The best two books on doing a thesis

I started my PhD at the University of Melbourne in early 2006 and finished in 2009. I did well, collecting the John Grice Award for best thesis in my faculty and coming second for the university medal (dammit!). I attribute this success to two ‘how to’ books in particular: Evans and Gruba’s “How to write a better thesis” and Kamler and Thomson’s “Helping doctoral students write”, both of which recently went into their second edition.

photoI use both of these books in my teaching practice and refer to them often in my blog posts. My old copies had been photocopied so often they had nearly fallen apart, so I was glad to get a brand new copy of each. Both of them have been substantially refreshed, so it seems like a good time to finally give them a proper review.

I picked up “How to write a better thesis” from the RMIT campus bookstore in June, 2004. I met this book at a particularly dark time in my first thesis journey. I did my masters by creative practice at RMIT, which meant I made a heap of stuff and then had to write about it. The making bit was fun, but the writing was agony.

My poor supervisors did their best to help me revise draft after draft, but I was terrible at it. Nothing in my previous study in architecture had prepared me for writing a proper essay, let alone a long thesis. I had no idea what one should even look like. What sections should I have? What does each one do? In desperation, I visited the bookstore and “How to write a better thesis” jumped off the rack and into my arms.

I’ll admit, my choice was largely informed by its student friendly price point: at the time it was $21.95, it’s now gone up to around $36. In my opinion that’s a bit steep, given that the average student budget is still as constrained as it was a decade ago, but you do get a lot for your money.

David Evans sadly died some years ago, but Justin Zobel has ably stepped into his shoes for the revision. What I’ve always liked best about this book is the way it breaks the ‘standard thesis’ down into its various components: introduction, literature review, method etc, then treats the problems of each separately. This enables you to use it tactically to ‘spot check’ for problem areas in your thesis.

The new edition of the book has remained essentially the same, but with some useful additions that, I think, better reflect the complexity of the contemporary thesis landscape. It acknowledges a broader spread of difficulties with writing the thesis and includes worked examples which illustrate the various traps students can fall into.

A couple of weeks ago I was sent a review copy of Zobel and Gruba’s new collaboration: “How to write a better Minor Thesis”. This is a stripped down version of the original book, with some minor additions, but designed specifically for masters by course work and honours students who have to write a thesis between 15,000 and 30,000 in length. It’s a brilliant idea as, to my knowledge, there hasn’t been much on the market for these students before. The majority of the book is relevant to the PhD and since it’s only $9.95 on Kindle you might want to start with this instead and upgrade to the more expensive paperback if you think you want more.

My introduction to Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson’s “Helping doctoral students to write: pedagogies for supervision” was quite different. My colleague at the time, Dr Robyn Barnacle, handed me this book when I was in the first year of my PhD. By that time I was a much more confident writer and I was ready for the more complex writing journey this book offered. And “Helping doctoral students to write” does tackle complicated issues – nominalisation, modality, them/rheme analysis and so on – but not in a complicated way. This is largely because it’s full of practical exercises and suggestions, many of which I use in my workshops (for an example, see this slide deck on treating the zombie thesis).

Although “Helping doctoral students write” has more of a humanities bent than ‘how to write a thesis’, it steps through a broad range of thesis writing issues with a light touch that never makes you feel bored or frustrated. It argues that the thesis is a genre proposition – an amazingly powerful insight – and the chapter on grammar is simply a work of brilliance.

I’ve given this book to engineers, architects, biologists and musicologists, all of whom have told me it was useful – but I find total beginners react with fear to sub-headings like ‘modality: the goldilocks dilemma’. For that reason I usually save it for students near their final year, especially when they tell me their supervisor doesn’t like their writing, but can’t explain why.

“Helping doctoral students to write” is not explicitly written for PhD students (the authors are in the process of doing one). The new edition is an improvement on the old in many ways and well worth buying again if you happen to own it already. The new edition is around $42, which is ok but I think the Kindle edition is over priced (why do publishers keep doing this when many people like to own both for convenience?). It’s a great book for the advanced student who is prepared to roll up their sleeves and do some serious work. Not only will this work pay dividends, as my award attests, it will stand you in good stead for being a supervisor yourself later on as you will be able to diagnose and treat some of the most common – yet difficult to describe – writing problems.

Pat Thomson, is, of course, the author of the popular ‘Patter’ blog, so you can access her wisdom, for free, on a weekly basis. I should own up to the fact that Pat and I met on Twitter, as many bloggers do, and started to collaborate. I’m still in awe of Pat’s knowledge, experience and good humour. I sometimes pinch myself that we have become friends (in fact, she gave me my new copy of the book when I last visited the UK), but I hope this isn’t the only reason the new edition mentions the Whisperer in one of the chapters (squee!).

If I hadn’t already had deep familiarity with this book before I met Pat I would definitely have to say I have a conflict of interest, but I can hand on my heart tell you I would recommend it anyway. Pat and Barbara have written another, truly fantastic, book “Writing for peer review journals: strategies for getting published” but that’s a review for another time:-)

Have you read these books? Or any others that you think have significantly helped you on your PhD journey? Love to hear about them in the comments.

Other book reviews on the Whisperer

How to write a lot

BITE: recipes for remarkable research

Study skills for international postgraduates

Doing your dissertation with Microsoft Word

How to fail your Viva

Mapping your thesis

Demystifying dissertation writing

If you have a book you would like us to review, please email me.

 

25 thoughts on “The best two books on doing a thesis

  1. “How to write a better thesis” is also available on Kindle for USD $22.46. A bit more manageable. I’ve downloaded the sample to have a look.

  2. The first edition of How to write a better thesis is $21 on Book Depository, the new edition is $45. I know which one I’ll be buying …

  3. Hello Inger,

    I just pressed send replying to my supervisors that I did not want to quit and that I will learn to write better and this post appeared. Thank you! Have just bought Kamler and Thomson’s book and will read it tonight, or at least make a good start. Just reading some of the comments and scrolling through your Zombie slides has already ignited the fire to power on through. So thank you again.

    Susanne.

  4. Adding another book to the mix, more for presentations and short pieces – and especially funding applications – for many years I have been using Barbara Minto’s “The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking, & Problem Solving”.

    The nugget for me is her structure of:
    Situation
    Complication
    Question
    Answer

    I set these out as headings at the start of any presentation/ application etc I’m doing. They help me keep the story clear, logical and moving inexorably to the conclusion that the only possible Answer to the Question of “What are we going to do about this difficult Complication?” is: “Award the funding to her….”

    It doesn’t always pan out that way, but it does help me to really understand what it is that I am trying to convey. And if I understand it, then it is more likely that other people will too.

    Alison Williams

  5. I was a student of David Evans as an undergraduate many years ago, when the first edition was published in 1995. I purchased a copy when preparing for my postgraduate study the following year. I can’t recommend his book highly enough! So sorry to hear of his passing, he was a lovely man.

  6. Thanks for this posting. I’m familiar with the Kamler and Thomson text and it is fabulous.

    My concern is that doctoral students find these resources in a hit and miss fashion. I’d like to see doctoral programs take on the daunting task of academic writing within the program, Instead of leaving doctoral researchers to both pretend they have writing skills that they do not and madly scramble to meet the writing standard through self-help. Wouldn’t it be great if the first order of business in the program introduced students to these resources, set up writing groups, and developed common analytical skills and language through examination of exemplars.

    Self-help businesses for doctoral students thrive due to a lack of support for many of the tasks required of the student that ought to be addressed directly through the program.

  7. Thanks for the recommendations!

    For those interested in HTWABT, I did a google search and found the full ebook is available for free download through the Springer Link site, via my University’s library subscription. Hopefully other institutions will provide access too – perfect for students!

    I’ve been struggling to get words on paper, and I read their suggestion to try good old pen-and-paper writing to avoid the constant edit cycle on a computer. It may be a fluke, but two hours, thirty pages and a cramped hand later, and I’m definitely feeling thankful for the book and this review!

  8. A book I recommend a lot in my writing workshops, though not specifically aimed at doctoral students, is Howard S Becker’s ‘Writing for Social Scientists’. It’s great even for non-social scientists, and I particularly love the stylishness of it, and the way it draws back the curtain on how even the best writing needs revising and editing. The chapter on editing by ear is especially good.

  9. “How to write a better thesis” is a wonderful book. From introduction to conclusion of chapters, this book sums it all. It helped me plan my work activities in a much better manner. I was recommended this book by an editor at regentediting
    And, Oh! Congrats!

  10. I also am finding your recommendations so helpful Inge, especially the ‘how to write a better thesis’. Like another commentator, this post showed up when I was told my writing wasn’t analytical enough. Can’t thank you enough!

  11. Well, seeing as I’m about to gear up for a PhD in the next year or so, I imagine I’ll be visiting this blog for moral support. Thanks for the book recommendations. *Hat tip to fellow academic*

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  16. Would you recommend either of these books for PhD-by-paper? Or nights Pat’s latest/another be more appropriate? I do struggle with the more formal style expected by my Suoervisors.

    Thanks!

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