When coming up with a good topic for your thesis there are several key things to consider. First, try to find something that interests and inspires you. You want to learn about a subject and discover something that will enrich your knowledge and skills. This should be reflected in your writing.
Originality is also important. It’s easy to think, “it’s all been done”, but you should feel confident that you have something valuable to contribute. There is always the possibility of new research and fresh, unique perspectives to build upon the existing canon of study and thought. If someone else’s research inspires you, use it! Put your own signature on it by comparing and contrasting it with other voices while adding your own personal take.
Brainstorm! Take out a pen and piece of paper – or if you think that’s a bit too Luddite, open a fresh document on your laptop, tablet or smartphone – and scribble as many ideas that come into your head. Write variations on the same theme or idea, and come up with different approaches and far out concepts. No idea should be considered too off the wall for brainstorming.
Writing a thesis proposal
A thesis proposal identifies and submits your thesis topic and research plan. The proposal should contain the main “thesis” or argument/problem/goal of your work, methods you plan to use and several source materials. A proposal should be clear and to the point.
Although you may very well end up deviating from or scrapping much or all of what you outline in your proposal, it serves to provide a motive for research and an understanding of the significance of the topic and source material. Rather than slavishly following your proposal, use it as a springboard to dive into your topic with open eyes. It should also show that you have a clear grasp on the structure of a thesis and the writing process.
Think of your thesis proposal as a preliminary miniature version of your thesis. The proposal for an advanced thesis may be structured with different sections such as title page, abstract, table of contents, introduction and thesis statement. Follow these with more sections describing your research plan, methodology, a discussion of source material, initial findings and a list of references.
The length and depth of your thesis proposal will depend on your level of study. A bachelor’s or even master’s proposal may not likely go into so much detail as described above, but that will depend on your school and the standards of your professor.
Outline your thesis proposal
One helpful explanation of thesis writing might sound like one of those Russian dolls you open up only to find a series of smaller dolls within. This analogy functions in two ways: 1. Big to small – starting with big ideas and then working at small initial, “core” details and 2. Small to big – expanding on shorter versions of your thesis, beginning with brainstorming or a small idea that inspires you (the smallest doll) and ending in a sizable, comprehensive, well-researched thesis (the big “babushka” doll).
After deciding on a topic by brainstorming, etc., start by writing an outline to your thesis proposal including a rough thesis statement, research methods and preliminary research you may have already done, such as excerpts from essays you’d like to use and build upon. Include commentary on how your sources and other research relate to your topic.
A thesis proposal outline should contain a rough abstract and introduction as well as a partial bibliography. Write the introduction last, as you will also do in your final proposal and indeed, in your final thesis. If you already have any figures, graphs, tables or pictures you’d like to include in your final thesis, include them in your outline and proposal. Hard data and graphics can serve to both inspire and lend a bit of gravitas to the early stages of your work.
For more details on outlining, see Coming up with a thesis outline in part 3 of this series, Planning a thesis.
Finding a thesis advisor
Having a good tutor or thesis supervisor can be crucial when writing a good thesis. An advisor who supports and offers helpful, constructive criticism can inspire and guide with the wisdom of experience, while a tutor with too little time or interest in your topic can prove to be a hindrance. I have experienced both examples; yet I am also personally guilty of not taking advantage of a mentor’s valuable time, knowledge and skill.
It is important to remember that you are not a kid any more. Do not leave it up to your supervisor to chase after you and get you to do your homework. That is not your advisor’s job. They are busy professors or grad students who are there to help you and make suggestions, but not tell you what to do or teach you about your topic. Listen to their advice and respect them, but also listen to yourself and if need be, fight for what you believe!
A thesis is your independent project and your moment to show the world – at least the academic world – what you can do. It should be in your voice, supported by previous research and tempered and advised by the guiding hand of your supervisor. Consider it your moment to intellectually shine.
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