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Quoting and Using Evidence Effectively in your PhD Thesis

You may think you know just about everything that you need to know about quoting by this stage in your academic career but as with most aspects of a doctorate, there are different avenues of approach to be considered here which it might be useful for you to adopt.

Analysis has been commented upon earlier in this guide but deciding upon the best way to use that is another thing. Primarily, you will be considering how evidence can be used to supplement your central thesis, of course, but you should also have at the forefront of your mind the originality with which your thesis has been concerned from the outset.

There are two fundamental ways to use quotations:

  • Incorporating the quotation within your text
  • Inserting a block quote separate from the text.

The first of these has the advantage of making a point whilst at the same time as offering evidentiary support and, ideally, analysis.

The second of these allows you to quote at greater length but has the greater risk of being left hanging, without analysis, since many students feel that simply to quote a point without incorporating it into the argument.

Clearly, the way that you use a quote will partly be determined by the type of thesis you are wring but it will also be decided by the way in which evidence in this case needs to be written i.e. is the evidence in support of a point, or a point in itself which you will go on to explain?

Since the use of evidence is so important in a thesis, it is worth spending some time here thinking about which is the more suitable in a specific case.

A PhD. Graduate comments:‘I thought I knew everything that there was to know about quoting, having completed my masters and spent several years teaching. However, when I got my first draft of part of my thesis back from my supervisor, he had put a line through most of the ways I had used evidence. At first, I was really quite angry but after meeting with him he explained that using evidence in a PhD. is different from writing with evidence in any other form – even a masters’ degree. I soon learnt that quoting needs to be as skilfully and originally managed in a doctorate as the thesis topic itself in that you need to tailor evidence as carefully as your theme.’

Taking this graduate’s comments on board will help you to see how a doctoral thesis requires very different handling. For example, in a straightforward piece of academic writing, you would simply interweave evidence with your work to demonstrate how the point you are making can be verified. No-one would be expecting your work to be original, indeed, it would be very unusual – even undesirable – for you to quote in any way other than in the basic manner this early on in your academic career when writing is much more pedestrian in many ways. When you are utilising evidence for quotes in your thesis, however, you need to try to make your quotes help to establish the niche into which you are proposing that your thesis should fit. Thus, the ideal way of using evidence originally and imaginatively is in the effective combination of both block quoting and involving the evidence in a textual unity.

This can be seen to be in operation in the following use of analysis which uses an extract from D.H. Lawrence’s collection of essays, Fantasia of the Unconscious (1923), to describe the thesis directive of man’s connective with nature:

The tree’s vitality and strength, as the writer feels himself into identification with it, leap from the page with a force that is overwhelming. There is ‘primaeval’ life here; life both physical and spiritual. Here the image is of the soil as a source of a ‘gushing zest’ as opposed to man ‘rotting dead’ within it. The tree reaches ‘his tips in the high air’ which man can ‘only look up to’. Lawrence presents the tree as a living symbol of the relation of earth to sky, as a superior image from which man might now draw strength. The blind power of the tree, free from the constrictions of analytical thought, enriches the soul. The tree is said to have a ‘tremendous soul’; it is part of a new and greater spirituality, reaching heights, and plunging depths beyond the reach of man. Beyond him, that is, unless he opens himself to the raw philosophy of the ‘tree’. The soul is here enlarged by the very absence of thought: all is sensual and immediate. Lawrence plays with the words as with the ideas; ‘the great lust of roots. Root lust’. Is the lust that of the tree or the man? Similarly, he writes, ‘and no mind at all’: is this merely a statement that the tree has ‘no mind’ or a pun around the deeper meaning that it would be better not to ‘mind’? The writer is continually plunging the reader back and forth in time as his mind shifts. He was ‘afraid’ now he ‘feels safe’. The trees that were his ‘enemies’ have become his only ‘shelter and strength’. This is the language of revelation. He has come to ‘worship’ that which he ‘feared’, through the way he can ‘lose’ himself ‘among the trees’. The sublimation enables the trees to ‘feed’ his ‘soul’. Moreover, the author emphasizes the basic nature of the power of the tree in the words, ‘but I can understand that Jesus was crucified on a tree’. The idea that the gentle and loving embodiment of Christianity is insubstantial beside the raw energy of nature reveals the author’s acknowledgement of the reason behind both his fear and jubilation. This is a harsh reading of the landscape despite its inherent capacity to offer renewal. By this pulsating energy, even the greatest ‘soul’ would be crushed or ‘crucified’: the individual will must inevitably be suppressed.’

This analysis uses the evidence of the text to supply additional thematic support for the major theme of the thesis. Notice how the writer comments upon the actual text (which is crucially one of Lawrence’s lesser known works) but follows this up with thematic connectives in order to embed the quotation tightly within the original thoughts on the text which are being expressed. Analysis such as this would follow on from a block-quote of the original text and be completed by a balanced critical overview, presenting different aspects of the argument from that presented in the thesis and establishing more strongly the niche which your research is filling.

This is very much the way quoting in a thesis differs from quoting elsewhere.

If you are writing a thesis in which close analysis of a text is your principle methodology then this is the way you should quote.

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However, it may well be the case that you are using evidence in a scientific way. This will require you to analyse quite differently in terms of actual content but you will still be able to employ the method. For example, if you are embarked on a Psychology degree, you may well be analysing case studies and making judgements based upon them. This will involve you in commenting on particular aspects of evidence to fit in with doctoral research. For instance, you will need still to comment on the particular way that the research is being presented or, if you have conducted it yourself (which in a thesis is very likely) then you will need to stress methodology in your use of evidence.

Indeed, in the case of most degrees outside the Humanities, where you are dealing primarily with facts rather than opinion, you need to stress methodology I your thesis when you quote because in these disciplines, you are expected to be contributing new data in your thesis and in most cases this is the area where you will quote.

Notwithstanding, you will still need to set it in critical context.

Quoting from critics is done in precisely the same manner in your thesis as you have been used to using them in the past. However, what you need to keep at the forefront of your mind here is that originality is the keynote and you are using the critical quotations you have accumulated in order to establish the more firmly the niche which your research is hoping to fill. This holds true whether you are quoting in an Engineering doctorate, a Physics doctorate, an English doctorate, a History doctorate – you get the idea! It carries across the board. The critics supplement your work in all cases and need quoting as such in order to establish your work firmly within the desired framework for your PhD.

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