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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Constructing an argument

What does the word “argument” mean to you? How do you embark on making yours in your discipline?


Print the activity sheet, Making and presenting an argument and start completing it, with #1 and 2.

Being explicit in your central argument and your research issue is a key part of postgraduate research and will ultimately distinguish you from others. Taking into consideration the research I have done, along with my own experience, the key concern should be academic thinking, I think. I like to equate this with persuasion and say to myself: how can I write to persuade my audience? To an extent, this would require criticality.

Below, I present a number of perspectives from STEM and Social Sciences academics. While reading each one, compare them for similarities. Then, do #3.

It is important to have clear in one’s mind the argument to be presented before setting out to write. If that argument is not clear then writing is much harder – it probably means more research, or at least thought, is needed before starting to write (of course, setting out to write can be a good way to expose gaps in an argument.).

Chair in Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, University of Exeter


Constructing an argument. The clear separation of observation and interpretation is crucial and, in my experience, something that PhD students often struggle with in constructing an argument. A related point is identification of what is established fact and what is conjecture. For example, a rock may originally have been laid down in an ephemeral lake, but there may not be 100% certainty that this is the case, and this needs to be recognised in construction of the argument.

Professor of Geology, University of Exeter


Construct a watertight argument by having a thorough understanding of the literature and the contribution that your work is making, and by justifying every choice and step that you make in your work.

Senior Lecturer of Mathematics, University of Exeter

To help you get started in writing, you may find it helpful to start off with writing a little, such as a summary of your overall project and use that as a platform to develop further thinking.

I start with short pieces of summary writing, like an abstract, to identify the major strands to my argument and think about their ordering and relationship to one another.

Professor of Management, University of Exeter


Don’t be afraid to use your personal voice and reflect on your positionality. Keep in mind the question ‘Why does this matter? And why should other people care about this?’ in order to be the most persuasive you can be.

Professor of New Testament, University of Exeter


Constructing an argument: advancing ideas, supporting them with reasons or evidence, criticizing possible alternative ideas/explanations.

Professor of Philosophy, University of Exeter


Constructing an argument is about first considering and weighing up all of the evidence, then taking a position and working towards it. It must move beyond the descriptive. Summarise the evidence thematically rather than simply listing multiple studies, and support each point strongly. This requires clear explanations of the supporting evidence, what this evidence means and why that matters. It is important that writers do not assume their argument is implied and will be deduced by the reader, but that it is made explicit.

Associate lecturer and postdoctoral research associate of Psychology


The common theme around writing up a sound and robust argument is criticality. The key skill to remember though is:

Critical writing: except it is not the writing which is critical, but the thinking which underpins it.

Professor of Education, University of Exeter


Further resources

For developing thesis argument, look at the resources on starting from your argument and contribution.

For more information on criticality, see this blog post.

For presenting your own voice and the importance of reading other writers’ works, refer to this blog post.

Successful communication is a bridge between writer and reader, and the writer needs to take responsibility for building most of the bridge. Clarity is everything, so don’t try to impress by making your writing complex or obscure.

Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, UCL

If one of the goals of writing is to communicate for a purpose, then we need to make sure we tread carefully. One of the biggest pitfalls to avoid in writing is losing your audience and can be done quite simply. Here, I will share an experience with my PhD supervisor, Professor Debra Myhill; she used to relentlessly tell me in the early stages:

Remember, always keep your reader in mind!

The common mistake is to write leaving out main chunks or assuming that your reader is aware of X, as the next two quotations capture:

Never assume your reader knows everything about what you are writing about. You have thought about it for ages, but whoever is reading it didn’t. Guide them in your argument trying not to make assumptions.

Associate Professor of Physics, University of Exeter


What I often find myself writing on students’ work is ‘connection to foregoing?’. Make sure the argument unfolds without sudden jumps.

Chair in Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, University of Exeter



Read a paragraph or more of your most recent writing. Can you find any gaps? Why did they occur? Re-write the paragraph(s).

Then re-visit your re-written draft a couple of days later and see if you had managed to bridge the gap. If yes, what did you do? If no, repeat the above activity.

Providing clarity to an argument is crucial and we have already seen from the previous section how we should try and keep the reader in mind during our thinking and writing process. Read the extracts below and then do the activity.

STEM perspectives on clarity include:

Present your argument precisely and clearly. Decide what level of detail is required by considering your readership. State what you are about to do/are doing/have just done. Ensure that your choice of mathematical notation improves the clarity of your presentation.

Senior Lecturer of Mathematics, University of Exeter


The use of jargon can commonly obscure a weak point in an argument.  I encourage PhD students to outline in plain English what some technical terms actually really mean – influenced myself by great science writers such as Richard Feynman.

Professor of Geology, University of Exeter


Social Sciences perspective

I ensure that I settle on a nomenclature for a given argument that is simple and consistent (so refer to concepts using the same labels throughout). I define concepts early on. I ensure that I focus on ideas one at a time.

Professor of Management, University of Exeter


Clarity: I print and reread several drafts, constantly asking myself whether the reader will be able to follow and not assuming knowledge

Professor of Philosophy



  1. What does the word ‘clarity’ mean to you?
  2. How do you embark on making a sound argument?
  3. Read the STEM and Social Sciences extracts again. Can you find any similarities and/or differences?

These are closely tied in with clarity and ultimately helps reader-writer engagement.

This has links to individual genres and suggests possible structure for each, see this blog post.

For structuring dissertations and theses, see this blog post.

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