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Your presence in the text

In a thesis, the relevance and importance of you as the author can change from section to section. The way your identity intrudes into the text depends to a large extent on accepted use in your particular discipline. Take your cues from the way this is done in published articles and seek the advice of your supervisor. 'I' or 'we' is commonly found in mathematical writing, but is usually advised against for industrial or civil engineering. 'I' and 'my' can commonly be intrinsic for psychoanalytic writing, but not for psychology.

In Methods sections of many theses (in Medicine, for example), it is acceptable to break the monotony of many passive voice sentences with some active voice. The difficulty with endless passive sentences is that the reader tends to lose sight of any agent and the writing becomes dominated by things. You may see passive voice dominating in published articles, but this is often for reasons of space. Do not be afraid to use active voice, especially in your discussion where it is sometimes important to indicate that it is you thinking certain things and having particular opinions.

If you are uncertain how to avoid both an over-personalised tone on the one hand, and too much passive voice on the other, you can use the following expressions to convey an impersonal tone (these examples are taken from physical chemistry):

  • " It is found that, for a fixed amount of a pure material, the state is usually completely defined by any two of the three variables - pressure, volume and temperature."
  • "In chemistry it is generally more useful to divide by the amount of substance n."
  • "To define temperatures on this scale it is necessary to select two fixed points."
  • "Thus it is advantageous to introduce a new temperature scale, the Kelvin scale. Eg If x is assumed to be..."
  • " It is further found experimentally that the same value of parameter b is obtained using different gases."

There will also be occasions when you will need to use the passive, as for example in the Methods section, when the focus is on the process rather than the human agent performing the process. You may wish to refer to Strunk and White (1999:20) or Taylor (1989:48) on the uses of the passive and active forms.

Signalling importance/significance

Make it very clear to your reader where you feel the significance of your work resides. Do not be shy about this by playing down your achievements. Published scholars develop expertise, not only in showing off their work to best advantage, but also pointing out explicitly and precisely what is valuable about it.

Example: " The value of this research project lies in its demonstration of the immense difficulties facing... "

The limitations of your study

It is important to signal to your reader where the competence of your study ends. Theses are usually constrained by time, by difficulties with subjects or informants, by unavailability of evidence, by wisdom only gained in hindsight. Be candid about these where they affect results in a major way. Do not overplay them, however, as in the following sample:

" With a view to this I have become aware of deficiencies in my methodology and I will discuss some of these below. "

You do not want to highlight deficiencies to your examiner! Likewise, do not refer to extraneous hindrances (my supervisor got divorced, my hard disc caught fire, etc).

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