How to position your argument using a fish skeleton!

I’ve addressed some of these questions before, particularly in Building your thesis on the corpses of your enemies and in my post on Effective Signposting. But I had a student’s chapter that I was reading, and I realised I had more to say that I didn’t think I’d quite said in either of the other two posts… so here it is. How to critically position your work through writing in your thesis!


One of the hardest things about writing a thesis is needing to position yourself in a way that makes it clear what you do, and what other people don’t do, without sounding like a terrible person.

Too often candidates are aware of the power and experience differential between their work and the work of other scholars, and they are overly hesitant to be clear about where they diverge from existing scholarship. You need to be analytical, original and clear. But avoiding conflict can make your writing really hard to read, and it obscures your own voice, and makes you sound uncritical.

Sometimes candidates make the opposite mistake of lambasting everyone else in the field for not covering their exact topic, but this is also a mistake.

  1. It’s your job to cover your exact topic!
  2. Theses, articles and books are very limited (it might not feel like it right now, but there will be so much you’ll have to cut out, save for another project, or just delete), so there isn’t room for everything to be included in their work, even if those other scholars thought it was important.
  3. Fields develop and grow. My fields have been busily growing to include more people, and more types of texts, as worthy of study. New methods, theories and thinkers reshape disciplines. 
  4. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. You are able to take your argument to a new place as a doctoral candidate because other people did the foundational work.
  5. Strong fields will have diverse views. They are more robust and active and interesting if people don’t all agree.

You may have to point out where other people are actually wrong, but more often you will be negotiating a series of very delicate compromises. The people you are not fully agreeing with are likely to be colleagues, your supervisor, and potential examiners. They are likely to be people who might one day hire you or assess a grant you apply for. You will probably meet them at major conferences.

So how do you successfully signal your own argument and critically and analytically engage with the positions of others? Fortunately my PhD was all about collaboration and compromise, so I know the answers to this. You want to be assertive, positive, clear and specific.

If you do this, the person who you disagree with will see your work as developing alongside theirs, probably adding to its value in the world. They know that all research is a compromise between all that potential and what is actually possible on the day with money, time, resources and limited conceptual frameworks. Almost all researchers would love to have the time and funding to go back to their earlier work and do more with it–so it’s great when a doctoral candidate can!

Being cited and discussed in other’s works is also really important in many countries to demonstrate the value of your research for promotion or funding. Plus, established scholars are likely to see you as a collaborator and a colleague, they are comfortable with robust debates because they too disagree with other scholars, act as a peer reviewer, and as an examiner of theses–they know this is part of the job of being an experienced and competent researcher is to tell others where they can develop.

So how, exactly, can you demonstrate that you are assertive, positive, clear and specific through your writing?

1. Calmly assert what your argument, story, methodology or position is. And tell us straight away!

If you aren’t clear right now, try this quick but really effective method to work out what you are trying to say! 

Sit down with a clean document, or a sheet of paper and a pen. Set a time for 10 to 20 minutes (depending how big the issue is!). Start to write: ‘The story of my thesis is…’ For those minutes, just write. Write whatever comes into your head. As Robert Boice, whose Professors as Writers I’ve taken this exercise from, says, it doesn’t matter if you start writing ‘I don’t know what to write, I think this is a stupid exercise’. Keep it up and by the end, it almost always comes together–and if it doesn’t, usually the problem has become really clear and then you can solve it.

2. Be generally positive on balance about other scholarship.

If you can say that it was a thorough study of a small population, do. If it was a seminal work written 40 years ago, say that. If it helpfully uses a method in a new way, mention it. Just as you would be about student work when giving feedback (especially since other researchers were all outstanding students who produce publishable work!), start with the big picture of what they do well before diving into the nitty gritty of any issues you might have.

3. Clearly signal your divergence from their scholarship.


Use words like ‘while’, ‘however’; use ‘other scholars have argued’ to make your point for you; or explain how the field has developed or grown.
Work out if that scholarship partially contributes to your work (and how much), or if following that line of scholarship would lead away from your work.
You might want to build a fishtail diagram to help you diagram this. Here is an example. You can see I have put arrows pointing towards the main backbone of the argument for works which partially contribute to it, and other arrows pointing away for works which would lead us away from it.

4. Be specific about the extent to which you diverge. Use numbers, names, time, manner or place.

However, 42% of people in the poll agreed…
However, as Lang has argued…
Since 1980, however…
For a multi-media reading, however…
In Australian schools, however…

Using these techniques produces critical, analytical, respectful, collegial, clear and strong, scholarly writing. It is a pleasure to read, and to partially disagree with in my own turn!

And finally:

What about the times when you actually deeply, angrily, loathe someone else’s work? What do you do if you think someone is totally wrong? What do you do if a senior scholar needs to be in your bibliography but once bullied you at a conference because of your divergent opinion? (Yes, this does happen.)

The best way to deal with it in your writing is to have a quiet footnote that says: “For an opposing position, see the work of…” and list all their articles and books. A doctoral thesis is not the place to fight that battle. (Do however check out any support structures you might have to protect your work from being examined by bullies! And maybe go see your institutional counselling service or do some self-care.)

I hope this helps you to position yourself clearly in relation to the rest of the field and to feel confident going forward to make your own unique contribution to knowledge!



Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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