Luther's last will and testament, Lutheran Archives, Budapest

Writing Research Papers and Theses

John Roxborogh

Common difficulties

Whatever the cultural and post-modern problems presented by what is essentially a modernist Western instrument, or its limitations within the Western intellectual tradition itself, the PhD is still our most reliable process for testing certain types of truths whilst assessing the critical abilities of scholars. The language of wisdom alongside that of rational falsifiable truth may help us progress the conversation about what is a doctorate, but there are difficulties and mistakes commonly found in both Western and international contexts.

Quite capable people can have trouble understanding what a doctoral thesis is really like. It is not a novel. It is not poetry. It is not prophetic. It is about addressing something that can be tested. If you are trying to solve the problem of the universe and everything, a doctorate is likely to take longer than 3-4 years of full time study.

A thesis is less about the use of other people's ideas than it is about understanding and testing them. It is however usually more manageable to critically analyse an existing body of thought on a topic through the voices of one or two worthy exemplars than it is is to try to tackle an abstract issue. It is also easier for an examiner to assess whether or not you have been fair to a person or a school of thought, than it is to believe that you have solved a problem that has defeated wiser and more brilliant minds. Even a doctoral thesis is graced by a certain modesty about how far it may have extended the sum of human knowledge.

Any suggestion that your thesis is not your own work must be avoided. The implications of this for referencing sources and not using other people to do work only you can do, need to be followed through. Plagiarism may be a temptation when grammatical English is a struggle, but the solution to difficulties with English is to get help with understanding grammar early in the writing process. There is no substitute for reading and rereading and rereading again.

It is of the nature of a doctorate that a student must be able to make their own judgments about their work and take responsibility for all the dimensions that must be capable of withstanding critical scrutiny.

If near the end of your writing you still need someone else's judgment to tell you that you have got it right, then you are not yet meeting a necessary criteria for the award. It is different at an earlier stage when developing ideas and discussing them.

Ways in which legitimate feedback can be obtained at any stage include presentation of a section of your work as a conference or seminar paper, and verbal discussion of ideas. These enable you to go back to refine a document which remains unambiguously your own.

It is a hard and lonely business taking the time necessary to get to a place of confidence that your thesis has a defensible coherent argument which says what you want it to say.

Don't forget to take family and friends with you on the journey.

Common mistakes

1) Being confused between a research topic and a research thesis.

2) Amassing descriptions and lists of points without developing an argument which makes sense of it all and ties it together in an integrated narrative.

3) Drawing conclusions which do not follow from the evidence presented.

4) Quoting quotes from secondary literature without going to the original (unless it really is unavailable).

5) Failing to assess the viewpoint and authority of sources quoted. Quoting people on issues which are marginal to their real area of expertise.

6) Failure to consult multiple sources.

7) Quoting authorities on issues about which the research student must be able to form their own judgment. Students often accept at face value what is actually the purpose of their research to test.

8) Including stuff which may have been of interest or an exciting personal discovery, yet at the end of the day is not actually part of the thesis argument. A thesis is not a compilation of everything we have done and discovered but a disciplined extract from our research arguing a thesis which can be tested. If it is not falsifiable, it is not a thesis.

9) Failure to develop a critical framework by consulting parallel studies and placing the type of argument used in the context of how others have done similar types of research project. Lack of evidence of a literature survey which shows mastery of these issues.

10) Failure to keep to word length. This is inexcusable.

11) Inadequate bibliographical searches and failure to discern the most appropriate monographs, journal articles and worldwide web resources.

12) Expecting their supervisor and others to do work on their research and writing that they have not been prepared to do themselves.