Writing an academic paper, like a thesis, to complete a degree is rarely a pleasure. It takes time, experience, and quite a heap of resources to get a thesis done. Younger students usually struggle because of their lack of experience while advanced and working students rather struggle with time and resource management.
I have guided hundreds of students through the process in different functions, from being a supervisor and examiner myself to helping them with their research design, data handling, and writing process from the outside. So, here I go sharing some insights into how to get a thesis done – and how to really not put your foot in it.
Writing a thesis starts with choosing the right topic. This sounds obvious, but it is indeed crucial to work on a topic that is of interest to you and ideally also to your future career. Seeing the practical value of your thesis will boost your inspiration and perseverance, two of the most important ingredients of getting a thesis done.
The process of writing a thesis consists of two parts: structuring your content and writing the text. Part two usually follows part one. Still, it is smarter to start writing things up before the data handling is completed because the writing process is likely to help you spot inconsistencies, gaps, or unexpected flaws that you should address before you get to the final stage.
Structure your Content
Your thesis must be structured in a way that makes sense for your argumentation. So, after choosing your topic, you probably need to narrow your focus down. What exactly will you do? Will you test a theory with new data, or will you open a new, underresearched field? I myself am a rather explorative, data-driven field researcher because I explore underresearched phenomena and analyze what is going on.
Take my dissertation on an Australian community in Paraguay as an example of explorative, data-driven field research. Before beginning my project, I traveled to rural Paraguay to find out what was left of the community there. My initial idea was to describe how the English language had evolved in Paraguay over time. Upon my arrival, I found out that a 1926-born gentleman was the only native speaker of English left while most of the descendants spoke the local indigenous language. So, I followed the data and changed the focus of my research to analyze the history of language shift in New Australia, Paraguay. The data defined the focus of my research. This data-driven kind of approach is common in field research. A rather theory-driven approach, by contrast, implies testing a theory with new data or under new conditions.
The Research Question
Once the focus is clear, you need the right research question. The research question is the backbone of your thesis because your thesis is your scientific answer to your research question. It determines how long the thesis will be, what secondary literature you need, what data set you need, and whether you need a hypothesis or not.
If your plan is to look at the impact of a new policy on society, for example, you may be unable to answer your research question because it’s too broad for the scope of a thesis. If you look at the economic effects of the policy on a specific part of the population and during a certain period of time, your research question will be manageable. Formulating a precise research question takes time, and it may even need minor adjustments at a later stage.
The research question also structures your thesis. Remember that your thesis has the purpose of answering your research question. Nowadays, most research is based on quantitative data. A quantitative analysis entails that you will be counting phenomena and providing numerical results, like proportions, distributions, correlations, or probabilities. This kind of thesis requires less text and more data visualizations and tables. In this case, your thesis will probably consist of the following five parts:
- Literature Review
- Method and Data
If you stick to this structure, you’ll be on the safe side. The structure will only vary if you are doing a qualitative analysis. Qualitative analyses differ from quantitative ones in that they describe and analyze individual phenomena and often rely on more text. So, if you are writing a discourse analytic paper, a cultural study, a literature review, a historical overview, or an essayistic paper, your thesis is likely to be longer and have a different structure. Parts 1 and 5, however, are always the same.
If your institution provides you with a template, do not take it as rocket science either. Rather, take a moment to assess whether the structure of the template really serves your purpose. If not, go ahead and change it. Because you are the master of your thesis.
The introduction, by the way, should go without any presumptuous statements along the lines of “it is a widely acknowledged fact that”. Instead, be concrete and support your claims with data and references. Also, guide your readership and mention what the novelty of your research is – are you proposing a new method? Are you revisiting an old assumption? Or do you want to add more data to an ongoing debate? At the end of your introduction, you present your research question and how your data will answer it.
Hypothesis: yes or no?
I often get asked by students and clients alike if they need to formulate a hypothesis. It is a common misbelief to assume that every paper needs a hypothesis. You only need a hypothesis if your field, research question, or research design requires one. If you decide to work with a hypothesis, you may mention it in your introduction if you have space available; otherwise, elaborate on the hypothesis in your literature review once you have outlined its background.
Writing in Academic Style
Academic language is precise, unequivocal, and factual. It requires the use of full sentences and specialized terminology without unnecessary synonyms. Unfortunately, few students are provided with proper writing instructions, so it is important not to underestimate the time it takes to write a good academic text.
Academic language is often satirized as being stilted. “That’s how they speak in the ivory tower”, people say. It is indeed the case that certain academic texts are unintelligible or unnecessarily abstract. A good academic text, however, is clear to the point of not leaving any doubts about what is meant without needing any further information.
Writing in academic language can be nerve-racking. I have seen students and clients struggle with the same paragraph for hours. Do not despair. Try to talk to someone about your project because this can help you unchain your thoughts.
Proofreading and Spell-Check
Finally, professional revision is vital. It may take a substantial amount of time because professional revision doesn’t only look at linguistic correctness but also at cohesion, coherence, logic, completeness, formatting, and consistency.
Be wary of relying on a spell-check software only. A software may spot typos, yet it is unlikely to handle the challenges of academic texts. The software may not know the specialized vocabulary of your discipline, so it will either fail at spotting mistakes or autocorrection may ruin your point. Also, the software cannot check whether the content is connected convincingly, and it will miss terminological and formatting inconsistencies.
In certain cases, it also makes a meaningful difference whether you capitalize, hyphenize, or italicize a word. I remember a term paper written by a student in a linguistics course of mine. The paper analyzed the use of so-called infixes, i.e. parts of words that are inserted in the middle of another word. In English, we know “bloody” or “fucking” as playful infixes, as in the words “kanga-bloody-roo” and “fan-fucking-tastic”. In the paper, the student forgot to italicize the key word, so his argument on “the fucking infix” came across as a slur. A human proofreader will spot these inconsistencies while a software is likely to let you down.
In a nutshell, writing a thesis is a lot of work. Calculate your resources for each of the steps, and keep in mind that most supervisors have limited time available to guide their students. This brings us back to the two key ingredients you need to get your thesis done: inspiration and perseverance.
AT A GLANCE Dos Do pick a topic that aligns with your career interests. Do start writing early. Do narrow your research question down. Do structure your thesis in accordance with your research design. Do pay attention to using academic terminology and formatting. Don’ts Don’t wait till the last stage to start writing it up. Don’t make any presumptuous statements in your introduction. Don’t bend over backwards to find a hypothesis. Don’t stick to a template at all costs. Don’t rely on a spell-check software only.
A Word from the Author
Thesis writing – let’s be honest, it’s a torment. Unless you’re a passionate researcher, writing a thesis or any other kind of scientific paper is grueling. Yet I myself actually enjoy the process a lot! I have accompanied all kinds of research project, so it’s time for me to share some of my experiences in a newsletter. As you will see, there’s no magic to writing a thesis – the only magic you need is inspiration! 😉 If you’re at it yourself right now, I’m sending inspiration your way! Or if you know someone who’s currently in the process of writing a thesis, do send them this article!
Danae Perez is a versatile linguist and anthropologist with language all over. She holds a doctoral degree in Linguistics and Social Anthropology, and provides language consultancy for private and corporate clients of her company Anaphora. Danae is also a lecturer in multilingual communication at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences. Her research centers around the evolution of world languages and has been published by renowned international publishers.
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