Fitting the pieces into a thesis

I’m very excited that my first PhD paper has recently been accepted for publication, after a supposedly ‘minor’ (but actually quite tricky) round of revisions. My plan is for this paper to be one of my first results chapters in my thesis. I’ve also got some reasonable ideas and have begun on my next 2 chapters/papers. This feels pretty cool on the whole but being ever the pessimist, I can’t help but worry about something. I think I’ve been dwelling on the bigger picture lately because of watching a few of my friends recently submitting their theses and having their vivas (i.e. defences) as well as having had to prepare an overview of what my completed thesis might look like for my appraisal a few months ago.

The attitude in my department, and specifically amongst my supervisors and colleagues, is that I should be focusing on writing up my PhD results chapters as I go along, with the intent of submitting them for publication as soon as possible. I quite like this approach as it is very motivating and makes my PhD feel like a real contribution to science, rather than just as a personal learning process that has no benefit to anyone but me. However, one of the difficulties with this approach is trying to tie together my ideas and publications into a coherent whole, which tells a story with a logical progression of ideas. As far as I understand, this ‘story-like’ nature is important in a PhD thesis.

However, I’ve also been told that it’s generally fine to just have a collection of loosely-related published chapters inserted into the thesis exactly as they were published and to maybe include brief “link” chapters between them to tie them up a bit better. The Thesis Whisperer refers to this kind of approach to your thesis as a “patchwork PhD” but like the friend she refers to in her post, I kind of feel like this is cheating a little bit; I don’t like the idea of not having a seamless and logical argument threading through my work. I’m also a bit concerned that having a set of introductions, methods and discussions in each of the “Results” chapters will mean the thesis Introduction, Methods and Discussion sections will be very repetitive. I’m not sure that boring my examiners with repetition is the best approach to convincing them to happily accept me into their midst…

So although I am not quite halfway through my PhD time-wise, I have already begun worrying about the structure of my thesis. I’m not really sure how I might link up my 3 planned results chapters so far and it feels important to address this issue now, before they’re finalised. Additionally, I feel the need to plan my next analyses in light of trying to have a coherent end product. It feels like a tricky thing to tackle but I guess this is a more organised approach than trying to find a way of trying to fit the pieces together once everything is all written.

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