Organizing Your Master's Thesis

Published: 14th January 2010
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Writing a master's thesis may seem a daunting task, and can certainly be a challenge, but it's worth remembering that this is an opportunity not only to achieve valuable academic recognition but also - unlike completing the required course work for an undergraduate degree - a chance to make a contribution, in however humble a way, to the advance of knowledge. That's why a master's thesis, in almost every case, incorporates a research component. In other words, you will be expected to come up with some original ideas, data or conclusions.

Whereas an undergraduate or bachelor's degree requires candidates to complete course work, demonstrate an understanding of the lessons taught, and respond to examination questions, a master's degree, as you probably already know, recognizes a superior understanding of the relevant subject and an ability to work independently and produce original work which adds to and expands on what you have already learned from lectures and books. In particular, it recognizes an ability not only to absorb information and reproduce it accurately, but to reflect on, analyze, criticize and make conclusions upon the relevant subject matter. A candidate who earns a master's degree is not someone who simply repeats what they've learned, but someone who can take up a thoughtful and critical stance on a subject, and even contribute to that subject's advancement.

The key component in earning a master's degree is submitting a master's thesis (or dissertation). Obviously, the thesis consists of a documentation of your research, a critical analysis of your findings, and the conclusions you draw. That's simple enough, but of course the precise structure, format and style of the thesis will vary, depending on the subject matter and the requirements of the assessing body. A thesis in literature for a Master of Arts degree will be quite different than a thesis in psychology or economics submitted for a Master of Science degree.

Nevertheless, some common challenges face all candidates for master's degree, and the approach to any master's thesis will have some elements in common.

First, planning and organization are key. It's necessary to plan your approach to the subject matter - the extent to which you need to retrieve, read and master the relevant literature on the subject, the issues you plan to discuss, and how the discussion will be framed. It's also necessary to organize the material you have decided to cover. For example, it is a huge saving in time and energy if you choose not only to make notes as you read through the relevant material, but also to preserve precise references to books, articles and paper, even down to page numbers. One of the time-consuming but necessary tasks in completing any master's thesis is the compilation of notes and a bibliography, and it will greatly relieve pressure if this information is organized while your research is in progress. Nothing is more dispiriting than to find you have great quotes and citations in your text the original source of which you can no longer find.

It's also great to have an overall structure or framework in mind for a master's thesis. Of course, you can amend or revise this as you go, in response to your supervisor's comments or simply as a result of what your research teaches you. But having a map in hand will greatly relieve stress and anxiety. Set out knowing where you are headed, understanding that the journey you are on make take some surprising turns along the way.

Mike Shane is a self-made entrepreneur, a well known writer and consultant. His area of writing includes master thesis, dissertations, articles, and books. Every year he publishes a list of master's thesis, books and dissertations.

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