Getting tense about tense

I am finding the issue of tense in my thesis a tricky one. At least two of the six chapters were written last year and very early this year before I gathered the data and analysed it. So they were written in the present or future tense – ‘This study will use this framework…’ or ‘This study is using this methodology…’. When I sat down to bring these chapters into a more updated form in the full draft, I was a bit stuck, wondering whether and how to change the present and future tense to past tense across the board, or to do so more carefully. It was easy with the two ‘analysis’ chapters where I present my case studies because they are more obviously in the past tense. The research is done. But in the Introduction? What tense must I use there?

I am reporting on a completed research project, but as a reader it’s not all over for you. You are coming in at the start and want to know what am I am going to be writing about and what my argument is, not what it was.The Conclusion is another minefield, because part of it is past tense – ‘This study argued that and found that etc’ but I also point to future research, so has the study pointed to this (more past tense) or is it more that it points to this and that (in the present/future). I am not sure, to be honest. So, I have played around with this, with some trepidation and confusion. The Introduction is in some form of the present tense: ‘This study argues’; The chapters are organised thus…’ and so on. Chapters 2-6 are all in the past tense-ish, but this has not been as easy as changing all the instances of ‘is’ to ‘was’ in the earlier drafts of chapters 2 and 3. There are also different forms of the past tense – ‘this study has used’ versus ‘this study used’ – the latter seems more definite and harder in tone and the former a little softer. What is the right tone to strike using tense? Is there one?

I have spent more time thinking about my reader-examiners in recent weeks, and how they will approach this thesis and work their way through it. Tense is an important part of striking the right tone, and also getting things in the right sequence so as to tell a full, logical and coherent story of the study and what it aimed to do, what it did, how it did it and what it found that contributes to knowledge in the field. I think this issue of tense also related to the question of how one writes a PhD thesis – it is not a linear writing process although it is a linear reading process. Bits and pieces get written in bits and pieces over 3 or more years, and thinking that the draft is an exercise in cutting and pasting various pieces together and doing some aligning of tense will almost certainly lead you down the wrong path.

The issue of tense is not just a grammatical one; it also points to a bigger question of how a writer helps the reader navigate the thesis in terms of the theory, the methods, the data and the argument. You may have written an amazing draft of the theoretical framework early on, but you will have to think carefully about the revisions once you have done the data gathering and analysis and applied that theory. Shifts in your thinking will happen and careful revisions need to be made, not just changes all the ‘is’s to ‘was’s, but also making clearer and more sophisticated connections between the chapters and aligning the different roles they play in making your thesis coherent, logical and a good read for your examiners.