How long is a piece of string? Or, how long should my thesis be?

Image “How long is a piece of string?” by Flickr user izzie_whizzie. Used under Creative Commons License.

The first 20-30 pages are a strong indicator of the strength of the candidate.  The abstract and introduction are very important indicators of what is coming next and I read them a couple of times before progressing. usually this is followed in the thesis by a literature review or ‘state of the art chapter’. Get this right and then write a good method chapter and most examiners are confident and relax into the examination of the thesis.

How many chapters?
Elsewhere I’ve talked about applying one of the principles of flower arranging (using odd numbers of blooms) to the number of studies to include in PhD research. The computer science supervisor, Christopher Clack thinks this applies to the number of chapters in a thesis and recommends, “An odd number of chapters, between 5 and 9.”

How many pages? 100-300 pages of double space single-sided text
First, check your university guidelines. If they do not specify a length then assume 100-300 pages and check with your supervisor(s)/committee. In my experience the 100-300 pages holds true but it is also backed up by anecdotal evidence from other examiners and supervisors. There’s also some more data-driven evidence for the 100-300 pages. That is double spaced and single sided pages with a one inch margin all around and 12 point Times font.

All of us who examine PhDs have probably hefted the weight of an especially heavy thesis and groaned. It’s not about the ‘thud’ factor.

Pascal: “I would have written a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time”
Clack, writing about non-compilation theses in computer science says, “Average, good, size for a thesis is 150 pages all in. Perhaps up to 50 extra pages for a big appendix and bibliography. Beware of the trend to write long and boring doctorates […], improve your communications skills.” In response Steve Wilbur comments, “Over about 100 pages of the body of the thesis I seem to note the strength of the work is inversely proportional to the length. […]. I find 120 pages at usual university layout standards about the limit for good to best theses.”

I sometimes read theses of 350 pages but that is really only acceptable when a LOT of images and diagrams are incorporated. An over long thesis often indicates an lack of focus which in turn makes the contribution to knowledge harder to identify. Good writing is about precision.

How to keep the thesis writing on track with thanks to @GradHacker

Based on another useful post from GradHacker. My comments in italic

A list of due dates help you to keep on track. Break the reading and writing down, set dates and note how you keep to them. I suggest that you agree dates to send new texts to your supervisor. Be proactive about this – do not wait for your supervisor to set dates.

@GradHacker notes that you might not keep all the deadlines. Good point, however, PhD researcher, Know Thyself! If you have to keep adjusting them back, then take note of that and make a more realistic schedule. Or add more writing and reading times into your week in order to meet the deadlines.

Set early deadlines, this allows you to move things around without throwing off your schedule. Or to take some time out. No supervisor is ever upset about getting some text early! Just don’t expect the return of that ext to be sooner than previously agreed.

@GradHacker reminds you to Communicate with your committee/supervisor about your writing, the smoother your editing stages will go. The sooner the better. I expect researchers to this from the start of their PhD and make it a habit.

Do rough chapter outlines. Sit with your advisor with just a rough outline of the chapter and find out if it works. I ask you to develop an outline of your thesis early in year one. I suggest you develop chapter structures using bullet points based on this. It is a ‘living’ document that changes over time and is useful to take to supervisory meetings from time to time and revisit.

@GradHacker advises Get others to read your writing. Send drafts to anyone willing to read them. It will also help prevent situations where you have to rewrite entire chapters. I recommend that you find a writing buddy this year and stick with them. Read one another’s writing. Join AcWriMo and take part very year. Don’t wait to send the ‘perfect’ version to your supervisor. 

@GradHacker Love feedback, loath feedback: know yourself and get the timing right. There may be times when you don’t need actual criticism, and instead just need to write. If you struggle after receiving negative feedback on a chapter and it hurts your productivity decide how often to ask for feedback. BUT keep writing and don’t always avid feedback because it’s essential if you are to improve your reasoning and writing. If you need someone to say “yay, good job!” find someone to say that to you. I would add, “Tell your supervisor you’d like to focus on something other than critical feedback for the specified meeting and offer an agenda.” Talk about method, reading, whatever, but give them a heads up in advance via email.

@GradHacker What kind of writing does your supervisor expect? One reason you need feedback, and should start with rough chapter structures, is to ask your supervisor what expectations they have for your chapters, and your project: what kinds of sources, how footnotes get used, the structure of chapters, how they feel about headings, and more.  I would add: don’t just go empty-handed and ask loads of broad questions, take a chapter plan and start the conversation that way.

@GradHacker Learn when to stand your ground and when to take advice. At the end of the day, this is your work. Stand up for what you think is important, for what you want to say. It might be impossible to please everyone on your qualifying panel/committee.

I also note that it might demotivate you to drop something you feel passionately about. Think through the ‘deal breakers’ for you and your PhD research (and note that these often change over time!) In cases of conflict make some notes about why a disputed area is important, or why you think is is not important. Argue your case through in writing, to yourself, and see how you feel afterwards. Then decide whether or not to stand your ground or let it go. 

@GradHacker wisely reminds you to Take time off when you need it. As Katy Meyers mentioned in her post, taking time off is important to personal happiness, and you should do so as guilt free as possible. Dissertations take time, and you will need to take breaks and recharge at some point.

There will be times where you have to focus your energies elsewhere: teaching, the job market, writing publishable articles, sitting on committees, taking care of your family, watching cartoons. It is important to understand that short breaks in writing will happen, and you can take those breaks without feeling guilty.

What is a PhD?

Thanks to Mark d’Inverno who authored some of this material.

What is a PhD?

  •   Being able to critique existing work
  •   Contribution to knowledge . This can be modest!

What does a PhD demonstrate?

  •   Demonstrates you are able to later take on independent, long-­term research commitments
  •   A transformation to a professional researcher
  • A pathway to employment within, and outside, academia

Why do you want a PhD?

Important to keep reflecting on this to self-motivate. There are many answers (e.g.) Profession development, Personal development, Artistic development ,Developing self-confidence, Career development. What are your reasons? Write them down.

The Kinds of PhDs

  •     Opens up new area
  •     Provides unifying framework
  •     Resolves long-­‐standing question
  •     Critique existing theory and practice
  •     Understands and provides methodologies for new artistic practices
  •     Thoroughly explores an area
  •     Builds a new methodology for producing a system
  •     Provides new software
  •     Contradicts existing knowledge
  •     Experimentally validates a theory
  •     Derives superior algorithms
  •     Develops a new tool for doing X

And there are others too. Where does yours fit?



Just starting? What to get to know immediately

Thanks to Mark d’Inverno who authored some of this material.

How to organise your PhD

  •     Practice telling your friends about your PhD.
  •     Know the best conferences and journals.
  •     Identify your key annual conference
  •     Keep an annotated bibliography: Add 1 item a day!
  •     Plug into social media to see what is going on
  •     Keep close your favourite examples of papers and PhDs – Revisit them and really know them
  •     Use your supervisors wisely – Come with questions and ideas, not just wanting “help”!
  •     Think about use of different media to demonstrate the originality of your research?
  •     And keep reading and writing, every week
    • Start small with sentences, paragraphs and flow
    • Read back – look for any gaps in your argument or jumps between ideas. Address those to improve flow


Action points for the new Phd researcher

Action points

1. Start writing

Write for  20 minutes every day. Start now. See this article by ProfHacker. It is online here.

2. “The Professor Is In” by Karen Kelsky

I recommend that you purchase this book, sometimes described as, “the definitive career guide for grad students, adjuncts, post-docs and anyone else eager to get tenure or turn their Ph.D.  into their ideal job.”


3. Read up on, and sign up for, Academic Book Writing Month (starts in November) #AcWriMo

I expect you to sign up for this and to use it fully as you write your Draft Literature Review. Make the most of the support and advice, work out what approach to writing is best for you, quickly, during your first year by being an active member of AcWriMo. Post and tweet. This can be a group you return to each year and it can get you moving quickly into writing, which I believe is essential for a less stressful PhD.


Mark d’Inverno

MA MSc (Oxon) PhD (Lond)
Professor of Computer Science
Pro-Warden Research and Enterprise Goldsmiths
EPSRC Peer-review college
Visiting Fellow IIIA and Sony Research Labs

Over a number of years, Mark d’Inverno and I co-supervised PhD researchers  at University of Westminster and Goldsmiths College, London. We are both committed to co-supervision of PhDs and to supporting researchers who work across disciplines and across theory and practice.

The numerous discussions we had together, and continue to engage in, have contributed to the syllabus of this course. They include debate about what constitutes effective supervision, the need for compassionate and rigorous supervision, and the importance of the post-PhD careers of the researchers we work with.

In November 2014, Mark gave a talk to my class and he has generously agreed that I can take these and incorporate them into this course.

Taste, Teaching and the Utah Teapot

Link to Jane Prophet’s PhD thesis, “Taste, Teaching and the Utah Teapot: creative, gender, aesthetic and pedagogical issues surrounding the use of electronic media in art and design education, with particular reference to hypertext applications.”

The following is unedited from the 1994 thesis 
This investigation charts a number of complementary explorations at the site of electronic media in art practice and design and media education. Artists are increasingly using video and computer technology in the production of their work, and these shifts are reflected in the way design and media courses are taught in Higher Education. This study seeks to relate a number of often contentious issues, but complex questions are central to any debate about the use of electronic imaging technologies by artists and the implications for teaching and learning. In this respect, the thesis is informed by my dual role as an artist using electronic media and as a lecturer in video and digital imaging in the Media Department at the University of Westminster.

The study is based on a particular model of action research, and seeks after the manner of Glaser and Strauss (1967) to “ground” theory in the aggregate perceptions, understandings, and artistic or pedagogical orientations of those seeking to bring order to their own experiences in the settings.

The text is arranged in eleven chapters. It begins by introducing the boundaries of the phenomena under study (which is necessarily ragged and untidy and challengingly gritty, since the composite issues have yet to have attracted any clarity of exposition, and the field is in any case characterised by imaginative leaps and cross-fertilisation) and the methodological and idealogical stances adopted. Methodologically the thesis is wide-ranging and eclectic, although also contained within the kind of feminist epistomology proposed by Sandra Harding (1992), Marnier Lazreg (1994) and others. It then moves on to examine a number of focal points and issues related to the use to which electronic media is put by artists. These topics include my own sustained attempts to develop non-linear computer systems for mapping associative thoughts, and a more general and more detailed study of the principles and characteristics of these systems when they are used for holding information about knowledge domains. Following this, there is a chapter dedicated to the application of these principles to a particular knowledge domain, colour theory, with the aim of designing a computer aided learning package. The interconnections between all the topics, issues and themes studied in the text are highlighted in the middle of the thesis before moving on to more specific investigation of the issue of gender in both technological education and creativity, with an emphasis on the use of imaging technologies by women artists. The impact of these technologies in terms of shifting aesthetic values and tastes forms the basis of the final chapter, and a conclusion seeks to offer both a tentative intellectual synopsis and to indicate how the exercise has influenced and affected my work as an artist.

I am aware that to some extent this arrangement challenges both the linear quality of conventional research reportage and academic distrust of promiscuously interpenetrating ideas. I trust that this form of discourse, deliberately chosen, is experienced as working within its own terms.