Tuesday, 9 July 2013

PhD Roadmap: 9 Tips for a Successful Doctoral Submission


From time to time PhDs are submitted and they are failed. Your 3 to 7 year investment does not come with any guarantee of a pass. Nor is it enough complain that the supervisory team did not tell you that you might fail, or that you are at risk. While failure is very uncommon, there are no guarantees of success.

Most examiners are looking for positive evidence of success, but they are also required to identify weaknesses and errors. Both roles comprise the work of critical scrutiny and the professional process of examination.

On one occasion when I was serving as a PhD examiner we required major corrections with a 24 month timetable as that seemed to be the alternative to a failure. But the alarm bells ought to have been clear well before submission. Multiple errors and weaknesses may result in protracted re-submission or even outright failure.

Examiners often spot weaknesses that your supervisors may not have identified or scrupulously checked. It is not uncommon for examiners to check the accuracy of all your sources, for instance. Sometimes examiners will compete to find the most errors in your work!

Cumulatively minor changes are alarming because they point to a lack of accuracy and a poor standard of professionalism. Even minor corrections many involve months of tiresome (and expensive) checking of sources in overseas research libraries, if that’s where you used unique texts...

Here are some quick fix solutions to help you avoid the dreaded F-verdict.

1. Original Contribution is the Key

Be clear about your original contribution to the body of human knowledge. That’s what the doctoral qualification is based on. This does not mean that you will not be heavily dependent on a collaborative engagement with others and with past scholarship. But is does help you case if you are able to outline what you have discovered that is new. It’s not enough to create patchwork, a new mix, or a mash-up. Therefore stress the unique contribution of your work and be clear about which parts offer fresh interpretations or challenges to the orthodoxy. This does not mean that your work has to revolutionise the entire discipline or field of enquiry. But you will need a balance between humility and a realistic sense of what your achievements have been.

2. Errors in References, Footnotes and the Bibliography

These are the anchor for your work and the foundation for professionalism. If you have maintained these accurately from the start then your final preparation of your thesis will be stress free. It is essential that your format corresponds with that recommended by your institution, and that it is consistent. Check punctuation and title formats in italics, publisher, place and date of publication in the right order. If there are 12 or more mistakes you may be in trouble.

Also check that you are using standard editions of key works. Penguin Books, for instance, often modernise spellings and style, whereas Oxford UP does not.

3. Fat or Thin Bibliographies

Don’t force feed a bibliography with stuff that you never read or did not use. At the other extreme don’t just list the texts that you worshipped as your guiding lights. Omissions suggest you did not read enough, or that you are concealing your influences. On the other hand, unnecessary additions suggest a forest of confusion; they are the vice of excess packaging.

4. Ideological shorthand and sleight of hand.

A theoretical bag of tricks often appears to be essential for the post-post-post-structuralist. Don’t mix and match schools of ideas and concepts just for show, and don’t be shallow. Critical and theoretical terms often have distinctive histories and traditions.

You might hang yourself by a loose use of deconstruction and signifiers left hanging on inappropriate semiotics. Key words and ideas require careful and consistent use. Sloppy and inconsistent use suggests that you are unsure about the progression of your thesis.

5. The solution to the word/world/universe thesis.

If your thesis is too big it may buckle under the pressure. Don’t pretend that you can overturn a major scholar’s life’s work in 3 years' scholarship. Unless your are blessed with genius and superhuman powers your most original work will be achieved in your post-doc years.

6. Research sources need to show a chronological range.

If you just rely on research undertaken since 2000 you may well be losing vital evidence that supports the foundation and origins of your work. You may miss minority or contested debates. Similarly, your work also needs to show evidence that it is up-to-date. Again, sweeping generalisations about Descartes or Darwin, or Hegel or Derrida should be avoided. Be precise about intellectual phases and developments and reference works and texts rather than author summaries.

7. Avoid general statements that lack evidence

Scholars agree that...
Many critics have proposed that...
A minority of academics would disagree.

We need names and footnotes. Sweeping statements tend to betray lazy scholarship
We need precision and we are looking for nuance and detail. Demonstrate your familiarity with all relevant secondary critical texts by footnoting and discussing appropriately.

8. Tell-tale signs of the rushed submission

Apart from the multiplication of errors relating to accuracy, the obvious signs of a rushed submission will be evident in the style of writing. The style is uneven, sometimes colloquial, often fuzzy. The lack of lucidity and precision fogs the sense of your work. Baggy or half-baked sentences stifle communication.

9. Heads and Tails.

It is essential to write a solid introduction and a firm conclusion. These require more careful thought, and more studious revision than any other part of your work. They open and close the doors to success or failure. Poor openings and endings suggest a lack of confidence or an unseemly rush to complete against the clock.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also try: The Art of the Abstract

A Quick Guide to Writing and Abstract.

4 comments:

lavlu said...

Suggestions, concepts and/or term paper editing put together in a structured variety to be able to develop an interesting, extraordinary in addition to special little bit of prepared perform is known as a dissertation or perhaps statement or perhaps thesis.

John said...

Its a great tips .Thanks for sharing..

Sheri Oberman said...

This piece is about the examination of the dissertation, not the oral exam per se, so how does that get factored into a pass/fail. Is the oral exam irrelevant?

Ian McCormick said...

The oral exam (viva voce) is crucial, of course. But any problems in your submission will be a significant focus for discussion during the viva. Do not rely on the viva/oral to rescue you from errors acculmulated in your submitted work!

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