Thinking Ahead to a Senior or Graduate Thesis

Students approach me in the winter or spring before they start their senior undergraduate or grad thesis.  They are often concerned and/or excited about the opportunity to complete their own projects after three years of prescribed studies. I believe (ahem, hence my line of work) that research — the design, data, analysis and writing—is a fantastic way to contribute to society (and there is nothing funnier than university scholarship….)

But I still appreciate that students may have a somewhat different perspective as the Senior or Graduate Thesis looms ahead.  The most common question I receive before a September start is “How can I prepare in advance?” An excellent question given the pace, deadlines and intensity of the 411 and graduate school!

Below are a few tips for those students who want to start thinking about their thesis research.  These suggestions are in no particular order and may not be applicable to all project designs.

Things to do (topic):

1. Figure out what you are NOT interested in. With a pen and paper, or mind map software, brainstorm all the possible topics within your general area, that you don’t want to investigate.

2. Figure out what you ARE interested in. Using one or more keywords to start an idea web (again, paper/pen or software) explore all the related concepts/places/spaces/debates that pique your curiosity.

3. Read: figure out those key concepts and use them as a basis for a Google Scholar search. Perhaps even visit the library and spend an afternoon in the stacks reading different journal articles (or, at least the abstracts!).

4. Prioritize: after you’ve done some reading, revisit your idea web and see if you are still interested in your general topic. Is something else more interesting? If so, refocus.

5. Write one longish sentence about your interests.

6. Try to write one shorter sentence about your interests.

7.  Write the same sentence but as a RESEARCH QUESTION.

Things to do (design):

1. Dust off your second year methods textbook or this one. Reread it for fun. What do you want to measure and how might you go about doing it?

2. Think about your skills—what you are good at, what you want to do better, what you detest—related to research.  Do you like talking to people? Interviews might be an option. Love quantitative analysis? Stats are the way to go! Make an inventory of what you might want to use in research design and how it might help you.

3. For ERS 403 students: Look at the 411 syllabus (even an old version) or the UW-D2L site for the course deadlines.

4. Think about what your semester(s) will be like, i.e., other personal obligations, what you want to accomplish, other course commitments, and how you can design a research time line that will meet those deadlines.

5. For MES or MRP grad students: look at previous theses held in the department or ask around with other students.  Look at how academic articles are structured in your field/discipline/area and then add about 300-400 extra words approx.

NOTE: data collection, analysis and writing always takes longer than we originally think it will.

Things to do (logistics):

1. Set yourself up with a reference management software. Learn how to use that software…..effective use of key words and categories will be a huge timesaver.

2. Make friends with the Environment library liason. Learn how to do effective boolean searches.

3. Reread how to do appropriate intext citing and references. Review the UW intellectual integrity policy.

4. Explore UW research ethics process.

Things to do related to writing:

1. Figure out what you need to be an effective and efficient writer. This may include timing, food, working environment, computer hardware etc.

2. Stretch and strengthen your writing muscle.  Do this by writing, for 15 minutes minimum EVERY DAY. (yes, every day). It doesn’t need to be ‘pretty’ text or even related to your thesis topic (but this type of brainstorm writing can help). It is the act of writing that strengthens the muscle and will build your momentum and writing stamina.

Other suggestions from a former student (2010-11):

1. Start brainstorming about possible topics that interest you; what would engage your interest for 8 months? What is your background? Where do you want to be at the end of the year? *Note: also acknowledge that writing your thesis is a journey; your ideas will change over time!

2. Realize that you will be taking other courses while writing your thesis, and have a variety of small, achievable goals set for yourself before starting the term.

3. Talk with other students and try to help each other out brainstorming and planning, if possible. Having a thesis-writing buddy can make the process fun and encourage you to stay on track for your goals!

And, if that still isn’t enough and you find yourself thinking about the merits of a doctoral program, read and