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How to Write a Thesis or Dissertation

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1. Choose a Topic

The first step is to choose a broad topic for your thesis. For example, if you are undertaking a PhD in History, the topic might be as broad as women's involvement in the Spanish Civil War. You will refine and narrow this topic at a later stage. Choosing the topic for your thesis is an important step that requires a great deal of thoughtful consideration. Many factors need to be considered. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What topic in my field interests me the most?

If you are writing an Honours thesis, you will need to maintain your interest in the topic you choose for at least one year. If you are completing a PhD, you will be researching this topic for three or more years! For this reason, it is important that you choose a topic that will hold your enthusiasm, interest and passion for an extended period. There is nothing worse than being locked in to studying a thesis topic that no longer interests you.

  • Will I be able to find an appropriate supervisor for that topic?

Finding a supervisor is an important step in your postgraduate journey and it is something you need to consider when choosing your topic. There needs to be a balance between your interest in a topic and the ability of a specific supervisor to work in this area. It is not useful to choose a topic that is of immense interest to you if no one at your university has sufficient knowledge in the area to act as your supervisor. However, it is also not advisable to choose a supervisor first and then choose a topic based solely on their research interests, as you may end up studying something that is not of interest to you.

  • Will I have access to the appropriate sources to research this topic?

Similarly, it is not useful to choose a topic that is immensely interesting to you if there is very little information on the subject. When choosing your topic, consider what types of sources you would need to be able to research it well, and find out if you will have access to these sources. If, as in the example above, you will be studying the Spanish Civil War, can you speak Spanish? Will you be able to travel to Spain to access sources? Does a wealth of material on your chosen subject exist?

2. Conduct the Literature Review

Once you have chosen a topic to study for your thesis, you need to begin your background research to discover what has already been written on the topic by other researchers. There are several reasons why it is important to conduct a thorough Literature Review:

  • Most thesis structures require you to include a well-written Literature Review in your thesis, so that you can demonstrate you have conducted in-depth research in the field and possess a sound knowledge of it
  • You need to study what has been written on a topic so you can identify a gap in the current literature that can be filled by your thesis, since a thesis needs to make an original contribution to a field of knowledge

3. Narrow your Topic and Define your Research Questions

Once you have conducted your Literature Review and identified a gap in the current field of knowledge in your topic, you will be able to narrow your topic further. This is an important step because it is the point at which you will decide what questions your thesis will answer.

In the example of the PhD student who knew she wanted to study women's involvement in the Spanish Civil War, after a careful review of the literature she might have found that one unexamined area in the field was the role of Republican women in combat during the war. This is a much narrower topic than 'women's involvement in the Spanish Civil War', and thus it is a suitable subject for a thesis. The student would then need to define her research questions. Her main research question might be 'Why was the military participation of Republican women in the Spanish Civil War significant?' In order to answer this main research question, she would first have to answer a set of sub-questions, like these:

  • How many women fought in the Spanish Civil War?
  • What motivated these women to volunteer for combat?
  • Why were these women removed from their combat positions only eight months after the beginning of the war?

Thus, the third step in writing a thesis is narrowing your topic, deciding on a main research question and deciding on sub-questions.

4. Research Proposal

If you are writing a Masters or a PhD thesis, you will normally be required to write a detailed Research Proposal in the first few months of your candidature. If you are undertaking a PhD, for example, you might have six months to write a 10,000 word proposal. This Research Proposal will include information you have discovered in your Literature Review, and will outline what your thesis aims to achieve. For many students, this Research Proposal later becomes the basis for the Introduction and Literature Review in their final thesis. The successful completion of this proposal and its acceptance by your university is a necessary step in order to continue your candidature. Once you have written your Research Proposal, it is important that you have it professionally edited prior to submitting it, to ensure you have the best chance of its acceptance. See 'The Final Stage: Professional Editing' below.

5. Conduct the Research

The aim in conducting your research is to answer your research questions and develop a thesis statement. The thesis statement is your answer to your main research question. It defines the argument that you will be putting forward throughout your thesis. In fact, the word 'thesis' means 'argument' or 'position'.

Conducting the research is the most important and time-consuming stage of writing a thesis. How you do this will depend on your field of study and the research project you have created. It is important to consult with your supervisor throughout this stage and to use time management skills to ensure that you stay on track.

6. Follow the Guidelines

Your university department or school will have guidelines that you must follow when writing your thesis and it is important to be familiar with these before you begin writing your first draft. These guidelines will vary from university to university. They even vary within universities, as different disciplines follow different guidelines. It is important that you check with your supervisor about where to find the correct guidelines to follow. Often these guidelines will be very detailed and will specify the following things: the length of your final thesis; the structure of the thesis and what elements it should contain; the referencing style to be used; and the formatting and presentation of the thesis. If you have trouble following some of the guidelines, for example the formatting and presentation or the correct referencing of your thesis, your professional editor will be able to assist you in these matters (please see 'The Final Stage: Professional Editing').

7. Write the First Draft of the Thesis

Once you have completed your research, you will arrive at what can be the most nerve-racking stage, writing up your results in the form of your first draft. Before you begin writing, it is important that you finalise a detailed plan for your thesis (one that you no doubt will have begun developing during the research stage). With a detailed plan and organised research, you will not feel like you are starting from scratch when you begin writing your first draft. Your professional editor at Elite Editing can help you during this stage, as some students find it helpful to submit individual chapters for editing as soon as they have written them. This is especially helpful for students who have English as a second language. This way you are able to submit drafts to your supervisor that have already been edited to improve the level of English and your supervisor can concentrate on advising you regarding the ideas and arguments contained in your thesis, rather than being distracted by the language use.

8. Thesis Structure

The structure of a thesis varies widely. It will depend on what level you are studying at, what field you are studying in, the guidelines you are following, your supervisor's suggestions, and how best to present the type of research you have done. Below is an example of a common thesis structure. This is a guide only and you will need to adjust it to suit your needs and adhere to your department's guidelines.

  • Title Page
  • Contents
  • Abstract
  • Declaration of Original Work
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Figures and Tables
  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Thesis Chapters
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Appendices

9. The Final Stage: Professional Editing

Once you have completed writing your thesis, it is vital that you have it professionally edited by an academic editor. You have just spent between a year (for Honours students) and over three years (for PhD students) doing your research and writing up your results. After all this effort, it is critical that your work is presented in the best possible way. Using a professional academic editor will ensure that your work is polished, well written, and presented correctly. If English is your second language, having your thesis professionally edited is even more important. You do not want mistakes in your writing to confuse your examiners or distract them from the important arguments you are making.

Our academic editors all hold a PhD and have had over ten years of experience editing essays, assignments and theses. We have helped thousands of students to submit the best thesis possible to their examiners and assist them in gaining their degrees. For more information on our professional thesis editing service, please click here.

Please note that some universities require postgraduate students to obtain the permission of their supervisor prior to having their thesis professionally edited. We recommend that students follow the policies of their universities. Elite Editing adheres to all university guidelines and policies. Our editing complies with the Australian Standards of Editing Practice and the 'Guidelines for Editing Research Theses', adopted by most Australian universities.

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