Trying to make sense of nonsense

Theses the world: a world of theses?

Today,  a copy of the thesis of a friend of mine from the Netherlands dropped through my mailbox. If you, like me, are from the Netherlands, that sentence will contain nothing out of the ordinary. People from Britain however, will be in awe at the apparent size of my mailbox, if it can muster up the capacity to have an entire thesis pushed through it.

It was one of the first things my now supervisor told me when I met her to discuss my potential PhD project: the thesis. Did I realise how much work it was going to be? Especially compared to Dutch theses? I’d always secretly dreamt about one day writing a book, so working on a magnum opus on three years of my own research seemed like it might be right up my alley. And anyway, I’d read a couple of (Dutch) theses and they seemed entirely within reach. Even if the British version was to be twice as big (which I was sure was an overestimation, a worst case scenario), it still would be attainable. The world of academia is full of PhDs, how hard could it really be?

As you might guess at this point, I was slightly baffled, to say the least, when I first encountered the doorstop that is a thesis in this part of the world. Now, a year and a half later, when I seem to have accepted what I’ve let myself in for, my friend’s thesis reminded me of what I could have gotten away with, so to say. And it got me thinking.

What should a thesis contain? How big should it be? I’ve heard many stories from PhD hopefuls and PhD completees over the last year and there seems to be a huge variation in theses. Not only between countries (I’ve only seen theses from the UK and the Netherlands), but also between universities, and even between different departments within the same university.

According to Wikipedia, a dissertation or thesis is a document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree or professional qualification presenting the author’s research and findings. That description allows for many interpretations, which I am sure there are.

A bulky British and dainty Dutch thesis

A bulky British and dainty Dutch thesis

The most important difference between the two theses in the picture above is their aim. While the thesis is an aim in its own worth in the world of UK universities, it is merely a tangible summary of the work you’ve accomplished in the Netherlands. Publishing your results is deemed more important, and the thesis functions as a binder of those studies, with a short general introduction and discussion to hold the whole thing together (the Dutch thesis pictured about is actually rather bulky as it contains five papers, rather than the standard three). Whether you’ve passed your examination depends more on your thesis defence and publication record than what you’ve actually put in your little paperback.

Meanwhile, in the UK you can pass your viva and become a doctor of philosophy without even a single publication, as long as you’ve done the works on your thesis. Writing the thesis, almost as much as doing the necessary research, becomes a rite of passage.

I’m sure there are many more varieties out there of the written account of completing a doctoral degree. A whole world of theses. So what do they look like? Do they look like the playful Dutch paperbacks, or are more them in the serious looking UK corner? And what do they contain? Published papers? Extensive accounts of every single piece of research? Every single graph and table ever produced? And maybe the most important question: what should be in them? I hope to hear from you in the comments!


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