This guide, following on from W40, “Starting out,” discusses the design of your research question and related matters. While it is written with PhD theses in mind, much of the advice also applies to research Masters degrees.
The guide looks at what is involved in choosing a topic, and outlines five essential elements of superior topics. It discusses how to settle on a topic if you’re stuck for ideas, scoping the topic, narrowing the focus to shape your research question, writing a research proposal, and choosing a supervisor. The guide also discusses what examiners look for as they assess your work.
The next guide, R14, outlines the process of writing a doctoral literature review. Then W42 looks at issues related to structure and writing, and W43 surveys what it takes to finish well. A forthcoming guide will discuss thesis supervision and examination in more detail.
1. What topic? Which research question?
Every thesis or dissertation (hereafter simply “thesis”) needs a topic. Selecting the ideal topic can be frustrating and time-consuming but is perhaps the most important part of the entire project. This is not the place to parade your favourite hobbyhorse or to pontificate on a matter of personal conviction. Other forums cater to that.
The PhD research process is about conducting excellent academic research that has not been done before, organising your findings into a coherent and sustained narrative that precisely answers the research question, and writing up the research according to the standards of your academic discipline, including the appropriate documentation of sources.
Your topic should inspire and excite you. It should also draw readers away from other work to read yours and hold their interest. A cogent argument, engaging writing style, and compelling narrative hooks all contribute to this effect, but the topic is paramount.
Your topic should create a research space, demonstrating the relevance of your project and reviewing the findings of previous research in the field. It should establish a niche by indicating a gap in current knowledge or by extending that knowledge in innovative ways. It should occupy the niche by indicating the purpose and utility of your research, stating the research question, and outlining the structure of your argument.
Perhaps you already have a clear idea of your preferred topic or research question, in which case you may want to skip this section and the next. But for most aspiring research students, choosing an appropriate topic for intensive research and writing over several years presents a significant challenge.
Try to settle on a provisional general topic as early as possible, and work on clarity and focus. This guide is designed to help you achieve this. The sooner you can identify your aim, the sooner you can get to work with purposeful reading, reflection, critical thinking, writing, reframing, and interaction with your supervisor.
There is no perfect topic. Once you have selected a reasonable topic based on the five key elements outlined below, resist the temptation to change to an entirely different topic. Remember that the clock is always ticking.
Remember too that your thesis is neither your life’s work nor the standard by which others will forever judge you. Once you have completed it, you will look back on the experience as a beginning, as mere preparation for what comes later, not as the ultimate peak life experience it may appear to be today. Think of the PhD as a test of your ability to conduct research at the highest intellectual level, and to successfully manage a large project.
Five essential elements
A good PhD research topic has five essential elements. If your proposed topic demonstrates weakness in any of these areas then you need to reframe or rethink the topic.
It should contain a question that you propose to answer. There will be many related and subsidiary questions, but framing your research topic in the form of a single key question provides clarity and focus. For example, here are three sample research questions based on the stated aims of three completed PhD theses (we will return to these later):
- Is Nicholas Wolterstorff’s meta-theory a viable alternative to foundationalism and relativism?
- How does semantic analysis enhance our understanding of the term rûaḥ in biblical wisdom literature?
- What contribution did Donald Robinson and D. B. Knox make to the doctrine of the church?
Note that these are not thesis titles, or thesis statements, but research questions. They frame the big picture. They enable you to think critically about the nature and aims of the research project. They help to determine whether further clarity of purpose or precision regarding key terms is required.
Do the answers to your research question already exist in the literature? Are they easily obtainable without doing detailed research? If so, you will need to formulate a different question. Originality implies that you are bringing something new to the academic discussion. It indicates that you are making a significant addition to the accumulated knowledge within your discipline, advancing its methodology or understanding.
However, as Nijay Gupta observes:
One should not exaggerate what constitutes originality. In some rare cases, a researcher comes up with an idea that is so peculiar and refreshing that it completely redefines the field. I don’t believe you’ll meet very many who have done that! Good research is based on a reliance on primary and secondary sources, and the original contribution is found in how the researcher carries existing work forward or in a different or insightful direction.
There are several ways to enhance the originality of your research, such as:
- generating new data or information
- creating new interpretations of existing data or information
- analysing phenomena in innovative ways
- enhancing, modifying or critiquing existing theories, models, or interpretations
- introducing an effective but uncommon methodology from another field
- comparing or contrasting two persons (e.g., historical figures, or contemporary theologians) who have not previously been considered together
- providing new solutions to known problems
- comparing two texts on the same subject that have never been brought together before
- giving intensive and exhaustive attention to a widely neglected term, phrase or idea.
A great way to identify areas for original research is to conduct a thorough literature review based on your chosen topic, ensuring that you include the most recent sources. This will uncover gaps and limitations in current knowledge, which may be shaped into an original research question.
You must have adequate access to the primary and secondary sources you need to conduct the proposed research, to any technical tools you may need, and to the financial resources required to undertake the work (such as travel costs, and costs associated with remote access to documents). If access cannot be assured, then your project is likely to be unfeasible.
Take care that your topic is not so broad that it cannot be adequately covered in a single thesis. Take care too that you are sufficiently grounded in the literature that you can address the topic in a comprehensive manner. If you find that you are not so grounded, what steps should you take to be in a position to do so? Perhaps you need to delay your candidature until you have invested more time in reading, or narrow the focus of your topic so that the amount of relevant literature is less overwhelming.
If your studies require a working knowledge of another language, such as academic German, French or Latin, and you are not already reasonably fluent in it, what do you need to do to prepare for such language acquisition?
What is feasible is not necessarily manageable. Is your chosen topic within the range of your intellectual or technical competence? Are your previous studies an adequate basis from which to launch into this large, mostly self-directed project? Do you have sufficient time, research resources, access to data and information, and organisational skills to satisfactorily complete the project? If not, what needs to change in order for the project to be manageable?
In the context of New Testament studies, Nijay Gupta writes:
Quite often, a dissertation covers the scope of one book of the Bible. However, even that may
prove too difficult, so it might be narrowed down further to, for example, Isaiah 40-66. Manageability could be about more than just how much text to cover. If one desired to study patterns of the use of natural elements in the Gospel parables, the topic could be further limited to just arboreal language if necessary for the sake of manageability. As for my own research project, I found that it would be too unwieldy to study all of the apostle Paul’s cultic metaphors, so I chose to limit it to those in the undisputed letters, and only his non-atonement cultic metaphors.
Does the research topic reflect your own strengths, passions and interests? Does it grip your imagination? Does it inspire you to delve deep into the literature, follow research trails where they may lead, and create order out of potential chaos or confusion? If not, you may struggle to complete your doctorate, especially if unforeseen problems threaten to derail your plans.
Another question to consider is whether your proposed research has the capacity to launch your academic career in the way you hoped it would. Does the research question have demonstrable interest to other significant people or groups, such as sponsors, colleagues, future employers? Knowledge of such potential or actual interest may help to keep you moving forward if you encounter unexpected challenges.
If you have not invested considerable time in early background reading, you should consider researching a topic of which you do have a reasonable grasp. The effort of ploughing through a largely unfamiliar literature can feel overwhelming. Do what brings you joy.
What other factors might influence your ability to conduct the required research and writing and successfully complete your thesis?
2. How to choose a research topic
If you are unsure what topic to pursue, or are concerned that a topic may be unsuitable for doctoral research, consider one of these 15 scoping suggestions:
- Think of a topic about which you feel passionate, or one that interests you more than most.
- Is there a topic that matches your expertise?
- What research question might arise from your own experience or pastoral/professional practice?
- Make a list of questions that have been asked about an area of academic interest, along with answers. Then consider what alternative answers might be given. Change the wording of your questions and select one. Seeing problems and issues from a fresh perspective can inspire creative thinking.
- Read widely in a field of personal interest to you and identify a gap in knowledge to which you could make a reasonable contribution.
- Select a few academic journals and browse articles until an idea for a topic surfaces in your mind.
- From your reading, make a list of questions or topics that respected authors have indicated as worthy of further research. Focus on one of these.
- Ask “What if” questions to inspire creative thinking and imagine ways in which you might answer the questions. Then think of ways in which others might approach the questions. Shape one such question-and-answer into a research topic.
- Think of a topic other people want to read about: something new, different, interesting, counterintuitive, perhaps controversial. Write about that topic.
- Peruse the abstracts and tables of contents of theses and dissertations in your field, looking for topics that could form the basis of your research.
- Make a list of controversial issues in your academic field, identify the most controversial, and develop a research question that fruitfully addresses it.
- Write several key concepts from your area of interest on post-it notes and arrange them in different ways to create interesting connections and questions.
- Discuss possible topics with Moore College faculty or reach out to leading thinkers in your field for ideas and relevant research topics. They may even have a list of such topics.
- Think of a subject area rich in data and information that you could analyse and evaluate and come up with a suitable research question.
- Create your own method for generating research ideas!
Narrowing your focus
Once you have a provisional research topic in mind, you may need to narrow your focus and draft a research question that best suits the doctoral process. Look for an aspect or perspective from which you can most effectively approach the topic. It should be a problem or issue that genuinely sparks your interest, as you will spend a large part of the next several years thinking, writing, and speaking about it.
For example, to narrow the focus of the broad topic of “spiritual pilgrimage,” ask questions such as:
Would this be the history of pilgrimage? Pilgrimage as a practice for parishes? Biblical understandings of pilgrimage? The theology of place and space? You need to choose what conceptual framework you are coming from. What is the aspect of pilgrimage that most interests you? What kind of literature will you be reading to illuminate this? Choosing your framework in this way narrows down your work and enables you to begin focusing in depth. It helps you to select what to include and what to exclude. It gives you a framework in which to research and to make an argument.
If your project is too broad in scope, you will struggle to successfully complete as there is too much literature to analyse and not enough space to adequately answer the question. It’s possible to identify a suitable narrower topic within the range of the broad topic.
Too narrow a scope for your research project, and you will face the opposite problem. You may be able to rework a too-narrow topic by considering a comparative study, such as comparing the approaches of two or three key thinkers on the issue, or extending the historical scope of the study to encompass more persons, ideas and events.
At doctoral level, your research must be original. Your research question must be one that no one else has answered, or one that others have answered in an unsatisfactory manner in terms of theory, methodology and/or conclusions.
Qualitative or quantitative?
Qualitative studies are by far the most common PhD topics in biblical, theological and church history studies. For a qualitative study, identify your research approach, your subject or topic, and the phenomenon or research data you wish to analyse or reinterpret.
For example, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright received his PhD degree from the University of Oxford in 1980 for the following thesis: “The Messiah and the people of God: A study in Pauline theology with particular reference to the argument of the Epistle to the Romans.” Red text indicates the subject, green indicates general aspects of the research method, and blue indicates the primary research data.
For a research question in a quantitative field, one might instead define the research variables and their relationship. For example, education academic Babatunde Ojewunmi’s doctoral research at the University of Cambridge, completed in 2020, examined the welfare of students impacted by British legislative changes. His research question was: “Insights into pastoral care experiences following the implementation of the Equality Act 2010: a case study approach.”
Here, red text indicates the dependent variable, green indicates the independent variable, blue indicates the type of relationship between variables, and purple indicates the research methodology. There is also an implied dependent variable, the pastoral care experiences of UK tertiary students, although this is not stated in the thesis title.
Deductive or inductive?
Doctoral research may also be deductive or inductive. The deductive approach starts with a premise tested by analysis and evaluation of research data. The inductive approach examines data and information (i.e., evidence) with the aim of developing a firm hypothesis or research question. As theologian D. A. Carson observes,
the advantage of the deductive approach is that the work is interesting and can be proven or tested easily. The problem is that, “unless the student takes extraordinary precautions and proves to be remarkably self-critical, the temptation to domesticate the evidence in order to defend the thesis becomes well-nigh irresistible.” And, for the inductive approach, the gain is that the results tend to be more “even-handed,” but they may amount to little more than “a lot of well-organized data.”
An example of a deductive approach is Brian Rosner’s book, Paul, Scripture and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians (Leiden: Brill, 1994). An example of an inductive approach is Anthony Petterson’s book, Behold Your King: The Hope for the House of David in the Book of Zechariah (New York: T&T Clark, 2009).
Nijay Gupta suggests that
most dissertations in biblical studies tend to be inductive, focusing on shedding more insight on a particular exegetical problem, fleshing out the meaning of a term or concept, or exploring a theme in more detail than before … Deductive studies are a gamble and, thus, rarer. However, those dissertations that have set off bombs in the scholarly world tend to be deductive precisely because they stand against some traditional (or tacit) position and are argued persuasively.
Studies may also adopt a theoretical or empirical approach. For example, you may be able to answer your research question largely through theoretical considerations requiring mastery of a large body primary and secondary sources. Or you may answer your question by applying the findings of empirical research such as interviews, questionnaires, case studies, focus groups, and/or observations. Often a mixture of theoretical and empirical approaches provides the best outcome.
Scoping your topic
Once you have a firm idea of your research topic and research question, you need to become well acquainted with the literature in your field. Your aim is to be an expert on your topic.
Make good use of databases, library catalogues and library staff. Read recently published textbooks, monographs, journal articles and theses. Peruse footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies looking for additional relevant material. Read other works by key authors and eminent scholars. Examine relevant ancient texts. Take note of important problems, issues, controversies, perplexities. Look out for indications of gaps in data, information and knowledge.
It is also important to read widely outside your area of interest and even beyond the broader field of biblical, theological, history and/or church history studies. This may seem like madness, but it can make all the difference for the outcome of your research. Fresh ideas and inspiration are often sparked by thinking “outside the box,” bringing together two or more rewarding conversation partners or approaches to a problem that would not normally be juxtaposed.
Gupta notes that,
from a methodological standpoint, there is much that is being learned from advancements in ritual studies, cognitive linguistics, the sociology of knowledge, modern continental philosophy, semiotics, theories of drama and performance, social identity theories, and psychology. One place to get a sense for how newer methods have influenced biblical studies is to start paying attention to past and current issues of Biblical Interpretation, a journal that “provides a vehicle for the exercise and development of a whole range of newer techniques and interpretations.”
Don’t feel obliged to stick with the first big idea you stumbled upon, or the first exciting topic a prospective supervisor suggests. Time is important, but in the early stages of a doctoral degree (especially before your official candidature starts), you have extensive time to reflect and ponder, to allow ideas to percolate and surface, to make connections between what at first appear to be disparate ideas, and to make connections between texts that would not be possible in the absence of wide thoughtful slow reading.
Topics to avoid
There are institutional checks and balances designed to ensure that research disaster does not occur, but you are the most important driver of your research. In Doing Research in the Real World, David E. Gray lists six kinds of research topic to avoid. You should reflect on the degree to which your research question faces these problems and revise your plans accordingly. Otherwise, you may discover in retrospect that your topic was unfeasible.
Here is a summary of Gray’s six topics to avoid, adapted to theological studies:
Too big. For example, the topic, “Theological perspectives on human sexuality” may have great value but require significant interdisciplinary research. The lack of a historical or geographical dimension may weaken your argument, and you may lack the time, experience and resources to successfully complete the project. Would you use qualitative or quantitative methods? A deductive or inductive approach? Would it be wiser to focus on a specific thread of interest or controversy? It may be difficult to know where to begin writing, the literature will be huge, and omissions and oversights may be highly visible to experts in the field.
Too trivial. Common sense should guide you in deciding which projects are worth doing. For example, a study of the blog posts of ministers in your suburb over the past five years may well be too trivial for a PhD thesis. The same study in New York City, or a study of the sermons of Australian Anglican Archbishops during the same period, may have more substance. Biographical studies also risk being too trivial, if only because most of the best subjects have already been well researched.
Lacking in resource materials and people. If, as you scope the topic, you discover that there are very few relevant references in books and journals, there is probably good reason for this, and you should look elsewhere for a topic. If your research depends upon access to knowledge experts or key leaders in your field, or to an institution and /or its archives, ensure that such people and institutions are available and willing to cooperate with you before you begin.
Too technical. This usually relates to highly technical, intractable and unsolvable problems in scientific and industrial settings. However, there are many such problems in theological studies that may tempt students to commence doctoral projects in order to resolve them. In such cases, the key question is whether you have the technical capacity, and adequate support from supervisors and your institution, to successfully complete the work and adequately resolve the problem.
Dependent on the completion of another project. This is less likely to occur in theological studies than in other disciplines, but it is possible. For example, the progress of your research may be dependent upon the availability of works in process of translation, or the completion of an ongoing project by an external organisation. You need to have control of your own timescales.
Unethical. Your research must not damage people physically, emotionally or intellectually. This is especially relevant for research involving observation, interviews, focus groups and questionnaires. Take special care regarding sensitive issues such as power relationships, race, gender and the disclosure of personal information. Official ethics protocols apply for research involving people and must be followed.
3. Writing your research proposal
Armed with your research question, you are now able to create a formal research proposal. This is a preliminary map of your research project demonstrating that you understand the process of scholarly enquiry and providing a rationale for the project.
Your thesis should actively enter into an existing academic conversation about the topic under investigation. You need to demonstrate your awareness of this conversation, that you understand its main contours, and that you have the capacity to actively participate in it.
At this stage you also need to establish that you will have access to the resources needed to answer the research question, write a thesis statement, outline the proposed structure of your proposal, consider potential supervisors, and determine whether you need ethics clearance for your research.
Availability of resources
Supervision is a key research resource without which you will not complete your degree, and is discussed later in this section. Other resources include an appropriate study environment, research and writing technology, and intellectual resources such as books, journal articles, dissertations, and primary sources.
Having too much material to analyse and evaluate is as much a problem as having too little. If you find that your research topic results in a very large comprehensive secondary literature, you may find it difficult to identify a gap in knowledge or a new angle from which to approach the topic, and a general dissertation will probably lack the required focus of original doctoral research. You may also have insufficient time to adequately analyse and evaluate all the literature. The solution is, of course, to further narrow the focus of your research question until the literature is of manageable size.
Having too little material to analyse and evaluate indicates that your research question may be too narrow, or that you have not yet completed a comprehensive literature search. For some projects, such as detailed archival research, you may not know for some months whether there is sufficient relevant material in archival records to adequately answer the research question. If it transpires that there is insufficient archival material, and you wish to proceed with the research topic, you may need to consider a comparative study of two subjects or refocus your research question to address the subject by way of a different filter.
For example, my PhD research involved research using primary sources written by Australian theologian George Henry Morling. From the start there was a possibility that extant records may not be of sufficient depth to sustain doctoral research. Experience proved otherwise, but my inductive approach allowed me to expand the research question and explore not only the content of Morling’s Christian thought but to reconstruct the social and religious context of his formation as a scholar. An alternative option would be to identify another theologian of similar status, either in Australia or internationally, and conduct a comparative study.
Crafting a thesis statement
Your thesis statement expresses the core claim or opinion of your research topic, and guides the flow of argument in your work. It focuses your subject. The thesis statement should consist of one or two sentences – clear, specific, original, stated as an argument that can be supported with reasons and specific evidence, and subject to possible change or modification as your research progresses. Avoid starting with the words, “This thesis will argue…”
Ideally, you will return to your thesis question in the conclusion to your thesis, supplying your reader with a cogent and comprehensive answer.
Structure of your research proposal
Your research proposal should answer three questions:
a) What is your intended research about?
b) Why is it important to focus on this specific problem, issue, gap or controversy?
c) How do you plan to carry out your research?
Your task is to convince readers of the significance of the project. Don’t worry if at first you lack clarity in the fine details – this will come later in the research process, and can be modified as you read the literature, make new discoveries and follow unforeseen leads.
There are various ways in which a thesis may be structured. Below is one suggested approach, although yours may take a different form depending on your academic discipline, purpose or aims, research methodology, and primary sources:
Introduction. Here you state the research question, provide general background information, and provisionally outline how you intend to proceed, including the flow of argument from one chapter or section to the next.
Methodology. Indicate the qualitative or quantitative sources/data you expect to analyse, how you will conduct this analysis, and flag any biases of which you are aware.
Objectives. State anticipated goals and outcomes of your research, and how it may be of benefit to others.
Literature review. This will be provisional and partial as you are just beginning the research process. List all key references you intend to use so that those who assess your proposal have a clear indication of the focus and direction of your current research interests. For more information on literature reviews for doctoral research see Research Guide 14.
Constraints. List any actual or anticipated research constraints that may impact your work, and indicate a proposed time frame.
You may also wish to add a short section of definitions of key technical terms you intend to use.
Zoë Bennett outlines three possible ways of showing connections between sections of your argument:
- Building up the argument. This works best for a thesis that starts with a clear research question, proceeds to introduce further information to examine the question, and moves logically to a new position on the question.
- Illuminating the central question. This approach focuses on the key issue at the centre of your research, surrounded by various subsidiary or ancillary issues that shed light on the central issue, such as information and opinion from secondary reading and experience.
- Making complex interconnections. Here the structure will resemble a classic Venn diagram showing complex interconnections. All segments must be filled and logical, indicating why each element from your sources, and in your argument, is relevant to the research question. Ensure that you fully explain how and why each element is connected.
Finding a supervisor
Students are assigned a supervisor before candidature commences. PhD applicants to Moore Theological College are encouraged to talk to potential supervisors and their requests are taken into consideration, but the final decision of supervision is made by the Director of Research and the Head of Department, or by the Research Committee in the case of an Associate Supervisor. Students are assigned a Primary Supervisor. A Secondary Supervisor is appointed as a reserve when the Primary Supervisor goes on leave. In exceptional circumstances, an Associate Supervisor can be appointed, who assists the Primary Supervisor in supervision.
If a Moore College student is unhappy with any supervisor, concerns may be raised at the Annual Progress Review, during which specific questions about the supervisory relationship are asked. The student also has recourse at any time to the Director of Research, but also the Dean of Students, Dean of Women, and Academic Dean. The College also has a grievance policy and process that may be followed if these measures do not reach a satisfactory outcome.
The choice of supervisor depends upon the nature and scope of your research question, the availability of suitable faculty members to provide supervision, and their willingness to supervise a student and his or her topic. Some faculty, for example, may already have a significant ongoing supervision load.
The supervisory arrangement is a two-way relationship that must work smoothly for both parties. At doctoral level, most supervisors will not be prescriptive in their approach to supervision but will allow you to make most or all of the decisions relating to scope, structure, focus, methodology, argument, style, grammar, referencing, bibliography and time management.
A supervisor’s time is precious, and their knowledge and expertise are of great value. It is vital that you, the student, respect a supervisor’s wisdom, learning and expertise, and their moral authority to teach and advise. Consider their advice carefully; they want you to succeed, and their advice is calibrated to assist you in various ways to achieve your goal.
The daily and weekly work of research and writing, and the key decisions that will deliver successful completion of the project, are your responsibility.
Ethics clearance is mandatory for various types of research involving humans and animals. You will not require ethics clearance to commence your candidature, but if required it will be an early task in your research process. Discuss the matter with your supervisor.
4. Refining your topic
At various points in your journey from admission to completion you may find it expedient to refine your research topic and research question.
Your research proposal is like a blueprint for what you wish to write. Nothing is written “in stone” until you submit the work to your examiners, so changes are possible. Obviously, the closer you are to completion the more difficult, and problematic, it is to make significant changes. You don’t want to waste years of your life! And how can you be sure that a major reworking of the thesis will actually improves your argument or structure?
There are risks associated with deviating from a well-conceived and approved plan, but the discovery of new information and new ideas may warrant changes. You may discover that, as your work progresses, your research is pointing in a novel but fruitful direction contrary to earlier expectations. Or you may find that there is a better way to structure the narrative, and this suggests the possibility of a major revision.
The writing process also resembles a mapping exercise: how well do the various parts fit together? Are the logical connections between sections clear? Does your narrative flow smoothly or are you obliged to shoe-horn sections in order to make them fit your structure? If you are not satisfied with your structure and order, consider some revisions – but be sure to save a copy of the pre-revision draft for possible later reference.
The key to refining your topic is critical reading of sources. As you read, look for the following:
- what others have said about your topic
- additional material you need in order to make contextual sense of your topic
- less obvious material that may be of interest
- alternative ways to research the topic and structure your writing.
For example, read intentionally outside your academic discipline, or read tangentially in your field but not material that is directly related to your work. In biblical and theological studies, some of the best and most original projects are those that discover something innovative or controversial. Keep an eye out for signs of these qualities in your reading and thinking.
Point d) above suggests the need for reading on research methodology. Which research methodology, and methods, are most likely to produce interesting data? What is the best way to analyse your primary sources or other key research data? How much time and money will this take? What significant barriers or challenges are presented (e.g., access to private records, cooperation from a group of interviewees)? Will you need to acquire theological language skills in another language (e.g., German, Latin, French)?
The best approach is to write every day, and make small changes to your structure and argument as necessary. You may have a brilliant research idea, a sizzling topic, an eloquent research question, a magnificent argument structure, a beautiful thesis statement, an ideal supervisor, and all the research resources you need. But until you begin writing you have nothing tangible to contribute to the academic conversation you have joined. So start a fresh page and write something today!
5. What PhD examiners look for in a thesis
The marking criteria for examiners of Moore Theological College doctoral theses are set forth in the College’s “Research higher degree thesis examination procedure.” The advice below should be read in addition to these criteria and is not intended to explicate or replace them.
A successful research thesis will display:
- a defined focus
- a clearly stated research question or hypothesis
- a coherent and unifying macro-level structure
- a competent outline of the research methodology and methods used, including awareness of underlying assumptions and bias
- expert knowledge of scholarly and other relevant literature
- a critical and evaluative assessment of the literature
- evidence of thorough and ethically conducted research
- clear organisation, signposting and flow
- skilled and sustained use of evidence-based arguments
- evidence of competence in considering possible objections to arguments advanced in the thesis
- a conclusion that directly addresses the research question or hypothesis
- a clean text with acceptable style
- accurate referencing
- an explicit original contribution to knowledge.
The absence of one or more of these qualities usually indicates that the thesis requires major or minor corrections or should not be accepted.
A good thesis will not bore the examiner. It will present work that is compelling or at least interesting to read. Desirable elements will differ in nature and emphasis from discipline to discipline. General desirable traits include:
- an early statement of the principal purpose or aims of the thesis
- a robust application of the methodology or research design
- precise and consistent use of terminology
- clear signposting and linking between paragraphs, sections and chapters
- elegant, precise and economical prose
- sophisticated analysis and evaluation of evidence
- demonstration of disciplined and not excessively speculative discussion
- clearly expressed and persuasive conclusions in the light of the evidence presented
- clear and precise knowledge claims regarding the original contribution of the thesis
- careful and accurate presentation of the scholarly apparatus.
- evidence of rigorous editing and proofreading.
Your thesis should be written in a formal style typical of your academic discipline, but the prose should also convey a sense of the distinctive quality of your own voice. As Pat Thomson says, “No examiner is keen on style over substance. But substance plus style? Yippee.”
Attributes to avoid
A poorly researched and/or poorly written thesis will usually lack several of the essential and desirable attributes of a good thesis as listed above. You should take special care to avoid the following:
- a confused or ambiguous statement of the principal purpose or aims of the thesis
- an overly ambitious thesis that fails to deliver what is promised
- a missing or undeveloped rationale for the choice of theoretical perspective or conceptual framework
- a serial rather than interpretive review of the literature with scant critical analysis or argument
- use of large slabs of qualitative data to present a point when smaller excerpts with richer or deeper analyses are warranted
- unsubstantiated claims, overly simplistic statements and generalisations.
 Nijay K. Gupta, Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond (Wipf & Stock, 2011), 63.
 Gupta, Prepare, Succeed, Advance, 63.
 Zoë Bennett, Your MA in Theology: A Study Skills Handbook (London: SCM Press, 2014), 108f.
 Gupta, Prepare, Succeed, Advance, 65.
 David E. Gray, Doing Research in the Real World (third edition; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2014), 51.
 Bennett, Your MA in Theology, 121-124.
 List adapted from Pat Thompson, “Required, desired and delightful elements of academic writing,” available at https://patthomson.net/2021/05/03/required-desirable-and-delightful-elements-of-academic-writing/, accessed 2 May 2022.
 Lists of desirable attributes and attributes to avoid adapted from Brian Paltridge & Sue Starfield, Thesis and Dissertation Writing in a Second Language: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors (2nd edition; London: Routledge, 2020), 19f.