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Research postgraduates

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading


Researching and writing a PhD thesis is probably the most extensive and in-depth piece of academic work you will have attempted. It is an exciting opportunity to research a topic you have chosen and that you believe to be worth investigating. At the end of your research you will be the expert in your specialism.  

However, working on a thesis can seem a daunting prospect with three years or more of work, often on your own and without any imposed structure to your time, and the prospect of writing perhaps 90,000 words at the end. Although this is very much your project, and you will be expected to make your own decisions (with advice from your supervisors) on how to proceed, you can build a support network of fellow researchers, experts, and interested friends to help encourage you, and who you can test ideas with.

As you progress from the start, to the middle, and finally to the end of your thesis, you will develop the ability to evaluate your own work more clearly and will (hopefully) rely more upon yourself and your own judgement, than that of your supervisors. The advice on this page offers suggestions for navigating the thesis writing process and for keeping going.    

Getting started

Start writing now! – It is never too early. Your thinking only develops if you write your ideas down and see how they fit together. It is far easier to refine your ideas when you have something on paper, and what you write now will evolve into your chapters later. Start by writing a section or paragraph that interests you and build from there. At this stage it doesn't matter how formal or well written it is, as you will come back and revise it later.

Skim read other theses – They give you an idea of the structure, layout, and appropriate academic writing style expected. See our Finding theses guide (link below) for info on finding past theses from the University and beyond.

Refresh your research skills - new formats for materials mean new search strategies may be needed to cover everything you need. See the Library's advice on how to keep up to date in your subject (link below). Also check the Reading Researcher Development Programme for workshops on all aspects of advanced researching (link in box at left).

Start using a reference management tool - you'll be collecting a lot of references to use in your thesis. Store these in a reference management tool. The Library supports EndNote and Mendeley. Learn how to use one as soon as possible so you can be sure you've got details of all the publications you will want to reference when the time comes. You can also use them to store PDFs so everything is in one place. See our Managing references guide (link below).

Use headings to organise your reading – If you are in the middle of your background reading and can't see how you can organise your literature review, start by trying to group the articles and books you have read under relevant headings. These headings are usually sub-sections of your topic or sub-questions that you are investigating. Have one sheet of paper per heading to brainstorm your thoughts.

For more on literature reviews, see our guide to Literature reviews (link below) and the relevant RRDP courses.

If you need to obtain materials from other libraries, there is guidance on how to order Inter-Library loans online (link below).  

Have a chapter-by-chapter filing system – Your chapters will be the main units of your thesis, so it helps to organise all your information chapter-by-chapter. A box file is great for keeping together all the articles, notes, and drafts relevant to that chapter. You can also use colour coding to help distinguish information relevant to each chapter when taking notes or reading.

Try free-writing - Give yourself a short time limit, say 10 minutes, and set an alarm. Aim to write constantly about your topic for that time period with no editing, deleting, or searching for references. Allowing yourself the freedom of just writing can help overcome the fear of the blank page or the tendency to continually tweak what you have written.

Manage your data thoughtfully - having a carefully thought-out system for managing your data can save you a lot of time finding things later on - and it's important to think about security if you're collecting any sensitive data. There is advice in our Managing your data guide (link below): note that this is aimed primarily at undergraduates, so you will also want to look at the University's more detailed guide on What is Research Data Management?

In the middle of your thesis

Keep an up-to-date contents list – Your contents list acts like an overview or plan of your thesis, so it is good to keep it in sight or pinned up on your wall. Start drafting out an outline of your thesis contents early on, and keep altering it as you refine your ideas.

Manage your back ups and bibliography – Avoid every PhD student's nightmare of losing your thesis by keeping multiple back ups in different places (on your computer, a memory stick, and a print out). Have a clear way of distinguishing between different drafts, like putting the date in the file name and footer. Also keep your bibliography up to date. Software like EndNote or Zotero can help you manage your references.

Write first for overall structure, edit later – First write to get all your ideas and supporting evidence organised and the overall structure of your chapters in place. Your drafts help you lay the foundations and framework of your thesis. You can always come back and fill in gaps and add details later. Leave the finicky editing of sentences and choice of exact words to the final draft.

Write at the appropriate level for your audience – As a PhD student, you are a member of your research community, and your writing should be aimed at your audience of fellow academics working in your field. Your thesis should be of a high standard of formal academic writing. When reading journal articles, pay attention to the style of writing as well as the content, and use opportunities at conferences to get to know the level of detail and knowledge your audience expects.

Think about how to link chapters – Although your chapters are units of your thesis, they all have to contribute to your overall message. The paragraphs at the beginnings and endings of your chapters are important as they hold it together. Think about whether you need to refer back to previous chapters, important background literature, themes raised in your introduction? It is likely that your chapters will contain cross-references to other parts of your thesis in order to keep bringing up the main themes or messages of your argument. Think about the kinds of signposting and recaps of information that your audience will need.

Getting it finished

Factor in time for revisions – A common pattern is: You finish a draft chapter and give it to your supervisor; they return it with feedback and you make those changes; then you move on to the next chapter. This doesn't mean that your chapter is now complete – you will have to revise it a few times once you have finished all your chapters. Over the course of writing up, your ideas will change and the overall message of your thesis will shift. Build enough time in your plan for revising your chapters as a whole and making changes so they fit together – this can take longer than you think.

Edit meticulously - Examiners expect a high quality of work in a thesis. Spend time checking thoroughly. Pay particular attention to the abstract, contents pages, diagrams, and beginnings and ends of chapters, as examiners often look at these first. Making a good first impression counts. Check your references carefully too!

Discovering information too late – No thesis is perfect or totally up-to-date. If you find relevant new research late on in your writing process, consult with your supervisor. It may be you only need to add a paragraph in your introduction or literature review to acknowledge it. If it is too late for this, don't worry. Make sure you are familiar with the new research and how it fits with your thesis, so you can defend any questions about it in your viva.

It just has to be good enough! By the time you come to the end of your PhD you should have learned to evaluate your own work and be able to judge when it is good enough to stop. However it can be difficult to have the confidence to stop, so your supervisor may be able to give you guidance. Look back over your plan and research questions – if you have addressed all of them, that is good enough. As your thesis comes to an end, set yourself increasingly tight deadlines to help keep up your momentum and to prevent you from over-editing and tweaking.