(Part 2 of 10)
Okay, assuming we’ve assuaged the overwhelming sense of panic the next thing to talk about relates to the formatting of the thesis.
By the time you’re in the third year of the PhD you should be sleeping with your institution’s guide to formatting/presenting/preparing a thesis under your pillow. This booklet, or similar, is the essential guide to how things must be done. Your faculty or department may also have a similar publication. Read this thoroughly until you know what is required in terms of the layout, sections, margins, line spacing, and bibliographic and citation requirements etc. And if you don’t understand something then find out as soon as possible. Don’t wait until you’re printing the final draft to discover you’ve mucked something up. (For example, the University of Auckland booklet is here).
Next, there is often support from your Student Learning Centre or equivalent. I did a workshop of formatting your thesis which was really helpful, even thought I was a competent user of a word processor for academic writing. There was also a workshop on how to bring all the different parts of the thesis together for submission. Again useful to make sure you haven’t forgotten something. (For example, University of Auckland – Centre for Academic Development – Postgraduates).
The university also provided a thesis template for MS Word that had a set of styles that matched the university’s guidelines. Really useful, and once I started writing early on with only those styles and document formatting then I really didn’t have to worry about whether I was going to have to do major edits for formatting later. Write everything in the styles the final draft will use – then you won’t have problems with formatting cut-and-paste issues later.
It was really helpful because it helped me to see how big (physically) a chapter would finally be, as well as how many words fitted on a page and what the footnotes etc. looked like in reality.
Also, set your reference/citation/bibliographic style in concrete early on and in accordance with what’s recommended for your department and faculty. Far better to get that sorted now than trying to do it later (even with bibliographic tools like EndNote).
I’d also recommend going to the library and getting out a selection of theses from your discipline to have a look at. What did people write in their abstracts, acknowledgements and prefaces? What did you like about how some theses were formatted? What didn’t you like? It helps to see what the finished product looks like – though a bit daunting too.
Oh, and make sure you really understand how big the thesis is meant to be. I found that the PhD guidelines said 100,000 words in one place and the also said between 250-300 pages. Depending on the citation style you pick and whether you’re a heavy footnoter you may find that 100,000 words won’t really fit into 250-300 pages. So you need to check which one is the real limit.
Finally, track down a good thesis proofreader. You may need to pay for one, but if you can find a good one (and I did) who can pick up not just typos but also grammar then strive to keep them. Also, don’t wait for the final draft if possible. If they’ll take early material in pieces then go with that – then your supervisor’s time reading your work can be focused on the content and you avoid overloading the proofreader with a last minute panic.
See also: PHD Comics: Thesis submission, pt. 3