ARTICLE 107: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Reviewing the Thesis or Dissertation Part 1 of 3 Parts


Hello I am Hannes Nel

I discuss the review of the thesis or dissertation separately to ensure that the review process receives the attention that it deserves and is not swamped by other, technical aspects of academic research.

However, keep in mind that the review process is part of writing the thesis or dissertation.

Review is a task that you will continue throughout the duration of writing your thesis or dissertation. It begins with checking if the topic of your choice still makes sense and if the thesis or dissertation satisfies the research problem, question or hypothesis. You also need to check carefully that the proposed study has not previously been undertaken. You would probably have done this already when you prepared your research proposal but might have discovered similar or overlapping theses or dissertations while collecting data for your research. This is especially important in the case of doctoral studies, where you are supposed to contribute to the currently available knowledge in a particular field.

Once you are satisfied that there is a need for your research, you still need to check that the literature study that you did satisfactorily serves as a solid theoretical foundation for your investigation. You could not have researched a topic without gaining a good measure of knowledge and understanding of the discipline. If necessary, this might be your last opportunity to improve the theoretical foundation of your research. 

The purpose of a review

There are many different review methods used with different purposes in mind. We already discussed the initial literature review which you should do when preparing or perhaps even before you prepare your research proposal. In this instance your purpose was to demonstrate to your readers that you have sufficient knowledge of the topic to do the research. You also needed to do the initial literature review to enrich your own knowledge and understanding of the topic of your research. It is true that you should have a good knowledge and, perhaps, experience in the field of your research. However, we can and should always learn. Besides, research on especially doctoral level is done to create new knowledge or at least to add to the currently available knowledge. This means that you will embark on an investigation of a topic that was not previously studied, at least not in terms of the purpose of your research. Even so, you will need current knowledge as your starting point.

Now that you are finalising your research, you will do the review to identify any gaps in your thesis or dissertation. Gaps can be simple typing, spelling or grammar errors; not acknowledging all references; incomplete information, arguments, conclusions or recommendations; flaws in the structure of the document or in the usage of research methodology; cognitive flaws; a problem statement, research question or hypothesis that has not been satisfactorily answered.

One useful way of thinking about the purpose of the review is to consider whether your aim is primarily aggregative or interpretive. Aggregative syntheses focus on summarising data, and they may often be organised around evaluating the effectiveness of various interventions or programmes. Interpretive syntheses are concerned with the development of concepts and the specification of theories that integrate those concepts. It involves generating concepts that have maximum explanatory value. The distinction between an aggregative and an interpretive synthesis is largely a heuristic one; the difference is one of emphasis. The sum of aggregative synthesis and interpretive synthesis is often generalisation.

A review should be based on a review question or questions, that is what you hope to achieve with the review. It works well to prepare criteria that you will use to review the thesis or dissertation. The criteria should, of course, help you to satisfy your review question. Your review question will probably be something like: “Has the purpose of the research been achieved?” Review criteria can be developed in the form of binary questions under specific headings. Here is an example of such criteria and questions:

Review question: Has the purpose of the research been achieved?

Criterion 1: Has the thesis or dissertation been professionally and logically structured?

  1. Is the study contextualised?
  2. Has the research methodology been discussed?
  3. Has a theoretical foundation been established?
  4. Etc.

Criterion 2: Has a suitable research method been used?

  1. Is the chosen research method suitable for the type of research?
  2. Has a data-collection strategy been given?
  3. Are the data collection tools suitable for the collection of valid data?
  4. Etc.

Criterion 3: Did you come to logical conclusions and did you make valuable recommendations?

  1. Has the status quo been analysed in sufficient depth?
  2. Have valid and valuable conclusions be drawn?
  3. Have viable recommendations been made?
  4. Etc.

The relevance of sources

Sources consulted must be relevant to the problem statement. We usually make use of primary, secondary and tertiary sources when doing research. Primary sources of information include the notes and reports prepared by the researcher who conducted an experiment in the case of quantitative research or investigated a phenomenon or event in the case of qualitative research. These are popularly called first-hand accounts and are captured in articles in professional journals, monographs, doctoral or master’s theses, assignments, interview reports and questionnaires,  original works (letters, diaries, eyewitness accounts, poems, novels, autobiographies) and other reports (proceedings of parliament, court testimony, reports of government departments and agencies, annual reports, minutes, etc.).

Secondary sources of information originate from primary sources. They are often simple relays, summaries, deconstructions or perhaps even reconstructions of information gathered from primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include translations, summaries, research reviews, abstracts, articles on the findings of a research project, discussions of research findings or procedures, etc.

Textbooks are the most used tertiary sources of information. Although they can be written from primary sources of information, most researchers need to fall back on secondary sources because of time, access and other constraints and because the original source material may be lost. Tertiary sources of information are, unfortunately, often old, but can still be useful in providing an overview or broad summary of a field and to obtain foundational information, such as definitions, principles, guidelines, historical developments, etc. They may even be acceptable as references because some textbooks become acknowledged as authorities. However, there is no substitute for consulting primary sources if these are available, and postgraduate work in most subject areas demands it.

Always keep in mind that, eventually, you need to go beyond the sources that you consulted. Especially in doctoral studies, you need to create new knowledge. This means that you will use existing knowledge to provide the readers of your thesis or dissertation with background information that should enable them to understand your arguments, conclusions and recommendations better, to confirm that the purpose of your research is valid. To achieve this, you will need to introduce the concepts and terminology that you will use. You also need to find a measure of support for your problem statement, question or hypothesis in the opinions and arguments of other experts who studied the subject before you.


The review process should be part of writing a thesis or dissertation.

You should continually be on the lookout for mistakes, flaws and opportunities to improve the quality of your work.

The purpose of a review should include to check if:

  1. you consulted primary, secondary and tertiary sources of data where applicable,
    • you satisfied the purpose of your research,
    • the topic of your research is still relevant and new,
    • there is a need for your research, and
    • all the gaps in your thesis or dissertation have been covered.

In the case of doctoral studies, you should also check if you achieved generalisation.

The review process should be based on criteria formulated as review questions.


Although you should personally review your thesis or dissertation, it would be a good idea to ask somebody else to also look at your work.

We are often ‘blind’ to our own mistakes.

Outsiders, for example family, friends, or colleagues are often more objective because they are not as emotionally involved in your ‘creation’ as you are.

Enjoy your studies.

Thank you.

You may also like

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.