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Writing a research thesis
What is a thesis?
A thesis consists of an argument or a series of arguments combined with the description and discussion of research you have undertaken. In the case of a PhD, and to a lesser extent, a Masters (research) thesis, the research is expected to "make a significant contribution to the chosen field" (Phillips and Pugh, 1994, p. 23). This does not mean to revolutionise the field (though some PhDs may). You are expected to review critically the available publications in the field and attempt to add an element of original research to it. This may simply mean that you adapt someone else's research plan for the situation you want to investigate; in this way you extend the knowledge about an area. Your supervisor will advise you about suitable research.
Minor theses (eg, for coursework Masters programs or Honours theses) may also contribute to the knowledge in the field, though the main requirement is that they provide evidence of an understanding of the field. Reporting on minor research studies may take a wider variety of shapes than the minor thesis. Accompanied by appropriate commentaries and adequate discussion of the related issues in the field, videotapes, books, and works of art and literature have all satisfied the requirements for Master of Education coursework programs’ research report.
Preparing to write/research
The following recommendations may help you to work efficiently, and, eventually, confidently while carrying out and presenting your research.
Know your role as a researcher
The general responsibilities of a PhD student and their supervisors are set out in the Research Degrees in Education Handbook and the University handbook for research students. Many of these responsibilities are also applicable to M Ed students and writers of theses and their supervisors. An important feature of these stated responsibilities is the expectation that a researcher will be fairly independent, and that he/she will ask for help when it is needed rather than expect the supervisor to infer this need. On the other hand, it is the responsibility of the supervisor to teach the beginning researcher how to develop a focus, conduct research and write about this (possibly simultaneously). Remember, though, that in the Australian academic tradition, teach does not mean tell; rather, it means guide.
It is not easy to ask for help, especially when you are feeling surrounded by unachievable tasks and incomprehensible texts. Just remember that independence is related to expertise. No-one can reasonably expect a beginning researcher to know all there is to know about research or about the field they are working on. Nor can a supervisor guess when you feel like you're drowning in a sea of unknowns. You have to tell them that you need to know what the next step should be (and negotiate this with them), or ask them to help you identify the important areas in a field, or to tell you how to go about finding out which central theorist to begin reading. Your sense of independence will grow, and your questions will change as you progress.
Research students may find that an intensive schedule of consultations with the supervisor is necessary in the initial stages. Supervisors may take a more dominant role at this point (usually because they feel they have to help you get things started). If you feel that you are losing a sense of this being your work, think carefully about the direction you would like it to take and discuss this as soon as possible with your supervisor.
You should meet your supervisor on average at least once a fortnight. Plan small, achievable tasks to do between meetings, rather than huge assignments. Research students often feel disappointed with the amount of work they achieve in a given time, because their aims are overambitious, or because they do not realise how complicated a task is (Phillips and Pugh, 1994). If you want to discuss something you have written with your supervisor, provide a copy of it at least three or four days prior to the meeting if it is a short piece, more for a longer piece.
Get to know the software available to help you
For all students, it will be very important to know how to use a computer for accessing information and writing the thesis. Courses on the use of software are available in the University, and support (not courses) is available in the Faculty. Endnote is a very useful program available to you. Find out how the software can help you to do tasks like fill in citations, maintain a consistent style, create a Table of Contents, and import work done on other software.
You must also get to know how to use the systems in the library and the Faculty's Teaching/Technology Learning Centre (TLC) (online on students' computers) which provide information needed to find publications. Courses are available for these. Ask the TLC staff on your campus or the Education librarian(s) in the main library.
Decide on the set of writing conventions you will follow
Conventions are the rules you need to follow in writing regarding citations, bibliographies, style (eg, language free of gender bias), page setup, punctuation, spelling, figures and tables, and the presentation of graphics. Note that computer programs such as EndNote are available on Faculty computers, so you may like to find out which systems of conventions they employ and choose accordingly. Programs such as Word for Windows include templates for dissertations (and other kinds of writing); these help you to maintain a consistent use of conventions throughout your thesis.
You should discuss conventions with your supervisor at the beginning stages. If you need any help understanding how the conventions work, you may consult Dr Raqib Chowdhury or Dr Anna Podorova. Manuals are available in the Teaching/Technology Learning Centre (TLC) and the bookshop.
Look at other theses in the field
Hundreds of theses are available for your perusal in the Teaching/Technology Learning Centre (TLC). Look at ones in your field to get ideas about the main features of their:
- language use
- use of subsections and styles for the heirarchy of headings/subheadings
- page numbering and font
It will help you a great deal in the final stages if you have decided early on the conventions, the font and the use and style of subheadings and headings, and use them consistently. Many programs, including Word, can help you to create and manage heading styles, and to use this to later generate your Table of Contents.
Remember that writing is a thinking process
When we write, we often change or considerably develop what we think. Writing is not just translating into words the images of our thoughts; it's not as simple as that. In writing, we may transform our thoughts, redefine them or, with great pain and effort, give shape to our ideas. Thus, it is important to give ourselves time to write. Many students find it helpful to begin writing early in the process of doing a research degree. With the time constraints on a thesis writer, an early start is imperative. Remember, what you write is not necessarily what you will print in the final draft (though in some parts it may be). It is not necessary, in fact it is often impossible, to do all the thinking and then 'write it up'.
It is also important to remember that writing is experienced differently by different people, and the processes they prefer are also different. Chandler (1994) categorises writers as:
Architects (those who consciously pre-plan and organise and do little revision); Watercolour artists (who try to write a final draft on the first attempt - little revision); Bricklayers (who revise at sentence and paragraph level as they proceed), and Oilpainters (who pre-plan little but rework text repeatedly). Into (or in between) which category(ies) do you think you fall, if any? It is useful to know how you prefer to go about writing academic pieces, but you may actually find it useful to try out other ways with a thesis, since this is probably a considerably longer piece of work than any you have undertaken before.
Preparing proposals and applications to the Ethics Committee
If you are writing a thesis for a PhD, you will have to prepare a proposal in order to show your department and supervisor that you have developed a suitable focus for your research. In the case of an M Ed thesis, the same may apply. Booklet - Writing a proposal in education (pdf 330Kb) provides an outline of the contents of a proposal. Sample proposals are also available from Dr Raqib Chowdhury and Dr Anna Podorova.
As soon as you have worked out what you wish to do, you should establish whether or not you need to apply to the University Standing Committee on Ethics in Research on Humans (SCERH) for approval of your research.If you are going to observe, talk to, consult or deal with living human beings (or animals) in any way, significant or minor, you must apply for approval. Applications involve detailed explanation of what you will do, so it is important to think about your methods at an early stage., and in particular to think about how any participants you work with will be protected from harm. Applications are filled out on a proforma, and are available at the Research Involving Human Participants website.
The Committee may take some time to consider your application; it is well worth making your application a good one, so it isn't rejected (if you are well-advanced in writing your proposal, this will help in filling out the ethics forms). You are not permitted to undertake any research involving people or animals until you have approval. It is important to work on this application as early as possible.
Components of a thesis: Functions and characteristics
Theses come in various sizes. The components of many theses are similar although their functions and requirements may differ according to the degree they are presented for. The components and their functions and characteristics are set out below. Note that not all theses must contain all components. Consult with your supervisor and the regulations governing your degree to identify which components you need. A notable exception from the following format are theses that do not have an empirical element, and historical studies. The ways in which data are related to the literature can vary enormously, so that there may be no clearly defined differentiation of function amongst your chapters regarding literature and data presentation.
- Identifies topic, writer, institution, degree and date (year and, if you like, month).
- Title, candidate's name and qualifications, degree aimed at, faculty, university, month and year presented.
- States that the material presented has not been used for any other award, and that all sources are acknowledged.
- States that the approval of SCERH was received and gives the reference number (where this was necessary).
- To thank anyone whose support has been important for your work.
- The supervisor generally receives the first vote of thanks. Don’t forget your participants (Though remember confidentiality). This section is the least bound by convention. You may speak from the heart.
Table of Contents
- Lists all major divisions and subdivisions marked by numbers and indicates which page they are on.
- The titles and subtitles of sections should appear in a style and size consistent with their position in the heirarchy (see style manuals for help in selecting your system).
- Numbering hierarchy: 1, 1.1, 1.1.1, 22.214.171.124
Lists of Tables / Figures / Illustrations / Appendices
- Lists all of these and the pages on which they appear.
- A separate section is used for each of these categories (It is often handy to number such items using the chapter number first: eg, Fig 1.1, Fig. 2.1, Fig.2.2, etc.).
- Orients the reader / presents the focal points of the thesis.
- Summarises the thesis, mentioning aims/purposes, focus of literature review, methods of research and analysis, the findings, and implications.
Introduction (may be given a more descriptive name)
- Provides background information and rationale for the research, so that the reader is persuaded that it will be useful/interesting. It usually also serves as frame within which the reader reads the rest of the thesis.
- Provides background information related to the need for the research.
Builds an argument for the research and presents research question(s) and aims.
- May present a theoretical starting point.
- For a minor thesis, it usually includes methodology.
- Gives an outline of subsequent chapters.
Literature review (this may consist of more than one chapter with descriptive titles)
- To show the reader/examiner that you are familiar with issues and debates in the field (you need to explain these and discuss the main players' ideas.
- To show the reader that there is an area in this field to which you can contribute (thus, the review must be critically analytical).
- This is the section where you cite the most, where your use of verb tense becomes most important in conveying subtle meanings, where you must beware of unwarranted repetition. This is where plagiarism becomes an issue.
- You must remember to discuss theory which is directly relevant to your research.
- In a minor thesis, this may be incorporated into other parts of the piece presented (eg, in the introduction, throughout a video, in a discussion). Alternatively a literature review may be the main source of data, and fulfill the aims of the thesis, in which case it may need to consist of one or more large chapters.
- Presents an understanding of the philosophical framework within which you see your inquiry (ie, discusses epistemology of the research - using literature).
- Presents a rationale for the methodological approach (using literature).
- Describes and justifies the methods of research and analysis (using literature).
- Reveals the boundaries of the research (this may occur instead in the Introduction).
- Describes what you did (past tense) for selection of site, participants, data gathering and analysis.
- It may include illustrations (eg, a timeline depicting stages/steps in the research).
In minor theses, this section may appear in the Introduction.
- Describes steps taken to ensure ethical research practice (shows you are a serious researcher who takes account of how research may affect participants).
- Presents the data and findings, ordered/analysed in ways justified earlier (methodology).
- Past tense is a feature here (usually).
- Data in tables should be carefully set out, checked and discussed.
- Discusses findings, drawing out main achievements and explaining results.
- Makes links between aims, and findings (and the literature).
- May make recommendations – these could appear in the Conclusion chapter.
- Draws all arguments and findings together.
- Leaves the reader with a strong sense that the work you set out to do has been
- completed, and that it was worthwhile.
- Summarises major findings.
- Presents limitations.
- Presents implications.
- Suggests directions for future research.
- Ends on a strong note.
- Provides a place for important information which, if placed in the main text, would
- distract the reader from the flow of the argument.
- Includes raw data examples and reorganised data (eg, a table of interview quotes organised around themes).
- Appendices may be named, lettered or numbered (decide early).
References (for minor thesis) / Bibliography(for major thesis)
- Shows the reader which texts/materials you have consulted.
- Is in alphabetical order.
- May be annotated, though usually is not.
- Should not include works you found of no use.
- Helps reader where the context or content of the research may be unfamiliar.
- A list of key terms/topics.
Although these components appear approximately in the order in which they are presented in a thesis, they may appear in a slightly different order (especially the sections of the body of the thesis). You are very likely to compose them in a completely different order. The introduction is often written late, and is certainly revised in conjunction with the Conclusion, and the abstract should be written last. When in doubt, consult your supervisor!