Recently, I handed in my master’s thesis for the degree of a Master of Arts. During that time, I had a lot of problems going on, most of a personal nature, but also others that you are all aware of, namely, the pandemic. Then, next to personal and public issues, there is the academic process of writing a thesis of 80 pages. All three of those areas in your life come together in a tangled mess when you begin preparing for your thesis project. In order to maximize the success of your project, I’d like to suggest a few guidelines, based on my experience and that of my fellow students.
Before you start:
1. If possible, pick a topic you like.
Choosing to write about a topic you hate will make the thesis absolute torture because there is little to be motivated for. However, writing about something you really love bears the risk of losing critical distance and simply praising everything, which is not what the thesis is supposed to be. Attempt to find a balance between enjoyment and critical distance.
2. Be in close contact with your advisor.
Not only will you not run the risk of failing because you worked completely against your advisor’s ideas, but you will (hopefully) receive useful guidance and support. I am a bit spoiled because the professor who supervised my thesis is completely awesome and has listened to me crying and worrying a lot. If you do not have that kind of personal relationship with your advisor, it is still central that you listen to what they have to say about your plans. If you are very unhappy with their ideas for your thesis (for instance because they want you to completely overthrow the structure you envisioned), then you are within your rights to defend your viewpoint. If you like your ideas, defend them.
3. Find a support group of like-minded students.
Especially now in pandemic times, it is hard to come into contact with fellow students, but I cannot stress how useful it is to have a small group of people who study the same thing you do. They will have an informed opinion on your ideas for a thesis, so you can use them as a sound board for things you are not ready to talk to your advisor about. They can proofread stuff for you and help you when you feel stuck. And, most importantly, they will remind you that you are not alone. I felt immensely comforted by our little support group that met (and still meets) once a week via Skype to talk over issues each one had or currently has with their theses.
4. Prepare as much as possible before the official registration date.
I don’t know how it works at other universities, but I was able to do a lot of the reading and research before I ever registered my thesis officially, and it was a good thing, too. I changed my focus a few times, so that I continually needed new literature, not to mention the fact that the library closed during the first shutdown, so that I couldn’t get my hands on a book I needed very badly. If you take care of as many problems as possible before your official time frame begins, you will have less to worry about.
5. Know if you are ready to register.
This goes not just for your research process and how certain you feel that your topic is the right one, but it also concerns how prepared you feel for this challenge in general. If you are not ready, but you register your thesis anyway simply because you think you need to, it could end very badly. I registered too early, and the first month I spent with nothing but panicking and having a few nervous breakdowns. I was prepared enough academically, but not emotionally, as spiritualistic as that may sound. Your state of mind needs to be the right one, as my advisor explained to me: commit to the thesis. Be a thesis-writer.
During your writing process:
1. Find a working rhythm that works for you.
If that rhythm is to write 8 pages one day and then do nothing for the next three, that is fine because it keeps you going. Do not force a rhythm on yourself that doesn’t make you feel productive because you will lose motivation. If you set yourself the goal to get up every morning at 6am because you feel you should, but usually you get up at 10am, you won’t manage 6am and then become frustrated. Work with your own rhythm, not against it.
2. Adopt a steady work ethic.
Once you have found your rhythm, stick to it. Do not let it slide for more than five days at a time, because you might fall out of rhythm and it will be hard to get back into it. Do not simply rely on motivation to keep you going. Sometimes you will find no motivation, but you need to keep going regardless. Adhere to the rhythm you have established for yourself and pull through.
3. Create a focused work space.
Put your phone on silent and tape off the time display on your computer screen—when you’re wired in, you don’t need to answer messages or check to see what time it is. If you have appointments you need to keep, you can set yourself an alarm that will remind you. You will benefit immensely from disabling as many distractions as possible.
4. Do not read all of the literature at once.
I cannot stress the importance of this method enough. Sort your secondary texts according to the chapters for which you need them. Read the literature for one chapter, write that chapter, read the literature for the next chapter, write the next chapter, and so on and so forth. I had over 90 secondary sources, and it loomed over me like a mountain that I felt completely unable and unprepared to climb, a feeling that majorly contributed to my panic during the first month. Then, a friend of mine told me to sort the literature and work my way through it one chapter at a time, and it was the decisive piece of advice that got me through the thesis. If you divide the huge mountain of literature into discrete piles, it does not seem so imposing anymore.
5. Work on the list of references as you go along.
While we are on the subject of secondary literature: putting together a list of over 90 sources the day before you hand in is a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Put every piece of literature you have read on the list and immediately format it correctly according to the MLA guidelines or whatever guideline you are using. Later, in the penultimate step of proofreading your thesis, check to see if every work on your list of references has actually been quoted in the text you wrote. It happens that you cross something out that has ceased to be relevant for your argument and you don’t notice that you have removed a quote from a secondary literature text, so you forget to take it off the works cited list. Even if you work with a citation program (e.g. Zotero), you should not skip this step.
6. Save at least five copies in different places.
Make sure to include both clouds and hard drives. Not only does that mean you are prepared for your computer crashing and any other eventuality, but it will make you feel very safe. Not only should you continually save copies of your thesis as you go along, but save all of your digital material (notes, literature, preliminary drafts etc.), from the very first word you type. If anything happens, if your computer crashes, if you accidently pour coffee on it, if—God forbid—someone hacks you and you can’t access your files, you will NEED these safety copies. Trust me, it will make you feel very comfortable knowing that nothing can get lost because you saved it all.
7. Believe in your abilities.
There will come a point in the process where you lose all faith, in yourself, in your topic, in your argument. It will all seem ridiculous and arbitrary and you won’t want to do it anymore. In marathons, this state of mind is called “hitting the wall.” When you have reached this point (and you might reach it several times), it is important that you keep going and remember that yes, you can do it. You’ve come this far, so there must be something about you that has made it possible.
After your writing process:
1. Get a certain number of people to proofread your thesis.
Delegate what their job is supposed to be: one for grammar, one for typos, one for formatting, several for content and so on. Having more than one person on content proofreading is important because the content is the key piece of this thesis. Grammar and format can be perfect, but if your argument makes no sense you haven’t won anything. That is also why the support group of students is important: their input will help you immensely.
2. Do not get too many proofreaders!
Too many opinions can confuse you, so you need to choose a few people whose opinion you trust. Also, you need to be able to tell apart which points of criticism of your thesis are valid and important for you, and which are merely fine-tuning or concerning your style of writing. Do not incorporate every single point of criticism given to you. Not only will it drive you crazy, it will also take your thesis away from you. Your ideas need to stay your own, so do not let criticism water them down.
3. Save enough time for proofreading.
Leave yourself and your selection of proofreaders at least a week for reading the whole thing. If you rush through it, the risk of overlooking mistakes is too big.
4. Check the formatting at the very end.
The last step of proofreading, after all of the input from others has been incorporated and you have checked to see whether everything you cited is in proper formatting, cited correctly, and has found its way onto the list of references, you look at every page one last time to look for formatting glitches. Doing that earlier is pointless because changing the content changes the format, so you would need to check everything several times. Once the content is absolutely set, ideally the night before you need to hand it in, sit yourself down one last time and go over every page carefully to see if the format is correct, if every paragraph is indented and every chapter title is the correct font and if your text program has glitched anywhere.
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