Set the tone: the first 30 pages

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How do you convince the examiners that all is well, that this IS a PhD? First, it is crucial that you write a good Abstract to set the tone for success. Then make sure the Introduction reinforces your professionalism and does not send up red flags. Remember, we examiners are only human. We are reading the thesis on top of a full academic workload. Don’t make it harder on the reader than it needs to be. We are all prepared to be intellectually stretched (it is a PhD) but don’t be obscure, especially when you write the introduction.

As Prof. of Systems and Computer Engineering, John Chinneck  Writes, “Usually [the examiner is] pretty knowledgeable about the general problem”. However, explain difficult new concepts clearly. In my experience this is especially important if you are doing interdisciplinary research as your examiners are likely to be drawn from a range of specialist areas and will probably not be expert across all areas that you cover in your thesis.

Chinneck also says, “Don’t make the readers work too hard! This is fundamentally important. Choose section titles and wordings to clearly give them information. The harder they have to work to ferret out your problem, your defence of the problem, your answer to the problem, your conclusions and contributions, the worse mood they will be in, and the more likely that your thesis will need major revisions.” This is also why the Abstract should be carefully drafted as it will address each of these points briefly.

The first 30 pages set the tone
Like most examiners, I schedule time to read the PhD thesis to make sure that I won’t be distracted. I don’t start reading at the end of a work day. Even so, it can be a daunting task, especially if the thesis is very long. I start at the beginning. But not all examiners do. However, even if they start at the references and conclusion, which some examiners do, they are likely to read the first section in one sitting. So make sure that the first 30 pages or so set the right tone.

Steve Wilbur,Emeritus Professor of Distributed Systems at University College London, writing in 1997 made this comment, “I often find that the first 20-30 pages are a strong indicator of the strength of the candidate.  If they understand the context and they analyse the SoA well, the following work will usually be strongly focussed and well executed.

Some Examiners do not start at the beginning…
When examining, I block chunks of time in my schedule to read a PhD thesis. I use the pomodoro technique for reading in 25 minute session with short breaks to keep fresh. I make notes and highlight typos as I go. The Abstract and Introduction are very important indicators of what is coming next and I read them a couple of times before progressing. Some examiners will then jump to the Conclusion. This is often the last thing you write as a PhD researcher and it’s easy to rush that writing as you strive to finish and get on with your life. Slow down, make sure that the Conclusion works hard for you. More posts to follow soon on that.