Friday, 7 June 2013

The Story of the Thesis

In today's long-overdue post, I want to talk a little bit about 'The Story of the Thesis'.

Creating the story of the thesis is an exercise my supervisor has me do on a semi-regular basis, and it's something I find incredibly useful, so I thought I would share so that you might be able to give it a try too.  The story, simply, is an overview of the progression of my thesis.  It looks at the overall question my thesis is trying to answer and how each chapter contributes to answering it.

Why is it so useful then?  I think it's really easy to get distracted when you're doing a PhD from what your thesis is about.  While this may be different across disciplines, in the social sciences your PhD should have one central topic, and each experimental chapter chips away at this topic, adding something new each time.  But this is quite a broad perspective to take.  When you're working the day to day, at the experiment level, the process of creating materials, deciding exactly what to do in your methodology can create new ideas for further experiments.

There have been several times I've found myself with pages of study ideas, which are all very interesting, but that don't really tie in to what my thesis is about.  Or, I have these study ideas, want to do them all, and forget what my thesis is about.  

Creating a story for your thesis (the picture above is one incarnation of mine) helps you to take that step back and examine how the studies you have planned fit in to what you actually want to say.  For me, one of the biggest reasons I did this again recently was because I wasn't sure what I wanted my central theme to be - I had a lot of ideas but they diverged and wouldn't have made a cohesive thesis structure.  By taking the time to make a story, I was able to figure out which were most important to me and pinpoint a central question for my whole body of research.

One of the best things with this as well is that you can see exactly where you're going.  After all, you are essentially creating a road map for yourself.  I now have a really great set of experiments that tie in nicely to what I want to do and I feel I can actually see how all the experiments I'm going to run tie in to each other.  I've also cut down on a lot of extra work I would have been doing for other experiments that don't actually fit in to this question after all.

Sometimes the process can be difficult.  It's hard to let your research evolve, especially if it means you have to put aside previous studies you've either completed or collected data for.  I had to do that this time, and it can be frustrating and feel like you've wasted time.  But, my research is much better for it.  I like the direction it's taking very much, I feel like I can actually do it.  What's more, I feel like it makes sense and that it would be a valuable contribution to my field.  For me as a PhD student, that feels like a really big achievement.  I'm actually really excited to see it start to take shape!

So why don't you give it a try?  Make a story of your thesis.  Even if you don't have experiments in mind, you can write down questions you'd like to answer.  Make a draft then think about whether it's too long or short, if there are gaps, if it makes sense in relation to your question and whether it tells a nice story.  It's a really nice way to get to know your thesis.  And an excellent excuse to break out the Crayola. 

Have fun!

Before I go, I want to say a huge thank you to all the readers of Not Just Another PhD.  We've just broken 10,000 hits!  For a blog that was started as a hobby during my postgraduate studies, it's amazing it's come this far.  

Thank you!


  1. As a PhD student myself, I enjoyed your blog. I'm also a Pokemon fan! Still haven't finished Pokemon black. Darn PhD cutting out time from my life. :-)

  2. Creating a story for a thesis can be a great technique and is helpful to come up with good thesis ideas and will help your writing task easier. This also helps a researcher determine the strengths and weaknesses of his/her study and will make him/her be more creative.

  3. Very useful blog.Thanks for sharing..
    Phd Thesis

  4. So, I decided to write the story of my thesis to try out the technique; twas a bitter-sweet moment. I could see clearly how my thesis chapters sit together for the first time - it was wonderful to see the big picture. It's a shame that two of my data chapters now look disjointed in context. They kinda seem to be flying off on different tangents rather than drilling down into the topic. Oh dear. At least I haven't started those ones yet!

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