Writing a Master’s Thesis? What Professors Wish They'd Known
Writing a master's thesis is a massive undertaking. Such an academic feat can seem daunting, especially when facing the first draft.
That's why we picked the brains of professors for tips on how to effectively write a master's thesis.
Set yourself up for success with the following tips for writing a master's thesis:
- How to pick a master's thesis topic
- What does a master's thesis look like?
- How to know when your thesis is done
And much more!
Meet the Professors
The editors at Merudio are highly educated and experienced academics. Meet three expert editors at Merudio who are also professors:
- Jessi Elana Aaron has been an associate professor of Spanish linguistics at the University of Florida for 15 years.
- Rebecca Bailey was a communications professor at Valparaiso University for 12 years.
- Laryssa Brooks was a composition professor at the University of Windsor.
What does a master's thesis look like? Let these professors guide you on the best practices for writing a master's thesis.
1. What's Your Best Tip on How To Pick a Master's Thesis Topic?
All three respondents agree that it is very important to choose a topic you find truly interesting. This is because you will spend a lot of time researching and writing about the same topic.
That's not all. Both Jessi and Laryssa emphasize the importance of choosing a topic that also addresses a gap in the research. Laryssa provides the following advice for finding such a gap:
"Allow your natural curiosity to guide you as you determine how to pick a master's thesis topic. When you find a niche, read what the extant literature in the field says about the future research that's needed. Do you feel you could conduct a study that addresses that gap yet remains within the scope of your time limitations?"
Jessi further specifies that the topic should be narrow enough for you to address effectively in the span of your thesis:
"For instance, if you are studying the history of the Spanish language, you would want to avoid a question like, 'How has Spanish changed since Cervantes?' This would be too broad. Instead, you might ask, 'How has the use of future markers in Mexico changed since Cervantes?' This would be more reasonable in scope and give you a greater chance of success."
For more help, check out these examples of good and bad research questions.
2. Do You Have Any Research Advice for Writing a Master's Thesis?
Both Jessi and Laryssa state the importance of casting a wide net when beginning your research.
"Use multiple research databases to find all possibly relevant research," Jessi says. "This would include several different types of studies, including, if applicable, empirical work on your chosen topic (perhaps in contexts different from your own) and more general theoretical works that can provide a framework for your work."
"While you're doing this, keep general notes on the specific pieces you've read, what they cover, and why they might be helpful in the future. Then slowly begin to narrow your focus toward your niche. As you conduct more in-depth research and find yourself needing a particular study or approach to support your argument, you'll know exactly where to look and why, and this will save you time overall."
If you get stuck in the later stages of your research, Rebecca has the following advice:
"Remember: A personal interview of an expert counts as research. As a bonus, you'll be making a professional connection, too!"
3. How Can I Recruit Committee Members?
To choose a committee member to approach, Laryssa recommends the following:
"Investigate professors at your institution who specialize in the topic you're writing about. Look at their latest publications, the approaches they've taken, and what their main concerns are. It can also be helpful to do this with professors whose research interests are adjacent to your own. They may be able to provide a fresh perspective to your topic that you never thought of before."
To get this candidate on your committee, Jessi states:
"Set up a meeting with them and send them a description of your research topic at least a few days before the meeting. At the meeting, share more about your research idea and explain why you think they would make a great addition. Read their research before meeting with them so you know what interests them."
Rebecca adds, "It's a bonus if your professor has good professional connections that you can leverage to get yourself a job."
4. What Is the Best Way To Outline Your Thesis?
There are a few key documents to read and analyze before outlining your thesis. Jessi notes you should review previous theses in your field, while Rebecca mentions that you should check to see if your school has guidelines for writing a master's thesis.
"Your advisor should also be able to give you some direction," Jessi adds. She also notes that "theses often have the following basic order: introduction, literature review, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion."
5. Can You Share Any Self-Care Tips To Use when Writing a Master's Thesis?
It is important for all writers to practice healthy writing habits.
"Look at all the work professional athletes do to keep themselves healthy," Rebecca notes. "You're a mental athlete. If you take good care of your health, you will literally be able to think more clearly and creatively."
As such, Jessi recommends to "set a schedule for writing. Having set hours to write every day also means having set hours when you are not writing."
Leaving time for leisure can make you a better writer. That being said, Laryssa notes that "it's also important to recognize the difference between self-indulgence and self-care."
"Sometimes you need to give yourself some tough love. Self-care is often doing the thing that's most difficult, such as working out, eating healthy, or sitting down and getting your goal done for the day. Mental health and physical health are intertwined, and one is needed to support the other."
6. What Do I Do if My Supervisor Is Not a Good Fit?
All three Merudio editors advise trying to speak with your supervisor if you feel they are not a good fit. Laryssa recommends "conducting a needs exercise. Have an honest talk with your supervisor and take some time to write down your needs with respect to your thesis. Ask them to do the same. Then compare your lists and discuss them; perhaps this will help you meet in the middle."
However, Laryssa notes, "If you don't think that's possible—or you try various solutions and they don't work—it would be helpful to look at other potential supervisors and to ask them for advice. See if they might be willing to take you on or if you might be able to get an extension on your project, and investigate your university's procedures for a supervisor change. However, keep in mind that a switch may not always be the easy solution. You may have to change your topic, you might lose funding, or your research and publications may be affected."
As a result of these consequences, she also specifies that if you do need to switch supervisors for any reason, "sooner is likely better than later because you will have more time to get back on track and adjust."
7. Do You Have Tips for Citation/Reference Management?
"Be militant about adding a source to your reference sheet and, simultaneously, adding your in-text citation for that source," Rebecca notes. "The same goes for removing sources."
"The website MyBib is a free resource that allows you to input resources and receive an automatically generated citation for each of them," Laryssa states. "The references will be built into a bibliography or reference list that can be adjusted by style and is saved to a cloud in case your browser crashes or you close the tab. The output is not always accurate, and you are likely to need to make significant edits to the result. Despite this, the tool works well as a way to keep all your sources in one place."
You can also have an editor check your references for consistency and accuracy once you're finished writing. This allows you to focus on writing your thesis.
Jessi adds, "Some people find programs like Endnote useful for managing references. I work with databases, so my favorite way to keep track of references is in Excel. Each source has its own entry, and I can include extra information, such as topics addressed or decade published, to sort my references and find what I need."
8. What Does a Master's Thesis Look Like (i.e., How Do I Know When It's Done)?
Jessi notes, "No piece of research is ever fully finished. You must stop when you feel that you have provided satisfactory answers to your research questions." That is because new research questions will always emerge, but more data will be needed to test them.
Laryssa adds that your thesis advisor should be able to help you determine whether your thesis is complete. You will need to ensure that no crucial elements are missing or need changing.
Finally, Rebecca states, "Picasso was asked how he knew an artwork was done, and he said, 'It's finished in the hearts and minds of the viewers.' Likewise, it's good to remember that other academics will look to your work for their literature reviews, etc. Try to imagine what impact your study will have in 5 or 10 years."
9. Do You Have Any Thesis Defense Advice?
Rebecca emphasizes the importance of editing prior to your thesis defense: "Have an editor look over your PowerPoint."
Editing can help ensure your writing is effective. Whether you decide to seek the help of a professional editor (like a subject matter expert at Merudio) or to edit on your own, be sure there is a critical eye on your writing. Look out for academic phrases your writing doesn't need, and always follow the rules for effective academic writing.
Laryssa notes the importance of preparation, adding, "Be sure to take a hard, critical look at both your presentation speech and your thesis. Imagine you are in a debate with someone about your topic and anticipate every possible concern about your work. Then craft rebuttals to those potential questions and write them down on cue cards to take with you into your defense. Practice the rebuttals so you're prepared to answer every question."
Jessi states, "Relax and remember that you are the expert on your research. It is likely that nobody in the room except you has read all of the sources on your specific topic. You conducted the research and know it best."
"You can do it!" Laryssa concludes.
Writing a master's thesis can be challenging, but you don't have to go it alone. The best academic writers seek support, be it from a peer, a supervisor, or another subject matter expert. These tips will help you determine how to pick a master's thesis topic, approach your thesis defense, and more.
If you're still wondering, "What does a master's thesis look like?," external support will ensure you have the resources necessary to successfully undertake this academic endeavor.
Whether you'd like an expert to help guide you through your first draft with Early Draft Academic Editing or Express Academic Proofreading of your presentation for your thesis defense, Merudio is here to help.
Merudio's in-house editors are unrivaled in both experience and education. They use their considerable skills to help academics develop their best writing.