This is the stage where you delve deeply into your topic, reflecting and analyzing your subject material and research. It will require you to use the skills you’ve acquired throughout your studies, test the limits of your academic thinking and your capacity for understanding complex theories and methodology. It may be a struggle at times, but don’t worry – you will surprise and impress yourself!
Before beginning the writing process in earnest, make sure you are aware of your department’s thesis requirements in terms of length, style and technical specifications, as well as expectations of content. The more aware you are of what is expected, the better prepared you will be. Ask your professors or supervisor to show you some good examples of theses, which fulfill the standards of your department while displaying a high level of academic writing.
*On a technical note, choose a word processor you are both comfortable with and which your school approves of. Many institutions simply insist that you use the ubiquitous Microsoft Word, so you probably won’t have much of an option in this matter. At any rate, it’s better to be aware of such stipulations right from the start so you don’t have unnecessary technical editing issues, especially if you’re not a computer whiz.
How to research efficiently
Research for a thesis, especially a graduate or PhD dissertation, should be highly detailed. You want to contribute something original, and this is no easy task. Be sure to make clear what are your opinions and your research as opposed to someone else’s.
Take advantage of public and university libraries. Do not limit yourself to course literature and the web. Often you can gain free access to fee-based academic journals through your university. Ask your supervisor, professors and school librarians. It also pays to be familiar with your university library’s software.
Be independent, but not too independent! Ask your supervisor to help, especially in terms of what direction to take at the outset, and then take more initiative and treat your tutor as your guide rather than your teacher. As you progress through your writing, your sense of independence will grow.
Writing and researching is a reflective, thinking process in which we express, challenge and transform our thoughts. Start writing as early as possible. Whenever you have a thought related to your topic, it’s worth writing it down as it may prove to be valuable down the line.
Create a detailed annotated bibliography as you conduct your research. This can prevent the frustrating and painful task of rifling through material because you forgot to note where you found a certain idea or quote. It can also help avoid that nasty business known as plagiarism.
Use outlines and checklists
Following an outline is a helpful technique for writing. Sticking to an outline saves time and keeps your writing organized. By working on sections one at a time, you accomplish mini goals en route to your grand achievement.
Prepare an outline for your thesis before you begin the bulk of your writing, and smaller outlines for each section. You can fill in your outline with any writing you have already done and list subtopics under each chapter heading. This should help with writers block and give you a good idea of the amount of work that lies ahead.
Even before filling in each section, place any figures, notes or information in their appropriate sections. They can be rough, but make them understandable so your supervisor will have a clear enough idea of what it is you are doing. Submit this rough outline to your supervisor for feedback.
Apply a checklist for each section of your thesis to make sure it matches both structural and content standards as set forth by your school. Your university may supply its own checklists for this purpose. A checklist can include “dummy” details such as “make sure your name spelled correctly”, but these little points are not as stupid as they might seem. I once printed out my entire thesis and noticed my title, in large, bold lettering, was spelled wrong on the title page.
Checklists will cover minutiae like the size of your margins, the use of Roman or Arabic numerals in your table of contents, proper headings, spacing, and footnotes.
Correlation vs. causation
Knowing the difference between correlation and causation separates people who have learned to think scientifically (like you and me) from the rest of the world, who just put two and two together and jump to unfounded conclusions. Correlation shows that two variables have something in common or a relationship, not that one variable causes another.
Example: wealthy people tend to spend more money, but that does not mean that spending more money will make you wealthier. This would be jumping to an unfounded conclusion. On the other hand we know that cigarettes cause cancer due to extensive scientific research on the subject, rather than because we simply saw a lot of people who smoked getting cancer. In this case correlation suggested causation, but did not prove it.
How much repetition should you use?
Repetition of facts or a theoretical position is part of writing a thesis. We use repetition to emphasize our points and make sure our argument is clear. By repeating arguments via paraphrasing and through example, we strengthen our points better than simply re-stating word for word.
Since your thesis will most likely be the longest work you have so far written in your life, covering more material than you’ve ever done before, repetition will keep things focused. Theoretical explanations, philosophical musings and wanderings can be kept on point by repeating and relating everything to your central argument. That said, you don’t want to simply restate your central idea over and over again.
Use your judgment and that of your supervisor to decide how much is too much or when you should repeat more in order to stay on point. Don’t just wait until your conclusion to repeat your argument. Keep your audience focused by reminding them throughout the body of your thesis. Use repetition to enforce the clarity of your arguments and overall position.
How to cite correctly
All institutions will require you to cite your material by using footnotes and/or parenthetical referencing. In the U.S., the main styles of parenthetical citation conform to either APA (American Psychological Association) or MLA (Modern Language Association) academic writing standards. The footnotes system uses numbered notes in your text, which correspond to author and publication information at the bottom of the page.
When including footnotes, the works will be listed at the bottom of the page in exactly the same format as they appear in your bibliography the first time you refer to them; Author (last name first), full title, publisher, city, year, page(s). Afterwards they may be referred to with just the author, title and page number(s).
Though there are several variations of writing footnotes, they serve much the same purpose. Here is a common example:
1. Tosh, John, The Pursuit of History, Pearson Education Ltd, London, 2002, 64
2. Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 93
The Latin word ibid is often used to show that you are citing the same source as previously. However I recommend that you don’t use this, especially early on in your writing process, as you may wish to add references in between previous citations and this can cause confusion as to which source “ibid” refers to.
If the work you are citing has four or more authors, use the main author’s name (often the editor) followed by “et al”. This can also be used in parenthetical referencing (Edwards, et al, 1985).
Citations using parenthetical referencing are placed within the body of the text, immediately following the quote or part of the text, which draws upon the source, but not after your own analysis or comment on the source. APA states the author’s last name followed by the year in which the work was published (Chai, 1996), while MLA states the author and page number (Chai, 84).
Consult complete style guides for whichever style of citation your department requires for your thesis. These guides will cover formats for quotation, how to cite secondary sources, corporate authors, multiple authors, anthologies, web resources, etc.
Getting feedback – what kind and how often?
You will likely set up a schedule of meetings with your supervisor. These meeting probably won’t last a long time, since your supervisor will be quite busy. They may occur every couple of weeks or more often and last anywhere from 15-30 minutes to an hour. Meetings should be supplemented by email correspondence. Between meetings you can send rough drafts or particular examples of your work that you’d like feedback on.
Before your sessions with your supervisor, write down any questions you have and make sure you bring them with you. I had all mine in a notebook and jotted down anything of consequence my tutors said during our meetings.
Even if you don’t like the feedback you receive, try to take it on board and not let a hurt ego get in the way of receiving potentially helpful advice. Note specific points and be sure to ask questions if you don’t understand. Email any changes you’ve made according to your supervisor’s advice and ask if you’ve made improvements.
Once you’ve produced a solid rough draft you are well on your way to completing a successful final thesis. In the next section we’ll discuss the editing process and how to put on the finishing touches.
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