Thursday, April 13, 2006

Thesis Writing

For more than a quarter century of academic career, I have noticed that higher education students are still not clear on the process of developing a thesis, and how they can go about writing their thesis in a way that make their propositions more tangible.
Therefore, I thought I should take the time to contribute few ideas that may help my MBA and PhD students as well as others to grasp both the spirit and the skills to write good dissertations. The following represent both my own opinion as well as the guidelines of the School of Business at Harvard University:

  • Begin with something unresolved. Some question about which you are truly curious. Make clear to yourself and your readers the unresolved question that you set out to resolve. This is your governing question, the question that directs the structure of your thesis project. Bear in mind that it takes a lot of work – reading, talking with people, thinking – to generate and focus your governing question.

  • Show your readers what leads you to pose your question. Your governing question derives from competing observations, i.e., observations that appear to you to be in tension with one another and to indicate an apparent puzzle, problem, discrepancy, oversight, mystery, contradiction, or surprise. In the introduction to your piece, let your readers know how what you observe leads you to ask the question you ask.

  • Identify your subordinate question. Just as the thesis as a whole is a response to a governing question, each chapter, each section, and each paragraph of the thesis is a response to a subordinate question. Subordinate questions are the questions you will need to address or resolve on the way to addressing your governing question.

  • Free-write. Write brief, uncensored pieces to loosen your mind. While it is true that in our final product ideas need to be in the form of linear logic so that others can follow our thinking, we need to draw upon our associative logic in the creative process. Associative logic is the logic of dreams, of those times when our mind is free to wander (e.g., just before falling asleep, in the shower, while driving), and of those generative, free-flowing conversations that lead us seemingly – yet not entirely – far afield from where we started. Consequently, if we follow our mind’s wanderings and associations far enough, they often lead to something creative and useful. The following leads may help explain my point:


  • What leads me to pose that question is ….

  • I want to know

  • I want to figure out how …

  • I have a hunch that …

  • Save often. Just as you need to save often when you’re working on a computer, you need to save often (in your brain) when you’re reading and studying. The way to save your thoughts is to jot them down. Otherwise your ideas may get deleted, especially if you have a power surge (get caught up in another idea) or a crash (fall asleep. Thought that are not written down will be most likely be deleted and lost. Jot down even brief notes as some notes are better than no notes.

  • Create two thesis journals or folders. One on your computer (i.e., a folder for memos) as well as one for hand-written entries (i.e., a notebook, big envelope, manila folder, or big piece of paper on the wall) to record thesis thoughts that come to you in moments when you’re not at the computer. Great ideas don’t always come at appropriate or convenient times, so you have to log them in as they arrive.

  • Let your reader in on your reasoning. Let your reader know what you want him or her to take away from or learn from a chapter and from your thesis as a whole. Don’t just present data. Show your reader how you want him or her to make sense of the data. Show your reader the inference you make, the things you see as you read between the lines.

  • Make a point. Thesis writers usually rely on summarizing, describing, narrating, and categorizing in order to make a point. While an elegant and clarifying summary, or a careful and sensitive description, or a well-chosen and illustrative narrative, or a new and intriguing categorization may be a contribution to your field, chances are you will be expected to develop some sort of argument or point, that is, to use your summary, description, narrative, or categorization in the service of an analytic response to some unresolved question or problem.

  • Reckon with the complexity of your question. You don’t necessarily need to resolve your question completely. Sometimes it is enough to talk clearly about how and why things are complex rather than to clear up the complexity.

  • Show the subtleties of your thinking. Many students rely on variations of “and” to connect their ideas: “and”; “in addition”; “also”; “another example”; “later”; “plus”; “besides”; “yet another thing.” Developing a connection between your ideas help clarify them to the reader. Use expression like “even though”; “despite”; “consequently”; “as a result” to connect your sentences.

  • Use chapter titles and subheads as important signposts for your reader and as ways of challenging yourself to summarize your thoughts. To name is to know.

  • Accept that anxiety and anxiety-management are part of the writing process. Some doctoral students have stated that about 80% of the time and energy involved in writing a dissertation goes to anxiety management. You cannot wait until you are not afraid or not anxious to begin writing. You need to find ways to write even when you’re anxious. Writing in your thesis journal about your fear or anxiety can be a way of keeping yourself company in your fear, discovering what your fear is about, letting the fear be there without letting it stip you from doing what you need to do.

  • Take frequent breaks. To sustain your focus and concentration, you need to pace yourself. Pacing requires well-timed breaks. Take a break before you get to the “breading point”, that is, the point at which you are so exhausted that you collapse or so frustrated that you avoid getting back to the task.

  • Think of your work in terms of relationship, a process of continually connecting and re-connecting. Things get out of perspective when they fall out of relationship: we cannot tell how big or small things are unless we see them in relation to something else. To keep your work in perspective, or to bring your thesis back to scale once you’ve lost perspective, try to stay in relation with, i.e.., connected with:


  • Your curiosity and your caring (also known as your interest, your passion, your desire to understand or to know) by remembering what drew you to your question.

  • Your question: by free-writing, being playful with ideas.

  • Your instructors and/or supervisors: by talking with them about your ideas and about your experience of trying to write.

  • Negotiate with yourself. When you seem to be sabotaging your own efforts to do what you intend, listen for internal voices that express you competing needs, desires and fears. I am talking here about you becoming sometimes divided between you intention to sit and write, and your wish to take time off for recreation or leisure time.

1 comment:

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