Writing a Robust and Convincing Dissertation

Using Research Evidence to Create a Robust and Convincing Argument

What is evidence for?

The aim of your literature review is to provide a wide-ranging, relevant, and up-to-date survey of the

conceptual, theoretical, and empirical work conducted within a particular field. In so doing, you are

also aiming to critically review this evidence in order to develop a clear rationale for your own work

and the theoretical framework upon which it will be based. It is therefore through the critical

evaluation of evidence that you develop a clear and well-supported argument for pursuing a particular

line of research to support (or perhaps refute) a particular theory. The issues that will be

considered in this article are therefore: what evidence to choose, how to achieve an appropriate

balance in terms of competing perspectives, how to use evidence to construct a robust

theoretical argument and develop a clear research rationale, and how to cite such evidence correctly.


What evidence to choose:

It is likely that, in some fields of research, you will find an overwhelming amount of evidence for a

particular theoretical or conceptual viewpoint. You will therefore need to be selective in terms of the

evidence you cite. Simply citing reams of researchers in the text makes it unwieldy to read and is

unlikely to impress examiners. The question then arises as to whichevidence you cite. Ideally, you

always should select the most up-to-date research , although there may sometimes be seminal

research papers that are ground-breaking and simply cannot be overlooked as they form the

theoretical backbone of a particular research field. An example of this would be Milgram’s famous

work on obedience to authority in 1965. The research should also be the most relevant to your topic

which means leaving out tangential or partially relevant papers. Finally, you should also select research

considered to be the best in its field by other researchers: this is often reflected in how widely

cited a paper is in high-impact journals. Additionally, always ensure you cite primary research

as far as possible so you do not rely on a second-hand interpretation of the work. You should also

avoid including any work you do not understand as you may incorrectly represent the contents of that



Achieving a balance and avoiding bias - be critical

When selecting your evidence be sure you provide a fair and balanced representation of the weight

of evidence for or against a particular point of view.  Perhaps the worst thing you can do as a

researcher is to decide beforehand what you think the correct explanation for a phenomenon is and

then only cite research evidence in support of that view! If there is little or no evidence to support

your view and a wealth of evidence against it you probably need to review your theoretical stance.

Often there is a wealth of evidence both ways and you will need to address and critically evaluate this

evidence in order to arrive at a robust conclusion that will form the basis for your own research, which

may involve testing a particular theory (or theories) or deriving new evidence to further existing

knowledge in a particular field.


The importance of an “active” voice

Many PhD students cite appropriate and correct evidence but do so in the following way:

“Research has shown that people who watch the news more regularly are more pessimistic about the world (Paxman, 2006)” or “A study suggests that high rates of drug abuse are related to high levels of social deprivation (Brand, 2007)”.

When are you referring to specific research it is far better to use the active voice- it sounds less vague,

more definite and ensures the research is owned by those who conducted it. For example, the first

example above now becomes :

“Paxman (2006) found that that people who watch the news more regularly are more pessimistic about the world”.

Note that the author’s name now moves outside the brackets and forms an active part of the sentence.


Organising your evidence- avoid the “telephone directory” approach

One of the most important features of a convincing and persuasive argument or rationale is that it is

well organised, has a clearly defined structure, and can be easily read and understood. The most

effective way to do this is to first identify the key themes or issues and then organise your material

around these points. For example, when making a case as to why people smoke, you may consider

the theoretical and empirical evidence for or against social factors such as peer pressure and self-

image, psychological factors such as coping with stress and self-esteem, and biological factors such as

physiological dependence. You will then be able to assess the relative weight and quality of evidence

in support of each factor and make a reasoned conclusion as to which appears to be the most

important, or you may conclude that a combination of factors is required to maintain smoking

behaviour. This will provide the basis upon which you will then develop a rationale for your own


However, overwhelmed by the wealth of evidence they have unearthed, PhD students may sometimes not be able to see the wood for the trees and instead simply present the evidence they have found, study by study. For example:

“Jones et al. (2000) found that peer pressure was a significant factor in encouraging young people to begin smoking. Smith et al. (2001) found that low self-esteem was more important, particularly among girls. Ryan (1992) stated that coping with stress was a key reason why people were unable to give up smoking while Clarke (2003) highlighted the importance of nicotine addiction.”

Over several pages this list becomes very tedious for the reader and there is little or no clarity

regarding the theoretical links between research findings nor any consideration of the possible

implications. Therefore, rather than simply present evidence, actively use it to illustrate, clarify and

assess the relative strengths of differing theoretical claims. This is most effectively achieved by

identifying and writing down key themes and the factors relating to each on a piece of paper, then

listing research evidence under each thematic heading. This provides you with the structure upon

which you can then construct a lively and critical review that leads naturally to the rationale for your

own project.


Use the correct referencing style

Although this may seem a minor point it is extremely important and one that is easily overlooked or

mistakenly applied. Make certain that you are absolutely clearwhich referencing system you are

using e.g., Chicago, Harvard, BPS, or APA, and then ensure you apply it to the letter throughout the

text whenever you cite evidence and in the reference list/bibliography at the end. Failure to do this

can mean that the wrong system is applied or, even worse, several referencing systems are used

interchangeably (which will not go down well with examiners).


NB: The examples used in this paper are for illustrative purposes only: they are not based on existing research articles.

David K, is a former university professor with a wealth of expertise in the craft of academic writing. David is a senior editor with The Ultimate Proofreader, a UK-based specialist dissertation proofreading services provider.