Why Grad School: How to Write a Thesis

In past posts I’ve mentioned the thesis process, but I never really spelled out what goes into a Plan A thesis. After a conversation with one of my friends at USU, I think it’s just about time to remedy that oversight. Before we get into the how, I’d like to look briefly at why. Why would someone write or not write a thesis in the first place?

The thesis is usually somewhere around seventy pages long. Like, 3-5 journal articles combined, plus an introduction and conclusion. Really, it’s like writing your own mini-issue of a journal in your field, but without the book reviews. They’re really helpful if you quite enjoy research, because they force you to start using it and contributing to your field in a large, active way. If you move on to a PhD program, you’ll have a great start on your dissertation. If not, you can still peel off a chapter and submit it to a journal, or turn the whole thing into your first book. If none of those appeal to you, see the original “Why Grad School” post and reconsider your life choices.

The prospect of writing a short book is simultaneously exciting and terrifying in differing amounts based on your temperament. As someone who had never reached a page limit in his life, I was personally 2% excited, 98% scared (I use that line enough I probably owe Owen Wilson royalties by now). But it’s a requirement for my department, I had a really good idea, and I still plan to turn mine into a book, so I went forth to write a thesis! Here’s how:

Step 0: Be in grad school, in a program that lets you write a thesis. If that is not an option, you want to write something else. The logic may apply, but the terminology may be different. Continue at your own risk.

Step 1: Have an idea. Come up with something in your discipline that you realize has never been studied, and find a way to study it. Or more likely, take something that’s been studied, and look at it in a different way. Or find a new set of methods to study a lot of things in your field. The sky’s kind of the limit here, but the goal is to find something you want to research in a way that nobody has ever researched it. For instance, my friend Heidi is looking at a lot of incomplete definitions of master, applying them to someone easily identifiable as a master craftstman, and making a brand new definition that doesn’t suck. My friend Jill is looking at laundry practices, setting up a case study of one of her friends that is a laundry artist, and finding the value in doing laundry well. I’m researching severed hands, and making a claim that they’re a symbol of humanity in folklore and pop culture. It’s all fun stuff, and each one of them has changed through time, but the core ideas stayed the same: craftsmen, laundry, severed hands.

Step 2: Find/make other people interested in your idea. You need to develop a committee of established academics who will sign off on your finished product, and help you take it from that original idea into a full thesis. Ideally, these should be people who are already familiar with some part of your project–the idea, the methods, the theories–and who you personally get along with. Sometimes that won’t work out. People you want on your committee won’t be able to serve on it, or aren’t interested, or you might find out you don’t get along with everyone as well as you thought; that’s okay. Life isn’t always easy, and neither are theses. You’ll be fine, just do the best you can, and get people excited and interested.

Step 3a: Read too much. Read other theses from your field, articles with methods you might use, books on your topic or related topics, and anything else you can get your hands on that might help in any way. Read everything that seems useful, and then read everything in their bibliographies that seem even slightly related. Read and read and read and read and read. You’re not going to use it all, but there’s no way of knowing what you will need until after you’ve read it, so KEEP READING. I don’t think I can stress that enough.

Step 3b: Take too many notes. When you’re doing all of that reading, take careful notes of everything that seems even slightly important. Quotes, paraphrase, summary, page numbers, everything you can think of. Use whatever method you want, whether that’s a text document, a series of index cards, a journal, sheets of paper used as bookmarks, or anything else that works. I switch between all of those, and that’s why I can never find the specific notes I need. If you can help it, don’t be like me; use a consolidated system. If you won’t be organized, at least write detailed annotated bibliography entries. You’ll probably need that for the next step, anyway.

Step 4: Write up a proposal. This might be the first writing you’ve done for the thesis. It’s your opportunity to describe everything that’s going to go down for the next few months (years?) of your life that relates to research. What is the topic? Why is that your topic? What else has been done? How is what you’re doing different? Why are you doing it differently? What is not your topic? What are you not doing? Which sources are you familiar with? Nothing in this project gets to be accidental. If something involves a choice, you have to make it intentionally. There are specific ways to order all of this information, and each department wants things done a little differently, but as long as you’re actively examining every aspect of your research, and setting clear boundaries, I bet you’ll be fine. Track down a good example or departmental guide if you don’t trust me. Hell, that’s probably a good idea anyway.

Step 5: Submit your proposal. Now that you’ve spent a while thinking, reading, and writing, give it to your committee. Now brace yourself. This is one of the last breaks you’ll get for a while.

Step 6: Revise your proposal. This depends on the program, the committee, and the individual, but you’ll probably need to do some editing. If not, skip down to the next step. There’s no shame in needing to revise a little at this step. There’s a lot to keep track of, and this is your committee’s opportunity to make sure you’re all on the same page. Fix what needs fixing, ask about anything that seems like it’ll take your project a direction you don’t want it to go. Don’t be afraid to put your foot down, but don’t be stubborn just because you’re confused or cranky. Return to step 5. Repeat as needed. If you get stuck in an endless loop, either find a new project or a new committee, and return to step 1 or 2 depending on which one you choose.

Step 7: The first defense. This is the first time you have a reason to feel stressed. It’s not a very good reason, but it is still a reason. You’re going to sit down in a room with your committee, and you’re all going to talk about the project together. Read over your proposal again, and look at the notes they’ve given you so far. Think about why they told you to make specific changes; those might come up. They’ll ask questions, you’ll answer them. They’ll express concerns, you’ll figure out how to address those in the final project. Take good notes, don’t be defensive, and you’ll be fine. Mine took less than an hour from start to finish, and that seems to be pretty standard at my university. If any paperwork is needed, make sure either you or your committee chair bring it along. Now that the proposal is finished, it’s time to start the real work!

Step 8: Write the thesis. Or, as my brain interpreted it, write more than you thought you ever could. Now, this doesn’t all have to be from scratch. Parts of the proposal can become some of the introduction. If you’ve written papers on the topic before, they might be the basis of a chapter or the entire paper. Whatever you already have done, you need to bring it all together and write a lot. Figure out what kind of schedule you can manage, and stick to it as much as you can. I personally found out that I can write really well between 8:00 AM and noon, but after that my focus was shot. If you’re a morning person, find a way to write in the morning. If you’re a night owl. find a way to write at night. Get down as much as you can, no matter how terrible or off-topic it might be. When you can’t write any more, lower your standards, and keep writing. I noticed that once I passed the 30 page mark, my pace slowed down dramatically. If that happens, give yourself weekly page deadlines. Some days will be better, some will be worse, just like with any other job, but you’ve got to keep going. Eventually you’ll have something that looks like the first draft of your thesis. Be happy, be proud, be aware it won’t look that way for long.

Step 9: Give it to the committee. It’s time for your committee chair to read it over. Don’t think about the project for a while. You deserve a break. Catch up on everything else in your life, because the calm won’t last forever.

Step 10: Revise the thesis. Just like with the proposal, you might be able to skip this step. I’ve never heard of such luck, but odds are someone has pulled it off. For the rest of us poor slobs, it’s time to meet with committee members and deal with a lot of red ink. The first draft was just a first draft, and now it’s time for the second one. There might be minor edits in word choice or formatting, or there may be massive sections your committee didn’t like. Try not to take it personally. Please don’t become another gun violence statistic, those guys make the rest of us look bad. First fix what your committee members suggested you fix, then read through the whole thing and fix what you think needs fixing. Then you can return to step 9, and repeat as needed. If you get caught in an endless loop, consider returning briefly to steps 1 or 2 again, but a few rounds of edits are pretty normal. I had three or four before I moved on to the next step.

Step 11: Defend the thesis. Sweet Christmas, you’re almost done. How sick of this project are you? I was having nightmares about severed hands by the time I got this far. Anyway, do you remember your proposal defense? Same thing, except now you have an even better idea of what you want to talk about, and your committee has found more issues to discuss. Hooray! Seriously though, people don’t really fail defenses. I think every Department has the horror story of the person who just never pulled it together, but it’s pretty rare. Take some deep breaths, walk in, and take more notes. Explain what needs explaining, accept that you’re the expert on your topic in the room, and act accordingly. Just like with the proposal, make sure someone’s got the requisite paperwork.

Step 12: Revise the thesis more. You thought you were done with this part, didn’t you? Realistically, that can happen. A few people in my class had really minor edits to make before they turned in the final project. I was not one of them, and I had to keep working. For me, revisions meant going all the way back to step 3 and reading a lot more. I didn’t even look at my paper for the month after my defense, I just went back to theory and immersed myself in a whole new way of thinking. Once you’ve learned everything new you need to learn, incorporate it into the paper. Address your committee’s notes again, and find some more of your own. You should have a pretty airtight piece of informative, argumentative writing by the time you’re done.

Step 13: Turn it in. This might be to department editors, or your committee, or publishers or whoever, but this might be the last set of changes you really need to make. Aren’t you excited? I’m at this step right now, waiting for some feedback from my chairperson. How long have you been working on this project? Six months? A year? Two? Imagine your thesis is a child for a few minutes; it’s probably taken up all of your free time and prevented you from sleeping, so the comparison is apt. How advanced would the thesis-baby be? Rolling over? Crawling? Walking or talking? Going to school? Yeah, there’s some perspective. Take another break and enjoy it.

Step 14: Final changes and publication. Whoever looked at it last time will probably have a few more little changes to make, so make those and move it along. Eventually you’ll be getting it published. At USU, that means getting it bound in the library and bringing the receipt to the school of Research and Graduate Studies. You did it! You’re done with your thesis! Wait for your diploma, and try to figure out what you’re going to do next. Prepare it for a journal? Turn it into a book? Burn it? All three? Whatever you decide, congratulations. You’re done.

Now you know, and you can’t say nobody ever warned you. Uncle Scott told you everything you need to know about writing a thesis.


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