Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.


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Thesis writing: concept maps

A concept map for a section of my literature review.

In a previous post I wrote a bit about outlining: a useful and pretty basic technique for planning any body of writing. You set down what you want to write, in order. Then you write it.
It is quite rare to be able to structure the argument beforehand in this way. I use an outline for a very high-level overview of my thesis. It is essentially a table of contents. I find outlining too restrictive for planning the content of a section. I switch to a close relative: the concept map.

I doubt I would be alone in being initially disparaging of the ‘mind maps’ we are encouraged to create by enthusiastic teachers. I didn’t get the point. Back then I understood what I was writing with sufficient clarity to be able to hold things in my head. I did not need a map around my mind.

Things have got rather more complicated since then. I can’t hold a whole thesis section in my mind. The material is too detailed and subtle for that. Sure, I understand the concepts, and what material I want to include, and I might even understand how the concepts interact. This does not mean I understand intuitively how to write these things down in a coherent fashion appropriate for my thesis. So I revisited the ‘mind map’, which I prefer to call a ‘concept map’. They are surprisingly effective provided you actually need to use them to structure subtle arguments.

The image at the top of the post shows a concept map I drew for a relatively straightforward section of my thesis. I divided it into three clear topics. There isn’t much interaction between the topics. Then I scribbled down a load of things I want to cover. I’m not quite sure of the order of things yet, but by writing things down I can visualise how things fit together. I have included a few key references but it is safe to say I have not fully worked out how this section is going to work. The concept map is a freeze-frame of the state of development. I can add to it later.

The image below shows a very different concept map. It is for the ‘ethical and social’ section of my thesis, which is a brief section explaining some of the non-scientific issues around geoengineering. The subject matter is profoundly different from every other section and not something I am too familiar with. I recently attended a transdisciplinary summer school hosted by the Oxford Geoengineering Programme, and that gave me enough information to write down what I thought were the key concepts. Then I did a little reading around each to make sure I understood them properly, and added references in red. Finally I attempted to link some concepts together (arrows). There are four groups on the map below, though the one on the bottom and right is quite a loose grouping.

Concept map for a subsection of my thesis

Concept map for the ethical review section

Seeing all the things I needed to cover in this format allowed me to quickly test out different combinations in my head. Which concepts were related? What are the broad topic areas involved? What is the relevance of all this to my discipline, atmospheric science? The concept map is not just a planning tool; it is a thinking one. I should have taken snapshots as I built it up, because it would have revealed much of my thought process.

I suppose ‘mind map’ is not a bad phrase. These things do indeed act as guides, allowing you to forget banal things like remembering all the things you’re supposed to be thinking about and focusing on the significance of these things to each other and your thesis. I referred to the map constantly while I was writing this section of my thesis and I found it a pleasure to write, having got a lot of the nitty-gritty part out of the way. Having it set out in front of me freed my brain for the more exciting mental gymnastics of arguing persuasively and coherently and writing clearly.