Notes on PhD Thesis Writing

I have made it a practice to write book reviews (for journals) on as many NT PhD-thesis published monographs as I am able to because it teaches me how to think and write on that level.  Some that I have read are very good and well-worth being published.  Others, sadly, are not up to par.  I am trying to keep notes on the do’s and dont’s of thesis writing, to learn from others’ successes and mistakes.  Here are some notes.

1. Be clear about your original contribution – it is not enough to ‘freshly’ approach a topic.  What does that mean?  You need to be very lucid about how you are advancing the scholarly conversation on the issue you are pursuing?  Is it in new ancient evidence or a related text?  Is it in the methodology you are using?  Be very forthright about this, because I read so many studies thinking, ‘this is not much more than a summary of scholarship with some interesting comments thrown in’.

2. Stay on course – Again, a temptation of many, including myself, is to tangent off and talk about all sorts of interesting stuff that is related or may be impacted by the thesis.  This has a place perhaps at the end of the thesis in a ‘the way ahead’ section, but resist the temptation to rabbit trail.  There is no need to liven up your thesis by wrapping it up in all sorts of tenuously related issues – everyone expects your thesis to be boring.  Welcome to the real world.

3. Form is as important as Content – I tell my supervisor, ‘how can you read these dull and complex theses day in and day out?’  He just smiles, but I know he really loves it when he gets a thesis that states clearly the thesis idea and executes it according to plan.  This involves a very good clear abstract, a well-worded ‘plan of the thesis’ section in the introduction, and lots and lots of good end-of-chapter summaries and summaries between major sections.  When I am reading a thesis, it is often not at one go.  I read it over weeks and maybe months.  A good summary halfway through or so is worthwhile.  I recently read a thesis that had a detailed (100 page) ‘exegetical’ section.  At the end of it, I thought, ‘what in the world was this needed for?’  The reader should never have to ask that question!  Start a major section by saying, ‘because the overall argument of this thesis involves XYZ, we must study ABC to see if DEF helps us understand XYZ..’  Then, at the end of the section, again, a summary – ‘We have looked at ABC in relation to XYZ because it aids in DEF…’  Is this redundant?  YES – from the author’s perspective.  But, often a reader needs these kinds of links and reminders.

4. German quotes – OK, we are required to have international breadth in our research, so we must cite and interact with German and French lit.  But, do we need to quote the German without an English translation?  My question would be, why?  The only reasons I can see why we would quote the German is because (1) we feel the wording of it is very important to the argument or (2) the German is rhetorically more appealing (i.e. a good sound-bite).  There are those, I guess, who feel if a reader does not know German, he/she is out of luck.  That’s just snobby, in my opinion.  Are we saying we don’t want MA and undergrads to read our published theses?  Are we that elitist?  Well, I think we can have it both ways if we do this:  Keep the German quotes in, but have an appendix in the back that has English translations of all German quotes.

OK, well I will have more thoughts (or rantings), but these are the ones fresh in my mind.

Peter Kreeft, Evil, and the Lord of the Rings

A commenter on an earlier post drew my attention to the Maclaurin Institute which is a ‘learning context’ for all sorts of theological interests.  They hold lectureships and have speakers from various disciplines come to present a piece of research.  These lectures are downloadable (in audio) and one particular speaker caught my attention: Peter Kreeft.

April 4th, 2003 – Peter Kreeft
10 Uncommon Insights About Evil in the Lord of the Rings

I am a fan of some of Kreeft’s work and I look forward to listening to this.

For more lectures from various theologians including Richard Hays and Stanley Hauerwas, see HERE.