Supervising thesis writing – pitfalls and how to avoid them

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How do you deal with a student who has spent weeks doing anything rather than writing their thesis? What do you do with a student who, after 3 years, still can’t write clear coherent English?

All PhD students are different (some are more different than others), with their own unique combinations of strengths and weaknesses, but they all have one thing in common; they have to write a thesis if they want to get their PhD. The writing process can present considerable challenges for some students and, as a consequence, for their supervisors. Dealing with these challenges appropriately can often be the most demanding task the supervisor faces.

If possible, deal with thesis-writing problems before they arise. Assessment reports (e.g. 10 weeks, 10 months, and 2 years into the project) can identify strengths and weaknesses in knowledge, understanding and written work. If used constructively, these reports can also form the basis of the thesis, helping overcome the major psychological hurdle of starting the writing process.

Unfortunately, problems can occur even when good checks and balances are in place; in these situations the advice “Well you should never have let it get this far” is not helpful. I remember one student who, despite every effort, showed very little improvement in written English over the 3 years of their PhD.

When such problems arise, constructive and supportive communication is essential. It is important to maintain an environment in which the student can function, whilst not losing sight of the fact that completion of a good quality thesis is necessary. It also doesn’t do any harm to emphasise that making a good job of the thesis often contributes to a more enjoyable viva.

To help students, I like to emphasise “structure”, breaking down the thesis into components. It is less daunting to start by writing hypothesis/aims, methods and results for a chapter rather than trying to produce the complete article. This provides written work for constructive feedback/ criticism and can be used to identify the key points that need to be included in the introduction and discussion. Similarly, generating results figures can be a helpful way of establishing the “story” being told in an individual chapter before getting caught up in detailed descriptive writing. This also helps students keep the results clear, brief and succinct.

A key observation is that a good quality thesis which makes the work clear and accessible for the examiners is likely to influence the atmosphere of the viva. No examiner likes being distracted by sloppy grammar and formatting, unclear prose and poor spelling; it gives the impression that the examiners are being used as a proof-reading service which won’t endear the student to them. Similarly, few examiners are likely to be pleased if the thesis is over-long.

So, there are considerable benefits to the student making the effort to produce a thesis they can be proud of in years to come. As a supervisor, continued support, encouragement and appropriate application of pressure are required to help the process along. The underlying message with thesis writing is “It may be hard, but support is available, it won’t last forever, and the rewards make it worthwhile.”

Next steps:

There are a number of resources available for PhD students who need help with writing.

The IAD offers advice on Writing up your PhD

Tips from Vitae on writing your doctoral thesis

Support from English Language Education on Academic and Specialist English

Patrick Hadoke

Patrick is a Reader in the Centre for Cardiovascular Science and Director of Post-Graduate Student and Early Career Researcher Experience for the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine. His major research interests include the mechanisms of arterial remodelling (predominantly atherosclerosis and angiogenesis) in health and disease.

Patrick’s interest in research staff careers has included involvement in establishment of the first Post-Doctoral society in Edinburgh approximately 14 years ago. This led to involvement with Vitae and the formation of what is now the UKRSA. Patrick served on the UKRSA committee for a number of years, latterly serving as co-chair.

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