Most undergraduate and all graduate students have to write a thesis, but many people do not know how to write a thesis, or even where to start. During my undergraduate studies, I wrote one 72 page thesis that counted for my two majors, and one 42 page thesis (they call them dissertations) in London when I spent a semester abroad. As an honors student, I would like to outline for you how to approach your own thesis from ideation to completion.
Things You Will Need
Library, internet, and research resources
Time with a mentor, department head, and people to interview
Step 1First off, do you have a double major, minors, or areas of studies? Or are you writing a thesis for one major only (skip to step #2)? For those of you who have multiple thesis requirements to meet (like I did), create a thesis plan that will incorporate both of your majors equally. For example, my two majors were international studies and environmental studies, with a area concentration in east asia. I did a thesis on the hazardous waste trade that occurs between developed and third world countries, and in particular, a case study of India and what happens to hazardous waste in this country. In this way I incorporated the environment (hazardous waste), international government (trading between, and regulations of), and east asia (case study of India).
The first thing you need to look at is your schedule and your deadlines. There are essentially four phases to the thesis writing process: ideation, outline, writing, editing. Research takes place in every one of these phases, which is why it is not considered its own phase. How long do you have to work on your thesis? If you have six months, take one month to ideate, one-two months to outline, two months to write the rough draft, and two months to edit. Whatever your deadline is, roughly divide it out and try to keep to this structure. Having a plan will also keep you from freaking out.
Step 3You are now in the ideation process--you need that winning idea that will make you passionate about your project, and make your mentors and department heads happy. And trust me, you need to be passionate or at least interest in something that will likely take you six months or more. Where can you get ideas? Talk to your professors, talk to professionals in your industry, read magazines from the library geared towards your majors, watch the news, look through your textbooks; any one of these should help you come up with dozens of ideas.
Step 4Narrow your ideas down to one that will work. Things to consider: the scope of your idea (it is best to keep the scope narrow rather than too broad; you will need to take a stance and develope a thesis statement about something, and with too broad a topic, this will be difficult to do), the researchability of your idea (do you have access to the resources you will need, is it an easily researched topic?), the approval of your mentor/department head, and your interest level.
Now that you've got your idea, continue your research. You need to begin with ordering any books through interlibrary loan that you will need; you do not want to have to wait weeks for resources that you need quickly, or worst yet, that other people have taken up. Print out or save lots of articles, get lots of books, and set up interviews with one or two people. Your biggest job right now is to decide on the scope of your thesis so that you can set up an appropriate outline or road map to follow to its end. You also need to come up with your main thesis; does your mind wonder to a certain stance as you are reading articles? Perhaps you want to argue against someone else's thesis in an article or school of thought. Is a theory in your field being applied effectively, and if not, why not and how should it change? What are the effects of a particular piece of legislation?
Use index cards to write down things that seem like big ideas, things that explain parts of your topic, and possible thesis. As you come up with more index cards, categories will begin to appear where other cards belong under. These broader categories will become chapters eventually, and should be included on your outline. I would advise between 5-10 chapters, with the possibility of sub-chapters as well.
Once you have each of your chapters, write several paragraphs for each describing what is going to be covered. Be specific, but do not worry about the details. Note that you will need to do a substantial amount of research to complete this part of your project. Don't be intimidated; the more research you do now, the easier it will be for you to write. Make sure you keep your mentor/department head abreast of your progress and seek some approval after this step so that you can go ahead and begin to flesh things out.
You are now prepared to flesh out your outline and write the rough draft to your thesis. While each institution has its own specifications (and please read up on what yours are), you will need an introduction to the scope of your project, your thesis, and a conclusion. Oftentimes it is easiest to write the chapters first, and then go back and write the introduction. For each chapter, take what you've written as an outline, and spend a few days on writing ten or so pages. Start each chapter with a mini intro to the chapter, and then fill this in with examples, case studies; all the while, you need to keep in mind what you are arguing and what your thesis is. Remember, you have something you are trying to prove here. While you need to remain as objective as possible, you also need to state your case.
You also need to educate your reader to an extent, which is good filler if you are having trouble filling ten pages per chapter.
Hint: as you write, keep a typed-up version of your bibliography. You will make things much easier on yourself in the end. Also, keep a notepad or document saved as "Conclusions", and start writing down any thoughts that come about as you continue to research and write. This will help in the next few steps.
You've reached the conclusion. We're getting somewhere! What sort of conclusions has your own mind come to, and how have you backed them up? This is your section to bring everything together to really drive your thesis home. Pretend like you are a lawyer arguing your thesis in court. Give synopsis sentences from each of your chapters that clearly build to your overall thesis.
Also, this is a great section to offer any thoughts or ideas on how to solve issues you found in your topic. Going above and beyond just writing a thesis to offering real resolutions and solutions will make your thesis shine.
Step 8Now go back to your introduction. You want to intrigue your reader by starting very general with real world issues. Provide a quote, a statistic, or some other eye catcher before jumping into your project. Start broad, and go specific, until you become so specific that you are now down to your thesis sentence. For example, if you are talking about autistic children and why a certain form of education is not sufficient to teach them, start with a statistic (I am completely making this up) that over 60% of autistic children are illiterate, and briefly describe how this has impacted society as a whole. Then start to whittle your way down to the educational system, the traditional methods that it uses, it's inability to change, regulations, etc. Then you whittle all the way down to your thesis.
You are now ready for peer review and editing. But first, I strongly recommend you take a break from your project for a weekend, a week, or whatever amount of time you have to spare. Gaining distance will help you hone in on mistakes, style, research issues, etc.
Ask several people to read and critique what you have written, and then critique it yourself. Keep your mentor and department head involved and ask for their feed back (you will most likely have to submit your rough draft at a certain deadline anyway). Take criticism in stride; everyone is trying to make your paper the best it can be, most of all you.
Take everyone's thoughts and critiques, including your own, into consideration, and begin your editing and rewriting. Certain sections will be fine with just some tweaks, others will need rewritten. Also, perhaps your chapters are not flowing properly together, or maybe your explanations and the way you get to your thesis is not in sync. All of these are issues that can be corrected, so don't worry.
Step 11Finally, once you have rewritten your rough draft, pay attention to the specific details your institution requires. This can include the type of font you use, your bibliography, page number, even the look of your title page. You need to adhere closely to all of these guidelines. But you're on the home stretch!
Writing a thesis is an intense process, but the work is so rewarding. You learn something in your interest and industry inside and out, which can help you for interviews and to polish up your resume. You c0me into contact with people in your field who may be able to help in your job-searching efforts. And you may even seek and get publication in an industry journal depending upon how your thesis turns out.
Either way, it's a learning process that you can be very proud of.