Achieving thesis perfectionSeptember 2013
PROFESSOR ALISON JONES gives her 12 top tips for postgraduate writing success.
Top Tip One: Give something up
This may seem like a strange ‘writing’ tip. But good writing requires a lot of time. A full time course or thesis is like a full time job: 40 hours a week! If you are already busy, you will have to give something up. And writing time is time spent alone. Partners, children, whānau and friends used to your availability may find your disappearance selfish and/or strange. Recruit them as your supporters; your success will be a group effort.
Top Tip Two: Step up
Postgraduate work is quite a ‘step up’ from undergraduate. In your undergrad years you were provided with readings. You were given a basic understanding of what is considered important in fields of study, and what is expected in an academic essay. The postgraduate emphasis is on finding and developing arguments that interest you. You have to work out what you want to study, what you want and need to read, and what you want to say. You are becoming a researcher.
Top Tip Three: Make every course count
Choose taught courses that allow you to read and write about a topic that may become the focus of your thesis or dissertation. You will get an idea of relevant arguments, and a sense of questions that interest you. If you have no idea about a research focus for your thesis, then the readings – and the teachers – you encounter in your postgraduate courses should help you find a topic. In effect, you should start on your thesis or dissertation before you enrol in it!
Top Tip Four: Less is more
Keep your thesis focus very narrow. One of the main problems for thesis and dissertation students is that their question is too broad. And very good literature review on a particular question may suffice. Remember: you have only about 40,000 words for a full Masters thesis, and 10,000 words for a dissertation (and other sizes in between) – respectively, 6 chapters of about 6000 words or five sections of 2000 words. This is not a lot, believe me. And time is short. Your thesis will be one very small contribution to knowledge.
Top Tip Five: A good question is crucial
Take time to find a good question. A good supervisor is crucial for helping with this. The question gives the thesis its shape and its boundaries. It guides your reading and your collection of information or data. Sometimes, the question does not become crystal clear until late in the project, because the research process itself is often about clarifying the question!
At postgraduate level, however, it is best to be clear about your question early on.
Top Tip Six: Know what postgraduate academic writing is
Know what postgraduate academic work is and it is not. It is not about saving the world. Nor is it about telling people what they ought to be doing. It is about contributing to a research conversation (knowledge) about a topic. The conversation already exists – in the published literature. The ‘literature review’ is all about mapping out this existing conversation. You need to say how your research contributes to it. Indeed, your question comes from your familiarity with national and international research debates. These may be conversations about theory, or about a specific empirical question.
Top Tip Seven: Read, read, read
Nobody reads enough research these days. As suggested in Top Tip Five, reading is at the heart of research and writing. Read a lot. Read books, and journals, and use the internet. And remember to write at the same time: take notes, copy quotes, and begin to write your response (or analysis) to your reading, in relation to your question. Look at reference lists to find more readings. Important: get to know your subject librarian, and use her or him. Librarians are fabulous and very helpful.
Top Tip Eight: A good supervisor is a must
Good supervisors are reliable, thorough, encouraging and organised. They get many requests for supervision. So identify the supervisor you prefer, and get in early! Talk to them, or email them, to make an appointment to discuss your thesis ideas. And send them 500 words with an initial outline of your possible question (with references) to indicate you have been thinking and reading. Remember: your supervisor is paid to give you timely and expert assistance.
Top Tip Nine: Craft the final thesis shape
As your project develops, plan out all the chapters or sections so you can visualise the whole thing (including the conclusion) as early as you can. Remember that writing evolves, and even the question can change as you read and write more. This means that you tend not to write the chapters in order, but work back and forward over the writing to craft it into a logical narrative – with the conclusion following from the question. (For my writing tips, go to MAI Review, and click on ‘Te Kokonga’. Also, try ‘The Writer's Diet’.)
Top Tip Ten: Stick to the task requirements
Make sure you know what are the requirements of your degree: the word length, the deadlines, ethics requirements, formatting and binding. Read relevant handbooks. Look at examples of other theses or dissertations in your area, preferably ones graded at B+ or above, which is what you are aiming for (high grades make you eligible for doctoral study, or may put you ahead of a rival for a job).
Top Tip Eleven: Think of yourself as a writer
You are not ‘just’ a student or researcher. You are also a writer. So think about the craft of writing, and assist the reader by making your prose as clear as possible. Expect to write and rewrite several times (make time for this in your planning). Proofread your work, remove every extraneous word, and never hand in writing with spelling or grammatical errors. And reference properly! (For APA referencing style, try the ‘OWL Purdue Online Writing Lab’).
Top Tip Twelve: Have friends, expect tears
Writing a thesis or dissertation is always eventful: enjoyable, frustrating and often stressful. Expect down times, and up times. Stay in regular touch with your supervisor even if you are feeling a bit low. Keep going. Find a critical friend who will talk with you positively about your work (often not the role of family members!). You will get there. Remember that the thesis is forever, so put in your very best work.
Alison Jones is a professor at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and received a Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award this year.
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