Thesis writing Tips
Research on graduate students' experiences with writing a thesis or dissertation suggests many students aren’t always sure what to expect when they begin the process. Dr. Ken Oldfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Springfield, offers these strategies along with some tips on how to manage the process. We’ve included advice from three UNL graduate students who’ve recently completed a thesis or dissertation.
Start early. Whether you’re writing a thesis or a dissertation, start planning as early as possible. Begin by recording ideas in a notebook (that never leaves your side). Enroll in courses whose instructor and/or subject matter seems compatible with your interests. If possible, choose writing assignments that can serve as a basis for your dissertation or complement your dissertation goals. If you plan strategically, you can develop a “research stream.” Using seminar research papers you’ve completed, you can define your research interests and extend your work into a possible dissertation topic.
Choose your adviser wisely. Oldfield suggests you first consider someone with a reputation for “getting people through.” Ask advanced graduate students about faculty members with reputations for being “high producers” or those who have “positive attitudes and beliefs about graduate students and graduate education.” Learn about faculty who are “more academically and socially engaged with graduate students than their low-productive counterparts.”
Second, you want a thesis or dissertation adviser who pays attention—to the requirements for the degree, to deadlines, and to you. Select a person who understands the process, communicates expectations clearly, and is fair but demanding. Finally, your adviser should have some experience, which means you might not want to select someone new to campus. Faculty members who have served as readers on other dissertation committees will likely be good advisers.
Choose your supervisory committee wisely. Dissertation supervisory committees generally include three or four additional faculty members. Again, consider people with reputations for graduating students and those who, for the most part, work well with their colleagues. Nathan Palmer, who recently completed a master’s thesis in sociology, says “a well-designed committee that complements your skills and abilities eases the process a great deal.”
So how do you identify these folks? Get to know your professors. Attend research colloquia to understand their areas of research. Take classes and engage your professors in conversations. Read their work. Talk to advanced graduate students. Your best strategy, however, is to rely on your adviser to help you choose your committee.
Choose your topic…wisely. When choosing your dissertation topic, remember these three words: Focus. Focus. Focus. You’ll save yourself considerable time and effort by restricting your research problem. Also, choose a manageable topic. While your dissertation will be a huge and, hopefully important project, it shouldn’t take you a lifetime to complete. Rely on your adviser to help you narrow your topic so you don’t remain in graduate school for twenty years.
Finally, Oldfield suggests, select a topic you can love to hate. He explains, “No matter which subject you address, after a while you will despise it. If you choose an uninteresting question, eventually it will be easy to avoid working on it.” Not so with a topic you love.