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Researching & Writing your Graduate Thesis - Part One of a Series

In this series, we will attempt to provide general information that should apply to most graduate students, particularly in the United States and the UK. While there are some differences in terminology between the UK and the US, most everything else applies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Calvin & Hobbes

Calvin & Hobbes

The saying goes: “It takes a village to raise a child.” The same adage can be applied to writing the thesis or dissertation: “It takes a committee to write an argument,” because that is ultimately what graduate work boils down to: an educated opinion and the defense of same. While research and the countless hours of interpretation and extrapolation that come with it are fairly solitary pursuits, the graduate student has his or her Major Advisor and Advisory Committee to look to for guidance.

In a perfect world.

Often, because of constraints such as teaching loads, advisors and graduate students - especially Graduate Assistants who teach on top of attending seminars and doing their graduate research - are often stretched thin in terms of time and availability. It is not unusual to find that a student and advisor rarely communicate other than through the revision process; and the Advisory Committee may often communicate with the student only through the major advisor. One student we know waded through her Master’s thesis in this manner, without knowing much about the process other than what she gleaned from one seminar and by looking up information that was provided on the graduate school’s web page. While this did not pose a huge problem, she said, the fact that, at one point, her advisor looked at her with an exasperated sigh and said “why don’t you know how to do this?” did. Other than the one two-hour seminar, which mostly covered formatting, no one had prepared her for the process; even at a Research I university in the US.

Ultimately, no matter how prestigious the school, and no matter how helpful the committee: it is ultimately up to the student to make adequate progress toward completion of his or her thesis and for producing high quality work. In order to do this successfully, prospective and current grad students need to know the what to expect, how to start, and how to navigate the process of writing the thesis or dissertation.

There are a few ground rules to start with:

1.      A master’s or PhD project should include research that has been independently conducted.

2.      The thesis or dissertation must not be published previously and must be conducted and written under the supervision of a major advisor and major committee (can vary by school).

3.      Graduate work should demonstrate the following:

a.      Awareness and understanding of important current work in the field

b.      Ability to plan a research activity

c.      Knowledge and motivation to carry out the planned research activity

d.      Ability to analyze the results of the research

e.      Ability to draw reasonable conclusions from the research

f.      Ability to complete a written description of the work in the form of a well-written, properly organized thesis

g.      Ability to complete a thesis with potential for presentation at and/or participation in professional meetings and/or publication in scholarly journals

Without this basic foundation, a thesis will fall apart under scrutiny and challenge, and if a student is planning on taking a job under the condition that they successfully defend their thesis, they may find themselves having to put that off until they can show that they have at least a firm grasp of those seven points.

 

Next Week: Content and Type of Thesis