Master's Thesis Writing

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Free Advice on Writing your Master's Thesis

Writing Your Master’s Thesis:

Researching Your Master’s Thesis:

So you have chosen a topic for your master’s thesis, one that interests you as well as your academic advisors and one that you believe will enable you to make a unique contribution to your field of scholarship. Now comes the hard part—the research stage. Initially, it may seem to you that researching your master’s thesis or dissertation will be a lot easier than actually writing it. However, when you are dealing with a sophisticated, far-reaching writing project such as a master’s thesis, you will find that there is an overwhelming number of research resources out there: books, journals, magazine articles, newspapers. Depending on the topic you choose, you may find that there are relevant research materials that date back decades even centuries. Some materials may be available only in print, others only on microfilm, and others only online. You may find yourself scurrying from library to library, from university to university, even from city to city, to find all the sources that you need.

What do you do with all these research materials once you identify them? It is of course not humanly possible for one person to read all these books and articles, no matter how intelligent and ambitious he or she may be. This is where your judgment as a student, scholar, and rational human being comes into play. You will have to cull your list of perhaps thousands of sources down to a smaller list that includes those that are most pertinent to and helpful for your master’s thesis topic.

How do you do this? Well, the date of publication of a source is often particularly useful in determining its usefulness to your project as well as the degree of respect that it commands in academic circles. In every field, there are always seminal works that are always respected as research sources and that appear again and again in bibliographies even though they are technically outdated. For instance, any thesis or dissertation that discusses evolution is sure to have a work or two by Charles Darwin listed in its bibliography, even though Darwin formulated his theories more than one hundred years ago. However, as a general rule, if you are writing your master’s thesis about a recent development in your field or are studying a rapidly changing discipline, then research sources that are decades old will be much less valuable to you in your writing than articles and books that have been published within the last five years or so.

In addition, the publisher of a book or other resource and the publication in which an article appears must be taken into consideration. Let’s say that you are writing your master’s thesis in English literature about the works of American poet Sylvia Plath. An article about Plath in a widely respected literary journal such as Poetics Today, Twentieth-Century Literature, or American Notes and Queries, is going to be of much more value to the writing of your master’s thesis than a pop culture or fluff piece about Plath’s life found in a women’s or general interest magazine such as Vogue or Vanity Fair.

 

Creating a Bibliography and Writing a Literature Review

Before you even start writing your actual master’s thesis, you will need to compile a bibliography of all the research sources and materials that are relevant to your thesis topic. In addition, as part of your master’s thesis, you will be required to write a literature review, which may be part of your thesis proposal or even part of your thesis itself depending on the preferences and standards followed by your academic department and your faculty advisors.

Prior to embarking on either one of these very important projects, it is vital to understand the difference between a bibliography and a literature review. A bibliography is simply a list of sources that you have consulted in the course of researching your master’s thesis. In this context, “consulted” is defined very broadly. It doesn’t matter whether you got a lot of information from a book or just a little. It doesn’t even matter whether the information that you gleaned from a particular research source never even makes it into your thesis. Any book or article that you looked at, even briefly, in the course of conducting research for your master’s thesis belongs in the bibliography. It doesn’t matter whether you read the whole book or just skimmed a chapter, whether an article was helpful or added nothing to your understanding of your topic. When it comes to putting together a bibliography, you must err on the side of over-inclusiveness. Note that a bibliography is not the same as a “reference page” or a “works cited page” that you might include in a run-of-the-mill term paper. A bibliography for a master’s thesis should include all relevant resources that you encountered while researching your topic, whether you actually cite them or not.

A literature review on the other hand is much more selective than a bibliography and much more difficult to put together. A bibliography, essentially, is just a list of books and articles put in standard citation form. You don’t need to understand or appreciate or even to have read a source in order to include it in a bibliography. A literature review, on the other hand, is a written analysis and synthesis of the research sources that are most pertinent and helpful to your master’s thesis topic. In your literature review, you will not simply list sources as you do in a bibliography. Rather, you will discuss and analyze the importance of each source to the topic that you have chosen to write about. More than that, a well-written and well-constructed literature review does not simply list important sources and discuss their contributions to the field. In writing a literature review, you should be able to draw connections between the various sources that you discuss and analyze. In other words, it is vital that you explain for your reader how the points made and theories proposed in one research source build on or add to those found in another book or article. You should be able to identify and discuss trends and commonalities that appear in the works that you discuss in a literature review, as well as note any disagreements among scholars that are exemplified in these works. A literature review should provide a brief history of the development of scholarship and academic theories in your chosen field, with emphasis on most recent discoveries, controversies, or proposals. After reading your literature review, your faculty advisors should come away completely informed about the state of research in your field as it stands today. With this understanding, the readers of your master’s thesis will be prepared to ascertain what your own research and writing has added to your chosen topic and judge the value of your work in advancing scholarship in your academic field.

 

 

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Formatting Your Papers

Each professor will have their own requirements for a paper, but most will require one of four main schools of formatting.

APA or Harvard Style Formatting
APA or Harvard Style Formatting

APA formatting is often used in the sciences, but many humanities professors will require it as well. It requires a title page and abstract. The Owl at Purdue is an excellent resource to understand how to format an APA paper correctly.


MLA (Modern Language Association) Formatting

The Writer's Workshop at the University of Illinois has links for every possible citation situation in MLA, electronic or otherwise. 

Chicago Formatting

Chicago Style formatting is used by both humanities and hard and soft sciences, and requires writers to use footnotes throughout the paper. Diana Hacker offers excellent tips on how to comply with this method.

 

CSE Formatting 

CSE formatting is almost exclusively the domain of the hard sciences and relies on both footnotes and endnotes. More information can be found at the Council of Science Editors Formatting.

  

 


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Online Libraries, Databases and Resources

Library Paysites

  College libraries often subscribe to search sites that students can use for free. Two that are especially helpful are Jstor.org and Questia.com. They specialize in returning peer-reviewed scholarly papers.

Cliff Notes, Book Summaries and More

    We’ve all seen Cliffsnotes in bookstores, but they are available at no cost online at Sparknotes. This site provides a full summary of many books, with more detailed section-by-section summaries, character analysis, and explanation of meaningful quotes.