Many graduate programs require a thesis, yet this original piece of writing is often the stumbling block that may keep people from finishing their degree. Many people do not begin writing their thesis early enough, some do not plan well, and some struggle with a particular stage of the work. To help avoid these pitfalls, here is an outline of how to begin, how to stay on track, and how to present your final product so you can earn your degree.
Before you begin any work on your thesis, you’ll want to identify the faculty member who will guide you through the process. You need this person from the beginning because he or she needs to help you identify a topic and find the appropriate scope for your project. Even if you have pretty clear ideas about what you want to research, you probably need at least a little guidance to turn your thoughts into an actual research project. (And, on a practical level, you’ll probably need this person to approve what you want to do). Of course, if you are uncertain about your topic, an adviser can help you discover one suited to your interests and abilities.
Once you have a thesis topic and an adviser, you’ll want to start finding information – especially existing research relevant to what you are going to study. Compiling a bibliography may be the first step in organizing the information you collect. Then, as you take notes, be sure to include page numbers and quotes. Keep all of your notes together, compiled according to your bibliography so you can reference them easily.
Before you get too far into your work, it is important to identify any special circumstances that might affect your progress. For example, all research involving human subjects requires you to adhere to IRB (Institutional Review Board) standards. This is not difficult to do (and your adviser can help), but you will need to familiarize yourself with the guidelines and file some paperwork. If you don’t do this early in the process, you’ll likely have to repeat a lot of what you have already done.
Resources can also pose challenges. If you are an arts and humanities type, you might find you have to travel in order to view documents or other materials. Or, you might have to wait longer than expected to get into an archive – even if it is right next door. Recognizing this before you get too far is a tremendous help.
Once you get into your research and begin writing your thesis, the most important thing to do – and for many the hardest – is to keep working. You will likely have other demands on your time, but try to do at least a little work on each designated working day. If that seems impossible, try playing to your strengths on any given day. If you can’t seem to get a sentence on paper, work on formatting your document or do some additional reading in your source materials. If you are bored with processing data, design a chart to display it or start writing the prose that will surround it. Just try to get something done. Even if it seems small or ends up being something you discard from your final project, the act of doing it will have kept you in touch with your work and will keep you going. And that is what matters in the end.
When you are nearing completion of the research and writing portion of your thesis, you’ll need to fill out some paperwork and prepare to present and defend your work. In many cases presentation is as simple as submitting your final document to your adviser and two or three additional faculty members for approval. The process for earning approval varies greatly from program to program. Be sure to find out any and all requirements so you can adhere to any deadlines or special procedures.
You’ll also need to formally submit your document to the university so it can be catalogued with other theses and dissertations completed at the institution. This is usually done electronically, which significantly streamlines the process. Still, you’ll need to be sure you do everything properly and on time.
Stay organized, keep working, and follow the rules – while the process may be grueling the satisfaction of completing your thesis will hopefully be worth any aggravation you experience.
Annie Rose Stathes holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Political Science, from the University of Colorado, Denver. She is currently an instructor of writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado.