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Planning your final year

Introduction

The final phase of the thesis often takes place in the third year of the PhD and the submission and completion year of the PhD in the fourth (usually referred to as the "Writing Up" year). This section highlights the priorities involved in both the final phase and the submission and completion phase of the thesis.

"Submission and completion represent the culmination of a period of transformation: transformation from being a novice researcher to a more experienced one and transformation in terms of the development of research skills, generic skills and the ability to advance a field of knowledge"

(Fiona Denney, 'Submission and Completion' The Postgraduate's Companion (Sage, 2008))

Preparing for submission and completion of the thesis is one of the most difficult (and rewarding) experiences for the doctoral candidate. The third year of the PhD onwards is the stage where researchers are nearing completion of the project: the majority of data/findings have been collected and analysed, results have been discussed both at conferences and in draft chapters and candidates are usually moving towards the stage commonly known as 'writing up'.

What it means to be ‘writing up’

These days 'writing up' means different things in different disciplines. Essentially, it is always best to write up the thesis as it goes along. If this is done properly then the 'writing up' stage is the process where you complete, review, edit and proofread chapters ready for submission. The writing up stage also involves putting the final thesis structure together to make sure that the argument flows logically. In order to achieve that aim, the writing up process must be managed appropriately.

Writing Goals

Goals are essential to the completion of a thesis (please see the section on the Research Cycle). Goals are especially important for final-year PGRs when there are several aspects of the research process which must be managed properly. Murray (2006) suggests that there are several factors to consider when writing goals:

  • Define the purpose of the writing task
  • Choose an appropriate verb: review/evaluate/summarize
  • Define your audience
  • Define the scale and scope of your writing
  • Decide on the number of words you will write
  • Decide how long it will take you to write it

Writing Audit

As in the interim phase of the research project, it is crucial to review and reflect on progress made thus far. This can be achieved through a SWOT analysis (please see section in Keeping Your Research on Track) or through a Writing Audit. During the final stages of the thesis many researchers have a series of chapters which usually have been drafted independently over the course of two or more years. The final stages of the thesis challenge researchers to draw together each chapter, to marry them up to form the thesis as a whole.

The results of the Writing Audit can be used to develop further insight into the thesis and what stage it is at regarding completion. This information can be used to set new goals, milestones and objectives for the final phase of the project.

Thinking About Thesis Structure

Discussions ought to have taken place with the supervision team about thesis structure. However, it is not uncommon to address structural issues in the final writing-up year of the doctorate. When thinking about how to structure the thesis consider the following things:

  • Is there a standard format for this discipline / field?
  • Look at examples of recently completed theses (within last two years) in the discipline - note how they are structured
  • Structure means more than just the order of chapters - it also means attention should be paid to how chapters are structured
  • Pay attention to 'signposting'
  • What's the 'bigger picture'?

The Typical Thesis Structure - Humanities

The final structure of the thesis will be decided in consultation with the supervisory team.  For guidance purposes only the typical thesis structure for the Humanities is as follows:

  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Methodological chapter
  • Findings / Analysis
  • Conclusions
  • Further work / research
  • Bibliography
  • Appendices

Managing Change

Although planning is critical, researchers are required to manage change during the final phases of the project. It is inevitable that timescales will need to be adjusted as and when matters arise. It is important not to be de-motivated - by re-visiting regularly the final-year plan regularly most researchers clearly identify that they have made steady progress.

If the plan isn't working then it needs to be changed. If the way that the thesis is being approached has changed then the plan should be adjusted to allow for this. It is very important to set realistic timescales. Proofreading, for example, will usually take twice as long but it is crucial to the examination process.

Making the Decision to Submit

There are a few things to bear in mind when making the decision to submit:

  • It is your thesis and therefore the decision to submit rests with the doctoral researcher
  • However, this decision must be reached in consultation with the supervisor(s)
  • Has any part of the thesis or research been published? If so, this would suggest that the work is already of doctoral standard and thus ready to submit.