We know you research students have a lot of reading to do. Here at the Whisperer we aim to take some of that burden off your shoulders. While we can’t help you with that stuff on fuzzy logic or nanoparticles,  we can read the ‘how to do a thesis’ books and tell you which ones are worth buying. In the past I have reviewed books from my own collection; this is the first ‘freebie’ I have been sent. My relationship to this book has become complex, so let me wind it back to the start so you can appreciate the whole chain of events.

One of the side benefits of having a blog is that your interests are out there for everyone to see. When my friend Reem saw  ‘Mapping your Thesis’ by Dr Barry White she knew it would be right up my alley and forwarded me the details in email. I had a look at the blurb and decided I needed to buy it, so I clicked through to the website and saw …

… the book cost $89.95!?

The publisher, ACER, puts out the excellent, and much more reasonably priced, ‘Doctorates Downunder’ books so my first thought was that this was a typo. I rang them up and the nice lady on the telephone confirmed the price. She listened patiently to my rant about PhD students in poverty and promised that if I put my concerns in an email she would pass it on to the publisher, Annemarie.

When she got the email Annemarie rang me straight back. She explained that the book was aimed at libraries and supervisors, not students and was very large, hence the price tag. I explained that I was the target market, but on a lowly level B academic salary with a mortgage I was unlikely to buy it. She offered to send me a copy. I said thanks and offered to review it. We ended up having a long chat about what I was trying to do with the Whisperer blog. This conversation led to others and, eventually, to me signing with Annemarie myself to produce a book (but I made sure that a low price electronic version was part of the contract!).

Anyway, back to “Mapping your Thesis”. When I opened the parcel I was surprised at the heft of it. A large format tome at 360 pages; this is a serious text book. On the phone Annemarie warned me not to attempt to read it from cover to cover. Advice which I promptly ignored – to my peril. On my first attempt I read the introduction, scanned the impressive table of contents and then read a grand total of 3 pages before I had to put it down.

Don’t judge me, ok? This book is dense. Exhibit A – the very first sentence:

“Because change in philosophic fashion will happen again this book is necessarily ephemeral”


I put it down for a couple of weeks and picked it up again one quiet Sunday. This time I managed to plow through the first couple of chapters before I ran out of steam. Dr White starts at Plato and does a cook’s tour of western philosophy in the first chapter, then goes on to make a very sophisticated – and fascinating – argument about interdisciplinary research and the structures of the contemporary academy. It reads like a massive – and impressive – brain dump.

Dr Barry White has co-ordinated a post graduate program at the University of Auckland for years and clearly knows PhD student problems inside and out. However his own writing style is a little off putting. His sentences are sophisticated and elegant, but not very friendly. He never addresses the audience directly – there is no ‘you’ and ‘I’ which makes the tome feel dry and distant.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this book is hard work. I already work hard so there it sat, on my desk, for MONTHS. Generating guilt. I wanted to write a review, but I didn’t know what to say if I couldn’t even finish it. I didn’t believe – at that point – that I could recommend the book to anyone, even hard core thesis nerds like myself.

Fast forward to July 2011. I was updating a workshop to help research students pass their confirmation (RMIT’s 1st year milestone) and picked up the book. This time, task motivated, I went to the index and then straight to the section that seemed most promising. Colour me surprised that under the unpromising heading “The relationship between topic, title, thesis and hypothesis” was advice that was both straightforward and useful.

Dr White points out that a topic is “a theme or area of discussion” and that the title can written in a variety of ways to reflect this: as a question, exploration, statement, investigation, an hypothesis or as a thesis. To clarify with an example: Thesis Whisperer Jnr (aged 10 and 1/4) wants to do his PhD about “rocks” (with a side interest in gold). “Rocks” is a topic area, but there are a range of theses Thesis Whisperer Jnr would write on this topic depending on how he phrased the title, to whit:

  • As a question: “What do school children know about rocks with gold in them?”
  • As an exploration: “Rocks in ‘scrap heaps’ found in the victorian gold districts”
  • As a statement: “Why most school kids are not interested in rocks (even if there’s gold in them”
  • As an investigation: “Rocks with gold in them: places they are most likely to be found”
  • As a hypothesis: “If rocks have gold in them, they are more likely to be dug up”
  • As a thesis: “rocks are cool, especially if there is gold in them”

I have since used this example to help hundreds of students re-write variations of their thesis title in my workshops and it’s become a crowd favourite. It’s amazing how simply re-writing your title can help you refocus and give direction to a paper, a chapter or even a whole thesis. Ever since I have used this book to help me make all kinds of workshop material. In fact it has become my ultimate authority on everything thesis related, up to and including supervision and presentations.

My copy is now well thumbed – but I have still not read every page. It’s a hard book to love, but well worth the effort. So – should you buy it?

It is aimed at the humanities disciplines, but I think people in the applied sciences, design and engineering would still find it useful. If you are like me and teach workshops and research methods courses, you should own this book. If you supervise research students, or intend to do so in the future, you probably should own it. Should PhD students buy it? Probably, but at $89.95 it’s surely not a priority. Borrow it from the library and buy “How to write a better thesis” for the student friendly price of $24.95 instead.

Related Posts

How to write a lot

%d bloggers like this: