the formats in appropriate styles in a file before you start writing your first chapter (or as early on as you can). Create a template from that file, and use that template to create all of your chapter files, so that they will all have the same formatting without you having to work at it.

Never use blank lines to position stuff, especially not to move stuff to a new page. Try not to use page breaks either within the body of a document, except say for a table that you want to be on a page by itself. Generally it is best to use "Keep with next" in Format|Paragraph. Be careful not to switch on "Keep with next" except where you really want it. I once saw a thesis that had it switched on in every paragraph!

Switch on "Show" formatting markers (Ctrl-*). Hold down control and shift and hit the 8 key. Always leave this on so you can keep track of paragraphs and special settings like "Keep with next".

For the formatting of normal paragraphs, don’t alter the formatting directly. Do it by editing the formatting of the Normal style, and applying the style to the paragraph. If this seems a bit strange, have the patience to try it. You'll appreciate it in the long term.

In my experience, the master document facility in Word is more trouble than it is worth. Just maintain separate files for each chapter, and set the starting page number in each when they are finished.

Setting the starting page number in a file: go into Insert|Page numbers|Format and specify the number to start at. If you already have page numbers in your document, make sure you select "Close" rather than "OK" to preserve any existing formatting or placement of the numbers.

Include a version number in the names of all files.

When you are working on a document, regularly save it to a new version number, and keep the old ones as a form of backup.

For pictures and graphs, switch off "Float over text". It makes it much easier to control their position. You do this by selecting the picture or graph and editing its properties.

When copying graphs from Excel into Word, do it as a picture, rather than a spreadsheet object. To do this you should hold down the shift key before you select Edit|Copy in Excel. This stops Word from saving an entire copy of the spreadsheet behind every chart.

If you use page headers in your thesis, the header should not appear on the first page of the chapter. Within File|Page setup switch on "Different first page" before you start creating headers and footers. You will then have to use the page number insertion facility within Page setup to insert a page number counter, and you'll have to do it twice: once for the first page and once for the rest. If you use Insert|Page numbers in some versions of Word it switches off "Different first page" and you have to start the whole process again. Very annoying.

If annotating graphs in any way, do it in Excel before you import it into Word. That avoids having lots of floating objects in Word, which can often be troublesome (e.g., by getting separated from their graph).

 

 Formatting and other issues for theses

Variables in equations should be in italics, both in the equation and when used in the text.

In tables, only use horizontal lines, as is done in most research journals.

In the text, numbers below 10 should be given in words (three, six) but numbers of 10 or more should be given in digits.

But in the text if referring to another chapter, write Chapter 4, not Chapter Four.

Number tables and figures within a chapter, not throughout the thesis. So say Table 7.1, not Table 44 for a table that is the first table in Chapter 7 and the 44th table in the thesis.

When referring to specific (numbered) chapters, sections, tables or figures, use a capital: Chapter 4, Section 4.1, Table 4.2, Figure 4.3.

In brackets, include full stops in e.g. and a comma after it (e.g., like this) and also for i.e. (i.e., like this). If not in brackets, write “for example” or “that is” in full, rather than using e.g. or i.e.

The specific format you use for listing references does not matter, but you must be ABSOLUTLEY consistent in applying whatever format you use. Pick a style you like from one of the journals in your area, and use that.

If you don't use Endnote for all your reference citations in a document, I have developed a useful piece of software called REFLIST for checking whether the references cited in the text are consistent with the references listed at the end. Download REFLIST (81K zip file). Unzip the file into a suitable folder and read REFLIST.TXT for user manual.

 

 Advice on literature reviews

I'm aware that there are a number of guides to writing lit reviews available. Here is my own advice on the matter.

In a traditional thesis, you need one or two large literature review chapters.

In a thesis by publications, most of the literature review occurs within the individual publications, although you can include a separate chapter of literature review if you wish (at least at UWA you can).

Your lit review should not be anything like one particular PhD thesis I examined, where the student had basically summarised lots of articles and stuck together all the summaries in sequence, one article per paragraph. His supervisor should never have allowed it to be submitted in that form.

The ideal lit review is one that builds up to something. What it should build up to is some conclusions about:

* what are the un-researched or under-researched issues in the area?

* which of them are the key ones for further research and why?

and then you head off and research those key ones. It may not really happen like that in the real world, but you should aim to portray it in the thesis as if it did. Just one of those little games we play in science. It is best if it DOES happen somewhat like this caricature, but there are no guarantees in this game.

To get to that point you do not have to review every slightly relevant paper ever written. You do of course need to demonstrate a breadth of reading. But don't overdo it. A bigger review is not necessarily better. Certainly all the famous and important papers in the area should be cited.

Sometimes people have used a big lit review to compensate for a weak analysis. You might be able to get away with this a little bit, but I wouldn't recommend it. And you shouldn't need to try, since your analysis will be fantastic. Your reviews should be sharp, well structured, to the point, not waffly, not excessively long, and most importantly highly relevant to the thesis topic. Just because you read a bunch of literature, don't feel that it has to go into the thesis unless it is relevant. Get used to the idea that quite a lot of what you do might not make it into the thesis.

Side comment: By the time I was 2.5 years into my PhD, I felt like all my best ideas for what to do had only just occurred to me and wouldn't make it into the thesis. And I bit the bullet and left them out, rather than carry on forever seeking the perfect thesis. It only has to be good enough. If the ideas are really so good, there is plenty of time to work on them afterwards. I did follow up a number of them in my research over the next 10 years.

Examining a PhD thesis is one of the most brain numbing things known to mankind, so be kind to your examiners. You want them to like you. One issue is to keep a lid on overall length. But on top of that, if you do a traditional thesis, it is good to break it down into bit sized chunks (i.e., chapters) each dealing with a different aspect. If you can keep the chunks down to 20-25 pages, you allow the examiners the psychological pleasure of finishing off chapters as they are reading it. Sounds silly perhaps, but believe me, any sign of progress towards the conclusion can be most welcome.

Make sure your references are not all old ones and not all new ones (I once examined a PhD with almost no references less than 10 years old!)

What you are really trying to do is look for trends and gaps, consensus and differences. How can you bundle the papers together in groups in interesting and helpful ways? Is it useful to consider difference in research done at different scales, or different locations, or using different methods, or whatever? If you choose a particular criterion to use to bundle up papers, which aspects have been well researched, and which poorly. Have the findings been consistent or inconsistent? If inconsistent, why? Bad research methods? Diversity in the real world? What are the main results in each bundle. Are there things that haven't been done, or have been done poorly? If you can see faults, by all means be critical, but politely.

Once you've read the literature and planned the structure of the lit review, you should be able to plan to say what the points of the different parts of the review will be, without looking at a single paper. By that I mean that the review should be built around your lumped up groups of papers and your messages about trends etc., not around particular papers. You plan the structure of the review accordingly, and then set out to write each part. Only at the point where you want to give examples of papers that illustrate the point you are making would you go back and look at particular papers. Many would be cited only in passing, to support a point you are making. Only a minority would have any sort of summary of their findings. That might be because they are the only paper in a particular category.

To avoid the temptation to do the wrong thing, don't write up any text summaries of the papers you read. Just keep dot point notes about them, and no more than about half a page of those in most cases, sometimes much less.

It can be useful to include some quotes from papers, but do it so as to best support the general point you are making.

Lit reviews vary enormously in style and structure. That's fine, as long as you meet the basic needs.

 

We now encourage most students to do their thesis by publications, rather than by traditional thesis. Benefits include:

An important issue is to make sure your thesis by publications has "coherence". It needs to fit together logically, and the reader needs to be able to see how all the parts connect to the core theme of the thesis. To achieve this, my suggestion is to include a conceptual diagram in the introduction, showing how all of the parts of the thesis fit together. Then before each paper, include a brief chapter that explains how the subsequent paper/chapter fits into the overall scheme, and include the conceptual diagram with the relevant parts covered in the chapter highlighted.

Writing is not something you do when the research is finished. It is an integral part of the research. No research is really finished until it has been fully written up.

The process of planning to write is the point where you are forced to clarify and structure your thoughts and ideas.

Whatever you do, don't waste time writing heaps of notes and general text that you hope to later work into the thesis. Only write stuff to your plan, so that you know it will go into the thesis.

Don't get bogged down on writing. Don't write until you have a well-considered plan for the chapter, and then write it quickly, not worrying about punctuation, spelling, wording, etc. Don't even worry about specific references if that would slow you down. Just leave a place marker for references and chase up the details later. You come back and tidy up the details later.

The single most important issue to achieve good writing is flow. Make sure that the ideas flow in a logical order. To achieve this, spell out the links between ideas so that you get a linked chain of ideas through the text, as much as possible. You need to have a logical and intuitive flow in the order of sections, in the order of subsections within each section, in the order of paragraphs within each subsection, and in the order of sentences within a paragraph. If you can't see an obvious link between consecutive sentences, they don't belong in the same paragraph. If you can't see an obvious link between consecutive paragraphs, they don't belong in the same section. And so on. Be on the look out for any sentence that that is not linked to the ones around it. Delete it!

You can enhance flow by consciously creating links between adjacent elements. For example, at the start of a sentence refer to the sentence before it. For example, consider these two sentences: "Make sure that the ideas flow in a logical order. To achieve this, spell out the links between ideas ... ." The phrase "To achieve this" indicates that the sentence is still talking about the issue that was raised in the previous sentence.  

Flow is mainly decided at the planning stage, but can be enhanced at the actual writing stage by inserting the sort of link phrases I illustrated in the previous paragraph.

Usually start a paragraph with the key idea of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph is elaboration, clarification, explanation or examples. Once you have finished doing that, that's the end of that paragraph.

Strive to remove ambiguity from your writing. Put yourself in your reader's shoes and imagine if there is any scope for ambiguity from your reader’s perspective.

Don't have single-sentence paragraphs (like this one!).

Keep related words close together.

Learn the rules of punctuation, especially the use of commas, semicolons; colons: apostrophes' hyphens-

Punctuation made simple This is a great little site that deals with most of the punctuation issues that cause trouble:
Colon | Semicolon | Comma | Apostrophe

Strangely it ignores the hyphen: one of my favourites! The Economist covers it extensively here. Particularly note their part 6: Adjectives formed from two or more words.
Another simple guide to punctuation is here.
For a selection of basic literacy and language resources, see here.

If you create a compound adjective by stringing together two or more words, link them up with hyphens. For example, the long-term [with hyphen] result is a result that comes in the long term [no hyphen, as it is not an adjective]. A once-in-a-lifetime offer is an offer that comes once in a lifetime. See here.

Sort out the use of however and but. See here for details.

Use bullet lists or numbered lists. They help provide structure and make reading easier.

Avoid stringing together long sequences of phrases preceding the subject of the sentence. It is always possible to rearrange the sentence to avoid it, and it is much easier to read if you do. Move some of the phrases after the subject.


Copyright © David J. Pannell, 2004-11
Last revised: December 17, 2014.