Learning to Write a Thesis: An Applied Sociology Perspective

How long was your thesis? If you’re still a student, how long do you plan your thesis to be? In the amusing graphic below by blogger R is My Friend, we can see that sociology is right up there for voluminous pages, along with anthropology, political science and other social sciences. R is My Friend wrote a coding program to data mine The University of Minnesota library, extracting data about their students’ electronic dissertations held since 2007. R is My Friend notes:

Economics, mathematics, and biostatistics had the lowest median page lengths, whereas anthropology, history, and political science had the highest median page lengths. This distinction makes sense given the nature of the disciplines.

The data graphed are obviously limited to one university in a given period of time, but the results are still interesting to consider. In particular, we have a comparison point for theses length amongst various disciplines. Is page length an arbitrary measure? Don’t adages like “quality over quantity” count for anything? My post springboards from this diagram to address a serious issue, which is about how the academic system prepares students for applied research.

In part, we might say that it makes sense for sociology theses to be longer than most other disciplines, since much of our work is based on literature reviews, qualitative data analysis or interpretation of quantitative data using theory. The thing is, producing a long thesis will not necessarily help prepare you for a career as an applied sociologist. In this post, I reflect on the lessons I’ve learned about editing my writing as an applied sociologist. I show that in many cases, applied sociology research will involve the critical analysis of hundreds of sources and datasets which are usually presented in a short summary of only one or two pages. Let’s explore explore the question: How can we learn to write a better, leaner thesis given the reality of an applied career?

University of Minnesota PhD major sorted by median page length. By R is my friend via Rakesh Yadav
University of Minnesota PhD major sorted by median page length. By R is my friend via Rakesh Yadav

Thesis as an Apprenticeship

The best description of a PhD that relates to applied sociology was given to me by my supervisor, a very senior academic who often spoke about the importance of lean writing. They said that undertaking a dissertation is like doing an apprenticeship. It teaches you how to be a sociologist, but more specifically, you’re learning the skills for how to work as a social scientist. Writing the thesis is an important output, but the number of words doesn’t necessarily count.

Yes, most universities stipulate the word range for theses – in my university an Honours thesis should be between 10,000 to 15,000 words but many sociology students (myself included!) go over this range. A PhD by dissertation is between 70,000 and 100,000 words. In sociology we seem to take this as a challenge to write to the limit, rather than aiming to reach the lower range. Let’s unpack why this is not the best way to think of a PhD if you’re looking to work outside academia.

If you’re an applied sociologist, it will be rare where you will get to waffle on for pages on end. This is why I now advocate succinct writing. Yet I didn’t understand this in the past.

Hindsight on the Benefits of PhD Brevity

My Honours thesis was 25,000 words long and my PhD thesis was 100,000 words long and over 300 pages. As a supervisor I have told my Honours students I won’t read over 15,000 words and my limit for PhDs is 80,000 words. Including appendixes. Is this hypocrisy? I’d like to think of it more as experience.

I never supervised students while I was still teaching. I have only ever supervised students as an applied sociologist. This includes as the primary industry supervisor with a student embedded within my workplace, and as an external supervisor who consults and reads advanced and final drafts. I let my students know how long my theses were and I explained how, knowing what I do now, I can see what should have been cut in two general ways. First, I can see that I covered too much ground. Second, having now marked theses and read them as a supervisor for my students, I can tell you from experience, long theses are hard to read. Let’s take a look at these two points in turn.

Getting lost in the detail

PhD Thesis. By Sociology at Work via Flickr
Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

I can see now that I should have tightened my PhD literature review by covering less concepts and theoretical approaches. My PhD thesis was about social identities of migrants. My literature review and data chapters were structured around three sets of literatures: ethnicity, sexuality, and nationality, but I also covered religion, class, racism, multiculturalism and various other empirical literature. This was way too much.

Throughout my career, I have drawn on all these concepts, but I should have been more focused on ethnicity in my write up. I should have edited around this central concept, rather than trying to cover several different literatures in detail. To be clear: I do not regret the level of reading I did, as reading heavily is useful to applied careers, but I wish I’d written less. I’ve had colleagues and clients ask for a copy of my thesis in the past and they baulked at the length when I sent it to them. I ended up having to put together a plain language summary for one client who wanted to read no more than 10 to 20 pages. I did it. It’s possible to write succinctly, especially with practice. It’s hard to see that as a student, because we are overly invested in the detail. Again, my supervisor’s words echo in my memory: “It’s hard to see the forest for the trees,” goes the adage. My supervisor was trying to encourage me to stop getting lost in the detail.

My data chapters were also way too detailed. I was fortunate in the sense that my data chapters held the interest of my examiners and supervisors, but this is subjective. We all think our data are interesting. Other examiners may not have been so engaged and perhaps less tolerant of the length. Students don’t always realise that examiners and supervisors, even academics, are just like any other regular reader. We are put off by reading long waffling when we can see that it could have been heavily edited.

Examiners are people too

Examiners are paid a pittance to read theses and it’s squeezed in on free time out of the office, usually on weekends. I once marked four Honours theses around my birthday celebrations which didn’t exactly make me feel jovial about reading long-winded writing. While it’s part of a supervisor’s workload to read drafts, this is one time-consuming chunk of time amidst a range of other responsibilities.

The logistics of marking aside, the reader can always see where you should have exercised more will power in editing. It’s easier to see this in hindsight, or from a refreshed perspective. This is why you should always aim to stage your proofreading, giving yourself time away from your thesis towards the end, so that you can commit to making heavy edits. You should also call on friends and colleagues to help you trim down your drafts; don’t leave this to your supervisors. More on this in another post.

It’s important as sociologists that we read widely and engage critically with the literature. Yet in terms of getting ready for an applied career, brevity is best. If you do research work as an applied sociologist, you will read tonnes of materials which will mostly be synthesised into a couple of pages. Here’s an example from my career that might put this into perspective.

Case Study: Writing in an Applied Context

PhD Thesis. By Sociology at Work via Flickr
PhD Thesis. By Sociology at Work via Flickr

I have done a few long-term research projects that ended up with, at most, 300 pages, but this includes hundreds of statistical tables. This was rare. Most long-term research reports are going to be around 30 to 60 pages at most. These are the exceptions, as many applied sociology jobs are short-term, or they’re undertaken for community organisations, businesses and Government groups that have a much lower threshold for reading long reports. For some of my clients, this might mean writing a one page summary drawing on numerous sources, in other cases, I won’t actually write up a report. My knowledge will be integrated into some other output, like an evaluation, a table, a diagram, a poster, a short blog post, a strategy plan, a list of recommendations or, in the past, I’ve contributed to statistical models, computer models, software design and so on.

In some jobs, if you write up the outcomes from a project, you’ll be lucky to get 10 or even 20 pages. There are different standards in different industries, but as a whole, long reports are an indulgence you’ll rarely see as an applied sociologist.

In one project, I worked in an interdisciplinary team on strategic social policy. We each read 200 to 300 bits of data a day (policy summaries, newspaper articles, and other short reports). We summarised the material as a five minute oral summary or occasionally we provided an one to two page report. My largest report for that team was 15 pages, including photos, tables and references. The project ran for six months, it included a review of over hundred empirical studies and reports as well as analysis of lengthy qualitative interviews that I’d conducted. Whittling the length to 15 pages was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done at a time when I was already used to writing in brief. The length of that report ended up being very controversial since policy makers hate reading anything longer than a two page Executive Summary. The reason why the report was 15 pages and not two pages was because my direct client wanted that extra detail. But I got away with it with other stakeholders because my short Exec Summary was deemed to be very useful. In large part, this was because the Exec Summary included a large table, which actually “hooked in” my broader policy audience.

My lesson to you, dear doctoral students, is that it’s better to learn to write briefly. You can have more impact with fewer words. Learn to do visual sociology – represent your findings with images and diagrams wherever possible (again more on this later).

In one of our Sociology at Work videos, Dr Sue Malta encourages you to try to publish your literature review. This is a great idea for trimming the excess from your thesis, as journal articles are generally around 5,000 to 7,000 words. This is also a good way of taking out entire sections from your thesis. If the information is interesting but it’s not directly related to your key argument, set it aside for later publication.

Over to You

It’s better to plan your thesis to be shorter: aim for the lower end of your word l

imit guidelines, not the upper end. It’ll be easier to publish parts of your thesis later on, and you’ll be better positioned for the type of work ahead of you should you work outside academia.

What has been your experience in writing a PhD? Can you see where you could have edited sections? Are you still writing your PhD and struggling with editing? What works for you? Got any other tips you can share about writing for an applied audience which might help sociology students? Share your experiences in the comments section!