The Importance of being Critical: Part One

There are broadly two approaches you can take when writing your PhD thesis. You can be descriptive or you can be critical. Both can be analytical, but, otherwise, these two approaches serve very different roles. Your thesis should contain both descriptive and critical elements, and the key to success in your PhD writing is to strike the right balance between them. Unfortunately, there is no right or wrong answer to where this balance lies, and how to go about creating the right balance will depend largely on your research question and academic discipline. In the absence of any magic formula, you must rely on judgment, but getting the balance right is important as it will form part of the assessment of your PhD.

Although there is no easy answer, understanding what it means to be critical and the roles played by these two elements will help you judge where the balance should lie. The primary purpose of the descriptive elements of the dissertation is to provide the factual material necessary for the critical part. In other words, its role is to describe the way the world is seen. Thus, it includes factual information as well as a description of other commentators’ claims and opinions. In other words, the descriptive parts of your dissertation provide the material support for the critical analysis. A good rule of thumb is that you should only include as much descriptive material as is strictly necessary to allow the reader to make sense of your critical argument.

The critical elements are where you will be doing all the work in arguing why the reader should accept your answer to the research question. Although being critical is often seen pejoratively, as being negative or finding fault, it should involve a more rounded assessment that identifies both the strengths and weaknesses of the subject matter. You should be critical when analysing other commentators’ work and in constructing your own argument. A simple way of understanding what it means to be critical is: the descriptive elements explain what, where, when and how; the critical explain why.

I will consider what it means to be critical in more detail in later articles, but if you need help to got the balance right in your thesis, the experts at the PhD Consultancy can provide you with support and guidance.