Developing a research overview and thesis outline

 

Introduction

The Research Overview and Thesis Outline templates are process tools for facilitating communication between supervisor and student. Their purposes are two-fold:

  1. For supervisors, especially those with several students, they are a good way to assist in remembering exactly where each student is up to. As working documents (which change over time), they are a record of the current state of understanding of what the research is about. They contain the necessary information for a supervisor to return straight back to the last discussion with each student. From a supervisor’s perspective, this is helpful when there are a number of students being supervised.
  2. For students, they are documents that assist in the process of formulating the research and in structuring and writing the thesis. It is also a way of getting more value out of meetings with supervisors.

The most important thing to note about the templates is that they are working documents that change over time and have value for the whole length of a PhD, from the very beginning when the first supervision meetings are held through to the time of thesis submission. As communication tools, they are something that should be on hand at every supervision meeting, and as working documents they should be reviewed regularly. Using the templates and the accompanying structured communication process makes the process of developing and finishing a thesis much easier.

There are three parts to this resource: (1) an overview that assists in framing the research; (2) a thesis outline that assists in structuring the thesis; and (3) a mechanism to track progress.

Research overview tool

At the beginning of a PhD the focus of attention should be on the Research Overview tool. This is a discussion tool that enables the supervisor to effectively mentor the student in the development of the research proposal. The supervisor and student consider the answers to various questions to ensure there is sufficient consistency. When it ‘all adds up’ this is a strong indicator of success for the project. When things don’t gel, there needs to be more discussion and/or reflection on the topic. Details of the Research Overview template can be found here (this will appear in a new window) and/or you can download a Word version of the document Research Overview_template which discusses the thinking relating to each question in the template. Note that much of the information from the overview can be used in the thesis outline and, ultimately, in the thesis.

The student’s name needs to be in big lettering on the top right hand side so that each student’s document can easily be found within student files.

The student’s University ID number is needed so that it is available should the supervisor ever have to complete a form relating to the student. Almost every University form relating to a student needs the student ID number. By including it here, it is in a place that is always readily available to the supervisor.

The contact phone numbers are needed, again as a matter of convenience for the supervisor. Having them here just makes it easier than looking up other databases.

The version date is really important because this is a working document that changes frequently. A supervisor (and a student) needs to be sure that they are looking at the most recent version. For this reason, it is important that the version date is typed in afresh each time and not done using Word’s auto date facility. If you use the auto date facility, the date changes when the supervisor opens the document or prints it. It must be the correct date as per when the version was actually written, not when the supervisor looks at it.

By the same token, it is strongly encouraged that a specific naming convention be used. It is suggested that the file be named: <Thesis Outline Student Surname YYYYMMDD.doc>. The reason for using the (what might at first appear unusual) YYYYMMDD format is that it produces date-ordered lists when doing an alphabetical sort. Other naming conventions create confusion about which version is the most current. Using this naming convention is good practice for all documents relating to the thesis. Version confusion is very frustrating and can lead to a lot of wasted time.

The general topic of the thesis and the specific title are listed first in the Overview because it is obvious to start with what the thesis is about. However, deciding on a specific title can be hard and may not occur until some time into the research. Rather than getting bogged down with a specific title, students are encouraged to start with a general statement of what the research is about. The title can come later, and might very well change several times during the candidature. It is also suggested that the general topic be used on the student’s enrolment so that university records don’t have to be changed every time there is a change of thesis title. It is also suggested that students use meaningful titles rather than esoteric ones.

Passion and future Positioning are included to get a sense of where the PhD (both as a qualification and as a topic of study) fits into the life trajectory of the student. If there is no fit, the student and supervisor need to talk about why the student is doing the PhD. If the student has no idea about their passion or what they want to do, perhaps they should be encouraged to do some personal development courses. If the passion and positioning are substantially different to the topic of the PhD, perhaps there should be a discussion around changing the topic. It is important for the supervisor to know the student’s passion and positioning so that when there is a crisis in the PhD (which invariably happens at some time or another for most students) the supervisor can counsel the student and restore their confidence by reminding them why they are doing the PhD.

In addition to passion and positioning, the personal and professional aims (and objectives) in doing a PhD should be listed. This may help the supervisor identify particular opportunities that might be of benefit to the student. It might also be an easier way of including all the things a student wants to say about themselves that are relevant to their doing a PhD.

One of the things that might be hard to do, and it is OK for this to be left blank at first, is to have the student write a short statement about their personal purpose, or Personal Mission. This can be done by drawing on the material included under Passion, Positioning and Personal aims. There are times, such as when applying for a job, that the student may find it useful to have a personal mission statement to recite.

Research overview explanation (1)

One of the big decisions in the early stages of a PhD involves considering which discipline the thesis is in. For some students this may be straightforward or obvious, but for students doing anything that is remotely cross-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and/or trans-disciplinary, this can be a major issue. Discipline here doesn’t necessarily mean a macro-level discipline like sociology or geography (although it could), what is implied here is the subdiscipline (or discourse) in which the student will claim proficiency at the end of the thesis. Identifying the body of scholarship to which they belong is important for two reasons. Firstly, it has a large bearing on who the examiners should be. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it assists in locating the student in a field and defining the literature they need to connect with. It creates an identity for the student, and perhaps indicates which professional associations they should join and which journals they should browse. Note that sometimes decisions about the discipline may change over the course of a PhD as a student takes a different direction than that intended at the beginning.

In addition to the (sub)discipline, the Research Overview also asks about relevant discourses. Especially in interdisciplinary projects, this refers to all the areas of literature that are relevant to the topic and that should be included in the literature review. This is a list that typically changes over the course of discussions. It starts by deconstructing the topic and title, but it can also utilise the information in the student’s passion and positioning statements. It also comes from deconstructing the research questions. Because, in some cases, there can be many topics listed, it is encouraged that students divide these into those regarded as primary discourses and those of only secondary importance. In the beginning, this should be an open, unconstrained brainstorming process but over time it should be narrowed down or focused in order to be more manageable.

Universities have different rules about examiner selection and whether or not students should have a formal role in this process. It is a good idea to be clear about your university’s rules on this matter. Irrespective of the rules, however, it is a good idea for both supervisor and student to think about examiners early on. In the very beginning, the statement here should be of the type of examiner (in terms of disciplinary location), but over time it may become a more specific statement. Knowing what discipline the thesis is in, and what the primary discourses are, is a good way of thinking about who the examiners might be. Examiners can also be chosen on the basis of: (i) who will be able to relate to it conceptually – i.e. they should be sympathetic towards (or at least not hostile to) the theoretical approach and/or methodology; (ii) who needs to read the work because of their role; (iii) who the student wants to read the work in order that they might influence them; and finally (iv) who the student wants as their champion. Of course, it is always a good idea to ensure that any potential examiner is well cited in the thesis, but it shouldn’t be overdone either!

Because very few people actually read theses, if the student is to achieve their mission (objectives) it is usually the case they will want to produce some publications and/or other outputs. Thinking about the audience(s) for these outputs helps to develop a publication plan, but it also helps in ensuring consistency in the overall thesis overview.

It is one thing to have a topic or even a title, but this often doesn’t mean a lot on its own. Very early in the thesis process, some sort of description, summary, synopsis or précis is required and eventually an abstract of the thesis is needed. Writing a good abstract is difficult, especially early on. At the same time, however, a description of the research is needed for many reasons. Considered as a process of developing the thesis, there are several components that make up a good abstract:

  1. something about the problem context that makes the project worthwhile;
  2. an idea about what the student is likely to find (and eventually did find), i.e. some hypotheses and/or perhaps some recommendations;
  3. an outline of the methodology to be used;
  4. a statement about the theoretical framework to be used; and, of course,
  5. a statement of the research question.

All of these things need to be spelled out in the thesis and are therefore included in the Thesis Overview and Outline Template.

Research overview explanation (2)

The problem context refers to the background issue or underlying problem that justifies the need for the intended research. What makes this issue worth studying?

Before the methodology and/or theoretical framework can be specified, the Research Question needs to be identified. Identifying the research question is a long process. While it is easy to get some words, these words need to be perfected over time. A student should be able to easily remember the wording of their research question. To enable the development of an effective primary or macro research question, a series of subordinate research questions can also be conceived.

Developing hypotheses early on is a good idea in order to provide a sense of where the research is headed. Note that it is not intended that the student be closed to alternative hypotheses, however it is intended that they can reflect on whether their methodology will be adequate to prove what they would like it to prove. It is also a good idea to check that there is consistency between the intended hypotheses and the research question.

Recommendations are different to hypotheses, in that hypotheses are statements of anticipated findings, whereas recommendations in this context are notional draft prescriptions that may arise from the findings. While not necessarily applicable to all PhDs, to those involving applied research or an industry partner keeping track of recommendations as they are thought of is a good idea. This is a space where students can park stuff to digest later.

Supervisors are not always experts in the same precise field as their students. Students may dabble in peripheral areas and may wish to introduce new concepts. One area of misunderstanding between student and supervisor can be over the precise meaning of Key Terms. Students too may find that terms and concepts are not always used consistently. Space is provided in the Research Overview for all Key Terms and concepts to be listed, with the suggestion that definitions for these terms be found. Certainly any term central to the thesis which is unfamiliar to the supervisor and/or student should be defined and a favourite definition for any term that is controversial in the literature should be recorded.

When the research question has been identified (even if not perfected), attention should be focused on developing the Methodology. This can take several meetings. Having a clear idea of the methodology is, of course, one of the important early steps in the research. It needs to be done before a Research Proposal can be submitted to the University for confirmation and of course before Ethics Approval can be sought. Being clear about the research questions is important, but reflecting on the methodology to ensure that it can actually answer the questions is equally important.

At some point, and for some disciplines but not all, making a statement about the Theoretical Framework that underpins the approach to be taken in the thesis may be important. This may be hard to do at first unless a student comes to the PhD with a very clear idea about this. An understanding of which theoretical framework to apply is likely to develop as a student works through the literature. In some disciplines, this issue may not be meaningful at all. Whether or not a defined theoretical framework is required is something that should be discussed between student and supervisor.

A key feature of the Research Overview is that everything is iterative. The whole thing is subject to change. Each item connects with the other items. Discussion between supervisor and student needs to go round and round until there is not only completion of each section but, more importantly, a degree of consistency and coherence to the Overview as a whole.

Typically it takes about the first three months of full-time candidature before the Research Overview can be completed adequately. When the Research Overview is complete, attention can go toward completing the publication plan and the Thesis Outline (below). Information in the Research Overview and Thesis Outline can also be used in the Preliminary Research Proposal needed for confirmation and for gaining Ethics Committee approval.

The publication plan is an agreed strategy between student and supervisor regarding what publications might come out of the thesis. It is good to conceive of the publications early. It is also good to have a clear understanding of expectations about authorship. There is also the possibility of devising a thesis around publications. Different universities have varying rules about this. A discussion about writing a conventional thesis versus preparing a set of publications is a good idea.

Thesis outline

When the Research Overview has internal consistency, the various elements are sound, and there is agreement between student and supervisor, the focus of attention should turn to the Thesis Outline. Like the Overview, the Thesis Outline is a working document that develops over time. However, developing the Thesis Outline is relatively easy to do as most of the hard work in developing the concept of the PhD has been done in preparing the Overview. A good Research Overview makes the rest of the thesis easy.

The first step is for the student to insert their intended chapter headings in place of the generic headings in the thesis outline template and perhaps to write a brief paragraph about the type of content that will appear in each chapter. The second stage is to develop this paragraph statement about each chapter into a coherent dotpoint outline of that chapter. This takes quite some time, and should be done chapter by chapter. It is quite acceptable that it is rough/vague at first, although over time it needs to become tight.

Finally, the student progresses to writing the thesis. Writing the thesis should begin early in the candidature, not left to the last year. Writing is made much easier by having the Thesis Outline. Note that much of the work in writing the thesis, and in developing the outline, has already been done in the development of the Research Overview.

The Abstract has already been written, but will need revision at several points in time.

The Introduction is an overview of the whole thesis, but it will draw on the Problem Context.

The Literature Review will need to include the various discourses that were identified.

The Methodology has been outlined in the Research Overview and will just need to be expanded for the thesis and changed from an intention to what actually occurred.

The Results and Discussion will need to be written after the student has some results.

If all goes according to plan, the Conclusion can utilise much of the student’s expectations about findings (hypotheses) and the various recommendations the student conceived of along the way.

Note that if a thesis by publication is proposed, the benefit of having a Thesis Outline is perhaps less, but there is still great value in working through the Research Overview.

The thesis progress tracker tool (below) can be used to ensure there is a shared understanding of the progress of the student’s writing of their thesis.

Thesis progress tracker tool

The mechanism for tracking progress is a simple table with a star rating system and a word count. When this is compared, say at three monthly intervals, it provides positive feedback of progress. This can be important, especially during the writing phase. Also included is a space with a heading that encourages a logging of major decisions about the thesis, for example, decisions about what should and what should not be included in the thesis. Much time can be wasted over a candidature by rehashing old discussions for no reason. Sometimes of course it is good to go over old ground, but it should not be done simply because nobody recorded a decision. For this reason, it is suggested that all PhD students be encouraged to write after each supervision meeting a short ‘notes on outcomes and actions’ and to email it to their supervisor.

Progress
(see key below)
Words desirable
(target)
Words Actual
(as 19/12/2007)
Chapter 1 Introduction *  5,000  1,000
Chapter 2 Lit Review  *  25,000  1,000
Chapter 3 Methodology  *  5,000  1,000
Chapter 4 Results  *  15,000  1,000
Chapter 5 Discussion  *  20,000  1,000
Chapter 6 Conclusions  *  10,000  1,000
 Total  80,000  6,000

KEY TO SYMBOLS

* some notes only
** a basic structure/outline
*** an adequate first draft
**** final draft of complete chapter (only very minor editing left to do)

RECORD OF DECISIONS

In order to avoid going over old ground it is a good idea to keep a record of decisions made about the thesis, for example decisions about what and what not should be included. Supervisors can’t necessarily remember every discussion and decision that has been taken. These decisions can be reviewed, but a discussion about them should only occur when there is a reason to review them, and not because it had been forgotten that it had already been discussed.

This material was developed by Professor Frank Vanclay of the Rural Social Research Group of the Tasmania Institute of Agricultural Research at the University of Tasmania and adapted for use on the fIRST website by Kevin Ryland (UTS).

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