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The Process of Thesis Writing

written by: Dr Mike C•edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 6/27/2010

Almost half of American higher education students fail to turn in their research thesis and miss out on a post graduate degree. Planning a thesis properly and learning how to get the thoughts from your head and onto paper is just as critical as good research.

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    Thesis Requirements

    If, at the outset of your higher degree, you bear in mind the fact that you will need to document your research, findings and conclusions and will also be called on to provide an evaluation of the current situation within the field (a critical literature review), you will be well served.

    In putting yourself forward for the award of an advanced degree, you are required to demonstrate that you have developed a mastery of your chosen area of research. Traditionally, in the UK, you will need to produce several copies of your doctoral thesis which will be sent to (usually) two external examiners from other universities, or perhaps an industrial sponsor and an internal examiner from your own institution. Other copies go to your supervisor(s), the university library and you will want at least one copy for your own use. The examiners will give you an interview (Viva) where the work presented in your thesis will be discussed and you will be asked to defend your results and conclusions. The examination may stray into relevant areas that don’t appear to feature in your thesis, but perhaps should have.

    Most postgraduate degrees and all doctoral degrees require that the candidate prepares a written thesis on their research project. As somebody with a background in science, my comments on the subject of writing a thesis are probably of greatest relevance to people studying a science or technology based subject. However, I believe that much of the advice that I’m providing in this article is sufficiently broad based to apply to just about any discipline.

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    Keep Ahead Of The Game

    At the outset of your study, you should have discussed the focus of your research with your supervisor and they will be on hand to offer guidance over the course of your study. Make certain that you thoroughly understand what it is that you are trying to investigate and revise it if your research takes you in a different direction. This will provide the scaffolding upon which you will write your thesis – make sure that it is well established in your mind!

    In modern science, there has been an explosion of research journals to accommodate the publication of a very wide range of scientific papers – all of which should have been subjected to the “peer review” process whereby another researcher in the field judges the publication to make a valid contribution to the field and therefore, be worthy of publication. It is your job to be up to speed on the most relevant and influential of these publications and to be familiar with seminal papers in the field that have been published in the past. Therefore, when you read a paper which is relevant to your thesis (and you really must read any paper that you make reference to!), use a software tool that lets you enter the paper’s citation in the format that your university requires and make notes about the paper, for future use, within the system (obviously, this can be done manually if the software is not available) whilst the paper is fresh in your mind.

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    Produce An Outline

    A good outline of your thesis is vital and it will help to keep you on track. The outline is a tool really just for you, but it would be prudent to share it with your supervisor and get their input. The detail that you put in the outline is up to you – regard it as a map to get you from college to home; some people only need major towns and route numbers whereas other people like to have every twist and turn noted. Don’t spend too much time on the plan since it is only a tool and not something that you’ll be judged on.

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    Avoid The Perfection Trap

    The best piece of advice anybody can give you about the process of writing is NOT to strive for perfection in a first draft. An astounding 50% of American doctoral students fail to write up and submit their thesis and so are not awarded the qualification that they have worked long and hard for! To some of us, written expression is as natural as breathing; to others, it is as natural as walking on water. In the modern age of computers, nothing is easier than deleting work that you have become too critical of. Remember, you can’t edit a blank page, so avoid this temptation.

    Ensure that you have physical (hard copy) and electronic back-ups for your thesis. Computers and their drives can fail – or be stolen – so don’t leave all you eggs in one basket. Whilst you will want the first draft to be as good as possible, remember that it is just that: a first draft. Make sure that you complete the first draft before moving on to edit your work (thereby avoiding the “perfection trap”).

    Once the draft has been completed, the best thing to do is take some time away for it – if you aren’t under time pressure, a week or two away from it may work wonders. You come back to the document and see it with fresh eyes; this helps you to spot typographical errors and sentences where the meaning is not clear. Again, avoid the temptation to delete material completely when you start revising the draft. Save a back-up copy of the original chapter(s) that you are working on that you can revert to if need be (make sure that all versions are uniquely identified such that you don’t get confused as to which sections are current and which have been revised).

    Ideally, ask a colleague to read the manuscript and get their opinions before giving it to your supervisor for their thoughts. Some people need to produce several drafts before the thesis is ready for submissions – others nail it on the first draft. It really doesn’t matter how many versions you require before it is ready; just like the route map analogy, there are many different ways to get to a given location, the only important thing is to ensure you get safely where you are going.