How to use ‘theory of mind’ to write a thesis that will pass

Here’s a post that was going to be even longer than usual, because I was going to need to explain so much contextual information, but then The Thesis Whisperer explained that Writing is an ‘Imaginary Conversation with your Reader‘ and the Lingthusiasm podcast explained about ‘theory of mind‘ so if you want more information, feel free to head over to those sources and find out more… or just dive right in here!

One of the biggest late-stage challenges for anyone finishing off a major writing project, like a PhD, is the gap between what you know, what your supervisors know, and what the people who are actually going to approve your work, your examiners, know.

You have been doing this research, and writing multiple drafts, for years. Each section has been months of focussed analysis and rewriting. A lot of what you know about the topic, how it works, why it matters, is completely obvious to you. It’s so obvious, it doesn’t seem necessary to explain it in any depth or length. To you, the writer and researcher, this information has become common knowledge.

You hand your work to your supervisors, who point out that it’s original research, and so in fact it isn’t common knowledge after all, and you’ll need to show your workings, explain your conceptualisations, set out all your data, signpost your argument. However, your supervisors have also been on this project for years. They were there for the research proposal and the ethics application and the early drafts. They might be researching on another part of the project themselves, or have contributed a theoretical lens or methodology. For this reason, they will also know a lot about the topic, and how it has been researched and why that is valid will also be obvious to them.

And obviously you need to know what you are doing, and your supervisors need to know what you are doing… but the people who decide if your work is valid are actually your examiners. And this is where ‘theory of mind’ comes in as a useful tool, to get your thesis from describing your valid, extensive and original research… to being in the right shape to pass.

‘Theory of mind’ is a concept in psychology that helps us explain that we guess what other people might be thinking. ‘Will my supervisors like this draft?’ and ‘Will an examiner think this thesis is passable?’ are both theory of mind questions, where we speculate about other people’s thoughts, preferences and judgements.

In psychologytheory of mind refers to the capacity to understand other people by ascribing mental states to them. These states may be different from one’s own states and include beliefsdesiresintentions and emotions. Possessing a functional theory of mind is considered crucial for success in everyday human social interactionsand is used when analyzingjudging, and inferring others’ behaviors. 

Theory of mind,

Okay, so what does this mean for us as writers?

I like to think of academic writing as being quite a lot like teaching. I have complex new material that I need to explain to someone who doesn’t know it yet, in a way that they are convinced by and able to use.

The first step in teaching is to work out where the students are already at, what they already know and what they don’t. Sometimes, I find that information out directly by asking the group. Sometimes I look at where we are in semester and what they have already studied, and make an informed guess. Sometimes I use previous year’s assessments as a benchmark to make a judgement about what students will find challenging.

In other words, I gather data on what they might know or not know. So how do we get data on examiners, especially since we aren’t allowed to ask them directly?

  • We can ask our supervisors, mentors and other successful candidates about their experiences of the kinds of things examiners might give feedback on.
  • We can look at the research! For example Mullins and Kiley (2002) on experienced examiners; Mullins and Kiley (2004) on inexperienced examiners; and Golding (2017) who did directly study what examiners think.
  • We use our logical abilities to identify the gap between what is known in the field already and what we are doing that is original by revisiting our lit review.
  • We can read other successful theses in your discipline and use the level of explanation as a benchmark.
  • Your university might have a rubric or criteria for examination, that tells you what examiners should be looking for.

Next, as a teacher, I craft information into understandable shapes. We already know a lot about how people learn new information!

  • We know they learn best if big ideas are broken down into smaller chunks.
  • We know that you should order the information in a logical sequence so they can put the chunks together.
  • We know that you should model your thinking so they can follow what you did. This is often done in academic writing in TEEL paragraph structures (topic, evidence, explain, link), particularly in the sections where you show the reader your evidence and explain how it relates.

Finally, as a teacher, I give students a chance to try it out for themselves and to tell me what they understood. (This process is often called ‘scaffolding‘ in education.) Sometimes I give students a chance to try it out on their own via in-class discussion, and often it’s via individual assessment. For your PhD, your examiners will work on your thesis on their own, and then they’ll explain what they understood from your thesis via a viva or the examiners reports.

In a teaching situation, I typically know more than the students in front of me. So where the conversation or assessment is confused, off topic, or lots of people make the same mistake… I know that the responsibility lies with me to explain the task or idea more clearly.

This is a helpful way to understand feedback from examiners too.

  • Examiners who missed the point, couldn’t follow your argument, or can’t see how the data and analysis match up are not mean or silly. You just haven’t given them enough information yet.
  • Examiners who give feedback that your thesis was ‘clear’, ‘straightforward’, or ‘easy to read’ aren’t telling you that your ideas are too simple, but rather that you have explained it really well.
  • Examiners might also get excited about your knowledge and start pointing out other cool stuff you could do. This is when examiners are able to use your knowledge to generate new insights on their own. This is awesome feedback, even if you don’t choose to use those directions for your current research projects.

Revisions are a chance to directly respond to the feedback you got from examiners. They are typically easier and quicker to complete than the original thesis draft because you no longer have to guess what the examiners might possibly not know–they told you directly!

In each of these three steps, I have used ‘theory of mind’ to guess what examiners might know or not know. I use it to guess what they would like to know, and how they would like to learn it. I use my teaching knowledge to help them understand new material. And then I use feedback to check in to see if my ideas about what was going on in their mind was correct… and if it was wrong, I have a chance to undertake revisions and try again.

A similar set of challenges will face experienced writers who have to shift a paper presented at a small specialist conference into a journal article being peer reviewed for a generalist high-impact publication. A co-author and I recently faced this problem when we forgot to foreground all our own previous work on a topic in a journal article, and it got so anonymised that it became understandably invisible to the reviewer. The mistake wasn’t our research or knowledge, it was in accurately putting ourselves in the reviewer’s shoes. We’ll be fixing that before resubmitting it.

Across this post I have used ellipses (…) regularly, because ‘theory of mind’ is all about gaps of knowledge.

  • The first gap is remembering that other people are other people and that they might not know what we know! If you are too close to your research, you might need a critical distance break to help you see that gap.
  • The second gap is the ‘gap in the literature‘, the thing that no-one else but you knows, your original contribution to knowledge.
  • The biggest gap is that we can never know what someone else really thinks or feels, we can only know what they say or how they act.

Fortunately, you don’t have to magically read other people’s minds! In academic writing, we have a lot of explicit shared knowledge, where we have already extensively documented what we know.

  • We tell you what is already known through publications and conference presentations.
  • There are example theses, blogs, workshops and research, as well as informal conversations, giving you access to more knowledge about what is expected of you.
  • Academic writing has genre and style norms, which help the reader and writer have similar expectations.
  • Examiners are smart, and sometimes generous, readers. They are willing to put a lot of expertise and work into trying to understand what you have said.
  • Examiners will give you explicit feedback in their reports, actually telling you what they want to see.

Using all of these resources helps us to define the gap between what we know and what our reader knows, so that we can step-by-step help bridge that gap and give our reader cool new knowledge that will help change the world.

Wow, this idea was really quite complicated! 5 lists, lots of links, plenty of rabbit holes for you to jump down if you wanted to explore these ideas further. Or you could just remember that your examiner doesn’t know what you know, yet, and use these tools to help you to help them learn this amazing knowledge you have spent so many years trying to gain!

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash


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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