Doing the PhD

Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: a PORT for Modern Languages
Book: Doing the PhD
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Date: Friday, 2 December 2022, 4:01 PM


a PORT for Modern Languages tutorial

1 Supervision

Supervision as a method of being taught has many benefits. You get serious teaching on a one-to-one basis, something that you may not have had access to until starting your MA or PhD course. You should find that this close critical attention to your work allows you to progress in leaps and bounds. You get a great deal of freedom, and indeed are largely responsible for the management of your own PhD. And of course this is one of the new, sometimes welcome, sometimes disconcerting aspects of a PhD (it doesn’t apply so much to an MA): your supervisor will not be ‘directing’ your studies, but aiding you to direct your own. So this tutorial is less about what to expect from a supervisor, than what to expect from yourself.

By the end of your PhD you can expect yourself to be able to

  •  conduct accurate and original research
  •  to write persuasively and construct a solid argument
  •  think analytically and critically
  •  evaluate your own work as well as others’
  •  work independently
  •  develop new lines of research

1.1 the role of the supervision

Your supervisor is there to help you reach this stage of self-reliance. This does not of course mean that you should try and train yourself never to ask for help, and to do everything by yourself. On the contrary, you should ask for help, but you should be as demanding of yourself as you are of your supervisor. It is not up to them to provide you with research topic, methodology, re-writing skills, annotated bibliographies, secretarial assistance in the form of proof-reading, etc. This is your responsibility and it is what you are awarded your PhD for learning to do.

The supervisor’s role is to read your work, to engage with it critically, to provide you with helpful responses and readings, to suggest ways of developing your analyses, to point you in the direction of interesting new sources and generally to make sure that you are progressing through the stages of a research degree as you should be, ie. getting work in on time, maintaining a high standard, and that the work that you eventually submit for examination as a thesis meets the requirements. Yet, above and beyond these crucial intellectual and administrative roles, they aim to support you in your work, to give you the encouragement you need, to deal with problems of any sort as they arise, and to induct you, through example and encouragement, into the academic life. They will be mentor and sometimes friend, and a good working relationship with an engaged supervisor can be one of the high points of your PhD. It is often an immensely stimulating experience, emotionally as well as intellectually, for both sides. Your supervisor will probably continue to be an important person to you for many years to come, not least in the sense that in many cases they provide references for jobs.

All of which reinforces the point that it is important to get the supervision process, not to mention the supervisor-supervisee relationship, right.

1.2 supervision guidelines

These remarks are of course unofficial: there are properly laid-out guidelines about what a supervisor is supposed to provide, and what a supervisee is supposed to do, and your university regulations will set them out. It is, however, the case that these guidelines get widely interpreted and variously applied. You could politely draw the regulations to your supervisor's attention if you feel that you are not getting enough time. It would be as well for you to check that you also are meeting the required standards!

So choose someone that you think you can work with, whom you trust and respect and who is keen to work with you too.

1.3 communication

Once you’ve chosen a supervisor, been accepted as their student, and settled down to work, make sure you keep in touch with them! They will probably want to see you and your written work fairly regularly. This is something for you to agree with each other, although it may be regulated by university or departmental policy. Students' needs can vary, and you should be clear what yours are: do you need regular meetings to keep your morale going, or do you like to be left alone until you have something to submit, confident that it will be good? If you wish to deviate from the prescribed pattern because of preparing a particularly prolonged piece of work, or because of other commitments, let them know. Never put them to the trouble of chasing you up. When you come to a supervision, either make sure you have given them enough time to read and think about your piece (is 30 minutes enough? not really), or be very clear about what you are coming to talk to them about. This is the best way to make use of their time, and not to waste yours either. And if you are having problems of any sort – major or minor – make sure you let them know quickly so that they know what’s happening and can help if help is called for. Do not be afraid to ask for some encouragement if you are getting overwhelmed – they will be very happy to help you. And make sure you know what they want from you.

1.4 if things go wrong

Things generally go wrong because of a failure of communication. The first thing to do therefore if you are unhappy about something (or if the supervisor is unhappy with your work!) is to talk about it. Don’t hide.

Identify the problem:
- do you need advice and encouragement? Do you want to carry on with the same supervisor? Then talk to the supervisor directly. If you don’t feel able to address the issue with your supervisor, then tell someone else, but be very clear about what you want to get out of it. If something is UNOFFICIAL then it can be CONFIDENTIAL and will not be mentioned. In this case, you may get advice, but the person you talk to may not be able to take action. If you wish something to be done about it, then you may have to make an official COMPLAINT, and the action taken will probably become public in some shape or form, and the supervisor will be informed. If this happens, it may become harder to continue working with that supervisor. This of course may be what you want. You may be able to change supervisor for other and less problematic reasons, ie without going through any sort of complaints procedure: again, discuss your needs either with your supervisor directly or with someone else in the department. For example, there may be a Director of Postgraduate studies who is the obvious person in your department.

Your institution will certainly have guidelines and procedures that have to be observed in these cases, for instance the head of department attempts to resolve the problem, and then in default of a resolution, the head of school, and so on. Trade Unions such as the University and College Union (UCU) accept postgraduate members who also have teaching duties, and they may well be able to offer advice even if you aren’t qualified for membership. It is only in very rare cases (usually of gross misconduct) that a formal complaint is an appropriate or fruitful way for a student to proceed.

1.5 further references

Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh, How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors, 3rd edition (Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2000).

This book contains a much more detailed and prescriptive investigation of the topic. We have chosen to leave it more open.

2. note-taking

Note-taking might sound like an elementary and trivial skill, an academic activity undertaken since the earliest stages of one's education. All this might be true but take a moment to reflect on that time you were writing an essay but your notes proved inadequate. Or that other time that you did not properly note down the source of your notes and you had to leave them out altogether. The list of hypothetical scenarios is large. It is quite scary how such a trivial skill can be so fundamental in most stages of the PhD. So, what is a note? And most importantly how can notes contribute to the overall accomplishment of the research? Let us see how non-trivial the mechanics of this trivial skill are.

2.1 The purpose of note-taking

How do you choose what information you need to record and what to exclude? Notes need to be relevant to your topic. Apart from keeping in mind what is the purpose of note-taking at any given stage you should also make sure you record ideas that are relevant to your research topic or to the purpose to which you abide. The following questions can help you to weed out the relevant from the superfluous:

  • Are you clear about your own approach towards the topic?
  • Do you have strong feelings about the issue you investigate?
  • Sometimes when we scan for information our stance or ideology may get in the way and make us selective with regard to what information we record. Is this desirable? On other occasions, however, what we need to do is to scan the literature in order to find those arguments or positions that corroborate our own stance.

2.2 How to take notes

How to take notes

Notes are influenced by the oral, written or electronic nature of the sources. There are different problems you need to anticipate when using various types of sources. Moreover, notes are influenced by the medium you choose to use in order to record them: handwritten notes are different from electronic notes. Furthermore, you need to decide on what strategy you are going to adopt. These are all decisions you can make in advance, the point being that one does not start the process of note-taking unprepared. 

Taking notes from lectures/seminar
When attending a lecture or a seminar, keep full details of the lecturer's name, date, title and occasion, so when you return to your notes at a later stage you can immediately identify the event and lecturer responsible for the information you put down on paper. Keep in mind that:

  • there is no need or even possibility to write down every word spelt out in a lecture/seminar, so it is important to develop skills in recording the essential. If you attempted to write down every single detail, you may miss the overriding argument. Try therefore to catch the main points and any details that are specifically tailored to your own research. Moreover, don't miss out on any bibliographic information mentioned in the lecture, as these are important resources to further your own research; to follow up on revising the material presented in the lecture; prepare for exams, etc.
  • you can maximize your own creative use of a lecture by turning your notes into a digest afterwards.

Taking notes from written material 
Time is not an issue here. You can go over and over the same text sourcing the needed information. But do you pay attention to: noting down all the bibliographic details of the sources consulted, writing clearly and leaving a space between each note, using some system of tabulation, distinguishing the more important points from the less important ones? Don't be neglectful about your note-taking technique: you will make your life as a researcher easier by

  • being diligent about bibliographic information. Whether your source is a book, an article, or a journal, write the following information at the head of your notes:
    • Author: his or her full name
    • Full Title, including subtitle
    • Publisher
    • Place of publication
    • Original date of publication
    • Date of edition
    • If taking notes from a chapter/article, then write down the full page span, journal volume and part numbers. See also our tutorial on Building up a bibliography.

Write clearly and leave a space between each note: 

  • Don't cram too much information onto one page?
  • Check whether you are concerned about untangling and retrieving information once you have taken notes?

Distinguish the more important points from the less important ones 

  • Record the main issues, not the details.
  • Write down a few words from the original if you think they may be used in a quotation. Keep these extracts as short as possible unless you will be discussing a longer passage in some detail.
  • Do you copy blindly or spend a long time rephrasing passages? Try not to.
  • Be consistent in the way you cite. There is no single way of citing bibliographical references. However all bibliographcal entries should obey a single notational pattern. Consult our tutorial on Building up a bibliography for information on different reference systems.

Taking notes from on-line documents or websites 

When quoting from Internet sites or giving reference to sources available on the web, remember to include information about: 

  • Author
  • Title
  • Title of serial
  • Type of medium
  • Edition
  • Issue
  • Date of update/revision
  • Date of citation (Required for online documents; Optional for others)
  • Location within host document
  • Availability and access (Required for online documents; Optional for others)

From Romance language material

  • Do you take notes in the original language (e.g. French) or do you translate at the same time as you take notes? The former might be preferable as a mistake in translation may prove hard to correct later if the source is not at hand.
  • Pay extra attention to spelling when quoting from a Romance source (given that quotations will appear in the original language with which you may be less familiar).
  • When taking notes from primary material it is worth quoting some chunks in full. But are you aware of plagiarism? Use obvious notational forms of reference when copying or even rephrasing a source so that later on you will be aware that you dealing with material quoted from another author.
  • Make yourself familiar with the typographical conventions used in the Romance languages, eg capitalization, punctuation, etc.

Taking notes from archives
Archives are vast repositories of knowledge so unless you know what you are looking for before you start taking notes you will waste a lot of time.

  • Archives usually store 'raw' information, which usually does not make for an easy and structured reading.
  • Archives usually contain factual information, therefore you need to personalize it in order to suit your research.
  • Taking notes from manuscripts requires lots of preparation (e.g. Are you sure you know how to read a manuscript?).

2.3 How to take notes effectively

A dissertation must be an expression of one's thinking, not a patchwork of borrowed ideas. Therefore, invest your research time in understanding your sources and integrating them into your own thinking. Your note cards or note sheets should record only ideas that are relevant to your topic; and they should mostly summarize rather than quote. Have a look here on some ideas about how to avoid writing too much.

  • Copy out exact words only when the ideas are memorably phrased; surprisingly expressed; when you want to use them as quotations.
  • Otherwise, compress ideas in your own words. Paraphrasing word by word is a waste of time. Chose the most important ideas and write them down as labels or headings. Then fill in with a few sub points that explain; exemplify; support the argument.
  • Do not depend on underlining and highlighting. Find your own words for notes in the margin.
  • Be prepared for the fact that you might take many more notes than you will ever use. This is perfectly normal. At the note-taking stage you might not be entirely sure of what evidence you will need.
  • Select only those few words of the source material, which will be of use. Avoid being descriptive. Think more, and write less. Be rigorously selective. Information retrieval is the general skill you will end up developing or the one you should activate if you already have it in place.
  • Keep the topic clearly in mind. Take notes only on those issues which are directly relevant to the issue in question.
  • Try to put notes on separate cards or sheets. This will let you label the topic of each note. Not
    only will that keep your note taking focused, but it will also
    allow for grouping and synthesizing of ideas at a later stage.
  • Leave some space in your notes for later comments, questions,
    reactions, second thoughts, cross-references during the re-reading
    stage. The conjunction of the first set of notes along with the second
    round comments can become a virtual first draft of your paper/chapter.

2.4 From note-taking to writing

After reviewing your notes you need to take them a step further: you need to see if they are actually fit to be included in your thesis. This involves processes of reflection before you sit down and begin drafting your dissertation. Your written thesis is obviously not meant to be a compilation of rephrased notes taken from other authors' sources. But you will be required to compose a scientific text that is led by your own original argument. It is within the overall textual structure defined by your own investigation that you will embed quotations, ideas, comments and arguments noted down from primary as well as secondary sources. However, as an intermediary step, it can be useful to group your notes together according to specific themes and questions. Note-taking is often an intuitive process and when you review, compile and organize your written comments before the writing-up stage, you might be surprized that the sum of them already has widened your horizon and perhaps even altered the ideas with which you set out.

Here are three ways that can help you to take your notes to the crucial next stage:

  • Consolidating the material
    Compiling your notes is essentially geared towards enabling you to summarize, understand, and recall your notes better than before. When the distinct aspects of your research topic cease to be separate items of information and begin to coalesce into a unified whole, where there are themes that are supported by main ideas, main ideas supported by evidence, and connections between the information forming a larger argument, then you can be sure that you are consolidating the information.
  • Writing a summary paragraph 
    Another very helpful consolidating strategy that you can engage in is to write a summary paragraph based on your notes. Ideally, you would write a summary paragraph from memory using the key words and phrases you chose from your notes. You should do this in a way that brings the ideas together and links them to the rest of your research questions.
  • Editing notes into a draft
    Once you are clear on your thesis outline and have consolidated your notes (by maybe writing some summary paragraphs) you are ready to embark on the writing up. Of course you need to have defined your topic carefully. Provided that you have employed some of the aforementioned strategies, linking related ideas together will not be difficult since thinking of one idea will make the others come logically to mind. However whilst drawing from different thematic pools of notes, remain alert to what your own stance towards a particular question is. It is your line of thought expressed in an argument that ought to necessitate the deployment of noted down materials and not the other way round: a jigsaw of compiled notes conveniently rephrased into prose.

3 Building a bibliography

A bibliography is not just an appendix to be compiled in order to preserve an academic tradition; it represents an integral and fundamental part of any PhD.
It demonstrates your scientific, that is, rigorous, attitude, as well as the breadth and depth of your research. Moreover your bibliography will demarcate a specific field of knowledge that can become a valuable resource for other academics and readers pursuing similar interests. The function of a bibliography in combination with the footnotes is to enable your reader to find the original sources incorporated into your dissertation or thesis as easily and quickly as possible. The MHRA Style Book therefore recommends in its introduction to 'References', that you should always use British editions of books, published both overseas as well as in Britain, so that your reader will have easy access to these works in British libraries. 'If an edition other than the first is used, this should be stated. If an unrevised reprint is used, the publication details of the original edition as well as of the reprint should be given. Details of original publication should also be provided where an article from a journal is reprinted in a anthology' (See MHRA Style Book, Chapter 10.1 'References'). In other words, the bibliography is first of all a means for your reader to follow up on the documents on which your arguments are based, and it is important to make this process of retrieval as straightforward as possible.

On the following pages you can learn more about the main principles of working with bibliographies. The predominant style system applied in the UK in the field of humanities is the MHRA system and we have therefore devoted a whole separate section to its guidelines for formatting the single entries in a bibliography:

Prof. David Robey: - Computing in the Humanities - Sound File (14.6 Mb)



3.1 Bibliography: the basics

What to include
A bibliography is the list of sources used by the researcher in carrying out a piece of research. It does not only include any written works quoted or referenced, but also other materials, eg any pieces of music, visual records, or films. If non-written sources constitute a substantial part of your research project, then they ought be listed separately: in a filmography if your thesis is concerned with film, or a section crediting the visual material mentioned if your investigation had an art-historical/theoretical focus. Anything that has offered a significant contribution to the development of your research must be represented within the bibliography. 

The different stages of working with your bibliography
Bibliographies figure at the end of any academic piece of writing, but they are obviously crucial to your research process from the moment you set out to investigate a new issue. One way of finding out about the seminal works in your field is to consult the bibliographies of the most recent publications relating to your topic; in the case of Romance studies not only in English but also in the language in which your research is rooted. The initial work with a general bibliography will give you a sense of what research has already been done and the work that is left to do. Keep annotating your bibliography. It is terribly useful to keep notes on your reading - you may think you will remember, but after three years of PhD research you will appreciate any descriptive or evaluative comments noted down on your work-in-progress bibliography. As you read and write you will add to and refine your bibliography until finally it becomes the bibliography situated at the end of your thesis. 

PhD bibliographies
The final bibliography of your PhD or Masters thesis will reflect not only the works you explicitly refer to in your research, but any sources that you may have consulted, looked at and read during the exploration of your topic. The fact that you decided not to cite from these works is not decisive. 

Consistency: decide for a style system early on and stick to it
When you first start building up your bibliography for a PhD dissertation, you may feel very far away from the final writing-up stages before submission. In this last phase you will be overwhelmed with the task of polishing and concluding an extensive piece of writing, a text longer than anything you are likely to have produced before. You will do yourself a great favour if you decide on a particular reference style when you start setting up your bibliography and carry it through whilst updating this list throughout the whole period of your research. This is one huge task taken off your shoulders when you come to the last stretches of finishing off. Many British universities adopt the same system for Arts research, the MHRA system (to view our pages on the MHRA system), but whatever you opt for, you must be consistent. If for example the system that your university requires prescribes a comma after the name of the author, you cannot just alternate the comma with a semicolon. When starting your research, inform yourself whether your university requires a particular reference system, so that you won't waste any time on standardizing your bibliographical entries at the end of your research. 

Be meticulous about noting down your bibliographical references
Another quite common mistake is failing to copy down the complete bibliographical references on the first occasion, thinking that you will always have the opportunity to perfect them at a later stage if this was to prove really necessary. You will regret this later. In some cases you may not have those documents at your disposal again, and even if you have, you are wasting a great amount of time. 

Avoid trying to read everything
When following up on all the different publications you have collated in your general work-in-progress bibliography, you may easily be tempted by the desire to read everything, however marginal. Such an attitude is not only extremely dangerous, since you are expected to complete your research in three years, but also unprofessional. Part of becoming an academic is to learn how to work towards deadlines and produce research within given limitations of time. No one can have proper firsthand knowledge of every single essay that has been written in a particular discipline. Academic research is about specialization and not about general knowledge, so keep weighing up what is really relevant to your dissertation. If however you are working in an area where not much has been written, eg you are dealing with a living writer or some very obscure works of earlier periods then you will be expected to have read everything on your subject.

Exclude dictionaries and encyclopedias
Normally a bibliography does not record dictionaries and encyclopedias, unless they have been consulted in certain ways: for example, you may have referred to an entry in an eighteenth-century encyclopedia, or you want to substantiate or juxtapose some very specific definitions laid out in dictionaries.

3.2 How to start building up your bibliography

The primary source for your general bibliography may well be your supervisor. But this depends on how close your supervisor's research is to yours. There are a number of research strategies that can direct you towards the literature and research materials you will need to consult. Better to do the initial work yourself and then discuss the material you have collated with your supervisor.

Knowledge gained through your Masters research
If you attended an MA module or wrote an MA dissertation that inspired you to take your research further to PhD level, then this will be your starting point. Review the bibliographies of books and articles you have already compiled and branch out from there. Undertaking library or internet searches will allow you to find out whether the authors most relevant to your enquiry have published other works that could potentially take your line of thought further or deepen your knowledge in a particular area.

Books and articles on your topic
Do library catalogue and internet searches on your topic and the authors you are investigating and then scan the bibliographies of any secondary or related primary literature. Select titles of works that seem appropriate and start organizing them in your own bibliography. Most libraries will not offer you the possibility of doing searches for article titles or chapters in collections (there are exceptions: The Goldsmiths Library for example). But there are databases (at The British Library for example) which allow you to run through a multitude of journals by inputting author/subject and title searches. In this way you can very effectively build up large resources of literature specifically geared towards your interests.

The MLA International Bibliography is a bibliographic database that lists published scholarly documents on literature, modern language, linguistics, and folklore. The MLA records consist primarily of references to journal articles, books, and book chapters. Literary works and translations are included only if they are newly discovered or rare works or editions that are accompanied by critical or bibliographical notes. Subjects covered are National Literatures, Linguistics, Languages, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literary Forms & Genres, Folklore, and Dramatic Arts. You will be able to consult the MLA International Bibliography at your University Library - as an imprint before the year 2000 and in later editions through CD-ROM facilities.

The www
Apart from databases that are owned by a particular institution or library and for that reason will have to be consulted at the location, you can also make productive use of the internet. Focus specifically on OPACs, metaopacs and portals, as these give you access to an unlimited amount of organized information at once.

Languages resources
Our Languages section will permit you to browse vast resources of digital information, but also direct you towards different libraries, archives, and institutions that might be useful:

Breaking down your work-in-progress bibliography
As well as searching for materials on your topic you will also want to familiarize yourself with the appropriate methodological and theoretical approaches for your topic. This may mean creating separate bibliographies, for example on narratology, psychoanalysis, social theory - depending on what might prove a useful route into examining your primary material. Breaking down your bibliography into different sections will help you to keep an overview of your own different research strategies and accumulate the literature necessary to substantiate your arguments.

3.3 How to structure your bibliography

How am I supposed to organize my entries? Drawing up a bibliography is a twofold problem, since it requires on the one hand an overall organization, a macrostructure so to speak, determined by the type of research carried out. On the other hand, you will have to decide on a specific reference system that will allow you to format with consistency the different entries of your bibliography. But, once again, do not forget that your university, as well as your future publishers, may have precise requirements on this issue. Do not waste your time identifying your own supposedly most effective system - just find out the required format of your university or the house style of your publisher. If your university does not set down a particular reference system, you might as well adopt the MHRA system which in the UK is the one most commonly used for the Arts.

3.4 Styles of reference

An MA or PhD thesis usually constitutes the first academic work of future scholars and it has consequently to follow well-established academic norms. Its content and references must be immediately recognizable and easily traceable by other scholars from all over the world. That is the reason why some organizations developed bibliographical conventions aimed at securing consistency as well as clarity.

The most authoritative reference systems in the UK is the one fixed by the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA). Other cultural institutions, such as the MLA in the United States, have created equally important style protocols. British universities tend to adhere to the MHRA guidelines, but you should check with your supervisor(s) if this applies to your discipline. For instance, the MHRA style is not used in the Social Sciences.

In any case, do not forget to comply with the only principle that is shared by all institutions: consistency. Whatever reference system you intend (or are required) to adopt, the feature that decides its effectiveness and functionality is the consistency of all its elements:

  • font type, size and style (eg the use of italicization or underlining)
  • order of various components (eg if you are providing a reference to an article in an edited collection, do you first name the collection or the editor?)
  • use of punctuation (eg do you use commas or full stops between different items of bibliographic information)
  • use of language (eg in the case of places of publication: 'Florence' or 'Firenze'?)
  • capitalization (eg do you capitalize the first letter following a colon or not?)

Finally, remember that you are supposed to include in your final bibliography not only books and articles but also any audio, video and on-line materials consulted. If these represent a substantial amount, it makes sense to list them separately according to medium.

As an MA or PhD student in Romance studies you will face the difficulty of how to organize bibliographical entries formatted according to different nationally defined style systems. To find out more about how to homogenize or deal with diverging reference styles, click on to: Romance languages and bibliography.


  • To give you an overview of the most essential bibliographical guidelines laid out by the MHRA, click here: The MHRA style system.
  • To find out about other style systems, eg MLAOxford University PressUniversity of Chicago and ISO, click here: Other systems of reference.

3.5 The MHRA style system

The Modern Humanities Research Association is a London based international organization whose purpose is to encourage and promote advanced study and research in the field of the modern humanities, especially modern European languages and literatures. Published first in 1971 as a style-sheet for their own publications, the MHRA Style Book has become a standard work of reference in the humanities. Its latest version (published in 2002 as MHRA Style Guide) includes chapters on 'Quotations and Quotation Marks', 'Footnotes and Endnotes', 'References', 'Preparation of Theses and Dissertations' and 'Useful Works of Reference'. It also discusses instructions on the so-called author-date system, devised in the USA. Besides being available in most libraries in the UK, the 2002 MHRA Style Book is downloadable free of charge from the MHRA website: MHRA Style Book (it can also be purchased as a hard copy for a modest sum). The information we are making available here is a much shortened version of what you will be able to find in the MHRA Style Book, so to acquire more detailed advice on how to incorporate into your bibliography information on volumes, editions, translations, titles within titles, etc., just click on the MHRA Style Book. To make orientation easier, we are providing the section numbers in the MHRA Style Book behind some of our examples. You just need to activate the hyperlink and look for the appropriate section in the MHRA Style Book. Moreover, please note that any titles underlined on this website, should be italicized on paper. We use underlining since italics are difficult to read on the computer screen.


Examples of references according to MHRA style

Books (monographs and collections of essays) (see MHRA Style Book: 10.2.2)

  • Book by one author
    Author's surname, her/his first name, title of book (place of publication: publisher, year of publication)
    Henley, Patricia, The Hummingbird House (Denver: MacMurray, 1999)
  • Two books by the same author:
    After the first line, replace the author's name with one hyphen, listing her/his books alphabetically.
    Palmer, William J., Dickens and New Historicism (New York: St. Martin's, 1997)
    The Films of the Eighties: A Social History (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993)
  • Book by more than one author
    First author's surname, her/his first name, second author's first name, her/his surname, and last author's first name, last author's surname, title of book (place of publication: publisher, year of publication)
    Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner, The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring (Boston: Allyn, 2000)

    If you have more than three authors, only mention the first author followed by the formula 'and others'.
  • Books with one editor
    Editor's surname, her/his first name, ed., title of book (place of publication: publisher, year of publication)
    Peterson, Nancy J., ed., Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997)
  • Books with more than one editor
    First editor's surname, her/his first name, second editor's first name, second editor's surname, and last editor's first name, last editor's surname., eds., title of book (place of publication: publisher, year of publication)
    Larsson, Mans O., Alexander Z. Speier, and Jennifer R. Weiss, eds., Let's Go: Germany 1998 (New York: St. Martin's, 1998)
    If there are more than three editors, you may list only the first author followed by the phrase 'and others'.
  • Chapters or articles in a book (see MHRA Style Book: 10.2.3)
    Author's surname, her/his first name, 'title of essay', in title of collection, ed. by editor's first name, her/his surname (place of publication: publisher, year), pp. pages
    Harris, Muriel, 'Talk to Me: Engaging Reluctant Writers', in A Tutor's Guide: Helping Writers One to One, ed. by Ben Rafoth (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000), pp. 24-34

Articles (see MHRA Style Book: 10.2.4)

  • Article in a scholarly journal (with continuous pagination throughout a volume/year) 
    Author's surname, her/his first name, 'title of article', title of journal, volume (year), pages
    Allen, Emily, 'Staging identity: Frances Burney's Allegory of Genre', Eighteenth-century Studies, 31 (1998), 433-51
  • An article in a scholarly journal (with each issue of the journal beginning on page 1)
    Author's surname, her/his first name, 'title of article', title of journal, volume.issue number (year), pages.
    Duvall, John N., 'The (Super)marketplace of Images: Television as Unmediated Mediation in DeLillo's White Noise', Arizona Quarterly, 50.3 (1994), 127-53
  • Articles in newspapers or magazines
    Author's surname, her/his first name, 'title of article', title of source, day month year, pp. pages
    Schmidt, Erich, 'Tragedy of Three Star-Crossed Lovers', Daily Telegraph, 1 February 1990, p. 14
  • Article from a reference book with author stated
    Author's surname, her/his first name, 'title of article', in title of reference book, ed. by editor's name, volume number (place of publication: publisher, year), pp. pages
    Midge, Tim, 'Powwows', in Encyclopedia of North American Indians, ed. by D.L. Birchfield, 9 (New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1997), pp. 340-42

Manuscripts (see MHRA Style Book: 10.2.9)

  • Manuscripts
    name of repository, name of manuscript collection, number of document
    - British Library, Cotton MSS, Caligula D III, fol. 15
    - Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds français, 1124
    - Sheffield Central Library, Fitzwilliam MS E.209

Electronic resources (see MHRA Style Book:10.2.10)

  • Website
    Author's surname, her/his first name, name of page <electronic address> [accessed date of access] 
    Felluga, Dino, Undergraduate Guide to Literary Theory < theory2.html> [accessed 15 November 2000]
  • Online article
    Author's surname, her/his first name, 'article title', name of online journal, volume.issue (year) <electronic address> [accessed date of access]
    Steve Sohmer, 'The Lunar Calendar of Shakespeare's King Lear', Early Modern Literary Studies, 5.2 (1999) <> [accessed 28 January 2000]
  • Article in an online encyclopedia
    'Title of article', in title of encyclopedia, <electronic address> [accessed date of access]
    'Ho Chi Minh', in Encarta Encyclopedia, <> [7 June 2003]
  • CD-ROM
    Title of CD-ROM (place of publication: publisher, year of publication) [on CD-ROM]
    Encarta 2004 Reference Library (New York: Microsoft, 2003) [on CD-ROM]
  • Article in a reference database on CD-ROM
    ' Title of article', in title of CD-ROM (place of publication: publisher, year) [on CD-ROM]
    'World War II', in Encarta (Seattle: Microsoft, 1999) [on CD-ROM]

Audio and video (see MHRA Style Book: 10:2.II)

  • Film, movie
    Title. Dir. Director’s name. Distributor. Year of release
    The Grapes of Wrath. Dir. John Ford. 20th-Century Fox. 1940
  • Sound recording
    Composer or author. Title of recording. Artist. Orchestra. Conductor. CD reference number.
    Johannes Brahms. Symphony No. 2. Wiener Philharmoniker. Cond. Carlo Maria Giulini. 435 348-2

Unpublished dissertations (see MHRA Style Book: 10.2.6)

  • Unpublished dissertations, theses
    Author's surname, her/his first name, 'title of dissertation/thesis' (unpublished doctoral thesis, name of university, year)
    Jackson, Marjorie, 'The Oboe: A study of its Development and Use' (Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, Columbia University, 1962)

3.6 Other systems of reference

The Modern Language Association of America is an international institution with over 30,000 members in 100 countries whose aim is to strengthen the study and teaching of language and literature. Published first in 1985, the MLA Style Manual is the standard guide for the large majority of American graduate students, teachers and scholars as well as of over 125 scholarly and literary journals. Its last edition, published in 1998, includes chapters on

  • 'Preparation of Theses and Dissertations'
  • 'Documentation: Preparing the List of Works Cited'
  • 'Documentation: Citing Sources in the Text'.

The Modern Language Association does not publish its manual on the Web, this is why we are here providing some examples of MLA referencing. Of course you will be able to check for more details in one of the copies held at your university library or purchase the manual:

  • Gibaldi, Joeph, MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 2nd ed. (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1998)

 In what follows you can find out about the basic principles of how to format a bibliography according to MLA style.

Books (monographs and collections of essays)

NB: You will have to be consistent with the way you use abbreviations. If for example you decide to abbreviate University Press as UP, you will have to use this convention each time University Press is mentioned.

  • Book by one author
    Author surname, her/his name. Title of Book. Place of publication: publisher, year of publication.
    Eg: Henley, Patricia. The Hummingbird House. Denver: MacMurray, 1999.
  • Two books by the same author
    After the first line, replace the author's name with three hyphens, listing her/his books alphabetically.
    Palmer, William. J. Dickens and New Historicism. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.
    --- The Films of the Eighties: A Social History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1993.
  • Book by more than one author
    First author's surname, her/his first name, second author's first name her/his surname, and last author's first name her/his surname. Title of book. Place of publication: publisher, year of publication.
    Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. Boston: Allyn, 2000.

    If you have more than three authors, only list the first author followed by the formula 'and others'.
  • Book by a corporate author
    Name of the corporation. Title of book. Place of publication: publisher, year of publication.
    American Allergy Association. Allergies in Children. New York: Random, 1998.
  • Book with no author stated 
    Title of book. Place of publication: publisher, year of publication.
    Encyclopedia of Indiana. New York: Somerset, 1993.
  • Collection of essays with one editor
    Editor's surname, her/his name, ed. Title of book. Place of publication: publisher, year of publication.
    Peterson, Nancy J., ed. Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
  • Collections with more than one editor 
    First editor's surname, her/his name, second editor's name her/his surname, and last editor's name last editor's surname, eds. Title of book. Place of publication: publisher, year of publication.
    Larsson, Mans O., Alexander Z. Speier, and Jennifer R. Weiss, eds. Let's Go: Germany 1998. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

    If you have more than three editors, only list the first one followed by the formula 'and others'.
  • Essay in a collection
    Author's surname, her/his first name. 'Title of article.' Title of collection. Ed. editor's name(s). Place of publication: publisher, year. Pages.
    Harris, Muriel. 'Talk to Me: Engaging Reluctant Writers.' A Tutor's Guide: Helping Writers One to One. Ed. Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000. 24-34.


  • Article from a reference book with author stated
    Author's surname, her/his first name. 'Title of article.' Title of reference book. Ed. Editor's Name(s). Number of volumes. Place of publication: publisher, year.
    Midge, Tim. 'Powwows.' Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Ed. Thomas Birchfield. 11 vols. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1997.
  • Article from a reference book with no author stated
    'Title of article.' Title of reference book. Year ed.
    'Jamaica.' Encyclopedia Britannica. 1999 ed.
  • An article in a scholarly journal (with continuous pagination throughout a volume/year)
    Author's surname, her/his first name. 'Title of article.' Title of journal vol (year): pages.
    Allen, Emily. 'Staging Identity: Frances Burney's Allegory of Genre.' Eighteenth-Century Studies 31 (1998): 433-51.
  • An article in a scholarly journal (with each issue of the journal beginning on page 1)
    Author's surname, her/his first name. 'Title of article.' Title of journal volume.issue number (year): pages.
    Duvall, John N. 'The (Super)marketplace of Images: Television as Unmediated Mediation in DeLillo's White Noise.'Arizona Quarterly 50.3 (1994): 127-53.
  • An article in a periodical, such as a newspaper or magazine
    Author's surname, her/his first name. 'Title of article.' Title of source day month year: pages.
    Months are commonly indicated through a three-letter abbreviation (= Feb., Aug.).
    Poniewozik, James. 'TV Makes a Too-Close Call.' Time 20 Nov. 2000: 70-71.

Electronic resources

  • Website by one or more author(s)
    Author's surname, her/his first name. Name of page. Date of posting/revision. Name of institution/organization affiliated with the site. Date of access <electronic address>.
    Felluga, Dino. Undergraduate Guide to Literary Theory. 17 Dec. 1999. Purdue University. 15 Nov. 2000 <>.
  • Website with no author stated
    Name of page. Date of posting/revision. Name of institution/organization affiliated with the site. Date of access <electronic address>.
    Purdue Online Writing Lab. 2003. Purdue University. 10 Feb. 2003 <>.
  • Article on a website
    Author's surname, her/his first name. 'Article title.' Name of website. Date of posting/revision. Name of institution/organization affiliated with site. Date of access <electronic address>.
    Poland, Dave. 'The Hot Button. 'Roughcut. 26 Oct. 1998. Turner Network Television. 28 Oct. 1998 <>.
  • If no author is stated, simply start from 'Article title'
  • Article in an online scholarly journal
    Author's surname, her/his first name. 'Title of article.' Title of journal volume.issue (year): pages/paragraphs. Date of access <electronic address>. Page and paragraphs are often unavailable.
    Nielsen, Laura Beth. 'Subtle, Pervasive, Harmful: Racist and Sexist Remarks in Public as Hate Speech. 'Journal of Social Issues 58.2 (2002). 7 June 2003 <>.
  • Article in an online magazine, journal, or newspaper
    Author's surname, her/his first name. 'Title of article.' Title of periodical date of posting/revision. Date of access <electronic address>.
    Bezlova, Antoaneta. 'China to Formalize One-Child Policy.' Asia Times Online 24 May 2001. 12 Dec. 2003 <>.

    Marshall, Leon. 'Mandela in Retirement: Peacemaker without Rest.' National Geographic 9 Feb. 2001. 7 June 2003 <>.
  • Article in an online encyclopedia
    'Title of article.' Title of encyclopedia. Year. Editor of the project. Date of access <electronic address>.
    'Ho Chi Minh.' Encarta Encyclopedia. 2003. Microsoft. 7 June 2003 <>.
  • CD-ROM
    Title of CD-ROM. CD-ROM. Publisher, year.
    Encarta 2004 Reference Library. CD-ROM. Microsoft, 2003.
  • Article in a reference database on CD-ROM
    'Title of article.' Title of CD-ROM. CD-ROM. Place of publication: publisher, year.
    Eg: 'World War II.' Encarta. CD-ROM. Seattle: Microsoft, 1999.

Audio and video

  • Film
    Title, Dir. Director's name. Prod. Producer's name(s). Distributor, Year of release.
    The Tuxedo. Dir. Kevin Donovan. Prod. John H. Williams, and Adam Schroeder. DreamWorks, 2002.
  • Radio and television
    'Title of episode.' Title of series. Name of network. Radio station or TV channel call letters, City of local station or channel. Broadcast date.
    'The Blessing Way.' The X-Files. Fox. WXIA, Atlanta. 19 Jul. 1998.
  • Sound recording
    Performers. Title of recording. Publisher. Year of release.
    Morissette, Alanis. Under Rug Swept. Maverick. 2002. 

Unpublished dissertations

  • Unpublished dissertations, theses
    Author's surname, her/his first name. 'Title of dissertation/thesis.' Diss./MA/BA thesis. Name of university, year
    Elmendorf, James. 'The Military and the Mall: Society and Culture in Long Beach, California.' BA Thesis. Hampshire College, 1995.

    Jackson, Marjorie. 'The Oboe: A Study of its Development and Use.' Diss. Columbia U., 1962.

Here are some more links on the use of MLA style, if you have further questions:

The Oxford system
The Oxford Style Manual published by the Oxford University Press combines both the contents of The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (widely adopted, for example, in Australian universities) and The Oxford Guide to Style. The first part of The Oxford Style Manual contains 16 chapters on different aspects of academic writing (e.g.: lists of abbreviations, capitalization, punctuation, and scientific and mathematical symbols, advice on how to treat quotations, illustrations, tables, notes and references, information on foreign languages and on recent issues such as citing electronic media, submitting material for online publications, and current copyright law). The second part of the manual consists of short alphabetical entries that provide easy-to-follow guidance on specific writing conundrums, including common spelling difficulties, confusables and differences between British and American English.

Finding a copy of the Oxford Style Manual in British libraries is obviously not a problem, but you can also find its main features in the pages of the

The University of Chicago system (author-date system)
The style manual published by the University of Chicago puts together two different reference systems. The first one, called 'Documentary-Note Style' (or 'Humanities style'), reminds us of systems proposed in the above-mentioned style-books, while the second reproduces the principles of the so-called Harvard (or 'author-date') system.

The author-date system pairs the name of the author with the date of the publication directly behind a citation. Full information is only given in the bibliography at the end of the text. It is winning an increasing number of followers in Britain as well as in the USA (it is, for example, adopted by the Journal of Romance Studies) and it has become the norm in scientific and sociological studies. Nevertheless it has its minor drawbacks: readers are obliged to turn from text to the bibliography to unravel each abbreviation.

For example a bibliographical reference within the main body of the text:

  • (Blinksworth 1987, 23)

will have to be complemented in the final bibliography in the following way:

  • Blinksworth, Roger. (1987) Converging on the Evanescent.
    San Francisco, Threshold Publications.

For further information

  • The University of Chicago style book is not so available in UK libraries as are the other three systems, but you can download its main features from the appropriate sections of the websites of the Ohio State University.
  • As regards the author-date system click here

Established in 1947, the International Organization for Standardization is a network of The National Standards Institutes of 147 countries and constitutes the world's largest developer of standards. Although its principal activity is the development of technical standards, it also deals with the standardization of documentation and referencing. In particular its Technical Committee n. 46 defined important guidelines on:

  • Documentation - Bibliographic references - Content, form and structure: ISO 690:1987
  • Information and documentation - Bibliographic references - Part 2: Electronic documents or parts thereof: ISO 690-2:1997
  • ISO is currently developing a Glossary of terms and definitions in ISO standards for the identification and description of information resources.

3.7 Macrostructure

Alphabetical order
The most common organizational principle of bibliographies is to list single entries in alphabetical order of the author's surname. There are, however, other questions to be considered which will be discussed below.

Multiple works by an author
What should you do if you have to list more than one work by a particular author? You will need to decide whether to arrange your entries alphabetically by title or chronologically. In the case of primary literature, it may, in certain cases, make sense to order your entries in choronological order, whereas multiple secondary works of one author should almost always be organized alphabetically. Moreover, if translations are added, you will have to decide once more, where to place them. If, for example, you have opted to put your primary sources in chronological order, do you then maintain a chronological system for the translations, or do you let the translations follow directly after the original? More often than not, the latter is preferable. But the choice is up to you - use your intelligence and consider the relevance of a chronological organization within the overall framework of your bibliography and research project. Whichever way you choose, explain to the reader briefly how and why you organized your bibliography in a certain way. 

Translations: to include them or not and how to list them?
If and where to place translations within your bibliography depends first of all on whether you chose to use as your research material translations rather than originals, to work with both, or to exclude translations altogether. However, as you are most likely going to be a PhD student enroled in a Romance studies department, it will be expected that you will predominantly study your sources in their original language. This concerns primary sources as well as secondary sources. However, if for example, you are examining the process of translation itself, or the reception of specific authors in different countries, then the inclusion of translations and your method of listing them within your bibliography obviously becomes a crucial point.

The scenario is slightly different again if you are doing a PhD concerned with Romance culture, but you are enrolled in a philosophy, film, theatre or arts department, where the focus is slightly less on language than on theory. The exmination of your dissertation might then be more leniant towards the use of translations. However, you may be doing a PhD on the French filmmaker Chris Marker, in which case you will find that most of the literature will be in French and you might even only find out that your examiner will be based in a French department. She or he may then appreciate your work with French sources rather than their translations.

So once you have decided whether to include translations in your bibliography or not, you must again decide on a method of how to list them. The most common option would be to list them after the original source. But there might be other options. If for example you have worked with many translations of one particular author, then you may want to group original sources separately from translations. Your choice should be informed by the contents and methodology of your thesis. And the more complex your choice of structuring your bibliography is, the more important to make it transparent to the reader: explain it in one or two sentences. For further discussion of bibliographical questions directly connected with the use of Romance languages, click here: Bibliography and Romance languages.

Multiple editions
You may have mentioned or consulted different editions of one particular work for your thesis. Again, you will have to take a decision how to list them, especially if the entries of one author are in chronological and not in alphabetical order, as different editions of one and the same work may become separated within a chronological structure.

Subsections within your bibliography
Granted that your actual research topic and its structure will automatically give you a sense of what the important headings of your bibliography are, the most common pattern in the majority of PhD bibliographies is a distinction between:

  • Primary sources: documents/materials which are the immediate subject of your study, and
  • Secondary sources: documents/materials dealing with your research subject.
  • Primary sources may be further subdivided into:
    • manuscripts
    • printed texts
    • visual records and material artifacts
    • audio and video recordings
    • filmographies
    • online materials
    • translations of original texts.
  • Chronological subdivisions: for certain research projects it may be useful to create different sections according to the historical period in which the sources investigated were published.
  • Subdividing archival material: if your research has involved a diverse study of unpublished documents held in a variety of different archives, it may prove effective to organize your sources according to the archives where held. 

3.8 Romance languages and bibliography

Reference systems in multilingual dissertations
If you are working on a Romance studies dissertation and are affiliated to a language department in the UK, it is expected that all your primary and also a major part of your secondary sources will be in the target language of your research. However, you will nevertheless be asked to submit a thesis in accordance with British standards of examination and therefore be expected to use a British system of reference. Although your sources may be in Portuguese, Italian, French or Italian, your writing language will in the majority of cases be English. The way you format your bibliography and footnotes must equally correspond to a style system acknowledged by British academia, no matter whether you are referring to an English or a Romance language source.

Capitalization in titles of non-English origin
When importing references of non-English literature into your bibliography or footnotes, you will need to adapt these to the overriding English reference system you originally chose. However, any foreign language titles appearing in your dissertation - in the bibliography, the footnotes or main body of the text - must follow the conventions of capitalization required by the original language. So for example if you want to refer to

  • Derrida, Jacques, De la grammatologie (Paris, Les éd. de Minuit : 1967)

grammatologie is spelt with a lower case 'g' in accordance with French rules of capitalization and not with a capital 'G' as it would be appropriate for a title in English.

If you need to list in your bibliography certain publications both in the original language as well as in the English translation, you have the option of entering the original first, followed by the translations. It could look like this:

De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967)
Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998)
La dissémination (Paris: Seuil, 1972)

  • Derrida, Jacques, L'archéologie du frivole (Paris: Galilée, 1973)

The use of foreign languages beyond the main Romance language your thesis is focused on
For any quotations in foreign languages different from the language of the country you are dealing with, you must provide translations - you own or an acknowledged one, if it exists. If for example you decide to devote your thesis to Spanish history, you must refer to English and Spanish sources in their original language, while you have to translate into English quotations taken from any other foreign source (e.g. from essays in Italian or in Russian).

4 Managing your time

Some students are excellent at time management. They always produce good quality work in good time. There never seems to be any last minute rush. If this is you, then there is no need to read this tutorial.

However, don't underestimate the difference between different kinds of academic work - from undergraduate study to PhD research. Whereas a Masters programme still provides you with a tightly structured timetable allowing you to work from essay deadline to essay deadline, PhD study will require a more independent and responsible approach of organizing your time. At the end of three years - a deadline that seems very far away - you will have to deliver a dissertation of the size of a book. Immersed in following up all the different fascinating strands of your research you may find that your topic grows larger and larger, taking you into directions never envisaged before. If you will go down that route, you will find yourself still researching and trying to define the basics of your PhD thesis after three, four, five or more years. If you feel you have never done enough to justify coming to an end with any of your research tasks, remind yourself that any PhD end product might be better if you took 20 years. But the PhD is to be done in 3! So don't think about the best you could do. Think about the best you can do granted you have 3 years to work full time.

Managing your time means developing a skill that will be: 

  • crucial for the completion of your research degree (be that an MA or a PhD) 
  • one of the most important transferable skills you will acquire in this period.

Managing your time effectively will enable you to:

  • meet your deadlines
  • carry out all your assignments without undue anxiety
  • absorb unforeseen difficulties without jeopardizing your research
  • accept unexpected opportunities (such as to teach or to give a paper)
  • earn a reputation for your punctuality and reliability.

Acquiring such skills will therefore hugely increase your self-reliance, triggering a virtuous circle of commitment and success. Likewise your employability will be increased, whatever career you intend to pursue, within the academic world as well as out of it.

4.1 Plan

What does planning mean?

MAs and PhDs require as well as offer the opportunity to develop two different basic skills as far as time management is concerned.

  • MAs expect students to define and manage mainly short-term timetables on the basis of a fixed schedule
  • PhDs require students to determine and manage mainly long-term timetables virtually free of any constraints.

The aim of taught postgraduate courses is to endow students with critical and technical tools, rather than simply convey some new pieces of information to them. If you have already completed a Masters course successfully, you are therefore expected to

  • know what your most productive hours are
  • know what your most productive working routines are
  • know your weak points in managing your time

as well as to be able to

  • set and fulfill specific goals
  • be realistic in estimating how much time will be required to finish a certain task
  • work with 'to do' lists
  • update your work schedule regularly
  • make the most of waiting and traveling time
  • know how to prioritize

Short term planning

All taught Masters have mid-term deadlines already set; you do not have to fix them. However, there is a certain amount of 'freedom' within a Masters course as you are usually meant to produce a larger piece of writing at the end of the year, so you will need to think ahead in more independent ways of how to fulfill this assignment, too. If you want to meet all deadlines, you will find it helpful to devise a timetable of your own that takes into account

  • all the individual tasks included in your course
  • the time needed to fulfill these tasks.

Let's assume that your MA course is subdivided into three terms and the summer, each of the three terms requiring attendance of lessons and seminars, in addition to the submission of an thesis at the end of the academic year:

First term

Second term

Third term


First essay

on course A

Second essay

on course B

Third essay

on course C

Final dissertation

on the topic you chose

(and, in some cases, viva)


How can you combine your timetable with this schedule?
It is very tempting simply to deal with individual courses in individual terms, but how can you possibly complete the final dissertation in three months if you are used to spending the same amount of time on writing a short essay? Always keep in mind the larger picture - your long-term deadlines included - even when you are dealing with specific intermediate assignments.

The first step in order to prepare an effective timetable does not concern time at all, but objectives, that is, their clear definition. A Masters course is not just the sum of three or four essays, it is a path which aims to provide students with the tools they need to submit a successful final dissertation, that is, their first piece of proper research. In this way the time you originally reserved for your final dissertation should be automatically multiplied by two or three times, since at the beginning of the fourth term you should have at your disposal the vast majority of the pieces of information and methodologies which your dissertation requires.

Breaking down your tasks
The same attention to your objectives has to be taken over each section of your timetable. As already suggested, the fact that some deadlines are already set by your course outline does not imply you need not break down this timetable defining smaller and personal task-related timetables.

Think backwards
Be practical in devising your personal timetable: plan backwards! Determine how much time you will have left to dedicate to a specific essay when your week is busy with a certain number of lectures and seminars, and then make the most of what you have. If your course is full-time, consider what is the expectation of additional independent study on top of your classes. What is the maximum time you can allow yourself to spend on reading and researching when you have met all the other deadlines?

Take into account the need to:

  • be realistic in allocating the necessary time to each task
  • allow for some extra time
  • don't forget your long-term tasks beyond your week-to-week deadlines
  • allow for some leisure time: sports, socializing or whatever will help you to relax
  • be ready to readjust your timetable if you realize you are falling behind or circumstances change.

Long term planning

The more long-term your research engagement, the clearer and more realistic your objectives will have to be. Unclear and unrealistic goals, necessarily implying the continuous reshaping of research, are the main reason that many students fail to complete their research within the allotted time. Let's therefore try to set clear and realistic goals, taking into consideration their relevance to your specific research as well as to your general training as a researcher and distribute them along your PhD timetable.

For example the Research Councils' Graduate Schools Programme suggests that you break down your research into semesters in the following way:

  • 6 months: survey literature and learn to use relevant tools

  • 12 months: deepen understanding of the 'problem' and devise solutions

  • 18 months (halfway!): engrossed in research

  • 24 months: begin to wind up data collection

  • 30 months: complete solution and review recent literature

  • 36 months: written thesis, ready for viva

Each semester will be, in turn, subdivided into segments of different length according to the complexity of the task you intend to carry out in that period. Planning your research on the basis of single tasks (and, as a consequence, on the basis of short periods of research) will allow you to

  • verify and measure your own progress more easily

  • apply a methodological tool you can rely on, since you have already exploited it during your preliminary postgraduate activity

Time management issues specific to PhD research:

  • Plan ahead if you are required to undertake any research trips to other cities or countries in order to visit specialist libraries or archives. Make sure that you do these trips at an early stage in your PhD. If you are visiting libraries or archives, find out about opening hours before planning your trip, and whether you will have to order books ahead of time. Some libraries close at certain times of the year, eg around national public holidays or for a period in the summer.
  • When ordering inter-library loans, again, find out exactly how long it will take for them to arrive and how much time you will have to consult those materials.
  • Allow enough time for the final editing process of your dissertation - it can be an overwhelming task to edit a text of this length.
  • Make sure you have all your bibliographic references in order from the outset of your research, so you won't be held up by double-checking all your references at the very end.
  • Learn how to prioritize and stick to your original outline, so you won't be sidetracked into time-consuming research tasks that won't even be incorporated into your PhD.
  • Remember, every 'study-period' should also include some time to devote to socializing and relaxation.

4.2 prioritize

What does prioritizing mean?

MAs in particular are designed to help students reflect on the concept of relevance, that is to make them identify what is relevant for their studies and what is not. The same goes for PhD students at a higher level. This means not just prioritizing between areas of research and writing up, but also juggling between different commitments (e.g. job, home, research).

Being aware of the relevance of a source or of a piece of information therefore means being able

  • to recognize its relevance to the final aim of your research project
  • to fit it into your general schema
  • to hierarchize different research tasks and decide what comes first and what second.

Once you have ascribed to each single task the right degree of relevance, it will not be difficult to differentiate them, that is, to distinguish the tasks that you should carry out (and the materials you should investigate further) from the ones that you can abandon. Or rather, that you must abandon. Matisse used to say 'All that is not useful in the picture is detrimental'. Your PhD thesis (and your research in general) is a picture, too. It must have a foreground and a background. If you want something to be immediately visible you have to bring it to the fore, otherwise it could pass unnoticed. If you come upon an issue worth examining in itself, but marginal as regards your research, put it aside or, simply, dump it; otherwise these marginal aspects will have the upper hand over the fundamental ones in the general picture of your thesis. It is therefore important that you distinguish between the strictly relevant aspects which should be retained and those generally interesting issues which should be reserved for another time.

This work of continuous evaluation, differentiation and selection will drive you to an effective prioritization of your commitments and, consequently, to the fruitful management of them. Working under the pressure of 'last minute panic' can sometimes turn out to be an effective trick, but the real trick is to avoid relevant tasks becoming urgent.

So don't forget to prioritize your research continuously according to the relevance of your different tasks and to be ready to re-evaluate all priorities. You will then end up with a helpful timetable which is quite fluid at the top and becomes firmer and firmer as you move downwards.

4.3 time eaters

Carrying out your tasks is not just a matter of doing the right thing, but also of avoiding the wrong ones. That's easier said than done. Sometimes what at first looks like the right choice, in point of fact can prove to be a waste of time. For example, going on collecting and reading secondary sources or attending every single lecture and seminar your University organizes certainly broadens your knowledge but it takes a lot of time, both directly (e.g. attending these events) and indirectly (e.g. getting to their venues). This is even truer if you want to take part in these events as a speaker, since preparing and reviewing a paper is a long and extremely time-consuming process.

Try therefore to identify your personal time eaters as soon as possible and be aware of them. You can start from this list: probably not all of them are your personal worst enemies, but they are some of the most common.

Your list of time eaters

  • Lack of objectives
    One of the main reason students fail to accomplish their objectives is the vagueness of the objectives themselves. If your objectives are not clear enough, you cannot calculate how long their accomplishment will take and you will not be able to define an effective timetable.
    Keep comparing your work plan and timetable against your achievements. Once you have settled for a chapter outline for your dissertation or thesis, check on a regular basis whether you are in line with the time slots allocated to the different sections or research tasks. 
  • Lack of consistency
    Your study-pathway is not simply composed of different sections/stages, but developed through them. This means that you should not deal with the different components of your pathway as completely distinct tasks. Your MA dissertation cannot be just "one more essay", in the same way that your PhD thesis cannot be just a sum of disconnected pieces of research, but the fruit of a thorough methodological approach, as well as of the materials, you developed and collected throughout your study and research. Don't fall into the trap of reinventing your dissertation (and the argument holding it together) every time you get your hands on a new research aspect. You will waste a lot of time and efforts.
    Managing your time effectively is a matter of proper definition of your objectives. Being focused on individual tasks does not mean that you have to be shortsighted. Go deeply into any questions you know you have to investigate again for other components of your study-pathway. There is no point in leaving it open: it would mean doing the same work twice, instead of achieving two results at one go.
  • Never-ending tasks
    Some tasks seem to increase, instead of decreasing, as you deal with them. Sometimes your estimate was wrong, sometimes tasks take much more time than expected because of unpredictable difficulties in finding materials and in gathering data. In any case they will definitely affect and delay the development of your course/research. Recognize you can't achieve omniscience within the limitations of time set by a PhD. Do what can be done well in 3 years rather than settle for perfection. This is all the more obvious if you are writing a Masters thesis. Any research task is potentially interminable, so it is important to learn how to be realistic and treat research as a time-bound activity. Don't try to produce your 'magnum opus' when writing up your PhD dissertation!
    The first action you can take against never-ending tasks is to 'think small'. Divide major assignments into smaller parts so that you can control them more easily and verify your progress as you go along. Similarly, you are more likely to manage your tasks if you cope with them one at a time. If you start working on a new aspect of your current component or of your research before bringing to a conclusion the previous one, you will probably end up leaving it pending for a long time. And when you finally come back to it, you will not be able to be as effective. 
  • Procrastination
    Moving from the undergraduate time frame (which required the completion of weekly, if not daily, assignments) to a time frame that is based on long-term assignments may mislead you about the amount of time there actually is to perform a given task. Failing to accomplish each individual task within the allotted time necessarily results in all your other tasks being adjourned and some goals ultimately abandoned. Deadlines for the submission of course-essays, as well as for the submission of papers and articles, cannot be postponed. Moreover, even if you miss an intermediate deadline, you will be required to meet the last one. And you are very unlikely to manage to carry out two different tasks in the time allotted for one if you were not even able to complete one in the first place.
    The first move against procrastination has to be made before you start to procrastinate your assignments, that is, when you first set your timetable. Include some extra time which you could take advantage of if your calculations turn out to be too tight. Another action you can take against procrastination is to alternate tedious with more interesting assignments. Boredom is one of the main reason why students tend to defer certain activities. Devoting your study-time to different tasks every day can therefore help with this problem.
  • Lack of self-discipline
    Whilst studying Natural and Social Sciences usually involves teamwork, doing research in the Humanities, most of the time, is solitary work. You therefore have to rely on yourself and on your perseverance in order to accomplish your tasks. No one else can effectively control your commitment on a daily basis. A lack of self-discipline necessarily jeopardizes the success of your project as a whole.
    First of all face up to your responsibilities. Think of your study as a full-time engagement that requires constant commitment, independently of the rate of external control and supervision. If you think you will find it difficult to stick to your timetable without any form of external surveillance, you can
    • fix a very tight agenda of meetings with your supervisor
    • arrange an equivalent agenda with a course-mate or a fellow research student, so that you can support and motivate each other
    • you can find further motivation by rewarding yourself (lavishly!) when you manage to complete, satisfactorily and on time, each single task.

An MA course will occupy at least one year of your life, a PhD at least three of them. In such a relatively long period it is quite likely that you might face an unforeseen crisis. Small crises are quite common and do not represent a big problem, since they can be easily absorbed by the free time you should have anticipated in your plan. But a big crisis can seriously disturb your schedule, forcing you to review and modify your whole timetable, or even the composition of your course and the structure of your research themselves.
Unforeseen crises are unforeseen by definition, but if you can spot their first glimmerings, try to stop your crisis coming ahead by having a break and relieving yourself of the pressure. In the case of a real crisis forcing you to take time out, it is very important that you keep people informed - your supervisor especially and also your grant-awarding bodies.

  • Inability to say 'No'
    Working in an academic environment means having the opportunity to be involved with a lot of projects and activities. Too many projects and activities, usually. You are likely to be invited, for example,
    • to attend lectures and conferences
    • to give papers yourself in postgraduate conferences
    • to do translation work
    • to do some editorial work (such as proof-reading, indexing, preparing bibliographies, etc.)
    • to teach language and hold tutorials and seminars
    • to assist your supervisor and his/her colleagues in correcting essays and tests.
    All these occupations are stimulating and useful for your future career, but they must not be allowed to get the upper hand over your study and current assignment. Do not stop prioritizing your tasks. Moreover, if you have a tendency to be easily distracted by telephone calls, or tend to drift off into long conversations with your flat mates during working hours, be firm and say no.
    You can say no. You have to, sometimes. When you are offered a task or an opportunity that is unlikely to benefit your research (or your training in general as a future researcher) decline it. You can simply explain
    • that your next deadline is too close to take on any other engagement
    • that you do not feel prepared for such a commitment
    It is useful to discuss any potential teaching or conference commitments with your supervisor to find out whether there is a way of negotiating them with your general PhD workload. Your supervisor can also advise on attendance at research seminars and lectures. Here some students can define their role too narrowly. It is important to be a 'good citizen' within your department, and to play an active part in the research community. Attending a work-in-progress paper may only take 2 hours of an evening, and may prove more beneficial than you realize even if the topic is not directly relevant to your PhD. It is also good to support your colleagues.
  • Displacement activities and socialization
    Socializing is an important part of life. It has to be. Doing a postgraduate degree does not mean that you are not allowed to have a social life. But it does not mean either that you can use it as an excuse for putting your assignments off. You have the right to devote part of your week to social life, but you also have the duty to take responsibility for your postgraduate degree. It is not a matter of priority - there should not be any conflict between these two aspects of your life. If they come into conflict, it means that you are not handling them properly. Also, if you find that whenever you sit down to write you have an urge to spring-clean, then housework is becoming a displacement activity. Beware of 'virtuous' displacement activities.
    Treat your study as a full-time job. There is no reason to devote every single moment of your day to it, but it is supposed to occupy at least 8 hours of any working day, and sometimes more - also some of the weekend. If you do not work 9-5 in any given day you must assume that you will make up the time in the evenings. An adequate personal timetable should include some time for relaxing - for sport, sleep, socializing or watching TV, but don't be tempted to let leisure or housework activities have the upper hand over your study time, despite the flexi-time working hours you enjoy during a PhD.

4.4 when things go wrong

A Masters programme constitutes your first confrontation with the environment of proper research. But apart from preparing you for the possibility of doing further PhD research, it can also equip you with the skills needed on the job market outside of academia. PhD research is, in turn, part of this process. It is a training experience that provides you with some basic skills that can be useful across different careers.

So doing research - be it towards an MA or PhD, is a learning curve in which you are allowed to make mistakes and fail to meet minor goals. Do not get depressed and start to doubt your capacity for research. There is nothing wrong with things going wrong. Try to understand where and why something went wrong, so that you learn from your mistakes.

A first step in this direction could be that you ask yourself, as suggested by the Research Council's Graduates School's Programme:

  • Am I trying to achieve too much?
  • Is my current task clear?
  • Am I ready to do this task?
  • Do I have all the information I need to carry out this task?
  • Am I planning the task badly because of pressure?
  • Am I failing because it is boring or too difficult?
  • Am I sticking to my own plan?

4.5 transferable skills

Managing your time is one of the most important transferable skills you acquire through postgraduate study, whether you decide to pursue your career in an academic environment or not. That is the reason why the list of Skills for Graduates in the 21st Century (defined by The Association of Graduate Recruiters) states that time management figures as one of the most appreciated (and required) abilities. By the end of your postgraduate course/research you should have refined the following skills:

  • the ability to define and promote your own agenda.
  • the ability to plan a course of action by continually reminding yourself of the following questions: 'where am I now?', 'where do I want to be?', 'how do I get there?'.
  • the ability to implement an action plan by organizing time effectively, identifying steps needed to reach the goal, preparing contingency plans.
  • monitoring and evaluating progress against specific objectives.
  • the ability to understand personal priorities and constraints - internal and external, which includes the need for a sustainable balance of work and home life - as well as the ability to make an informed decision based on the available opportunities.
  • the ability to adapt goals in the light of changing circumstances and to take a myriad of tiny risks.
  • the ability to apply skills to new contexts. This is a higher level skill, since skills are not automatically transferable.
  • learning from mistakes.
  • having an underlying confidence in abilities, based on past successes.

These skills are all highly appreciated in any job environment, so start cultivating them now!

5 The writing process

The writing process

Writing is an extremely personal process and there are no hard and fast rules about how to write well. Yet it is perhaps the most important activity and also outcome of a PhD or MA dissertation, for obvious reasons, and this is particularly the case in a humanities discipline, where the object of investigation is frequently a piece of writing as well. A good thesis will develop its argument clearly and persuasively, and accurately integrate textual and analytical evidence. It will observe the academic conventions regarding footnotes and bibliography and be written in good English (or at the equivalent level of the target language if your university allows you to opt for this). All these aspects need attention from the outset: it would be an error to suppose that research and writing are two separate things, and that the latter, under the guise of something called ‘writing up,’ just happens once the research is done. On the contrary, the sort of research that we do in the humanities is generally reflective, analytical, interpretative or theoretical (or a combination of all four) and needs to be written out to find its proper direction. 

First piece of advice

So this is the first piece of advice in a tutorial that aims to avoid being prescriptive: write from the beginning and write all the time. This does NOT mean ‘writing up’ chapters once a month for the duration of your degree, but DOES mean taking notes, recording sources, tracking your progress, attempting to assemble an argument, pursuing lines of thought by writing them out. It also means setting yourself quite strict deadlines for producing written work to hand in, not getting hooked up on an illusory perfect chapter, and actually making sure you do produce something. Your supervisor will have an important role to play in all this and your department will probably have guidelines about when and how often a piece of work is expected. Be pragmatic about what a PhD thesis or MA dissertation actually consists of: it is a piece of sustained argument on a particular topic of a particular length. Largely what you need to do to be awarded the degree is actually to produce that piece of writing. 

Aim of this tutorial

The aim of this tutorial is to analyse what the task of thesis-writing consists of, the better to help you identify what you need to do. Other tutorials cover other inter-related aspects of the task, such as finding a research topic, writing up a research proposal, and note-taking. There are two main strands to the task of writing: firstly, learning to produce correct written English and secondly, learning to think through writing, to elaborate an argument, to develop a style. 

5.1 correct English

Correct written English

It is not our aim here to recapitulate the rules of the grammar book but we want to emphasise that your thesis must demonstrate an extremely advanced level of written English. This means in practice that you must ensure that spelling, grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, syntax, paragraphing and register are all correct. If you are writing your PhD in one of the Romance languages because the subject of your thesis is in that language (which you may be entitled to do: check your university regulations) then the level of written fluency, be it in French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese, must also observe the same high standards. Examiners frequently complain about these sorts of slips: nothing irritates them more than bad writing. So if you know that you have problems with any of these elements of language, then take steps to improve them. Your supervisor will help you identify these sorts of problems and be able to suggest ways to tackle them. Do not rely on the services of a proof-reader, friend or professional, to eliminate them at the very end – it is almost impossible to correct the language of an entire thesis and keep it intact. Nor should you entirely rely on your computer spell-check tool. Favourite spell-check oversights are for example there and their. Treblecheck any use of foreign language, e.g. quotes and titles, but also proper names. You can see why examiners get aggravated by mistakes: if you are writing about writing, and your own language is faulty, it undermines the reader’s trust in what you have to say, and also distracts them from your argument, if indeed they can penetrate to it through the forest of little mistakes. 

If English is not your mother tongue

So: if English is not your mother tongue, try to get your supervisor’s and native speakers’ opinions of your writing – their reading of register and style may be more finely tuned than yours. If they don’t think it “sounds quite right,” then try to do something about it. Don’t rely on them to correct it (they may not understand or be able to communicate what is wrong): get some specialist help. Probably your supervisor will not be the best person here: teaching you English is neither their job nor probably their area of expertise. Your university or college will almost certainly run courses in English as a second language, on academic writing for non-native speakers, etc. Turn to the specialists to help you improve. 

If you are not sure about punctuation, syntax, grammar etc

People often don’t study the elements of language and style in an undergraduate degree. They may often have had feedback from tutors about style and syntax without being sure what the problem was or how to improve it. When the time comes to do an extended piece of writing, those problems may emerge more clearly. Try to get frank opinions from your supervisor and others about the correctness of your English and about the readability and register of your style. A relatively minor problem, such as the rules governing the use of the colon and the semi-colon, is easy to correct by consultation of the appropriate reference work. Merely by identifying a problem, you are often half way to solving it. If you have more deeply-embedded difficulties with the mechanics of writing, then you may find it helpful to attend some sort of writing course in academic or perhaps even creative writing. Ultimately, how you tackle a problem such as this is entirely up to you, but do be aware that accuracy, fluency and style all contribute in important ways to the impression your thesis gives, and thus to the way in which it is assessed. Writing skills are also something that you can take away with you from an MA or PhD: they are highly valuable and highly valued even outside academia, so don’t miss this opportunity to develop them. 

5.2 Developing an argument

One of the crucial characteristics of writing is that you often only discover what you want to say once you’ve written it down. It is a very common phenomenon to realise your main point at the END of an essay/chapter/thesis and then feel you need to rewrite the whole thing. Whether you should do or not is a moot point. The aim of this section is to give you enough self-awareness about the process of writing to be able either to prevent such a result occurring (especially frequent in cases where people leave writing up to the end) or to have accounted for it already, and to turn that reaction into the conclusion. If you write your notes, impressions and analyses as you go along, you will endlessly be discovering what it was that you had wanted to say, and you can rely on a process of continuous re-evaluation and rewriting that precludes you needing to go back over and dismantle large structures of argument. 

One of the most effective ways to develop both your argument and your writing style is therefore to make sure that you do keep writing as you go along: synthesise the material you are reading or working on, analyse it, work out what its role might be within a chapter. Then, having written something, go back to it, see where the holes in your argument are, try and work out why they are there. Whole new analyses can grow from these initial flaws. Don’t worry if you think a piece of evidence doesn’t entirely support the point you wished to develop: rewrite your analysis and integrate your own critique – you will often find that this process doesn’t demolish your argument as you had feared, but instead enables you to develop an extended and more subtle version of it. 

Logical writing

Logic in this context is to be understood as the process of assembling an argument such that all its constituent parts contribute cumulatively to the overall effect. Each sentence makes sense and follows on from the previous one, each paragraph makes a point which follows on from the previous one, and each piece of evidence demonstrates the point being made. It is not always easy to write logically, and if your piece of writing consists of a diffuse number of notes randomly cobbled together, what you will have is a series of impressions (possibly very worthwhile) but not a logical argument. This is something which happens to us all and it’s always a distressing moment when your supervisor says kindly, ‘well this is all very interesting, particularly x, y and z, but I’m not quite sure what point you’re trying to make: perhaps you could explain in more detail how it relates to your topic.’

This is why you need to keep writing all the time: not so that at the end you have 200,000 words of enthusiastic responses to what you have read, but so that you learn to manipulate all that material. If you write out a particular insight, analyse it and see where it takes you, you will find out how much mileage it has – you may discover that, although interesting in itself, and perhaps even worth coming back to later, it is not really central to your main topic. It is by a similar process of writing, reading and rewriting that you may realise that your main topic is itself a sideshow to the real argument as it is beginning to develop.

A warning and some encouragement: all these words about logic and argument are NOT aimed at the strict militarisation of your research process: on the contrary, they aim to encourage you to explore your topic, your reading, your responses and insights as fully as possible, to really give your research full rein while simultaneously showing you how you might begin to develop not only an argument of your own but also a way to assess that argument and its potentialities. The writing part of a research degree can be one of the most exciting parts of it: it’s the moment when you realise that reading and research is not a passive activity, and that your role as creative interpreter is most fully expressed through the process of writing itself. 


If, after experimentation and rewriting you have built a logical argument, it will probably be rigorous as well. But it is worth making sure that the nuts and bolts of your argument, its transitions and main points, are clearly-defined rather than merely suggested, alluded to, or just not included. Signpost the different stages so that the reader knows what the argument is and what point it has reached at any given moment. You will strengthen the overall structure of your thesis if you do this, and make it much easier to write out and follow through. 

Style and clarity (developing a critical language)

Along with logic you will develop clarity. A clear style is extremely helpful in getting the point across. Even the most complex theoretical relationships can be expressed clearly: to be clear does not mean to be simple. Aim for clarity; dare to be clear! Try your arguments out on fellow students: when they understand and can respond with questions you will know that you have clearly communicated your point. 

Accuracy: citation and source-referencing

Part of developing a rigorous and accurate scholarly technique is making sure that quotations are accurately transcribed and described, that the arguments of other writers and scholars are accurately reported, and that references and sources are fully and exactly recorded. This is an absolutely crucial aspect of being a scholar: interpretations that sloppily or wilfully misreport a source will be completely discredited. Cultural, theoretical or literary interpretation and analysis has so much room for manoeuvre anyway that it needs to be exact in the use of source material, or it will be blown apart by its critics. And as mentioned earlier, an argument is often developed further by encountering and acknowledging counter-evidence, not the reverse.

Keeping accurate records of sources (see also Building a bibliography and Note-taking)

Keep full bibliographical records of your sources, including exact page references, AS YOU GO ALONG, and try and do it according to your university’s conventions (ie MHRA, MRA, Chicago, etc) from the start. FULLY transcribe relevant passages on which you are basing your notes. Similarly, avoid draft notes to yourself like ‘Doesn’t Eagleton say something like this? Fill in later.’ Chase it up straight away so that you don’t forget either your thought process or where it came from. It is frustrating how often critics turn out not to be saying exactly what you thought you remembered them saying. So, try to process what we might call the admin of your research quickly and efficiently. You will kick yourself if you don’t, and be obliged to spend a miserable 8 weeks going back over every source to check its particulars. Get in the habit early so you don’t have to experience this black hole.

5.3 Structuring a chapter

Once you have developed an argument you can fit it into a structure. This is the device which enables a reader to navigate easily around your text, to recognise what stage he or she is in within it. Again, there are no hard and fast rules about structure but there are various pointers which may help you to construct one. A structure within an academic piece of writing is a teleological beast: it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and all parts are aimed at the triumphant conclusion where the scholar can shout out ‘Q.E.D’ or alternatively, ‘there, you see, prove me wrong!’

So, briefly: you need an introduction, a substantive piece of argument, a recapitulation of that argument, and a conclusion.


Wherein you introduce your subject, enumerate the topics you are going to cover (in the order that they are to be covered), briefly allude to the points you are going to be making and pose the questions you set out to answer.

Substance (or middle):

Wherein you develop your argument point by careful point, providing evidence where needed.


Wherein you summarise the main points – a reader needs this sort of help when dealing with a lot of unfamiliar material.


Wherein you draw all the material together and point it in a particular direction, ready for the next chapter. 

5.4 Structuring your thesis

This is more difficult: broadly, if you have to write, say, 90,000 words, you should aim for 6 chapters of 15,000 words. The first and last will be introductory and conclusive. But even this level of prescriptiveness will be contentious, so work out what the principal stages of your argument will be, and devote a chapter (broadly) to each.

5.5 Writing blocks

If you make sure you write all the way through your research process, even though the major part of this material will be experimental and exploratory in nature, you should find that when it comes to the major milestones such as chapters or indeed the whole thesis, you won’t experience a writing block. If you are unfortunate enough to suffer one, tell your supervisor and don’t wait for it to cripple you before you do so: it doesn’t have to be a big problem at all, and if you acknowledge it and get some help, it never will be a big problem. Writer’s blocks tend to inflict themselves on people with extremely (even deludedly) high standards who refuse to seek help. Let that be a warning!

5.6 Getting feedback

Your supervisor will be your principal point of call but you should also try and cultivate other sources of feedback, as much to develop your confidence as to garner information. Attend (or set up) postgraduate progress seminars where you can read each other’s work.

Taking criticism

Acknowledging and accepting that postgraduate research in all its constituent parts - developing a research topic, building an argument and learning to write - are all extremely challenging tasks and will take a while to get to a high standard may help you to detach from your work. Many people identify with their work and take criticism very personally. You don’t have to: you are not your work (although it may be changing you). Take criticism on the chin and see whether it can be helpful. Ask yourself the following questions: could the criticism possibly be justified? If so, how? What is the underlying problem? What can be done, how and when? Once you’ve responded to all these points, you’ll have a fully-fledged action plan, and not feel so bad. So good luck! Get writing! Get re-writing! We look forward to reading it.

5.7 One last thing: back up!

You probably rely on a computer somewhere. KEEP BACK-UP FILES ALL THE TIME AND FOR EVERYTHING!Computer problems are not acceptable as reasons to break deadlines, and your work is too important to lose. Develop back-up systems (as well as ways of filing everything) from the very first day. If you save documents on your computer, also back them up on a disc. Make hard-copies of your work and email it to yourself from time to time.