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An Exercise in Preliminary Thinking

Think about the classes you are currently taking or have already completed. Are topics in those classes particularly interesting to you? Spend some time making a list of possible topics that you may explore further.

Consider also whether you would like to work with certain faculty members. How much do you know about their areas of expertise? What courses do they teach? Can you arrange a preliminary meeting with a faculty member who could potentially serve as your advisor?

Suggestions for Getting Started

To engage productively in the process of finding a thesis/dissertation topic, I offer the following suggestions.

Begin the Process Early in Your Graduate Career

As you complete your coursework, be on the lookout for potential thesis/dissertation topics, for texts whose ideas interest you, and for faculty members who may work with you as an advisor. Perhaps you are interested in the published works of particular faculty members. You should make contact with these people early in your graduate career; make an appointment during their office hours to discuss possibilities. Enroll in a course taught by these faculty members if your program allows you to do so, read their published works, and avail yourself of opportunities to get to know them. Ask more advanced students about their advisors. Has the advisor been helpful and supportive? Sufficiently directive and/or concerned? Reasonably available? Prompt in returning drafts?

Collect Ideas

In addition to getting to know faculty members and being on the lookout for possible ideas, I suggest that you start an “idea file” in a file drawer or box. Whenever you come upon an article that contains potentially interesting ideas, make a copy of it and put it into the file, jotting down a note to remind you of why you wanted to save it. You can also jot down ideas in a notebook or open a file for this purpose on the computer where you can download articles of potential interest. At the end of a year, you will have a rich collection of ideas from articles, books, or lectures that can help you compile a review of relevant literature. One of them could help you discover a workable topic.

Become Aware of Your Own Writing Process

As you begin the process of writing a thesis/dissertation, it is helpful to become aware of the process you have developed over the years as a writer, in order to assess the extent to which it has been effective. As a graduate student, you have written a number of papers for classes, perhaps with great success. At this stage in your career, I suggest that you become conscious of the activities you have performed by responding to the following questions:

  • Summarize the process you usually use to write papers for classes.
  • How much of the paper do you plan ahead before you begin to write?
  • When you write, do you revise immediately, piece by piece, before you write additional text? Do you save revisions until all the text in a particular section has been written? Do you revise at all? What sort of revision do you do?
  • What aspects of writing do you find most difficult?
    • Generating ideas?
    • Developing a main idea or position?
    • Doing research?
    • Beginning the paper?
    • Organizing the paper?
    • Providing transitions?
  • Are you happy with your writing process? Do you find it effective? Would you like to change some aspect of it?

Reread your responses to these prompts and consider which ones you find most useful and which ones you would like to improve. Find an element in the process that you like the best or find most interesting or rewarding, and, if possible, begin with that one. Beginning with an activity you like at least somewhat can provide momentum for other components of the process that you may enjoy less.

Create a Timetable for Completing the Thesis/Dissertation

Creating a timetable helps you gain an overview of the process, and I recommend that you consult your advisor as you develop it. Does your advisor want you to submit each chapter as you write it? Or should you wait until an entire draft is completed? If your advisor is willing, I recommend submitting each chapter as you write it so that you can begin obtaining feedback early in the process.

Form a Thesis/Dissertation Writing Group

Although the image of the lone writer scribbling in a garret is a popular fiction, writing entirely on your own can be lonely and intimidating, whereas sharing ideas with others is often enjoyable and rewarding. If possible, I suggest that you form a thesis/dissertation writing group with a few congenial fellow students. Meeting with fellow students on a regular basis will keep you focused on your task and serve as a bulwark against procrastination because you will have to report at least some “progress” to the group or confess that you haven’t made any. When you share drafts of your proposal or chapters from your thesis/dissertation with fellow students, they will be able to suggest new directions or note areas that may need clarification or explanation. In addition, when you critique the work of others, you gain insight into your own. Collaboration among writers is usually helpful for everyone, which is why professional writers often participate regularly in writing workshops.

Understand the Thesis/Dissertation as a Genre

The word genre appears frequently in this book, and it is important for you to understand how it is used in the context of a thesis/dissertation, In the past, the term was used primarily to refer to the form of a literary text, such as a poem, short story, or play. More recently, however, the word has been redefined in terms of function—that is, in terms of what it does or accomplishes. As Amy Devitt defines this new concept of genre, “People use genres to do things in the world (social action and purpose) and ... these ways of acting become typified through occurring under what is perceived as recurring circumstances” (698). The thesis/dissertation has a particular function within the academic world; to write one successfully, it is important to understand its “generic” expectations—what it is intended to “do,” what it is supposed to “look like,” and what the members of the academic community expect it to “be.” Thinking about a thesis/dissertation in this way enables you to view it in terms of the audience for which it is intended. When you consider generic features in terms of function, you will understand more clearly the sort of text you are expected to write.

Although theses/dissertations differ by discipline, institution, and country, most adhere to the following characteristics:

  • A thesis/dissertation begins by identifying a problem or issue that is well defined and worth addressing. The problem or issue leads to a research question and a consideration of how it may be answered.
  • A thesis/dissertation is a persuasive scholarly document that presents an argument and supports it with evidence. Its goal is to convince a committee and other members of the academic community of the following:
    • The problem, situation, or issue is significant to the profession.
    • The problem, situation, or issue has not been treated adequately in previous scholarly work (although it probably has been addressed before).
    • The author has created or discovered a credible strategy or direction for addressing the problem, situation, or issue.
  • A thesis/dissertation enables the student to enter a scholarly conversation by engaging with other texts:
    • “Listening” to what other texts have to say
    • Understanding their main points
    • Discovering possibilities for expanding or perhaps refuting those points
  • Originality in the academic world evolves from the voices of others. Students often become overwhelmed by their concern with finding something completely “new” to say, but a thesis/dissertation often builds on ideas that others have already written about, extending an argument, addressing a gap, or modifying a point of view.
  • In terms of the thesis/dissertation proposal, although not all proposals are the same, most devote sections to the following elements:
    • Explaining the problem
    • Showing its significance to the field
    • Showing that the author is familiar with relevant prior publications
    • Explaining the need for solving the scholarly problem in terms of a gap in the previous scholarship
    • Presenting a plan for research
    • Presenting a potential structure for the final written product

Find Examples of the Type of Thesis/Dissertation You Want to Write

The library at your university should have a file of theses written in your discipline, and it is a good idea to examine several to get some ideas for the work you plan to do. Look at how the purpose was presented and at the structure that was used. You may even find one that suits your own goals quite well, and you can then begin by using it as a model. Start by imitating and then move beyond, developing your own ideas as you continue to reflect. Slavish imitation usually results in a mechanical, uninteresting text, but modeling in the initial phase of composing can be helpful.

In addition, the growing Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations (NDLTD) can serve as a useful source of ideas. You also should peruse Dissertation Abstracts Online, which characterizes itself as “a definitive subject, title, and author guide to virtually every American dissertation accepted at an accredited institution since 1861. Selected Master’s theses have been included since 1962. In addition, since 1988, the database includes citations for dissertations from 50 British universities.” These have been collected by and filmed at The British Document Supply Centre. Beginning with DAIC Volume 49, Number 2 (Spring 1988), citations and abstracts from Section C, World wide Dissertations (formerly European Dissertations), have been included in the file (see http://library.dialog.com/bluesheets/html/bl0035.html).

An Ideal Sequence for Getting Started

When you read the title of this section, “An Ideal Sequence for Getting Started,” you probably thought that an ideal sequence is unlikely to happen—and you are, of course, correct. Writing a thesis/dissertation rarely goes as smoothly as one would like, and life has a way of intruding on even the most disciplined of students. However, it is useful to consider what your “ideal” sequence may be. The pointers below, derived from the work of Locke, Spirduso, and Silverman, may give you ideas about how to approximate that sequence:

  1. Consider why you want to write a thesis/dissertation and what you plan to do when you have completed this project.
  2. Locate an area of particular interest that you would like to study on a graduate level.
  3. Select a university or research institution that has a strong reputation in the area you want to study.
  4. Identify an advisor who has published widely in the area you plan to study and who is known for being an excellent mentor.
  5. Work with an advisor to develop a question or hypothesis that will serve as the basis for a thesis or dissertation.

As a way of getting started, Locke, Spirduso, and Silverman make the following distinctions between a “problem,” a “question,” and a “purpose”:

  • A problem occurs when we become aware of a situation that is unsatisfactory in some way. Awareness of a problem can raise questions, which can then suggest a research direction.
  • A question is a statement about what you may want to know about the unsatisfactory situation you have identified.
  • A purpose then becomes the explicit direction for your research. The purpose of a thesis/dissertation is to answer the question you have posed about the unsatisfactory situation.

Thus, “the search for a topic becomes the quest for a situation that is sufficiently unsatisfactory to be experienced as a problem. The proposal has as its purpose the setting up of a research question and the establishment of exactly how (and why) the investigator intends to find the answer. Problems lead to questions which lead to purpose” (Locke, Spirduso, and Silverman 48).

It is also useful to be aware of problems that can cause a proposed area of investigation to be rejected, either by a graduate committee or by another university group that approves thesis/dissertation topics These are the most common reasons:

  • The thesis or dissertation doesn’t have a main point, thesis, or position. It reviews relevant research, discusses antecedent texts, perhaps summarizes plots of literary works, but makes no argument. It elicits a reaction from readers that can be summarized as “So what?” or “What’s your point?” or “Why does this matter?”
  • The subject is too broad.
  • Key terms are poorly defined or not defined at all.

These suggestions can help you begin the process of finding a topic and writing a proposal. As you move along what can appear to be a meandering and perhaps treacherous path, keep in mind that it is natural to be confused or uncertain some of the time. After all, you have never written a thesis/dissertation before. So have courage! Forge ahead! And don’t be afraid to ask questions.

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