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Writing up a Master's thesis

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One of the most challenging aspects of the postgraduate studies is the thesis which comes at the end. This is the time when you get a chance to not only learn subject material, but actively contribute to the research work being done within your field. Hotcourses’ student editor, Alejandra, has just finished writing her thesis and has the following advice for you.

According to the University of London regulations for scholarly writing, a thesis must “form a distinctive contribution to the knowledge of a subject and afford evidence of originality shown by the discovery of new facts and/or by the exercise of independent critical power.”

With this in mind, you must ensure that your thesis draws together all of the organisational skills you have learnt over the course of your studies, so that the project is treated as a professional exercise. However, it is also a very personal and subjective journey; perseverance and passion are the two key attributes that will get you through.

At the beginning of such an important and challenging project, you can sometimes feel as though you are at the foot of a mountain. Here some tips on how to get started:

  • Choosing a project:  Try to identify a gap in a subject area that has not been covered in great detail before – examiners will not be interested in reading a thesis that simply repeats established information; they are looking for someone who can help to move the discipline forwards. Look at topics that you have found most interesting and exciting in your previous studies. Make a start as soon as possible by outlining a title and drafting an argument so you know what you are trying to say – it is easy to become lost in research if you do not have a coherent argument in mind beforehand. You can make modifications later, but you need to get started with something. Time management will be key in the whole process.
  • Research: After defining your area of interest, spend some time in your university library hunting around for books and articles that will help you to back up your argument with scholarly evidence. Your work should be original, but you must take account of previously secondary literature and refer to them in your work. The www.bl.uk in London offers a variety of resources you can look for as well as online resources such as JSTOR, BIDS (Bath information date services) and scholar.google.
  • Argument and Methodology: With a project as big as this, organisation is essential. Your argument should have a natural flow and sources should be used effectively.  Make your objectives clear to the examiner in the opening section of your work. Also remember to have a critical approach not only towards the referred literature but of your own approach. Don’t spread yourself too thinly; focus exhaustively on one area, rather than trying to give an overview of a larger issue.
  • Bibliography: Start your bibliography records from the first moment you start researching. Note down full bibliographical details of any books and articles you are consulting, as you will need them later for referencing: author, title, editor, publisher, date of publication, page numbers consulted. This will save you a lot of time and effort later when you are referencing or trying to reread something. One of the most used referencing styles is the Harvard style  and the Chicago Style guide. Check with your tutors to make sure that you are using their preferred style. Be careful with your references as an incorrect or misused entry could provoke an accusation for plagiarism.
  • Presentation and layout: For your examiner, the form and careful preparation of your project are evidence of your capabilities. Pay good attention to margins, spacing, spelling mistakes, font, headings, presentation of tables, etc. This seems obvious information but you will find that through your writing process your text will be changed a number of times, often altering spacing and fonts. Keep an eye on the quotations as they require a particular treatment.

Always seek your supervisor’s help if you are getting stuck with anything - they might be very busy people, but their experience is ultimately for your benefit.

For more information regarding common mistakes, follow the link for vladimirchen.com blog or if your want to know more about the graduates’ point of view, visit thegradcafe.com and thepostgraduate.com forums. For a video on how to choose a topic for a dissertation, follow the youtube link.

More information about postgraduate courses, follow the link.

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