It seems obvious: any piece of writing should have a beginning, a middle and an end. But how often have I heard the lack of structure moaned about by those folk who have to read some prose, in particular supervisors reading their student’s work. Not infrequently I have been given a draft manuscript which has seemed to meander all over the place without obvious structure. The discipline of structured writing is often missing from our (English) education system and science students early on in their careers are given little opportunity to write extended prose on which to hone their skills. Getting to the stage of PhD thesis-writing without having had opportunities to practice their literary skills on more modest pieces of text can be a formidable challenge for an anxious student and it’s not surprising some of them struggle.
Clearly, any thesis should have an introduction and literature review to begin with, a middle meaty bit where the description of methods and all those fascinating results (even null results) are described; finally there is the ‘end’, some conclusions to wrap the whole thing up and some imaginative (possibly even fantastical) ideas and speculations about what could be done next by any succeeding student, building on what has been teased out in the thesis.
If writing a novel – say a whodunnit – it seems pretty obvious you need to start writing at the beginning, set the scene and introduce the cast of characters, work through all the complexities of the plot designed to obfuscate just Who Did Do It, and finally have the denouement which Reveals All. Although I have never attempted to write a novel, I find it hard to imagine not writing the chapters in that order. To do so would be immensely challenging to keep consistency of the plot: little clues need to be introduced at the correct moment so they can be developed later; characters have to mature and grow in the text as they would in real life. Maybe it is possible to write brief vignettes out of order, descriptive passages without key parts of the plot lurking within, but could one write large chunks of the end before the beginning? As I say, I find that hard to imagine.
However, when it comes to thesis writing, I find students often start in the middle. For them, at least some of them, it seems to work. Perhaps they want to start with their results so they know if there are holes that need to be plugged with further experiments; perhaps they want to start with something simple like the experimental methods chapter while they try out their composition skills. If this works for them, well and good. As with so many things in life, there is no single right way to tackle a thesis and far be it from me as a supervisor to impose some rigid structure which merely paralyses rather than assists them. But, and of course there is a but or I wouldn’t be writing this, it does make it hard for me the supervisor trying to critique the writing as it lands on my desk non-sequentially.
If the results are written before the methods, then how can I be sure the methods will actually contain all those vital little bits of detail that certainly haven’t appeared in the results chapter? A confident student can assure me that of course they know they need to do this but, with deadlines approaching and the student getting ever more stressed, those small points may ultimately escape their attention. If the literature review, because it can seem straightforward verging on the boring, is left to the end, then all those cross references during the discussion may get hopelessly entangled not to say mangled. It is embarrassing if it is one of the examiners who picks up, either that crucial references are completely absent or, more commonly, the papers listed in the bibliography have got garbled. Modern software ought to make this easy to keep a check on; but attention to detail can get mislaid in the final, frantic push to submission.
So, I still try to nudge students to the linear model. To begin at the beginning so that all cross references are easy to make, back to their first appearance – by reference or section number as appropriate; to maintain a steady progression through experiments of increasing complexity until, as in the whodunnit, the ultimate denouement reveals the coherent story which brings the disparate chunks of work to a logical(ish) conclusion.
I should end by pointing out that these remarks do not relate to any current student I am supervising, or indeed to any particular student from the past. They are general remarks based on reading many theses over the years and were provoked by talking to Elizabeth Simpson, a retired scientist-cum-writer from Imperial College, whom I met last week at an evening celebrating science and mathematics at my old undergraduate college, Girton College, of which she was also an alumna. Being back in the college certainly took me back to my own Cambridge beginnings.
I haven’t been back to Girton more than a handful of times since I’ve been on the academic staff in the University, and it was definitely a case of Memory Lane, both in terms of the sheer atmosphere and familiar architecture, and the faces I saw there. The tutor who had fined me (the vast sum of £10 I believe) after my 21st birthday party – shared with about 10 others –got out of hand in the very same Stanley Library in which I was now called upon to talk about the joy of physics; she was there! The long echoing corridors felt very much the same, down which the sound of girls sobbing (only girls, it was at the time a single sex college) during exam season would echo sending shivers up the spines of those who had not yet succumbed. And, unbidden, the memory flooded back of my own first timid entry into the college back in 1970 when power cuts, I think due to striking power workers, meant my admission interviews were conducted by candle light and we dined off cold spam. That was my beginning in Cambridge. Perhaps it didn’t look auspicious at the time, but it has led to some excellent times in the more than four decades since!