Twenty Years On: Reflections on Postgraduate Study

Dr. Ian Brailsford is a Learning Advisor at the University of Auckland, specialising in postgraduate research skills.

This year’s FIFA World Cup marks the twentieth anniversary of my frantic efforts writing my draft American history PhD thesis before the 1998 tournament began. The deal was: get the draft version done and then watch the games while the prototype thesis was reviewed by my supervisors.

Little did I realise back in mid-1998 that my thesis topic (marketing to America’s teenagers in the ‘baby boom’ era) would have far less importance for my future career than the actual process of completing the doctorate. As a learning adviser at the University of Auckland and briefly at AUT, I’ve worked with countless thesis students as a ‘guide on the side’ from initial pre-entry ’thinking about doing a postgraduate thesis’ sessions to ‘getting ready for the oral exam’ workshops. One of my first ever workshop participants, from the early 2000’s, is now an Associate Professor. The years have rolled on by.

My own experiences of doing a Master’s and then a doctoral  thesis have been added to numerous times by hearing the lived experiences of these workshop participants as they grapple with the complexities of postgraduate study. This blog post is an attempt to distill what I’ve learned into 600 words for the benefit of current postgraduate students. First, the thesis is a convention-bound document; imitation is the best form of flattery. Go to your digital thesis repository and download a few recent theses submitted in your research area. Maybe you can find your supervisor’s thesis sitting on a university thesis repository! Once you get a sense of the general layout, chapter structure, academic writing and referencing style, then you are half-way to understanding what’s expected from both your academic discipline and your degree-awarding institution.

Second, think about the end and read this paper from a colleague down at Otago University, Clinton Golding, about what examiners expect from your thesis. Clinton’s Otago colleagues have also demonstrated that a thesis submitted for examination is highly unlikely to fail, so don’t worry too much. Three: read Paul Silva’s How to write a lot (the title gives it away!). Four, get a copy of your institution’s pre-formatted thesis template (or make your own with the mandated margins, page numbering, line spacing and recommended font from the guide to theses) and start writing on it today: your name, your title, first paragraph of your abstract, the opening section of your acknowledgements (even at an early stage there will be people to thank) and start populating your numbered chapter headings (and if IMRAD [introduction, methods/materials, results, and discussion] will work for your thesis structure, don’t fix it). Hey presto, you have started writing your thesis.

The next bit of advice is conceptual. While it might sound paradoxical, as a postgraduate researcher writing a thesis you have to demonstrate independence and initiative while, at the same time, collaborating and networking. You are self-employed within an academic co-operative. Embrace individualism and communalism simultaneously: they are two sides of the same thesis coin.

For the final pieces of advice I’m indebted to Dr Mohamed Alansari. In a recent talk to current thesis students he compared his literature review chapter to a letter “written to himself”, and his thesis discussion section as a letter “to his future self”. A good thesis, he argued, is who you want to be in the future, meaning that you may be carving out the next research topic for your future self (Master’s student to doctoral candidate or doctoral to postdoc researcher). And, last but not least, have ‘grown up’ conversations with your supervisors from day one to agree your mutual expectations.

About Ian Brailsford

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