As a former postgraduate learning adviser, I found it useful reminding new doctoral candidates that all their labours would end up in a thesis that was probably no more than seven or eight chapters, over about 200 A4 pages of text.
Think about condensing postgraduate research to its essence in your thesis abstract. Most institutions like AUT expect you to explain your research in one or two pages, no more than 500 words. Considering the average sentence length in academic English is probably 15 or 16 words, that gives you at most 30 sentences, which equates to three or four paragraphs.
Imagine if we take it down another notch. Your thesis abstract is the penultimate thing you write. When you graduate with a doctorate, the last thing you have to write is a thesis synopsis, which appears in the glossy graduation brochure. As you walk on stage, this is what people attending your big day will read. AUT gives you 200 words to play with.
What I’m advising here is that when this moment comes, don’t view writing your synopsis as an after-thought or another administrative hoop to jump through for graduation. Your thesis synopsis will be archived for future researchers of postgraduate writing to analyse (yes, such people exist!) and you have a captive audience at graduation to not only impress but to influence. It’s possible that more people will read the synopsis that any other part of your thesis.
While this blissful graduation moment seems a long way off for many of you, it is never too early to start thinking about it. For a start, it is a good example of what sports psychologists call visualisation techniques: crossing the finishing line and winning that medal in front of your adoring home crowd! It also forces you to explain your research in language that your whānau/family and friends can understand as well as the unknown guests and dignitaries attending your graduation. You never know who might be in that audience.
So, how to start? Get a pencil and circle eight bullet points on a blank piece of paper. Each one of these is a synopsis sentence (or two).
- First bullet point: write yourself into the narrative. Ian’s research explored the reasons why postgraduate students, despite their best intentions, often leave thesis writing until the last few months.
- Second point – explain why the research was required. People involved in postgraduate education – former thesis students, supervisors, thesis examiners and senior university managers – understand the problems that this last-minute thesis writing can lead to.
- Third point – find the gap that your research fills. However, despite widespread concern about the phenomena, we do not know much about the causes.
- Point four – write yourself back in. Ian investigated the root causes of last-minute thesis writing to shed more light on the problem and to propose practical solutions.
- Point five – explain how you did your research. He did this by persuading 10 thesis students to keep a diary recording their writing activities and they met with him every month to discuss how the thesis writing was going.
- Point six – present your key findings. Perhaps two or three sentences are needed here. The students told Ian that they grappled with two main writing concerns. First, they were worried about what their supervisors would think of their writing and it was easier to talk about the research than to write about it. Second, they could always finding something else to do that seemed more urgent than actually writing.
- Point seven – explain the significance of the results. Last-minute thesis writing is preventable if supervisors give direct writing advice and support to their thesis students from the start of the research project.
- Point eight – where to from here?From this research, Ian is developing a simple thesis writing ‘app’ for new students and supervisors to track writing from day one of the project.
This made-up example is currently 218 words. Possibly in point one ‘despite their best intentions’ is a digression and perhaps I could edit out the supervisors, examiners etc. in point two. Some of the sentences have filler words – in point five I wrote ‘writing activities’ and in point six ‘writing concerns’. A closer edit removes ‘activities’ and ‘writing’ leaving just ‘writing’ in five and ‘concerns’ in six. I used ‘persuading’ in point five rather than ‘recruiting’ as this is less technical language. Is persuading the right verb though? ‘Phenomena’ in point three: too academic sounding? However, I now have words on paper which could be reviewed by a supervisor and, more importantly, someone significant attending my graduation to help edit it down to 200 comprehensible words.
Even if you have just started on your postgraduate journey you could use this eight-point plan to map out what you are planning to do and why, and what you hope or expect to find. It is also a good formula if you are thinking of entering this year’s 3MT (Three-minute thesis) competition.
Finally, if you think condensing your research down to 200 words is going to be difficult when you graduate, spare a thought for your University of Auckland colleagues who have to write about their research in fewer than 60 words for their doctoral graduation.
Editor’s Note: Here at AUT, doctoral graduands have to write their thesis synopsis when they apply to graduate. The maximum length is 200 words, and the instructions state that it “should be written in a style suitable for the general public.” You are encouraged to check your synopsis with your supervisor prior to submission.