The final stages of the PhD

The final stages of the doctorate, i.e., the last six months of candidature, is rarely easy. Things seems to take longer than they should. The following are typical tasks that need to be wrapped up and finalised:

  • Examiner selection (your supervisor will make final decision but you will have input into this);
  • Completing institutional documentation prior to final submission;
  • Ensuring that your thesis reads coherently and fluently from start to finish;
  • Editing the thesis from beginning to end;
  • Proofreading the thesis from beginning to end (not the same as editing);
  • Finding a proofreader that does not act as a “ghost writer”;
  • Preparing the thesis for submission;
  • What to expect from examiners, and dealing with the judgment given in examiner reports.

Some of these topics are dealt with in the Federation University HDR Skills Development Program.

Examiner selection

Needless to say, this is critical. The examiners determine whether your thesis passes successfully. Typically, your supervisor will suggest suitable examiners. However, you can certainly provide input into this selection based on your knowledge of experts in the field. In considering this, pay attention to:

  • Examiner experience: Have they examined many theses before? Do they have a ‘track record’? (Lack of this need not rule an examiner out, but experience means timely completion, useful feedback, and less likelihood the examiner will be excessively judgemental).
  • Examiner attitude: Are they broadly sympathetic to the line you are taking in your thesis? Does their published work have overlaps with what you are doing/arguing?
  • Examiner output: Are they well-published in the field of your thesis?
  • Examiner presence: Have you cited them in your thesis? (If you haven’t this is not a good look!)
  • Examiner leadership: Are they considered leaders in their field, or ’emerging’ leaders likely to make great contributions in the future?
  • Examiner innovation: Are they doing new ‘cutting edge’ things? It is best to be forward-looking in this matter, although this depends too on your thesis topic.

Your supervisor will, of course, have positive suggestions too. It is their job really to find a suitable examiner that will be positively disposed towards the thesis. Pay close attention to their recommendations.

Completing submission documentation

The documentation required for formal submission of the PhD include the following:

  • The intention to submit form. This should be completed well before thesis completion and delivery
  • The recommendation of examiners form. This also needs to be completed well before thesis completion and in consultation with your supervisor.
  • The release of thesis form. This is completed after your thesis
  • There is also a summary of revisions form and a Federation Research Online form. These are for

All HDR-related forms are available on the HDR Forms website.

Ensuring thesis fluency

Fluency refers to the “flow” of the thesis. There are several aspects to this:

  • Chapter fluency: Do the chapters form a linear progression towards establishing a case for your thesis, or do they sit uneasily together? If you write the main ideas in each chapter down on a card (one per chapter), do the cards display a logical progression? Could someone uninformed about your thesis see the logical flow?
  • Paragraph fluency: Do the paragraphs reinforce and contribute to conclusion you are making? Are any paragraphs jarring or inconsistent with what you say in other paragraphs?
  • Sentence-level fluency: Do the sentences hang together? Do you make your case in a topic sentence, then provide supporting evidence for it in supporting sentences? Do you use sentence linking words and transition signals to guide the reader from point to point?
  • Argument fluency: Beyond this, is the arguments being made flow? Do you support your contentions with plausible premises? Do they build on each other such that your minor arguments are building towards your major arguments?

You need to ensure fluency while editing the thesis (see below).

Editing the thesis

Editing is different from proofreading. Editing the thesis means to read forwards from start to finish looking for coherence of argument, connections between chapters, paragraph structure and fluency of expression. In looking for these things you are looking for clarity of expression as well as looking to correct any gross mistakes. It also means ensuing correct layout and formatting of the thesis.

Proofreading is looking for any errors that escaped the editing process.

Editing occurs throughout the thesis writing process (indeed, it might be said it is the thesis writing process). One only stops editing when the thesis is finished to your, and your supervisor’s, satisfaction. Proofreading occurs at the penultimate draft stage—the stage prior to the final draft. You don’t want errors to creep in between the penultimate draft and the final draft, so leave proofreading until then.

One should edit forwards and proofread backwards. When editing read as you normally would looking for any errors; when proofreading read from the back of the thesis line by line to the start, looking at every sentence on its own—this will ensure your eye does not “skip” over mistakes which you would do reading forwards. Paying a proofreader is highly recommended.

As there are many things to consider when editing, it is good to adopt a strategy of macroediting and microediting, so you don’t miss anything. This strategy moves from the general to the specific.

Editing And Proofreading 1: Macroediting

Layout of main text

View each page singly. Check for typesetting: are all the paragraphs indented by the same amount? Are paragraphs which follow on conceptually from a quotation, or heading, not indented? Are the margins OK? Is the text justified? Is spacing between words consistent? Is spacing between sections consistent? Is page numbering sequential and in the correct font? Is the header and footer consistent throughout? Does the layout have “orphans” or “widows” (i.e., single words appearing at the top of bottom of the page)?

Layout of title page

Is all relevant information there in the right order? Does it have no page number (title pages are unnumbered but still count in the pagination)? Are the numbers centred? Does your name and discipline appear in the correct form? It should contain the words: Thesis submitted for the degree of [name of degree] as well as your institution and any other School or discipline-specific information needed. See:////////

Layout of preliminary pages

Check the Table of Contents, List of Tables and Figures. Are items correctly formatted and accurately, See Figures and Tables. See also See also Tables and Figures in the SDP Moodle shell Setting up the Thesis in Word.

Layout of Bibliography

Are all the references there? (Cross check them with the in-text references.) Is the layout the same as given in the university or discipline style manual? Is the punctuation correct? Is the layout in strict alphabetical order?

Layout of tables and graphs

Are these in the right place: i.e., close to the text where they are mentioned? Are they labelled correctly with the source? Is a caption provided for all tables and figures and it is accurate in terms of explaining the table/graph/figure. Are tables, graphs and figures listed in the List of Tables and Figures section provided in the preliminary pages? Double-check any mathematical notation for accuracy throughout the thesis.

Edit references in text

Check accuracy and spelling of all citations and reference details with the original source. Check that ellipses (…) are used correctly in in-text citations. Check that reference style is consistent throughout. Check that quotation marks are used consistently and that you have not over-quoted or misquoted. Ensuring pagination for quotations is accurate.

Edit bibliography

Make sure that the full reference details are given and according to the referencing style adopted: full name(s), titles, publisher and place of publication (only the former if APA7), editor(s) if application, year of publication, volume numbers, edition numbers if applicable, inclusive page numbers (for journals) or book chapters. See our helpsheets on referencing.

Edit fonts

Check usage of all bolds, underlined and italicised passages for consistency. Are the titles and sub-titles consistently formatted and in the correct style? Make sure you haven’t overused italics or bold text throughout the main text. When overused this can be irritating for the reader.

Editing And Proofreading 2: Microediting

Once macroediting is complete, attention should be given to text meaning and paragraph cohesion and to close reading of individual sentences. These are some of the things to consider when microediting:

Edit for purpose and logical development

Check each chapter introduction and conclusion. Do you do what you say you are going to do? Do you summarise the point(s) in the conclusion? Does the “thesis” or argument of your chapter come through in each of your chapters/sections? Is the research gap clear in the Introduction? Is the research question (or hypothesis) clearly articulated and unambiguous? Have you made a case for the importance of your thesis to wider scholarship in your field?

Edit for cohesion

Check the links between paragraphs. Does the material “flow” from one to another. Do you have a topic sentence in each paragraph? Are you using “signpost” language, and logical connector words to guide the reader: “Given this point”… “First…” “Second…”, “Third…” “In conclusion…” Do you use subsections, numbered points? Are these consistent and accurately cross-referenced throughout?

 Edit for sense

Make sure that each sentence is meaningfully clear and precise. Is it saying exactly what you want it to say or is it ambiguous or vague? Look out for redundancies, (“absolutely perfect”, “completely surrounded”, “serious crisis” ) tautologies (“A comparative study covering both aspects” , “At 2pm this afternoon”) and empty expressions or “waffle” (“in terms of” , “reflected in” , “in regards to” ) and vague words (“factor” , “significant” “aspect” ) or empty modifiers (“huge” , “very” ). Using the word ‘significant’ without telling the reader how significant something is, or they way in which something is significant, is empty-talk.

Edit for repetition

Check all chapters for unnecessary repetition of concepts and ideas and arguments. Repetition and ambiguity is evidence of sloppy thinking, careless writing, and insufficient research and/or support for your ideas. Keep the arguments for your points tight, and build evidence for them rather than repeating what you said before.

Edit for ambiguity

Check for sentences that can mean different things. Ambiguity is evidence of sloppy thinking. Examiners will be sensitive to it.

Edit for acronyms and jargon

These are to be explained clearly when first used.

Edit for grammatical errors

The common ones: compounding nouns; lack of subject or verb in sentence; noun-verb agreement errors; split infinitives; plural-singular verb mistakes; tense errors; pronoun-noun agreement; misplacement of modifying verb; apostrophe usage in possessive expressions. See an advanced English language grammar book for explanation of these terms.

Edit for spelling

Use a spell checker but remember its limitations (see “Pome” below). The spell checker thinks it is fine! A spell checker is no substitute for careful editing and proofreading.

                  Spell Chequer Pome

I have a spelling checker, 

It came with my P.C.     

It clearly marks for my revue                  

Mistakes I cannot sea.                                                

I’ve run this poem threw it                                         

And I’m shore your please to no                              

Its letter perfect in it’s weigh                   

My chequer tolled me sew.                                       

Edit for punctuation

Don’t use commas, full-stops, semi-colons and colons indiscriminately. They often make the difference between meaningful and meaningless, and the ambiguous. Examiners will be sensitive to careless use of punctuation.

Compare:

‘A woman without her man is nothing’

with:

‘A woman: without her, man is nothing’

See out helpsheets on punctuation and the semi-colon.

Proofreading the thesis

Proofreading the thesis is vital and you should allow time for it to be done. Allowing several months for completion of proofreading of the thesis is not unusual. It should happen at the penultimate draft of your thesis, i.e., the version just before the final copy, as you don’t want small errors creeping in while you are making changes at the editing stage.

You can, of course, proofread the thesis yourself. You know your work best. But it often best to outsource this stage to an expert, or at least someone you trust will do a good job. If you edited the thesis yourself there will still be a disturbing number of errors and mistakes. Proofreading is the stage where these errors are picked up and corrected. If you are from a non-English speaking background, it is essential to engage a proofreader.

The things to look for at the proofreading stage are numerous. But the aim of proofreading is key: when proofreading you are not looking for the fluency of ideas, argument or thesis structure. You are not looking for accuracy in terms of cross-referencing of concepts and ideas within the thesis. Nor are you checking for accuracy of presentation, e.g., of data or evidence. All that should have been fixed at the editing stage. At the proofreading stage you are looking for things that escaped the editing process.

Professional proofreaders are available for a fee and your School may provide a small allowance to assist in paying for proofreading. It’s important to select a proofreader wisely as it is a vital job: A good proofreader will draw attention to clarity of expression, inaccuracies, inconsistencies and repetition, and of course any residual mistakes. They help polish the thesis and ensure it is the best it can be.

Finding a proofreader

Finding a proofreader is important when you have got to the stage of having a complete, closely edited, penultimate draft. You then proofread the thesis carefully (see Proofreading above). However, no matter how well you proofread your own thesis, someone with an independent critical eye will be able to find more mistakes. Often several independent proofreaders will find different mistakes! It is not necessary to have more than one proofreader, but you certainly need the services of one good one. How do you find that person?

The YellowPages have lists of professional proofreaders, so do websites like AirTasker, Bark.com and Upwork. There are also companies that do this work. Some proofreaders are better than others, of course, and some have a discipline-specific experience in the area of your thesis. Obviously a person who has a background in your area would be good, but don’t assume a non-specialist can’t be a good proofreader. After all, they are only looking for errors that have escaped the editing process. They might well have a better eye for detail than a specialist who might get seduced into reading the thesis for interest! When choosing a proofreader, use due diligence and be guided by:

  • Previous experience: Have they competed other doctoral proofreading jobs in time, and on budget? Are people happy with their work?
  • Timeliness: Will they commit to completing the work on time?
  • Qualifications: Do they have a higher degree themselves? (This is not essential but it helps as they know the process and level of detail required.) Do they have qualifications in editing and proofreading? Are they members of the Institute of Professional Editors?
  • Recommendations: Take recommendations from your supervisor(s), colleagues, and previous doctoral students as a strong guide. Sometimes your department will strongly mandate the use of a particular proofreader as they have worked with them in the past.

It is particularly important that international students for whom English is not a first language seek the input of a proofreader. However, as there are university rules around the contributions made by an editor, ensure that their work does not amount to ghostwriting (when a substantial part of the thesis is the work of another person). The thesis must be your work.

Preparing the thesis for submission

When preparing the thesis for submission attention should be given to ensure everything is complete: the preliminary front matter pages, the Body of the thesis, and the back matter documentation. It is easier compiling the thesis as a whole if one uses the Master and sub-documents function in Word. This allows one to navigate between sections of the entire thesis, ensure cross-referencing is adequate, and to build a Table of Contents for the entire thesis. It also allows compilation of an Index (that is not required for doctoral theses, but necessary if you plan to publish your thesis as a book).

The front matter: This comprises, in the following order:

  • the Title page
  • the Declaration
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures and Tables (if appropriate)

The Body

  • The Introduction
  • The main chapters
  • The conclusion

The Back matter:

  • Reference list
  • Appendices (if appropriate)

Checks should be made within the thesis to ensure that styles are consistent and cross-referencing is accurate. This should be done in the editing stage.

Once the thesis is complete it requires binding [soft/hard? check]

What to expect from examiners

Normally two examiners are sought with a third examiner “in reserve” in the event of disagreement, though this can vary among Schools. Examiners typically take a few months at least to read the thesis. This is not unreasonable. After all, it is a book-length document.

This period can be an anxious time for the candidate as they wait for the judgment of the examiners. However, it is not healthy to fret about it as there is little one can do but wait. If you have worked hard at the thesis and taken on board your supervisors’ comments, the chances are you will be fine. Consider occupying your time productively by translating your thesis into publications.

The examiners write fairly lengthy reports in response to reading the thesis, usually about 5-10 pages in length, with suggested changes you might need to make, or questions for you to consider. Occasionally they may have major concerns with the thesis. This is not unusual. They are asked by the research higher degree committee to judge the thesis according to four possible outcomes. These are given below. You will receive the examiners’ reports once the Research Higher Degree Committee has considered them and made a decision based on the reports.

There are four possible outcomes from the committees’ decision:

  • Accept with no revisions: This is fairly rare as many theses need amendment of some kind. However, if your examiners has made such a recommendation you can be very proud of your efforts! Well done.
  • Accept with major revisions: This outcome is quite usual. It can be exasperating for candidates, after spending so long writing the thesis, to revise and resubmit it again, but this is essential if you wish to pass. Normally the resubmitted thesis only goes to the dissenting examiner.
  • Accept with minor revisions: This is also quite usual. Typically, if the changes required are very minor it is acceptable to write an Errata sheet, append it to the front of the thesis, and resubmit it to the committee for consideration. Normally, this can be expedited quickly without the need to resend the thesis back to examiners.
  • Reject: A thesis that is rejected completely cannot normally be resubmitted again.

Once you have had your—hopefully positive—thesis outcome, you should celebrate of course. But as soon as celebrations end you should attempt to convert some of your thesis chapters to publications (assuming you have not already begun this process). A thesis can often sit unread forever on a library shelf. By publishing parts of the thesis it can potentially be read by thousands, and cited by scholars in the field. Scholarly journals are an obvious potential outlet, but don’t neglect other publication outlets such as conference papers, book chapters, and various print and online media outlets. See Academic Publishing for further details about the variety of publication outlets you can consider.