Writing a Thesis
In some ways, writing a thesis is no different than writing other academic papers, and much of the advice that appears elsewhere in this site will be relevant to the thesis writer. Still, as any thesis writer will tell you, there are some important differences between writing a thesis and writing a course paper. Moreover, because we feel that the best advice comes from those who've actually "been there," the advice we offer here is gleaned from Dartmouth students involved in the thesis-writing process.
Most thesis writers caution that topics are almost always initially too big and try to include too much. Some tips to remember:
- Make your topic broad enough to address an important issue, yet narrow enough to address that issue thoroughly in the time allotted. You will want, in six months' time, to feel as if you know just about everything about your topic.
- Understand the limitations of your particular situation. For instance, if your project requires lab work, know how much you can reasonably expect to accomplish in the time you have.
- Understand that your topic will only seem bigger once you get into your research. If your topic is interesting and rich, new issues and new ideas will always emerge, so, focus your ideas tightly as soon as you are able. If you can't summarize your argument in a single paragraph, your topic is too big.
- Think about pertinent classes you have taken or may want to consider taking while you are working on your thesis. Theses are very time-consuming, so you may appreciate being able to tie it into your other academic work (both because of the light your research may shed on your other classes and because of the light your classes may shed on your research).
Most students agree that you should begin your preliminary reading during the summer before your senior year, and that you should count on reading right up until the time you finish your thesis. You obviously will want to get a good sense of the context for your thesis early on, but know that you will continue to find pertinent material throughout the entire time you are working on your thesis.
Most students reported doing the majority of their focused reading and research during their senior fall. As to how many hours you might budget for this research: one science student estimated that he put in as many as 25 hours a week.
If you are writing a thesis that depends on physical research and analysis, thoroughly discuss your timetable with your advisor. Things you may not consider, like equipment availability, may be out of your control and may dictate your timetable.
As to the actual writing of the thesis: while most thesis writers were writing as they read (at least to take notes or to write short summaries of existing scholarship), they found that they did the majority of their writing during the winter term. Spring term is best reserved for editing and touching-up - things that take much longer for a thesis than they do for a regular research paper.
It's important to understand and accept that you are not going to know exactly what you are looking for in the beginning.
Initially, you should read to explore. As you read, you will find that certain aspects of your topic interest you more than others, and that certain approaches offer more opportunities for new scholarly work.
Even if you are doing scientific experimentation, you need to be flexible in the beginning and willing to modify the initial question you're trying to answer. As one science major told us, "I had specific questions to answer when I started. As I got further, those questions were refined and others evolved."
When it comes to secondary sources, pay attention to the footnotes. This strategy will help you to contextualize your ideas. It will also tip you off to marginal issues in the field that have not been overly explored.
Perhaps the most useful tip we can give you is to write all through the research process. As you read, take notes. Write summaries or short reactions to everything you read. It's also a good idea to keep a journal. Not only will you find that you can cut and paste some of these notes and summaries into your final project, but you'll also find that you've kept track of where your information came from. If you have a good sense of what sources provided you with what information, you can save yourself a lot of time.
In short, don't view the research process as entirely separate from the writing process. Whether you are writing in the Humanities, Social Sciences, or Sciences, you should begin drafting perhaps even before you finish your preliminary research. Granted, much will have to be changed down the road, but the writing process itself will help you to answer some of your questions and figure out where you need to do more research. One student notes that "Most ideas won't coalesce just by reading without writing." Writing throughout the research process keeps your thought process active and records your responses to new ideas as you're having them.
Before they begin to research and to write, many students think of a thesis as just a really big paper. It is indeed usually much larger in size than anything you will have tackled before. But while the sheer bulk of the project is overwhelming, the nature of the thesis is actually more complex than a matter of size. As one student put it, "There is absolutely no comparison at all between even a 30 page research paper and 'The Beast.' It's just not in any way comparable."
There are few "tricks" to tame the "thesis beast," but what students recommend over and over is starting early and having a structured work plan. Breaking your thesis up into smaller components of things "to do" and things "to say" is the easiest way to make the project more manageable. Your "to do" plan is your list of tasks: meetings with professors, due dates, books you need to read, articles you need to find, and so on. Your "to say" plan is your list of argumentative goals for your thesis - what your points are and how you plan to make them.
If your "to say" plan starts to look unwieldy, think of each chapter of your thesis as a course paper with its own discreet argument. But give yourself enough time in the drafting process to make sure that your chapters are connected by good, strong transition paragraphs, and that each chapter contributes clearly and coherently to your larger argument.
Remember to work closely with your advisor at every step of the process. You can also make an appointment at the RWIT, to talk through your ideas at any point.
Like all papers, your senior thesis needs to have a strong thesis sentence. Look at our advice on Developing Your Ideas and Finding a Thesis for good, basic information. Also make sure that your thesis:
- Is a complete, declarative, beautifully written sentence. Don't express your thesis as a question, and don't merely state your topic.
- Is an arguable point. If your thesis sentence doesn't have controversy attached to it, then your thesis project will not be very interesting.
- Is well focused - not too big, and not too small.
- Is relevant to your research.
- Points to what's original, interesting, or unusual about your particular argument or research. The reader should want to read your work.
When considering a structure for your thesis, be sure to outline, outline, outline. As you do your reading, you'll begin to see relationships between ideas. Note those connections as you go, and attempt your first outline as soon as you think you begin to glimpse even the vaguest form for your paper. Of course these outlines will change as your thinking evolves - but each outline you create will be helpful in keeping track of the evolution of your ideas, and in determining the shape of the argument you eventually settle on.
As we've said earlier, once you have your outline you may find it easier to think in terms of chapters rather than in terms of the thesis as a whole. You may even find that chapters are good units to try to research, write and edit one at a time. However, we will remind you again that it is important that you leave significant time in the writing process to synthesize these smaller units into a unified and coherent document.
Most students who we talked to recommended at least two full drafts of your thesis, as well as numerous complex revisions of problem spots and individual chapters. Here we provide a number of questions you might ask yourself as you revise, to ensure that your revision process is thorough and effective:
- Do your argument and purpose remain clear throughout the paper?
- Is your tone appropriate?
- Are you considerate to your reader? Appreciative of her level of knowledge/familiarity with your topic?
- Have you given your reader a sense of the current views on your topic so that he has a context in which to consider your argument?
- Does your paper's introduction clearly introduce your idea? Explain its significance? Provide background information? Attract the interest of your audience? Provide a clear plan for the paper? Present your thesis clearly?
- Does the body of your paper cover your major points in a logical order?
- Is each of your major points supported by the appropriate amount of evidence and analysis?
- Do you make clear transitions as you move from point to point?
- Does your conclusion follow logically from your introduction and body?
Remember: advisors are crucial to the revising process. Who better to spot the problems in your argument than a scholar in the field? And don't hesitate to ask others to look at your thesis. Not only can your advisor have good advice for you, other professors and other thesis-writers in your department may be very helpful. RWIT can also set you up with a tutor who can advise you throughout the revision process.
In general, students complain that thesis writing is time consuming and frustrating:
- "I'm sure you'll have a moment when you're editing one small part of one chapter and you'll stop and can't even remember what you thesis is, and you'll realize that you're so up to your neck in the grindstone (excuse the mixed metaphor) that you've lost the big picture. It can be real drudgery at times."
- "The time. There's not enough of it, and the added burden of classes makes life tough in winter and spring."
- "It's hanging over you all senior year. Even if you are right on schedule, the thesis is not like an exam or a paper that is over and done with at the end of the term. Until you turn it in, it's always there waiting for you."
While writing a thesis can be frustrating, it's also a very rewarding experience. First, writing a thesis presents you the challenge and the opportunity of pursuing a an intriguing intellectual question. Second, they allow you to work in close proximity with an advisor. And finally, there's that great feeling of satisfaction when the job is done.
Here are some testimonials:
- "The entire project has been amazing - knowing you've accomplished (or will accomplish) such a major project is wonderful, and knowing that these ideas are yours is satisfying. Working with professors has also been a highlight - I've gotten very close to several professors as a result."
- "You have a substantial piece of work that's all yours at the end of the process, and you can impress your friends at the presentation. If you stay on top of it and write as you read, your thesis doesn't have to take away from your senior-year experience."
- "I'm really glad I wrote a thesis and I'm really proud of it. It's more for you, and maybe your advisors, than anything else. But don't do it unless you really love your topic and are really crazy about the idea."
- "I think it's worth it, even if it's a tough experience sometimes. I think I'm a better person for having done it, and I think later on in life when I need to tackle something really big, I'll be ready."
Last modified: Tuesday, 12-Jul-2005 11:30:25 EDT
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