Category Archives: Writing a thesis

10 stages of the PhD journey: advice from many experts

Designing, executing and writing up a PhD study takes a large chunk of your time and energy. Here is an overview of each stage of the PhD journey, along with links to excellent articles that will help you along the way. Some of the advice offered here may be specific to a discipline, country or university, or may be heavily dependent upon some author’s experience and background. Nevertheless, you are likely to find most of this advice and instruction helpful.

 1. Consider what you hope to achieve by completing a PhD

It is important to seriously consider why you are undertaking a PhD and what you hope to achieve by completing a PhD. Completing a PhD can be extremely useful even for those who may not continue doing research later on.

*   A successful PhD student will be expected to possess key research skills and knowledge as listed here: Research degree graduate qualities by the University of South Australia.

2. Write a research proposal 

You might be offered a PhD project where the research proposal is already planned or you might need to devise a research proposal yourself, either before or after you have chosen a supervisor. This proposal and confirmation of candidature will need to be approved by your university’s research committee.

*   Research proposal and confirmation of candidature – University of South Australia

3. Choose a PhD supervisor

Some students have one key supervisor with one or two additional supervisors, while it is not unusual for some students to have three or four. It is important to remember that your supervisor may have many students under their direction, so their time may be strictly limited. At Monash University, research supervisors receive accreditation training.

*   Choosing a PhD supervisor by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier
*   You and your supervisors by the University of South Australia

4. Design your project budget

An essential project management skill when conducting research is the ability to effectively design and manage research budgets. If you need to request finances through a grant application, ensure you thoroughly investigate the necessary guidelines.

*   Organisation and Budgeting by the NHMRC.
*   How to make a simple research budget by Jonathan O’Donnell

5. Start writing in the early stages of your project

Don’t wait until you have collected and analysed your data before you start writing. Most universities encourage students to write about their project while they are conducting their research. Project proposals can be rewritten and methods sections developed as data is collected and analysed. Literature reviews can be updated and conference talks and posters can be prepared even before you have started to collect data. 

6. Consider the structure and the format of your thesis

Exactly how to structure and format your thesis will vary greatly depending upon your project, your discipline, your department and your university and your discipline. Always refer to your university’s guidelines for thesis format requirements. For example:

*   Style and format by the University of Western Australia
*   Thesis format requirements by the University of Queensland
*   Thesis structure by the University of New South Wales

How to find completed PhD theses

It is always a good idea to check other PhD theses that are similar to your topic, have been completed recently and have been produced by your university department. You can gain a wealth of ideas about structure, size and overall thesis design.

*   How to find a thesis by Macquarie University
*   Finding Australian theses by the Council of Australian University Librarians

And on this page, there are other useful inks:

How to write a literature review

Reviewing the literature is important to assist your knowledge and understanding of your topic and integral to establishing your position in the academic landscape. Writing good literature reviews is crucial to show your examiners how well you know the literature and how well you are able to explain the importance of your project. It is a common requirement that you write a separate chapter as a stand-alone literature review. However, for those theses that are predominantly composed of complete published papers, there might not be a requirement for a separate review section.

*   How do I write a literature review? by the University of Sydney

7. Get feedback on your writing

In addition to your supervisor, seek feedback on different aspects of your writing from appropriate advisors: accuracy, clarity and brevity. Increasingly, projects are written for a variety of aim to get academic audiences so ensure that your writing is clear and succinct.

*  Getting Feedback – University of North Carolina (USA)

8. Learn how to publish peer-review papers

Increasingly, students are expected to submit a large proportion of their thesis as published papers. Not every PhD project can be easily prepared as separate papers; however, remember to look at recently submitted theses within your discipline and within your department to see how people have completed their thesis.

*   What is a ‘thesis by publication’? by the University of Sydney

9. Submit your thesis

The process of submitting your thesis may include preparing additional tasks and preparation of paperwork (i.e. the Originality Statement).

*   Thesis Submission by UNSW
*   Submitting a thesis by the Australian National University

10. Understand the examination process

Usually there are three examiners. However, the process of thesis examination will vary widely according to discipline and university. Broadly speaking, your examiners will recommend that your thesis be accepted without alteration, accepted with minor alteration, accepted providing major changes are made or rejected. Usually your supervisor will choose who your examiners are and you may have the opportunity to choose one of your examiners.

*   Examination Process by the University of Western Australia

An oral examination for a PhD is necessary in some Australia universities.
*   Guidelines for the oral defence of the thesis by the University of South Australia

If there are any problems...

Most problems with your project are surmountable and remember that your supervisors and your university are there to help you. If things go drastically wrong at any time, it is essential that you seek assistance as early as possible. There are people within your university administration who are there to help you. To help dealing with problems, document any issues as they arise. It is essential for you to have excellent time-management and record-keeping skills.

*   Resolving problems by the University of Melbourne
*   Resolving problems by Griffith University

and remember...

*   Be aware of, and develop, sound project management skills including risk management protocols to identify alternative actions in unforeseen circumstances.
*   Keep records and extra copies of everything: for example, data, thesis drafts, email, meeting agendas, fieldwork notes. Ensure you have excellent electronic version control of your documents and extra backups of all your data and work.
*   Ensure you develop and maintain a support network of friends and colleagues who may give important advice and help you deal with any obstacles.
*   Get plenty of exercise, rest and sleep.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019

Any suggestions or comments please email 

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Two ways to be an INefficient writer

Science is often complicated and writing about a scientific topic can be like trying to untangle spaghetti. Writing efficiently can also be a struggle if you are exploring an unfamiliar topic or haven’t had a lot of writing experience. Irrespective of experience, there are two types of writing behaviour that will greatly reduce productivity and confidence.

1. Writing without having a clear understanding of your core topic

Your core topic includes your document aims and objectives and the key problems you are aiming to solve, together with an explanation of how your topic fits within your discipline. Starting to write without a clear idea about the depth and breadth of your topic can be time-consuming. Every scientific topic may be linked to dozens of other sub-topics that at first consideration appear just as important as your original topic. It is often tempting to try and include them and look for a way to link them all together. Without clear focus, it is easy to drift away from your topic and you may not realise that you are actually writing about five topics instead of one.

It can be easy to get distracted from your main story by adding excessive and seemingly, interesting details. Avoid the desire to update the reader with every twist and turn, every exception to the rule, and every related, but not-so-important, detail.

2. Polishing: trying to write perfectly in a first draft

Inefficient writers often start by writing a burst of fresh thoughts and then immediately spend considerable effort rewriting, editing, and proofreading this material before writing a fresh block of text. This is also known as polishing your writing. Polishing in early drafts is an easy trap to fall into when writing on-screen: each time you open a file, it is tempting to first read, review and then re-edit the existing text before writing fresh material. As the document develops, what is written earlier is continually reconsidered, rewritten and re-edited while what is written later receives far less attention.

Polishing in the early stages of writing can be a form of procrastination where you allow yourself to get distracted from the important thinking time and problem-solving needed to design your document.

People often believe that they should be writing perfectly the first time and get frustrated at the seemingly endless amount of time it takes to complete a document. Some people imagine that innumerable drafts and rewrites will be needed and suspect that they will never be happy with the final product. Labouring over a single sentence while thinking you still have 1000 more to write is daunting.

Polishing your sentences is necessary in later drafts when fine-tuning your ideas and improving your message for the reader. Inefficient writers polish early, while efficient writers polish after they have worked out what they want to say.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019

Any suggestions or comments please email 

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020

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Are you only writing for the conscientious reader?

When you write, do you consider how your readers will read your document? Do you expect your readers to be conscientious? Will they studiously read every sentence and paragraph from beginning to end? Some readers will read your entire document, while some will quickly look for the main points and then file it away, perhaps hoping to read it properly later on. Some readers might give up after reading the first sentence because it doesn’t interest them.

You cannot assume all of your readers will obediently start at the beginning and diligently read every sentence and absorb every word. To communicate clearly, you need to understand your reader and what they want to know. Not only do you need to define your target audience, you need to understand how they read and what they want.

Not everyone reads the same way

A reader’s behaviour is primarily influenced by their level of interest in your topic and how much time they have to read. Many other factors also affect their decision to start reading and to keep reading until the end. As a writer, you have control over some of these factors and being aware of how your reader reads will improve your ability to attract your reader and keep them engaged.  

I consider there are generally two types of readers of scientific documents. The avid reader who will read every single word in your document (even if it is poorly written) and the lukewarm reader who may not thoroughly read your document (even if it is well written).

An avid reader is someone who will read your entire document because…

  • they believe they will immediately gain a direct benefit
  • they respect you
  • they are familiar with your writing and expect that your document will be informative and easy to read
  • your information is not found anywhere else
  • they have commissioned your project
  • they are very interested in your topic and will thoroughly read everything they can find on it
  • they are your peers, colleagues or competitors with a vested interest in your work

A lukewarm reader is someone who has started reading your document, but…

  • is busy, little time to read and is rapidly searching for the take-home message
  • is easily distracted
  • is trying to do three things at once
  • is poorly organised
  • unsure about what they need to read
  • doesn’t feel like reading
  • will decide very quickly whether to keep on reading
  • will be easily convinced to stop reading

Assume most of your readers are lukewarm

If you assume all of your readers are avid readers, you might not try hard enough to write well.

Assume all of your readers are lukewarm: that they have little time to read, have a short attention span, are easily distracted or would prefer to be doing something else.

Expect that your reader has many other documents in a large and overly-optimistic ‘must-read’ pile and will only spend 2-5 minutes skimming over your document before deciding to delve in. Write for them. While some of your readers will remain lukewarm, no matter what or how you write, make sure that even the most disinterested reader can easily find a concise, informative summary or take-home message.

Key considerations to attract and engage your reader

Your reader needs to be immediately convinced that your document will be useful.

The title

  • Will it immediately attract your reader?
  • Is it hard to read?
  • Is it too specific or too long or does it rely on too much background knowledge?
  • Does it refer to a relevant or interesting scientific topic?

How and where you present key information 

  • Provide context at the very beginning. This means that you start your introduction with a succinct overview of the problem your document will be solving and how your project or topic fits within your discipline. 
  • Are your sentences and paragraphs well-structured so that important points or details are not hidden within unnecessary or irrelevant detail?
  • Are your key messages and conclusions abundantly clear?
  • Do you have a document summary where the reader can absorb the key findings and take-home message at a glance? If your document doesn’t normally include a summary, can you break the rules and write one? If not, ensure your key findings are short and concise.

Ease of reading and comprehension

Your reader will want your document to be clear and easy to read, so write clearly and concisely.

A document that is easy to read has a greater chance of being read even if the reader’s interest is low and they haven’t much time. Anything off-the-topic, confusing, or to too specific might easily cause your reader to not only stop reading but permanently decide that your document is of no interest to them. If your document is hard to read then only the determined or avid reader will finish what they have started.

Your reader’s background knowledge and expertise

How much background knowledge do you assume your reader has before they start reading? Unless you are specifically writing for experts, don’t assume your reader is an expert on your topic. However, don’t assume your reader needs to be told every detail surrounding your topic. Decide what your main points are and stick to them.

Document design and layout

Is your document well-laid out, with appropriate visuals, fonts and headings?


How do you read?

To help you engage your readers, analyse your own reading behaviour. How do you react when you are reading something unfamiliar or not immediately interesting? How often do you read a document all the way through? What causes you to lose track and stop reading?

Pretend someone else wrote your document

When reading through a late draft of your work, try pretending that you didn’t write it. Look hard for anything that could be confusing, vague or have any unintentional double meanings. This might help you understand how someone else reads your writing.

Ask for feedback

If feasible ask someone from your target audience for feedback. In particular, tell them to let you know if anything is unclear or confusing or if any details appear missing.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019

Any suggestions or comments please email 

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter

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Should we use active or passive voice?

The traditional criticism of active voice

Traditionally, science and academic writers were strongly advised to use passive voice in order to maintain objectivity. However, this view is based on the criticism of using the first person (‘I’ or ‘my’) in that an individual’s view or perspective was considered biased. For example, the proponents of the passive voice in science writing claim that the active construction “I observed the behaviour.” presents a subjective view, while the passive construction “The behaviour was observed.” presents a more objective perspective. Some also argue that the use of personal pronouns in science and academic writing gives the impression of stating an opinion. However, active voice is not governed by the use of personal pronouns. You can write in passive voice while using a personal pronoun. For example: “I was photographed by my friend”. 

What is meant by ‘voice’?

In simple terms, ‘voice’ refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb.

How to identify active voice

Active voice is when the grammatical subject performs the action specified by the verb. 

For example:

Active voice: “I produced ten surveys.” The subject is the person “I” who performs the action “produced”. 

How to identify passive voice

Passive voice is when the grammatical subject of the sentence is receiving the action specified by the verb. Passive voice always has the verb form ‘to be’ followed be a past participle. ‘To be’ verbs include: ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘am’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘has been’, ‘have been’, ‘will be’, ‘will have been’ and ‘being’. They are also known as linking verbs. A past participle is a past tense verb that often (but not always) ends in ‘ed’.

For example:

Passive voice: “Ten surveys were produced”. The subject is the “surveys” that receives the action “were produced”. In this sentence, the reader does not know who or what produced the surveys.

Passive voice with an object: “Ten surveys were produced by me”. In this example, the object of the sentence specifies who (or what) performs the action (me).

The criticism of passive voice

The insistence that writers should always avoid the personal pronouns (or the first person) has lessened and the use of active voice is increasingly encouraged. Key criticisms of passive voice are that the reader does not know who or what was responsible for the action described in the sentence and that passive sentence constructions are often wordy and vague.

Both types of voice are necessary for good, clear writing

Whether you use active or passive depends upon what you are writing and what you need to focus on.

1. If it is necessary to specify who or what performed the action

Without adding an object identifying the performer of the action, passive construction can make it difficult to know who did what.

For example:

The effectiveness of stem cell treatment was investigated.”  With this statement the reader might be unsure who did the investigation. They might assume that the authors are referring to another study. Whereas, “We investigated the effectiveness of stem cell treatment.” clearly lets the reader know that the authors did the investigation.

If a sentence is to remain passive, a citation might be necessary to let the reader know who did the investigation.

2. If it is necessary to focus on the action itself

The following example is from the methods section of a recent research paper, which uses both passive and active voice. Here the focus is on what was measured, determined, distinguished and compared. Continual reference to who did the measuring is not necessary.

 “The abundance, sex ratio, and age structure of GT and NGT trees were determined by designating 47 plots (50 m × 50 m) in the six sites in the main GIAHS area (Fig. 1a). Morphological difference of GT and NGT trees was distinguished by identifying the graft scar just above ground. In each plot, we measured the location, basal diameter (BD), and sex of each of each torreya tree. The sex ratio of NGT trees was calculated in each plot. The population density (number per ha) of GT and NGT trees was statistically compared with a t-test in R.” p 8. Zang et al. 2019

3. If the person or thing responsible for the action is unknown

For example:

Passive: “The car was stolen.”

Active: “Somebody stole my car.”

4. When explaining cause and effect 

For example:

Passive: "Most malaria cases are caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum".

Active: "The parasite Plasmodium falciparum causes most cases of malaria".

5. If it is necessary to deliberately avoid specifying authorship

Some government departments, consultancies and corporations produce documents where acknowledgement of individual authors is deliberately avoided. This might occur when documents are designed to represent the organisation in its entirety or when a variety of different authors design, write and update documents.

For example:

- Passive: “The remediation program was initiated in early 2015”.

- Active: “Land & Water initiated the remediation program in early 2015”.

In these cases, the third person (we) may be used to collectively represent the organisation or institution.

6. If changing voice will make your writing more concise

If you do not need to specify who did what, your writing can be more concise.

For example:

- “We found that an increase in production rate was caused by increasing the length of the probe.” (16 words)

- “An increase in production rate was caused by increasing the length of the probe.” (14 words).

Changing to active voice makes the sentence shorter and more direct.

- “Increasing the length of the probe caused an increase in production rate.” (12 words).


As passive voice is commonly in past tense, some confuse past tense with passive voice. Tense explains when something happened while voice explains who or what performs the action. Here are examples of active and passive voice written in the three different tenses.

For example:

Passive voice

Past tense: "The problem was investigated by me".

Present tense: "The problem is being investigated by me".

Future tense: "The problem will be investigated by me".

Active voice

Past tense: "I investigated the problem".

Present tense: "I am investigating the problem".

Future tense: "I will investigate the problem".

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019

Any suggestions or comments please email 

Find out more about our new online course...

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020

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If science was perfect, it wouldn’t be science

A common claim espoused across social media is the idea that science must be perfect if we are to believe what is says. For example, when arguments are raised against vaccination, GMO and fluoridation of our water supply, science is criticised for not being perfect and that it should not be trusted. There is a clear assertion that scientists should not make mistakes, and when they do, that science itself is at fault.

What do scientists do?

Scientists solve problems, create new things, come up with new ideas, try things that don’t work and work at things that appear insurmountable. Scientists climb mountains to look at lava, swim with sharks to look at coral, dig ditches to uncover fossils, climb trees to study flowers, wear masks when mixing chemicals, stand all day measuring samples, or sit all day crunching numbers or staring at a computer screen. Scientists write, think, teach, create, destroy, argue, worry, mope and get excited. Scientists make new knowledge and dig through old knowledge for new answers or when working out new ways to do things. Scientists disagree with each other and criticise themselves and others and they try to do things better the next time around. They work with ideas, hypotheses and theories, and come to conclusions and make predictions. They are not always right nor do they expect to be. 

Scientists are not always certain

What we know about science comes from new research and from old research that is looked at again and again. There are things that we are certain are true; there are things that we are reasonably confident are true; then there are things we expect are likely to be true, while understanding there may be important exceptions. Then there are things that we think may, or may not, be true, depending upon the circumstances. Then there are things we are not really sure of at all but have a vague hunch that something about them might be true. Then there are things where very little is known. We don’t know everything and never will. A great many scientific ideas and opinions may be unsubstantiated or simply wrong. Hypotheses either grow up to be theories or discarded and melt into the background of productive thought. Theories are tougher, last longer and are much harder to break, but still do.

Science is not perfect
Science is a process of looking for answers and working on the best way to find these answers. It is not perfect; it couldn’t possibly be as it is done by humans in an imperfect world. Science doesn’t always find the answers and is often inconclusive and indecisive. When looking at their results, scientists regularly find that their answers are inconsistent or contradict currently-held viewpoints. What we know to be true today may be completely wrong at some point in the future, but this is what science is about. Scientific knowledge will always be incomplete. As soon as we find answers to one problem, up springs 10 more questions that demand attention. The search for answers will always bring new questions and new ways of looking at the world. Science is self-improving and never-ending; science is a work in progress.

Scientists make mistakes
Scientists try things that sometimes don’t work, but the idea is to learn why something didn’t work and to improve the method next time. This is a normal part of science. What is rare is when a scientist deliberately makes stuff up to make themselves and their study look good, in order to preserve or improve their career.
The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research “…advocates and describes best practice for both institutions and researchers…” and “…provides a valuable framework for handling breaches of the Code and research misconduct.”

Scientists can be afraid of making mistakes as the culture of science currently favours short, brand-new studies with exciting results over long-term, repetitive and boring studies that are still scientifically-important. The reports that say “we didn’t find anything” often don’t even get written, let alone published, allowing others to repeat the same ‘mistakes’ when trying to solve a problem. Similarly, I have met more than a few PhD students who spend a very long time worrying about their project ‘not working’ because it is common for studies not to produce the results you expect. It is difficult to do statistics on lots of zeros. Nevertheless the science behind why you didn’t find anything is as important as why you did find something.

The checks and balances of science

There are checks and balances that maintain and improve the quality of research but science itself is inherently rigorous; it has its own inherent checks and balances. The scientific record is research that is written and published so others can check that it was done properly, ideally other scientists then repeat or build upon the original study and try to do it better. The peer-review process means that other scientists get to verify that a study was done correctly. The published journal paper in bone-fide journals means that the science community gets to read and further judge whether a study is valid. If they don’t think a published study is good enough, they can write another paper to critique it. Those papers that make a big impact or make it into the higher quality journals get cited more often, meaning these papers are popular with other scientists and become more influential in their field.

Yet none of these checks and balances work perfectly. There are major criticisms of the peer-review system with many suggestions on how to improve the process. There are some papers that get rejected for publishing that shouldn’t have been, while there are papers that get accepted that shouldn’t and some of these get retracted, which means they are withdrawn from publication and are deleted from the journal (The top ten paper retractions for 2015 are listed here).

Scientists disagree with each other

There is a lot of trust in science. We trust that most studies produce accurate and reliable results but some studies are based on little evidence or were conducted with incomplete or even incorrect methodology. We hope that these studies will fail the peer-review stage, but they don’t always. Of those that do get published, if the scientific data is no
t strong, there can be differing opinions on the importance of that study’s conclusions. Nevertheless, below-standard published papers still create important and necessary debate. For example, the paper Neurobehavioral effects of developmental toxicity (Lancet Neurol. 2014; 13: 330–338) that looks at harm caused by fluoridation is critiqued by a paper published in response to this study Neurodevelopmental toxicity: still more questions than answers (Lancet Neurol. 2014; 13: 647 – 648).

Scientific disputes are normal and a necessary part of science. Providing the disagreement is between peers, disputes strengthen science. Disagreement forces researchers to look harder at their own ideas, beliefs and methodology.

There are many ways science can improve: for example, the peer-review process, the amount and extent of scientist training and mentorship, and the amount of funding for training and research. We also need to make is easier for scientists to do their work. The predominance of the publish or perish culture leaves little time for scientists to communicate widely or to do the boring but important work that might not get published in high-quality journals. The lack of funding, tenure and job vacancies means that many months of the year are devoted to preparing job and grant applications of which only a small fraction are successful.

Effective communication is essential

We need science to make decisions about all sorts of things and we usually do not have the time or money to study something 100 times for 100 years. Decisions often need to be made with limited information. Science is not a neat, perfect road map where the direction to home is clearly marked. It is more like the game of snakes and ladders, when sometimes you think you are making satisfactory progress, but something changes or goes wrong and the next step takes you straight back to the beginning.

Yet given the overwhelming advances in science, the drive to do it bigger and better continues. Scientists need the support and understanding of the community and the community needs reliable and digestible information about the impacts of science and technology.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019

Any suggestions or comments please email

Find out more about our new online course..

How to be an Efficient Writer

Do you struggle with the amount of time it takes to write? When writing about science it is easy to drift off from your key topic when researching, planning and writing. 
Dr Marina Hurley shows you how to stay on track and be more efficient at each stage of the writing process. Irrespective of your topic, background, level of writing experience or document type, you can implement these steps to work on your first draft or rework a current draft.  Learn more...

Next course opens 30th January 2020

SUBSCRIBE to the Writing Clear Science Newsletter

to keep informed about our latest blogs, webinars and writing courses.