Beginning Your Thesis

When you have gained initial approval for your research, you may have a feeling of bewilderment. After the initial euphoria of your research proposal being accepted, which was a steep mountain to climb, you might well think ‘what now’? Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal, indeed most PhD. students and graduates feel exactly the same way. Here’s just one example that might strike a familiar chord with you:

It is vital that you establish a realistic scheme of work, in consultation with your supervisor, before you begin the thesis proper. You need to organise a scheme of work to which you know you can keep, even if you have to alter it from time to time. In fact, it is a good idea from the outset to allow for the unexpected as over a long period of work such as this you are bound to have unforeseen interruptions.

Most PhD.s will take between two to four years to complete, though this varies according to the subject and academic institution and, of course, whether you are full-time or part-time. In addition, most colleges and/or universities allow ‘writing-up time’ at the end, if you need it, after your research is officially completed.

However, if you need to take time out of your official allocated research period, you will need to request this from the academic institution where you are conducting your research. Most colleges and/or universities are sympathetic to a genuine crisis but you do need to keep everyone advised and you may need to provide proof of illness, for example, if you are requesting an extended suspension of studies.

You need to plan your work scheme in consultation with your supervisor as appointments to meet will form an essential part of the structure of you PhD. planning. When you begin to think about your plan, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many hours per week can I realistically spend studying?
  • What is my provisional timetable for submission of drafts of each stage?
  • How much time will I need to give to further reading?
  • How much time will I need for writing each chapter and revising it?
  • How often will I need to see my supervisor? (This will change as your research progresses and at different times of year e.g. some students need more time with supervisors at the beginning of their research, some at the end.)
  • Are there any difficulties that I foresee at this stage or in the future for which I can plan ahead?

‘I was so thrilled when I got the go-ahead for my doctoral research that for a few weeks I just sort of ‘basked in the glow’ of it – then reality set in! I had committed myself to writing a thesis and all the ideas I had about how much I wanted this suddenly disappeared as I was buried by an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy: just what had I got myself into? Thank goodness, after the first meeting with my supervisor I was back on track.’ Dr. N., UK.

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As you can see from this example, it is not at all unusual to feel overwhelmed by the task ahead. However, this is where your supervisor comes in.

Suggested Work-Scheme for Your Thesis

Although work-schemes are altered by such variables as subject, individual responsibilities and/or commitments (of both you and your supervisor) and whether you are working full-time or part-time on your thesis, there are some broad factors which are generically applicable. The following is a list of some main features (as time scale will be different in individual cases, rather than referring to ‘years’ this suggested scheme refers instead to ‘stages’ in your work):

  • Do not expect to do much more than read intensively during the first stage of your thesis, incorporating the time spent on your thesis proposal, as it will take a while to immerse yourself thoroughly in any PhD. research topic.
  • During this stage, you will also be making notes and compiling a working bibliography, in the correct referencing style (see the section in this guide on referencing), together with conducting inferential analysis of your evidence.
  • Moving on to the second stage, you will now begin to draft chapters of your thesis (see section in this guide on writing and structuring your thesis). There is no need to write your thesis in chronological order, especially in first drafts, as it can be extremely difficult to write the introduction first and it may give you confidence to write the chapter about which you feel most comfortable and/or enthusiastic before the rest – ironically, many students write their introduction last – just before they choose their title!
  • Arrange regular meetings with your supervisor, maybe as often as fortnightly at first, but you must be flexible as the supervisor will have commitments of his or her own to which, out of deference to their position, you must give priority. In practice, however, most students and supervisors accommodate each others individual needs quite amicably. Submit everything you write to your supervisor and take on board their suggestions before rewriting (see the section in this guide on rewriting) and, if necessary, resubmitting the work.
  • In the final stage of your work, you should need to see your supervisor less and less, instead spending your time polishing your thesis as well as completing your bibliography and appendices in the correct manner.
  • Finally, you should prepare for your viva examination which takes place after you have submitted your written thesis but before the degree is finally awarded (see the section in this guide on preparing for your viva).

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