My adviser asked me to go over some PhD theses over the weekend, and by some he meant three 200~ pages theses.

Is there an effective way to skim through theses that you have figured out, as more experienced academics. I could not go over all of them without taking most of my weekend doing so.

  • 9
    Go over/skim for what purpose? To familiarize yourself with the format, the style, and the level of detail? Or to get a brief overview of the actual results? Or to scare you into starting to work on your own thesis already? Or something else?
    – JeffE
    Dec 18 '12 at 5:07
  • I'm already over with my thesis, but we are starting a new project, and he told me those theses were relevant Dec 18 '12 at 5:56
  • 4
    @Leonpalafox please can you edit your comment into the body of your question; together with a clarification (if possible) as to why they are relevant (if your advisor has said why) - is it the writing style, the results, the methodology, the discussion, the bibliography, the "further research"? If in doubt, ask your advisor.
    – 410 gone
    Dec 18 '12 at 7:24
  • They are relevant because it's a new topic that we are delving with and the theses seem to be frequently cited by most papers. Dec 18 '12 at 22:42
  • Do you know how to do this with papers? If yes, why is a thesis harder? Also, are you certain it's not intended that you spend most of your weekend understanding the relevant work in a new topic? Personally I'd want to spend quite a bit more time than a weekend on that.
    – Rex Kerr
    Dec 19 '12 at 8:08

Of course, you can use existing theses just like you would a journal article where you extract information to guide your research. However, I'd like to focus discussion here on the role of theses as a tool for teaching you how to write your own thesis.

Choosing theses to deconstruct: Assuming you are writing a PhD thesis yourself, it can be really helpful to find a selection of other PhD theses in order to give you a sense of what the overall product can look like. Three is a good start, but I would be aiming to find about six or seven. The best theses are probably those that are

  • on a similar topic or at least in the same discipline as your thesis and with a broadly similar methodological orientation
  • follow a similar structural framework to your own (e.g., similar length, same in terms of whether it is a large thesis or PhD by publication)
  • well written

Things to learn from deconstruction: Carefully deconstructing such manuscripts can teach you a lot about both what a thesis involves and also what are some of the alternative modes of presentation. For instance you can look at things like:

  • How was it formatted
  • How many chapters were there and how was content distributed
  • How were aims presented and how was the importance of the thesis justified
  • How was literature, method,results, and discussion distributed (e.g., some in each chapter or over separate chapters)
  • How extensive or focussed was the literature review
  • What was the overall scale of the thesis (e.g., amount of data collection, sophistication of analyses, etc.)
  • What is the standard expected of a thesis (e.g., seeing the imperfections of theses that have passed can be helpful should you fall victim to perfectionism)

When in candidature to spend time deconstructing: In fact, examining and deconstructing theses can be a useful exercise at multiple stages of your PhD candidature.

  • At the very start of your PhD it can give you a broad feel for what it is that you are aiming to produce.
  • When you are moving towards setting out the overall structure of your thesis in terms of chapters and sections it can give you a feel of whether you are on track
  • When you are making formatting and stylistic decisions, existing theses can provide a useful frame of reference.

I would just start from the table of contents. Usually, the whole thesis is not applicable to your current research, but only a pocket full of sections are. Identify the handful of sections that are most relevant to your research, and just read those. Also, if your advisor specifically requested these particular theses, he/she suspects there's something in particular about them that is of value to your research. Ask him/her what it is about these theses that is most fascinating/relevant to your research and just read that part.

Bottom line: Don't try to understand everything in it... just find the parts that most apply to you and your research and get the main idea, not the details.


This is probably field dependent. In my field tables and contain the majority of the information.

  1. Print the abstract, table of contents, list of figures, list of tables, conclusions, and any lists of symbols/nomenclature. You will need these a lot and it is easier to be able to mark them up.

  2. Read the abstract and table of contents. Ideally looking for the things that are interesting to you. If the thesis seems to be well written and well organized, then reading the first paragraph of each chapter might be useful.

  3. Work you way through the figures and tables. Ideally you will only need the information in the captions, but you may need to refer to the methods for additional information. Use the printed table of contents and the search function to efficiently. Don't read the methods, only use them when you have a specific question.

  4. Read the conclusions. Anything that you don't understand/agree with go back to the figures and tables. If you still don't get it, search the results/discussion for references to the corresponding figure/table. If you still don't get it, decide if you really need it. If so, mark it down to figure out later.


It is hard to assess.
What is your advisor's expectations? is it a detailed review of the hypothesis, methodology and results of the theses? or it is just to know thing?

For not spending too much, I would suggest going directly to the Abstract. Then there is one or two core chapters discussing the ideas. General sense of what is going on these chapters is good enough.

Again, it depends upon your advisor's expectations. This said, i'm newbie to academics.


I back up what Paul said, but as I had to do something similar just a few weeks back, here's what worked for me: I found most relevant publications (articles) by the same author.

Typically, there's not that much publications related to a thesis, and there's a possibility that most of the papers are just extensions to the first one. Here's what I think from a Computer Science perspective.

  • Read the first publication by the author related to the thesis topic
  • Some of the following articles are probably application focus for the (novel) technique presented in the first article, or provide a heavy math background - these are not really needed to understand the idea
  • There might be an article or two improving the construction algorithm (the concept stays the same, but some implementation improvements)
  • In the end, you'll end up reading the first + one or two other articles and that will give you a good idea of what the whole thesis is about
  • Now that you understand the concepts presented in the thesis, you understand the Table of Contents fully. You can easily identify chapters interesting to you, and read only the selected ones.

It is still a lengthy process, but I think faster than trying to read the whole thesis, and gives a lot result-wise: you not only understood the concepts you needed, but did literature research as well, and know exactly where to look for every type of extra details you might need.

This all said, this is the process that worked for me when I needed to understand the concept presented, the main idea (but not the details) of implementation, and wanted to be able to apply the concept "by hand" and "on paper" for small mock examples.

I think the process can be adapted for whatever goal you have in reading the thesis: you almost certainly are not interested in absolutely everything presented in the thesis on your first read-out. So, if you are, for example, interested in the application domain, you'll read the application focus articles instead, and not math profs.


Every PhD should at least exhibit explicit contributions and some validation of them. The devil is in the details, but you can start from those two dimensions.

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