Over the years this Kat has examined a good many PhD theses -- but not many good ones. This blogpost lists and explains some of his admittedly subjective feelings about what PhD candidates should, or should not do, based on his own experiences.
Here are some things to avoid:
* The do-it-yourself comparison. PhD theses with a comparative flavour have long been popular for many reasons. A PhD candidate studying abroad may wish to draw upon the law and practice of both his home country and the jurisdiction in which his university is based. The candidate may also be keeping an eye on the potential for turning his thesis into a book, in which the publisher's commercial risk is reduced where a comparison involving, say, United States law, is concerned. Or, less frequently, the divergent legal doctrines of the countries compared offers a fruitful academic exercise from which potentially valuable conclusions may be drawn. Sadly, while the law and practice of two or more countries may be accurately and even interestingly described, the comparison itself is often missing or exists in a vestigial form alone -- effectively leaving the PhD examiner to do the comparing for himself. I once asked a PhD candidate why his "comparison" of two sets of copyright laws was so perfunctory and was told that he had to leave them out "for space reasons". That is not, in my view, an acceptable explanation since practically every undergraduate can paraphrase and if necessary précis different sets of rules, but a PhD candidate should show some intellectual mettle in drawing out their differences and the significance of that contrast.Here, very briefly, are some things a PhD candidate definitely should do [nb PhD candidates -- there are literally hundreds of pieces of advice awaiting you, of which the items below constitute a token sample. If you want more, ask your supervisor, using the request as an excuse for your next meeting ...]:
* The Larry Lessig Syndrome. This is a condition which can irritate the examiner a good deal even in its milder form, but it can become serious and even irremediable if not promptly treated. Incidentally, it is in no sense caused by Larry Lessig, who (on this occasion at any rate) is quite blameless, but I first noticed it in relation to him, in PhD theses and Masters dissertations and then in articles submitted for publication in the Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice. The principal symptom of this condition can be found anywhere in a PhD thesis in which the candidate portentously writes "As Lessig says ..." and then cites a passage of text which may or may not have been what Lessig says but which is often taken out of the context in which it was originally stated and which, by virtue of the fact that Lessig has said it, is beyond criticism, discussion or analysis. In the eyes of the candidate the truth of the words is self-evident and unchallengeable, and there is certainly no need to seek out any further support for their veracity. Other contemporary IP commentators whose words have been similarly treated in recent theses include Sir Robin Jacob, David Kappos and even Neelie Kroes.
Does Lessig mean more ...
* The "field of interest" thesis. Ideally a PhD thesis should be capable of expression as one or more questions that are asked and answered, or one or more problems that are posed and then either solved or demonstrated to be insoluble. In my experience this is not always so. I have occasionally been asked to examine theses with titles such as "The Law of the Internet", which appear to have no particular objective other than to aggregate and describe a number of laws, drawn from various disciplines, and to say "look, folks, these laws all have some affect on the internet. The failure of a thesis to have a particular thrust is not usually so obvious, and may result from unfortunate or inconvenient events such as a candidate's decision to terminate research early and "cut-and-run" as a consequence of loss of funding, the departure of a supervisor whose expertise cannot be replaced within the university or the realisation that the candidate's chosen subject has lost much of its relevance and academic interest on account of legislative, jurisprudential or technological developments that were unknown when work on the thesis commenced. Even so, a thesis that merely describes a field of interest but does not penetrate to the level of deep analysis of at least part of that field is a thesis that is likely to be of little benefit to the candidate or to the world at large.
Painting a general picture is all very well,
but a PhD should be more than superficial
* The Persian carpet text. One of the fascinating things about the decoration of a Persian carpet can be the way it presents itself as a complex interweaving of themes and motifs which may sometimes appear to have no apparent beginning or end. Some PhD theses are a bit like this: their structure is allowed to become over-complex and the text is so overlaid with internal cross-references that, whichever chapter one starts with, one is offered references to other chapters which, one feels, must first be read in order to understand the text at hand. I'm not sure why this happens, since my own writing is generally linear, beginning at the beginning and offering a one-track course to the end, but I wonder whether it might be the unintended consequence of a sort of intellectual enlightenment that comes at the end of carefully revising the text for the severalth time and seeing how many elements of the thesis, previously viewed as being disparate, are actually related to one another.
Where does it begin ... or end?
* Check carefully the spellings of the names of well-known IP authors, judges, commentators and academics. It will save you the embarrassment of discovering that you have mis-spelled the surname of your PhD's external examiner [two of the three candidates whose theses I've most recently examined were quite upset to discover that they'd done just that].I have kept both lists short in order to give PhD-sensitive readers a chance to add their own, in keeping with this blog's inclusive and participative ethos. If you have any thoughts or comments, let's here from you [and you don't have to be anonymous unless you really have something to hide, adds Merpel].
* Make every effort to help your examiners identify and appreciate those bits of your thesis -- and there are unlikely to be very many of them -- which represent your own independent, original and unaided contributions to the thesis topic. It's not boasting to flag those bits of your thesis that are genuinely your own invention, and examiners need help -- not only to see how your thinking and your analytical techniques have developed but also to select topics which they can discuss with you in the course of the viva [note to candidates: if I can't easily spot your original ideas, I'll try to get you to discuss mine instead -- and there's a good chance that, while I will have given them some thought, you won't have].
* If you have written different parts of your thesis at different stages of your PhD registration (as is quite commonly done), do look carefully for signs that your latter thoughts might be inconsistent with, or in complete conflict with, your earlier ones. "This is what I think now and that's what I thought then" may be true, but it's not the sort of response to secure you a "Dr".
* Check through your text before submission, to make sure that you have filled in all your blanks. I've lost count of the number of times I've followed footnotes down to the bottom of the page, only to be greeted by "See XXX at p XXX", "Add reference here", or suchlike.