Simply defined, a thesis is an extended argument. To pass, a thesis must demonstrate logical, structured, and defensible reasoning based on credible and verifiable evidence presented in such a way that it makes an original contribution to knowledge, as judged by experts in the field. Among the many types of scholarly productions, theses are an oddity: each one is different, and there are no standard or generic constructions. Most of those who supervise theses have written just one, and, despite the effort they take to produce, the only people who carefully read a given thesis are the project supervisors, the examiners, and an otherwise rather select audience of specialized academics .

From the start, it is good to have a solid idea of what a thesis is, and perhaps the best place to start a discussion of theses is with their purpose. What do examiners look for when they judge your work?

Criteria for Examination

When universities send out a thesis for examination, they include their suggested guidelines for the examiners. I recommend that you get a copy of these guidelines from your own university (they are almost certainly available online) and look them over carefully. Make an effort, too, to understand the process of submission and examination .

At my university, the University of Melbourne < unimelb.edu.au >, the guidelines begin by listing key attributes of a successful thesis (quoted from the university’s School of Graduate Research website, as of November 2010) :

Attributes of a Successful Thesis

  • The thesis demonstrates authority in the candidate’s field and shows evidence of command of knowledge in relevant fields .

  • It shows that the candidate has a thorough grasp of the appropriate methodological techniques and an awareness of their limitations .

  • It makes a distinct contribution to knowledge.

  • Its contribution to knowledge rests on originality of approach and/or interpretation of the findings and, in some cases, the discovery of new facts.

  • It demonstrates an ability to communicate research findings effectively in the professional arena and in an international context.

  • It is a careful, rigorous and sustained piece of work demonstrating that a research ‘apprenticeship’ is complete and the holder is admitted to the community of scholars in the discipline.

At first glance these guidelines may appear to refer to the thesis, but they are really about the candidate. The first point makes this explicit: ‘The thesis demonstrates authority in the candidate’s field’. And consider the last point. The examiner has to consider whether the thesis ‘is a careful, rigorous and sustained piece of work’—but see how it goes on—‘demonstrating that a research “apprenticeship” is complete and the holder is admitted to the community of scholars in the discipline’.

At the start of introductory seminars in thesis writing, I ask students to explain the purpose of a thesis. Often they say something like, ‘To tell people in my area about my research’. No doubt your research is of interest, but your primary purpose in writing a thesis is to pass an examination. These examiners are not reading your work out of mere interest: from the above criteria, we see that examiners read your thesis to assess whether or not you have demonstrated your fitness to be admitted to a community of scholars. Because a written thesis is an examination paper, not simply a report of research findings, you need to understand what examiners are looking for when they read your work. In the case of doctoral theses, examiners are encouraged to consider eight questions (quoted from the same website) :

Guidelines for Examiners

  • Does the candidate show sufficient familiarity with, and understanding and critical appraisal of, the relevant literature ?

  • Does the thesis provide a sufficiently comprehensive investigation of the topic?

  • Are the methods and techniques adopted appropriate to the subject matter and are they properly justified and applied?

  • Are the results suitably set out and accompanied by adequate exposition and interpretation ?

  • Are conclusions and implications appropriately developed and clearly linked to the nature and content of the research framework and findings?

  • Have the research questions in fact been tested?

  • Is the literary quality and general presentation of the thesis of a suitably high standard ?

  • Does the thesis as a whole constitute a substantive original contribution to knowledge in the subject area with which it deals?

These questions really are about the thesis rather than the candidate. They roughly parallel the structure of a solid thesis , and each builds on the previous one .

The first two questions are about familiarity with the previous work in your field and the demonstration of a critical approach to it. Note that, from the start, having and demonstrating a critical attitude towards your subject sets the tone of your interactions with the examiners .

The third question is about choosing appropriate research methods and justifying your choices as appropriate to the topic . Be aware that it is you, at this point, who must set the scope of that topic that will determine the appropriateness of a methodology . Further, the third question alerts examiners to show concern for the manner in which the methods are applied.

The fourth question focuses on displaying the results, explaining them and showing that you know what they mean. Here, then, it is not simply a question of showing those in the discipline area what you have found but also that you know how to present the results.

The fifth and sixth questions remind examiners to check the alignment, and connections, between an initial aim and the final conclusions. The logic flow in the thesis must be right. Notice, too, the emphasis on linking your interpretations back to what you said you would do earlier in the thesis.

The seventh question invites the reader to step away from the empirical side of the study to consider how well you can write. In a sense, the question signals to both you and the examiners just how important it is to be able to be able to communicate well within the international research community.

Finally, the eighth question asks examiners to consider the quality of the work as a whole. For doctoral students, producing work that is a ‘substantive original contribution to knowledge’ is a primary goal that can be reached through writing satisfactory responses to the series of previous questions.

There are other questions an examiner might also address. In particular, an examiner would look for evidence of insightful or critical thinking , and of objective appraisal of outcomes of the study. That is, they want to be persuaded that the student can think clearly and can construct a reasoned argument .

Types of Thesis

This book focuses on PhD study, but there are several other forms of research work that are understood to be theses. In the Australian context, the word ‘thesis’ is used to refer to the document that a student creates to earn a degree at the Honours, Masters, or doctoral level. (In other countries, such as the United States or Canada, the word ‘thesis’ is commonly used to signify work at the Honours or Masters degree level and ‘dissertation’ is generally used to refer to doctoral work.) What is the difference between the different understandings of a thesis ?

At Honours level, a thesis—strictly, a ‘minor thesis’—is a work of original research of approximately 10,000 words in length . For many students undertaking a minor thesis, it is the first time that they have conducted original research. From my experience, one of the main struggles occurs in making the transition from ‘research consumption’ to ‘research production’. Minor theses are closely supervised and, very often, stem from research that is of direct interest to the supervisor. An Honours thesis is typically produced within a year alongside the demands of coursework. For the most part, they are assessed within the students’ department; note, therefore, that the readership is well-known and thus the writing can be tailored to fit the audience .

At the Masters degree level, there are two types of theses. One is a minor thesis, with length limits ranging from 10,000 to 25,000 words . It is completed within one or two years alongside coursework, and usually requires one or two semesters of full-time effort. Much like those at the Honours level, minor theses are assessed within the department by a set of internal criteria.

The second type is a ‘Masters by research’ thesis of 30,000 to 40,000 words . It is much more substantial than those that are written by coursework students as it is the result of full-time research over one to two years. This thesis is examined by experts in the field outside the department. In some departments, students first join the field by writing a Masters thesis; if it is considered to be of high quality and can be extended, it can be converted into a doctoral thesis .

A ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ is earned by the successful completion of a PhD thesis . For PhD students , the word limit of a thesis is 1,00,000 words; most students write approximately 80,000 words. In Australia, a PhD thesis is typically produced in 3 years of full-time study. It is examined by two experts who have themselves supervised doctoral work; and they are likely to be located at an international research institution .

There are other types of doctorate, too, including those in education, by exhibition (in fine arts), or by publication, but these are beyond the scope of this book. All of these should be described in the policies on your university’s website .

Look at Other Theses

It’s now time to look at some other theses . Most supervisors have a few on their shelves that they may be willing to lend you . Reading these works will be a good start, but don’t stop there. Probably they follow a pattern set by your supervisor’s own ideas of a good thesis, and almost certainly they will be typical of what your own department thinks is acceptable. So go out and look at theses from across a range of disciplines, and even theses from other countries. As presentation and style change relatively rapidly, look at theses that are no more than 3 years old. If applicable, examine a mix of kinds of studies, both qualitative and quantitative (see Chap. 8). Try and find work that is outside your field, but makes use of a similar methodology. After you have skimmed several, select some that are coherent, and some that are not so clear, and go through a few of them with your supervisor .

Read the theses as if you were an examiner. With the guidelines for examiners in front of you, begin the assessment of each of them by first looking at the overall layout. See if the table of contents gives you a clear idea of the structure of the work as a whole. Then browse the introduction and conclusions, and look through the reference section. Next, read the introduction carefully and compare it to the conclusions to see if the work is linked in a coherent manner (see the fifth question in the guidelines for examiners on page 3). It might surprise you to find that some theses fail to make this link. Look especially for specific formatting and conventions: How are particular words spelled ? What is the best way to display data? What is the typical length of a chapter? You may be impressed with the virtues of some theses, such as professional layouts, innovative displays of complex material in graphs or tables, or a strong integration of online materials. Stay alert for the points that impress you, and make a note to adopt them for your own work .

Examiners’ Reports

Students are sometimes advised to track down examiners’ reports on submitted theses. For the most part, the examination process is confidential , but make an effort to ask a completed student for a report or see if a supervisor is willing to share an examination that is anonymous . As you read examiners’ reports, or the associated studies on them, get in the frame of mind of these expert assessors. What do they look for, and what do they ignore? Do they directly answer the suggested questions put forward by the university? These reports will be highly variable in detail and approach; What can you learn from these differences? Additionally, seek out academic studies that concern thesis examination (search for the keywords: thesis quality, doctoral assessment, research training, PhD examination) with a view to developing a better understanding of the assessment process. Feedback from examiners is summarized in the Appendix, which is a digest of observations from examiners’ reports .

I have examined numerous theses of each type: minor, Masters, and doctoral. In each case, my purpose is to assess the work with reference to the criteria at hand. My considerations vary. At times I focus my comments on the big picture; at other times I hone in on details. My motivations for examination are not necessarily to hand out criticism, or even praise, but to sharpen a study. Academics examine theses partially out of service to the profession and partly as a favour to those who ask, but mostly to learn something new before the work is presented at conferences or published in journals. In short, as an examiner, I am looking to learn and, in this way, I’m just like the candidate.

Consider the five potential outcomes of PhD examination at my university (edited slightly for clarity) that an examiner can choose from :

  • Be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy without further examination or amendment.

  • Be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy without further examination, subject to inserting in the thesis the minor corrections or additions as specified to the satisfaction of the Chair of Examiners, without further reference to the examiner.

  • Be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy subject to revising part or parts of the thesis to the examiners’ satisfaction.

  • Not yet be awarded the degree, but be permitted to resubmit the thesis in a revised form for re-examination. Areas requiring major amendment are identified in an examiners’ report.

  • Not be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and not be permitted to submit for re-examination.

Think for a moment of the implications of each of these outcomes . Remember, first of all, that there are two expert examiners who are assessing the work. If a student is awarded a PhD because both examiners have marked that it fits the first criteria, no more amendments are required. Nothing, not even occasional typos, requires change: the only thing left to do is to make a bound, final copy to be archived at the university, and perhaps submit an electronic copy to be placed online.

Many students (including myself) earn the second mark. That is, they have been awarded the PhD, and no further examination is required, but there is a need to make some corrections, write out a report to the Chair detailing the required changes, and reprint the thesis for submission. By awarding a PhD based on the third outcome, an examiner indicates that the student must revise entire sections. Substantial work is required, and the revised and reprinted thesis must be sent back to the examiner for checking. The use of the fourth mark by an examiner indicates that the thesis requires such major revisions that a PhD cannot yet be awarded, but the work can be re-submitted. Finally, on occasion, examiners use the fifth outcome to deny both an award of a PhD and a chance to submit a revised thesis .

Examination processes for minor theses are highly variable, with students being awarded pass/fail in some cases or a mark in others. Some processes allow for resubmission; some do not; examination may be within the department. In many institutions Masters theses are handled in the same way as PhDs, but in some places different processes are used. Make sure that you are familiar with the mechanisms that apply to your degree .

Summary of Chapter 1: What Is a Thesis?

On theses:

  • There is no ‘standard’ definition of a thesis but it is generally understood to be the result of structured, original research that is produced for assessment.

  • The expectations for a thesis vary from university to university, field to field, and supervisor to supervisor.

  • There are several types of theses in the range of research higher degrees. Some theses are produced alongside the demands of coursework, and others fulfil the total requirements of the degree. The types of thesis vary in length, complexity, comprehensiveness, and even purpose.

On examination:

  • You need to understand the criteria for examination of theses, and be sure to craft your own work so that it meets these criteria. Be familiar, from the start, with the attributes that are expected of student candidates.

  • It can be rewarding to read and analyze theses both from your own field and across other disciplines. Note weaknesses that you wish to avoid, and strengths that might be adapted for your own work.

  • A summary of examiners’ responses is included as an appendix to this book.

Online resources:

  • There are numerous online indexes of theses and dissertations. For example, many Australian and New Zealand theses are available at the National Library of Australia’s website, or through individual university library collections.

  • Your university library should provide access (in paper or online) to all of the university’s PhD theses.

  • Policies for examination, and descriptions of thesis types, should be on your university’s website. You should also browse your university’s policies and procedures that relate to research candidature.