It is incredibly tricky to nail the genre of thesis-writing. Books are written about it. Learning Advisors specialise in it. Almost all research students struggle with it to some extent during their degrees.
One of the reasons its so difficult to master thesis-writing is because the purpose of a thesis is different from the purpose of a lot of other academic writing. Academic writing in general (including thesis writing) is about communicating research findings. But when writing a thesis, you are also attempting to earn a qualification. You’re writing not only for readers, but for examiners, and that’s a whole different ballgame.
Because you’ve done the research, and you want to write about it persuasively enough to earn the award, you need to strike a tone that is confident and capable. But at the same time, you don’t have the qualification yet; and your writing needs to show some humility, and an awareness of its own limits.
Blogger Nick Hopwood describes the problem like this:
[Thesis writing] is fraught with the tension between the researcher-in-becoming and the researcher-who-already-is: doctoral students at once have to be students learning to do research, and proving they’re already capable.Nick Hopwood, “Thinking about thesis structure in social sciences“
Masters and PhD students, in other words, are not-quite-yet-experts. We know our material, and we’ve studied our topics incredibly closely; but we don’t usually have lofty titles or decades of experience to give us a full sense of authority.
So how can we nail a tone that is appropriate to our status as not-quite-yet-experts? Here are a few ideas.
By the time you’re writing a thesis, you already know a lot. It is justifiable to write with some degree of authority; certainly more than you might have used in, say, an undergraduate essay. But that’s easier said than done, right?
The best way I know to learn how to write confidently is to read a lot. It’s not a quick process; there aren’t any shortcuts. It’s through massive amounts of reading that you pick up on the conventions of academic writing, and it’s by reading theses that you pick up on the appropriate tone for a thesis. Award-winning theses in your field are particularly good to read as examples.
That being said, if your writing tends to be under-confident in tone, you can fake it till you make it. I sometimes draft by identifying the most influential scholar in my field, and pretending that I’m writing as that person. It’s amazing – as soon as I imagine that a powerful person’s reputation will be associated with the article, I suddenly feel a lot freer to write without the self-consciousness and hang-ups that often infect my drafts. Once I’ve got some text out with a falsely inflated sense of confidence, I write ‘as myself’ again to edit and redraft with a little more caution.
An independent scholar doesn’t just agree with anyone more qualified. Disagreeing with some of the literature in your field is to be expected. If you can identify weaknesses in other scholars’ arguments, or flaws in their research design, you can show that you have the intellectual prowess to critically evaluate others’ work.
However, there is an art to respectful criticism. My own PhD supervisor pulled me back on this when I completely rubbished the work of a theorist whose ideas I found morally repugnant. In my first draft, I savaged the theorist. In my second draft, I disagreed with the theorist by making logical arguments. The second draft was by far the better one (and the safer one, considering that my examiners could have been fans or friends of that theorist!).
Does some of your data not fit your hypotheses? Did your methodology not work quite as you’d hoped? Did you struggle to find enough participants or sufficient data points? Be honest about that. Examiners are pretty good at sensing when thesis writers ‘fudge’ it. Real research doesn’t always go according to plan, and trying to hide any perceived failures is a surefire way to lose examiners’ trust. It’s much better to acknowledge the messy reality of your research process and demonstrate that you have the integrity to think about why things didn’t work out as planned.
The same thing goes for the impact and significance of your research. A thesis that ‘oversells’ its own importance can raise red flags with examiners. We all want to change the world, but most of us can hope to make only a small difference with a Masters or doctoral-level project. By all means write about the significance of your research, but be sure to do so realistically.
One way to write realistically is by using hedging words. When you’re not fully confident about a claim, and you don’t want to state it for certain, you can add a word like ‘could’ or ‘might’ or ‘possibly’ or ‘probably’ to avoid making the claim too boldly. It’s much easier to defend a statement that your research “could” reduce mortality in surgical procedures than that it “will”. These words allow you to point to the significance of your research without promising too much.