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.


11 thoughts on “Notes on PhD Thesis Writing

  1. I agree very much with what you wrote.
    And to add to the last point:
    Do not use foreign words at all if not necessary. As a German I note that theologians like to use German words to show their knowledge. But often they use it wrongly or spell it wrongly. This is just embarrassing. Don’t do that.
    The truth can be said in plain words!

  2. As an undergraduate with no German knowledge, I find it frustrating when authors flaunt their German. It is especially frustrating when I finally find a translation and realize that the German added nothing to the meaning of the statement.

    The other tips on this list are good, but they seem kind of elementary. Are PhD candidates really making these kind of mistakes? I don’t know whether to be discouraged or encouraged.

  3. I’m going to jump on the bandwagon here. I’m a dork and I love reading (some) dissertations. However, as an undergrad, I have obviously not had all of the languages that are used in Hebrew Bible/New Testament/Early Christian Literature/Theological scholarship. Even if the wording in a different language helps to make your argument, is there any harm in making your thesis a little more user friendly and translating into English?

  4. jondh – thanks for the comment. Yes, PhD students are making these mistakes! It comes from a tradition, I think, where the more verbose and esoteric a thesis is, the better. These days are fading, but they are not gone. Given that almost any NT thesis can get published, the better monograph series’ are learning how to only accept the best. The ‘best’ tend to be those that do some of the things I suggest.

    Also, don’t underestimage how easy it is the make these kinds of mistakes and oversights. We are trained as researchers, no communicators. Good rhetorical and communication skills are really not a common trait among biblical scholars. We must go back to basics and teach some basic good-communication skills to our PhD students – and even many professors!

  5. On the issue of translations of German and French, I think this comment in a book review by P.J. Williams (Warden of Tyndale House is telling):

    ‘…[I]t is surely a sign of the times that such a prestigious monograph series [Cambridge’s SNTSMS] should feel the need to print a full English translation in the main text following quotations in French’ (RBL review of Colin Nicholl’s FROM HOPE TO DESPAIR’, see

    Though I respect Dr. Williams, I disagree with his insinuation that such a move towards translating French [and presumably German] is a disconcerting ‘sign of the times’. The people that do read French can practice their french by checking their (in the progress of reading) translation with the given translation. Always a good way of improving! Also, those who are reading this from other disciplines (where French or German is not as critical) or who are tyros in biblical studies research will appreciate the accessibility.

    If Dr Williams is implying that it is sad that we have accepted that professional NT researches do not know French and German well, I agree that we need to maintain such high standards of scholarly excellence. But, the goal of each thesis is also to be thoroughly readable and accessible to as many as possible without limiting the scope or depth of the argument. So, once again, I think translations do not mean that we have given up on being committed to the modern scholarly languages.

  6. One approach I’ve found myself doing is to make the explanation using my own words in the main text and, in the footnote, occasionally quote the wording source along with the citation. If the source is in German, I don’t feel the need to translate if I’ve already explained the concept in the main text.

    Of course, if I’m quoting something in the main text, I’ll provide an English translation.

  7. These are all excellent suggestions, Nijay, but I can’t imagine myself ever asking whether a book really needed an exegetical section, no matter how long or boring. In fact, my reaction is the opposite of yours: if a thesis argues something related to the meaning of something in Scripture, but lacks an exegetical discussion, I feel like the most important part of the argument is missing. I even feel like the author is cheating a little.

  8. John, I agree with you, but a thesis is not a commentary, so you need to explain what you are wanting to explain and why in your exegesis section. Hopefully, your argument should be exegetically driven, but often an exegesis of a passage brings to light lots of little interesting bits of information, but in a thesis we need to know how any and all of this relates to the primary argument.

  9. I’ve heard at least one professor state that when writing a paper to avoid putting arguments in the footnotes. Basically, if the point is not important enough to incorporate into the main text of the thesis, then it’s not worth putting in the notes. I do love footnote rabbit trails though!

    Helpful post, Nijay!

  10. In my dissertation I’ve tended to summarize rather than quote German (and French, Italian, Spanish, etc. etc.).

    Though I must confess that part of the reason for this is that I’ve presented a few papers with parts of my dissertation and don’t want to find myself reading said languages aloud — my accent(s) stink.

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