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I am preparing scientific thesis for the degree of PhD. It is a mathematical thesis.

It is usually very difficult to tell your colleagues and friends what are the things you exactly work on with detail. It is a widely spread opinion that mathematics are dull, boring and whatever you try to say to explain why they are important, nobody will even try to make the effort to understand you, because of its bad reputation :P

Well, then I thought, that is enough, even if a PhD thesis is technical and very often out of reach for non-experts, I would like to devote the first part of the introduction (it is divided into three sections) for all audiences, trying to explain with very simple words, ideas and examples what it is about, what I am doing and why it is important. I gave it to a friend and he could understand it without problem and actually he found it really interesting which made me very glad. I think it is good to take all audience into account since many of the people who helped me during this long and tedious trip are non-experts in the field.

My question is simple: is this OK? Is it, or can it be accepted that I devote the first pages of the introduction to try to explain advanced mathematics for anyone in a very informal way? (informal I mean, easy, which you usually don't find in scientific papers, but politely of course) or would a scientific committe think I'm idiot.

I have divided the introduction in three sections: The first part is what I've been saying, the second is the international context of the thesis and lines of research and the third is its structure. (The two last parts are usually what one should include)

What are your opinions? I find it very nice if someone can pick up a random thesis and at least understand a little bit what it is all about.

Last and most important question: What title could I give to this "very informal" section? Any nice suggestions? :)

Thanks a lot for any advice and ideas! Really!

  • Hi Mark, My thesis was similar to writing for scientific journals. There was a non-published introduction and concluding chapter, but they were still written in a professional style. Do you have an advisor you can ask? – DPT Jan 30 '18 at 6:21
  • Skim-read a few theses (or at least their openings) to see what people "get away with", then check your plans with your supervisor, who might offer feedback on your first draft. Mine did. – J.G. Jan 30 '18 at 7:34
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Often there is a difference between a thesis, as it is submitted to the examination board, and the book, as it is published.

The version that you submit to the board of examiners must comply with the academic rules of your discipline. It will usually be written for an audience of experts. Ph.D. theses have to be published, but today you can publish it electronically and be done with it.

Then you are free to re-write your thesis into a book for whichever audience you choose, and publish that in any way you want.

Many scholars chose this way, because the double publication gives them the freedom from the narrow rules of a Ph.D. thesis and make their book more attractive and marketable to a (more) general audience.


If this is not a path you want to take, I don't think that your examiners will find fault if you write in a comprehensive way.

Psychologist Daryl J. Bem (2002) holds that at least the introduction of every scientific article should be comprehensible to educated non-experts:

For Whom Should You Write?

Scientific journals are published for specialized audiences who share a common background of substantive knowledge and methodological expertise. If you wish to write well, you should ignore this fact. Psychology encompasses a broader range of topics and methodologies than do most other disciplines, and its findings are frequently of interest to a wider public. The social psychologist should be able to read a Psychometrika article on logistic analysis; the personality theorist, a biopsychology article on hypothalamic function; and the congressional aide with a BA in history, a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article on causal attribution.

Accordingly, good writing is good teaching. Direct your writing to the student in Psychology 101, your colleague in the Art History Department, and your grandmother. No matter how technical or abstruse your article is in its particulars, intelligent nonpsychologists with no expertise in statistics or experimental design should be able to comprehend the broad outlines of what you did and why. They should understand in general terms what was learned. And above all, they should appreciate why someone—anyone—should give a damn. The introduction and discussion sections in particular should be accessible to this wider audience.

The actual technical materials—those found primarily in the method and results sections—should be aimed at a reader one level of expertise less specialized than the audience for which the journal is primarily published. Assume that the reader of your article in Psychometrika knows about regression, but needs some introduction to logistic analysis. Assume that the reader of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology knows about person perception but needs some introduction to dispositional and situational attributions.

Of course, a Ph.D. thesis is not a journal article. So if what Bem recommends here is something that can be done in a Ph.D. thesis in your discipline, at your university and with your examination board, is something that you must ask them.


Sources:

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A PhD thesis is designed for a very particular purpose: to qualify the writer for a PhD. The audience will be fewer than a dozen readers, all of whom are very knowledgeable in your field. Some of them might be humorless burn-outs.

Unless you can find other examples of what you suggest within your department, I would recommend sticking to your specific guidelines. The readers, likely your thesis committee, don't want to have their time wasted.

Lubricating your audience is great for a lecture, but I would worry about making your thesis as succinct as possible, which means no clever introductions.

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