As many of you already know, I am well into writing the 35-50 page thesis which will fulfill the requirements for my MA in Political Science. Inspired by the spring semester study tips over at Haba na Haba, I decided it might be useful — as both an exercise in self-reflection and as a service to future MA students — to write a series of posts on the process of Thesis Writing. As may be evident from this blog, I tend to organize my life into a series of lists and these posts will be no different. Thus, what follows is an orderly summary of the “steps” that I have taken towards thesis completion.
STEP 1: Picking a Topic
Fair warning, this step took over 3 months (arguably took a year and a half if you account for the time between entering the program and putting pen-to-paper). What started as a twinkle in my eye was quickly stripped apart in discussions with my advisor and eventually transformed into a rough series of hypotheses. Coming up with an idea that is fresh (i.e. addresses a gap in your field) and achievable (i.e. not too big a gap!) will probably be a challenge. Due to time and resource constraints, I decided early on to put my original idea on the back burner and take-on a project with more limited scope.
Suggestion: During the “topic selection” step, your thesis advisor is your best friend and best resource. He or she will give clear (if not audible) signals as to whether they find your topic interesting and feasible. If they can not help you fine-tune an idea, they may not be able to direct your research and you might want to consider naming a new supervisor or changing your topic to better suit their interests.
STEP 2: Preliminary Research
Once you have decided on a topic of interest, it is time to set yourself up for writing. As you have already identified a gap in the literature, the best place to start is by studying said-literature (lots and lots of reading) and identifying arguments and counter arguments that will form the body of your review chapter.
Suggestion: You will save yourself a lot of time and stress later on if you start to create a citation database during the preliminary research phase. I use Mendeley to organize my PDFs and collect notes and annotations in a single location. Mendeley allows for full integration with Microsoft Word so you can later select a style, input in-line citations directly from the program, and generate a fully formatted Bibliography with just the click of a mouse. Trust me, formatting bibliographies and citations by hand is an unnecessary hassle. Another great feature of Mendeley (and similar PDF organizers) is that they allow you to generate an online and desktop database of “read” articles that you can later refer to when writing other papers, studying for comps, or preparing for classes. No need to read things twice when you already have a highlighted and annotated copy of the PDF!
STEP 3: Prospectus
I like the word “prospectus” because it invokes an air of intellectual superiority and academic achievement. Truth is, prospectus is just a fancy word for plan of action. Essentially, a prospectus is a detailed outline of your proposed research. If you have never used outlines before, now is the time to start. Your supervisor will thank you for giving her/him a clear indication of how your thesis/argument will be structured and you will thank your past-self for taking out the organizational guess-work. In my experience as a TA and tutor for undergraduates, most students struggle with how to lay out their argument. Sometimes structural issues lead to awkward transitions between sections or thoughts. Also, bananas are delicious.
Suggestion: Give your supervisor at least a week to review your prospectus. Ask for detailed feedback on the structure of your argument, the logic of your hypotheses/thesis, and even the works included in your literature review (if your supervisor is knowledgable about your specific topic they may be able to suggest important articles that you have neglected to mention).
Until next time… Happy Writing!