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Copy editor versus guardian of standards

When 'passing' a thesis / dissertation, what should be my balance, as the student's PhD supervisor*, between correcting spelling, style and grammar and dealing with academic and scholarly matters?

Using progress reports to train students for writing the thesis

In general, most students, whether native English speakers or not, need some practice and/or training in academic writing - and they need it sufficiently early to be able to take whatever remedial action may be necessary. Regular progress reports are the ideal vehicle, and six monthly ones have become common practice in many institutions. Their form needs to be such as to provide training for writing the thesis, possibly as mini or outline chapters in their own right, even though these would later need heavy editing, redrafting and additional writing before becoming part of the thesis. There is advice on writing progress reports in the students' section of this website.

It prevents problems later and helps students if supervisors comment in some detail on progress reports. Although supervisors need not act as copy editors (correcting all errors of spelling and punctuation) they should do whatever is necessary to show and explain what the problems are, so that the students can address them. This may mean soliciting the help of the institution's language centre, where one exists; suggesting useful books; or just simply suggesting that the necessary help can be obtained from friends or relatives. (The latter is not cheating if it is limited to help with drafting written English.)

Some supervisors find it saves their time and also helps the student if they comment on written work directly onto an audio cassette tape, supplied by the student. They then return the cassette to the student for playback and study at his or her own pace. Other supervisors prefer to give feedback in writing; still others prefer face to face.

Other ways to help students improve their academic writing

Supervisors can help students with writing, while also minimising the time needed to react to editorial matters, by pointing out that even experienced writers need to draft and redraft a number of times. The periods between drafts should ideally be occupied with something entirely different so that writers can come back fresh and more objective, to work in an editorial mode. Some supervisors go as far as to tell their students not to submit reports to them while still in first draft.

Negotiating with students on ‘checking’ drafts

When students come to write their theses, it saves time and effort all round if there is negotiation over the stages at which the supervisor should see draft chapters. It is all too easy for students to change perhaps a few words of a chapter and return it to a supervisor for rechecking without explanation, which can involve the supervisor in considerable time of unnecessary work.

What should checking and 'passing' a thesis mean for a supervisor?

Most experienced supervisors seem to feel that their professional responsibility, as far as a thesis is concerned, is heavily weighted towards being a guardian of standards or a gatekeeper for the discipline - ie advising on matters of scholarship, research and coherence of arguments so that the standards of the PhD qualification are upheld.

Being a gatekeeper for the discipline involves checking each chapter for matters relating to the scholarly norms of the discipline, and then checking the thesis through as a whole for coherence of the threads of argument running through it. Students should be made to realise that such coherence cannot be judged from single chapters in isolation. Consequently even chapters that have been 'passed' by supervisors may, and probably will, need revising later, in the light of the other chapters.

When is the thesis 'ready'?

The regulations of most institutions of higher education state that it is the responsibility of the student, not the supervisor, to decide when a thesis is ready for submission. So 'passing' in the above headings is in quotes to imply that it is a shorthand for the professional advice which a supervisor gives to a student concerning the readiness of a thesis for submission.

There is always room for improvement in any thesis. So there has to be a balance between 'passing' what is acceptable, if not excellent, and minimising delays.

[There is advice for students on writing the thesis / dissertation in the students' section of this website.]

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer


* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.