Why write papers during the PhD?

You are testing your research prior to submitting your thesis.
Computer science supervisor from UCL, Clack says: ” 2-3 conference, or 1-2 journal papers in respectable (ACM, IEEE, IOP like) places are good enough for chapters 4,5,6 and therefore the core of a PhD – testing by publication is a VERY good defense (or defence).”

Your publishing record improves your chances of winning fee waivers and scholarships if you are in a university that offers them.

You are networking by submitting papers.
By publishing papers about your research in peer-reviewed and internationally-recognised journals you obtain external review and validation of your research. Reviewers start to recognise your name.

All sorts of people read the papers once published, not just academic researchers.
Publishing during the PhD results in established scholars or industry professionals seeing your work before you go onto the job market.

Thesis structures

Image based on Paltridge’s “Four Thesis Types”, cited by  Niall McMahon.

In this series of posts I outline a variety of different ways to structure your PhD thesis. Decide on a structure for your thesis early on because it helps you to plan your reading, technical and practical research and your writing.  Scroll down for more blog posts in this series that go into more detail about how to develop good writing habits and how to work with your supervisor.

The thesis IS the PhD – it is all the examiners have to go on. They do not know you. They don’t know, or care, how passionate you are or how hard you have worked. Every PhD thesis emerges through hard work and passion. In summary, to the outsider – your examiners –  all that really matters is the thesis.

To create the diagram shown above, McMahon analysed eight dissertations, taking into account Paltridge’s analysis of “fifteen doctoral theses from a range of disciplines and the advice given in eight recent publications from around the English-speaking world”. The link has many useful references. I have never supervised or examined a thesis that uses the Compilation Based structure in the arts and humanities. However, it as it is fairly common in the sciences, including computer science.

Regardless of the particular thesis structure that you choose, it is good practice for PhD researchers to produce a draft structure in the first few weeks as it helps to focus your thinking and can be used to prioritise your reading and writing.  It’s not a contract, but a ‘live’ document that alters over time. Having a structure mapped out helps both supervisor and researcher make sure the research is on track. Take a one page bullet point draft of your proposed thesis to your supervisor to discuss your plan of action. If you plan to add or drop a key theory or topic you can go back to your structure and see how that might impact your argument. You can also use this one page document and/or mind map of your thesis to find out of there is something missing that your supervisor is expecting. Use it to get feedback from your supervisor about whether or not a particular avenue is worth your precious time. But remember, it’s your PhD. You don’t have to agree with them!

Homework: If you have not done so already then prepare a structure using bullet point lists or a mind map. Schedule a meeting to discuss it with your supervisor, and send them the one page plan a week in advance of that meeting. 

See also “Hints and Tips on (Science and Engineering) Bachelor’s and Master’s Thesis Writing” by Peter McMahon, May 2009. I came across this while searching for Niall McMahon (note they are two different scholars who share the same family name). Peter McMahon’s full text here. Although Peter McMahon is writing about Master’s thesis writing his tips are very useful to PhD researchers.


Thesis structure: traditional complex

This is the structure most often used by those who have built their research around case studies or iterative cycles of Action Research. How do you decide how many case studies to conduct? I think it’s a little like flower arranging, odd numbers seem to work best. The total number will depend on how complex and time-consuming each study is and the methods that you use. To get into enough detail and data analysis of a complex field it can hard to complete five studies, but on the other hand, doing only two prevents you from triangulating and from developing and showing your use of reflexive research methods fully. Three seems like a minimum. Some researchers do seven studies and those of you working in Human Computer Interface may complete many for cycles of testing that are sometimes grouped within a larger study.

In this structure, research methods are introduced and detailed via a standalone chapter, The General Methods chapter, and then discussed within each of the three studies. The General Methods chapter, before the chapters on the studies, is especially important if you are using a mixed method. You must refer to the method again in each study chapter, ‘bringing it to life’ by showing it in action in your research.  Use examples, with the appropriate language and terms from the method(s), to show the examiner, in detail, how you have deployed the method in each study and what, if anything, changed between studies and your application of the method.

Do not isolate the method

Beware of isolating or ‘orphaning’ the method by writing a well argued method chapter but then making only passing reference to methods in subsequent chapters. It is easy to get excited by the fieldwork or studies and to overlook the importance of making detailed reports and research journal entries during the course of those studies.

This is a common mistake during the progress of arts and interdisciplinary PhD research and is revealed in early drafts of chapters that detail the studies. Practice writing up how you have used theories and methods in your practical work and field work. Do this as you go along. Connect the method to the the practice explicitly. Show the examiner how you used the method, step by step.

Weak method, or weak application of method is also often cited as the reason that academic grant proposals are rejected. It may also contribute to why curators and commissioning bodies don’t feel confident in supporting art proposals. You need to show that you know ‘how’.

Thesis structure: compilation-based

It’s best practice for all PhD researchers to publish in peer-reviewed journals throughout their research period. There are many reasons why, as I explain in another post. In an earlier post I pointed out that you should make it a priority as soon as you start your PhD to identify key journals and conferences in your field.

The compilation thesis, also referred to as the multiple-manuscript thesis or anthology, is most commonly submitted by researchers in science and engineering disciplines. To produce a compilation-based PhD thesis you compile your series of published/publishable papers  into a coherent whole, with introductory and concluding chapters.  The introduction to the methodology employed is a substantial chapter typically about 50 pages long. It puts the subsequent papers into context and, in the case of multiple authors, established the candidate’s contribution to the published work. Note that if not the sole-author the candidate should be the principle, or first, author.

Different universities have different regulations about whether all these papers must have been published. Check your specific university regulations. Note that ‘publishable’ means the papers do not have to have been published but must be of a standard to be published in a refereed journal. However, there are many advantages to getting them published, as previously argued. If you are arguing that unpublished papers are publishable make sure your supervisor / committee agrees that the papers are of high enough quality. None of them need be published. All that is required is that they be publishable.

They should be sole-authored. Be wary of being one of many authors if you want to use the compilation-base approach to the PhD thesis. Jointly authored papers included in the three in your thesis may call the examiners to question who the author of the research is, who has made the contribution to knowledge.

Planning your work under the ‘three papers’ model is straightforward but depends on a good standard of writing. I have worked with computer science researchers who do not develop the habit of writing and redrafting that is necessary for writing peer-reviewed papers. Then they scramble to get three papers published. Develop the writing habit, polish your writing skills and writing these papers will become less stressful.

If you are in a Hong Kong or UK PhD programme then  you have three years to complete in full-time study mode. This tight timeframe for publishing is another reason why you must identify the key conferences and journals in your field and familiarise yourself with the writing style for those journal by reading and analysing papers that have made it through their peer-review.

If you being your PhD in September then you should aim to have your first paper finished by December of your second year, your second paper finished by December of your third year, and your third paper finished by September of your third year. In other words, you have 15 months to write your first paper, 12 months for your second paper and nine months for your third paper. This timing allows for the fact that you produce results more quickly as you go on, because you do not have to spend so much time cleaning your data, doing background reading, and so on.

For useful tips on this type of thesis see this see this PDF by Sarantis Kalyvitis, Professor of Macroeconomics and International Finance, in the Department of International European and Economic Studies, AUEB

PhD thesis in computer science NOT based on three papers

Dr. Christopher D. Clack, Department of Computer Science, University College London has a useful webpage that defines “A [perfect] PhD Thesis for London University / Computer Science UCL.” Clack  is not describing the compilation-based structure here. Therefore this post is of particular relevance for those of you planning  a computer science PhD thesis that is not based around three published papers. Clack’s ‘perfect thesis structure’ is as follows. My comments added.


1. Introduction
Set the scene and problem statement.
Introduce structure of thesis, state contributions (3-5).

2. Background
Demonstrate wider appreciation (context).
Provide motivation. The problem statement and the motivation state how you want the PhD to be judged – as engineering, scientific method, theory, philosophy, etc.

Jane: Sections scientific method, theory are similar to the Literature Review

3. Related Work
Survey and critical assessment.
Relation to own work.

Jane: This is equivalent to the main Literature Review

4-6. Analysis, design, implementation and interpretation of results.

7. Critical assessment of own work
State hypothesis, and demonstrate precision, thoroughness, contribution, and comparison with closest rival.

Jane: you might also refer again to key works cited in 2 and 3 here, briefly.

8. Further Work
9. Summary Conclusions
Restate contribution


See more here.


Good enough and how NOT to write a PhD thesis

I teach this course to help PhD researchers complete their research and write their theses. Other professors may not like it when I say this, but my objective is that your thesis, and your oral defense of it, are ‘good enough’ to pass. Of course, I am thrilled at the idea of supervising or examining an exceptionally clear and beautifully written thesis about life-changing research of global impact. But, my aim is for you to produce a thesis that is good enough to get you a PhD. This positions the PhD thesis and your oral examination as a springboard into your post-PhD life. As David D. Perlmutter says in his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Graduate students should remember that the dissertation is the beginning of their research, not the endpoint”. I would add ” or professional life” as many of you will not be planning to stay in academia or move on to a research position in industry.

Getting a PhD done and writing a good enough thesis is as much about knowing what not to do as getting advice about what to do.

Writing in the Times Higher Education Supplement, Tara Brabazon lists her top ten tips for doctoral failure. With comments by Jane Prophet added in italics.  

1. Submit an incomplete, poorly formatted bibliography

Jane: I read the bibliography carefully. It adds to my workload to have to correct mistakes. Check your bibliography carefully. Ask a couple of friends to read it through. Sort out every little punctuation and style error. One or two mistakes are OK, but more cause me to wonder how rushed the thesis completion was and what else has been missed out..

Many examiners start from the back of the script. The moment examiners see incomplete references or find that key theorists in the topic are absent, they worry. This concern intensifies when in-text citations with no match in the bibliography are located.

Jane: Elsewhere I discuss ‘relaxing’ the examiner by explaining very early on in the thesis why a key theorist or topic has been omitted. To do this you will reference that key theorist or topic. This is even more important because you cannot control whether an examiner reads the bibliography first.

2. Use phrases such as “some academics” or “all the literature” without mitigating statements or references.

“In a PhD, generalisations send me off for a long walk to Beachy Head.”

Jane: For those of you from outside the UK, Beachy Head is infamous for being a high cliff that suicidal people throw themselves off. Generalisations don’t make me suicidal but they do trigger an eye-roll and send up a red flag. I then start to wonder if the line of argument may be similarly sloppy. Too many generalisations and I fantasise about throwing the thesis off a cliff.

3. Write an abstract without a sentence starting “my original contribution to knowledge is…”

Relax the examiner with a sentence in the first paragraph of a PhD abstract that begins: “My original contribution to knowledge is…” If examiners cannot pinpoint the original contribution, they have no choice but to award the script an MPhil.

Jane: This is one of my pet peeves. Get your original contribution to knowledge clear and get it out there. Own it, be confident about it. This is another reason I ask you to explain your PhD in 60 seconds. As you practice you add information about your method AND your contribution to knowledge. In one of my first lecture and blog posts I discussed the potential scale of the contribution to knowledge and noted it could be modest.

4. Fill the bibliography with references to blogs, online journalism and textbooks. Students do not differentiate between refereed and non-refereed or primary and secondary sources.

Jane: You can use these, just don’t overdo it. Remember to carefully contextualise them and critically analyse them. Make it clear that you know they are not refereed or are secondary. If keys texts have been translated from another language remember they are secondary. Approach with caution! Recently I read a piece that brought attention to the problem of working with primary sources that had been translated (in this case into English).

5. Use discourse, ideology, signifier, signified, interpellation, postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism or deconstruction without reading the complete works of Foucault, Althusser, Saussure, Baudrillard or Derrida. 

How to upset an examiner in under 60 seconds: throw basic semiotic phrases into a sentence as if they are punctuation. 

Jane: I don’t agree with the ‘complete works’ element of this comment. But. Some examiners do think this way. Choose your theoretical framework carefully, remember that often less is more. There is a tendency by many art and interdisciplinary PhD researchers to use too many sources and methods at the expense of engaging deeply with any one of them. Don’t be that PhD researcher. You have to focus. Save some of your favs for your post-PhD  papers or for influencing your non-academic post-PhD careers.

6. Assume something you are doing is new because you have not read enough to know that an academic wrote a book on it 20 years ago.

7. Leave spelling mistakes in the script.

8. Make the topic of the thesis too large.

Jane: arts and interdisciplinary researchers, is this you? If it is, get a grip on the domain you are looking at. Get disciplined. Your PhD research is tough enough without spreading yourself too thin. Not going deep enough risks an unconvincing contribution to knowledge. Just bringing a lot of different ideas together does not equal a contribution to knowledge, you have to show clearly how their recombination by you expands the field(s). It’s another red flag that to the examiner.

The best PhDs are small. They investigate a circumscribed area, rather than over-emphasising the originality or expertise. 

The nightmare PhD for examiners is the candidate who tries to compress a life’s work into 100,000 words. They attempt to distill 100 years of history, theory, dissent and debate into a literature review.

9. Write a short, rushed, basic exegesis

An unfair – but occasionally accurate – cliché of practice-led doctorates is that students take three and a half years to make a film, installation or soundscape and spend three and a half weeks writing the exegesis. Doctoral candidates seem unaware that examiners often read exegeses first and engage with the artefacts after assessing if candidates have read enough in the field.

10. Submit a PhD with a short introduction or conclusion

A quick way to move from a good doctoral thesis to one requiring major corrections is to write a short introduction and/or conclusion. It is frustrating for examiners. We are poised to tick the minor corrections box, and then we turn to a one- or two-page conclusion.

After reading thousands of words, students must be able to present effective, convincing conclusions, restating the original contribution to knowledge, the significance of the research, the problems and flaws and further areas of scholarship.

Literature Review: Relational Words and Phrases

For more see this link

The point of writing a literature review is to introduce the bodies of literature that frame your research. You must summarise the various positions within a body of literature, drawing attention to key ‘voices’ and ideas. Not all these will be in agreement with one another and your goal is to map out the intellectual area, and  to define the connection between different key players.  Show that you know the key debates within, and differences between, your chosen theories .

Use the following words and phrases to help map out the knowledge domain.  They express specific types of relationships between ideas.

on one hand
on the other hand
contrary to
in line with
parallel to
related to
linked to
responds to
explores / investigates
contributes to the research on
enters the debate
re-emphasizes the categories
in agreement with
in opposition to
in confirmation of
in response to
in reaction against
in contrast to
influenced by
a similar focus/approach/tone
a slightly different focus/approach/tone
a broader scope
a narrower scope
more specific / more general
in the same vein
in a different sphere
revisits the same subject
revolutionizes the field of
bypasses the debate
breaks out of the paradigm
goes beyond

The Literature Review. Overview.

Before we start, let’s note that doodling during the class is encouraged and making mind maps throughout your research is recommended.

In these posts we look closely at the Literature Review and its characteristics. We consider how to structure this chapter which is expected to describe, summarise, evaluate, clarify and/or integrate existing primary or original scholarship by accredited scholars and researchers.

The Literature Review is an early chapter, often placed right after the introduction. It should show the reader, especially your PhD examiners, that you know the field(s) and can identify and critically appraise key texts in an unbiased way. It demonstrates your credibility as a writer. It sets the tone and reassures the examiner that you know your stuff. It is drafted during Year One and then updated as necessary throughout your research. It should shine by the time of submission.

It  should be organised around, and related directly to, your thesis or research question. This chapter of your thesis from most other chapters in that you do not introduce your own, new primary scholarship. Nor do you offer your opinion. The focus of a literature review is to summarise and synthesise the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions. It often traces the intellectual progression of the field(s) your are reviewing, and it usually describes major debates, showing that you knows the ins and outs, the details of key ideas and texts. This includes a discussion of counter arguments and it is usual to identify areas of controversy in the literature. Your summary and synthesis will lead the reader logically to your explanation of the gap in the literature, to the questions that you have formulated that need further research.



So what’s the difference between an annotated bibliography and a Literature Review?

Image by Cayla Buttram, David MacMillan III, & Dr. R.T. Koch, Jr. Updated November 2012 UNA Center for Writing Excellence. See this link.

A literature review is a piece of discursive prose, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another. Beginning every paragraph  with the name of a researcher sends a red flag to a reader or examiner expecting a Literature Review. Organize the literature review into sections according to themes or identify trends and debates, including relevant theory. You are not expected to cover all the material published, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question. The literature review is not your opinion. It does provide the foundation on which you will  develop and present your opinion/hypothesis with all the expected evidencen subsequent chapters.

If you are writing an annotated bibliography, you may need to summarize each item briefly, but should still follow through themes and concepts and do some critical assessment of material. Use an overall introduction and conclusion to state the scope of your coverage and to formulate the question, problem, or concept your chosen material illuminates. Usually you will have the option of grouping items into sections—this helps you indicate comparisons and relationships. You may be able to write a paragraph or so to introduce the focus of each section.

A literature review is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organised. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together.

  • Do they present one or different solutions?
  • Is there an aspect of the field that is missing?
  • How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory?
  • Do they reveal a trend in the field?
  • A raging debate?
  • Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.