Monday, April 13, 2009

Thesis writing, what's your method?

I've asked a few people lately about the status of their thesis or if they've already received their degree how the attacked writing their masters thesis.  I've gotten wildly different answers that seem to have no correlation to the achievements or prowess of the student.  I'm wondering is the writing method (by this I mean when you begin, how often you ask for editing, what the timing of reading lit and writing related chapters was, and so on) typically dictated by a persons professor or by personal motivation? And does the writing method reflect a persons dedication or work ethic?  

It may seem trivial to some, but I don't think it is.  Even though few grad students would admit it we are in constant pursuit of approval from our professors and academic mentors, and writing (quality and quantity) is the one standard that all academics are judged by.  Is it much of a stretch to assume that graduate students are also judged by their writing method in addition to the quality of the end product?

I had to laugh when a post-doc who is widely recognized as exceptional told me they wrote their entire masters thesis in the last three months of their program.  Many other people I talk to seem to approach it by reading for 6-10 months, a period of time that overlaps with the beginning of the research project, and then beginning writing after they feel comfortable in their level of knowledge.  This seems logical.  It's not the method I've used (more on that later) but very logical and less time consuming in the long run.

Some people might say there is no wrong way to approach writing a thesis, by I don't agree.  Others might suggest that it depends on the writer and what method is best for their work habits and individual program.  This seems plausible, but I think there is another factor being ignored, and that is the writing method of our advisor.  I think this has the greatest effect on how we approach the writing of our thesis.  And it's funny that our advisors to some degree control our writing method and also judge us on that method.  I can see how for some people this could create conflict and stress, and that should be recognised by the student and advisor so that a compromise on writing method can be reached. 

The writing method that I've been guided to use has actually suited me very well.  I think it may be a bit unusual, but I began writing my thesis the very first day of grad school.  I've been in a constant state of revision since then, and I have to say it feels really good to have so much written, even though most of it will need to be re-written before I am done.  That is definitely the biggest draw-back of this method, writing takes a lot longer, because you are constant re-writing after you've modified methodology or refined your understanding.

But from all my discussions and thinking about thesis writing I have come up with five basic rules for writing a masters thesis (I'm not really qualified to comment on writing a dissertation)
  1. Read first.  Start reading your first day and never stop. 
  2. Go by the guidelines. Get the graduate school guidelines for thesis format your first week (and read them thoroughly)
  3. Write early. Begin writing your thesis before the end of the 3rd month (even if it's just outlining research questions and methods)
  4. Make deadlines. After you've gotten into the writing groove (say 4-5 months into your degree) start making yourself deadlines for chapter drafts (and hold yourself to them even if it means putting in extra hours or putting off other work).
  5. Edit often. Have your drafts edited by your professor as often as you can.  This may be the most difficult of all due to the busy schedule of all professors.   A professor should never take on so many students or extra responsibilities that they can't assist each student in thesis draft editing.  Sometimes a thorough edit (by someone other than the author) is the only thing that can move a draft forward.  Make it worth their time by working hard on your draft and workout the deadlines with them a head of time so that you aren't giving them a draft when they are to stressed to give it proper attention.

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