A guide to writing your master’s dissertation
(Last updated: 15 October 2020)
Everyone tends to have a different system for completing projects, but such a large scale project as a master's dissertation is not something that can be written in a few days. However, with an early start, good organisation, constant reading, and good notes, the process of actually sitting down and writing the beast will not be too painful.
In this article, we have outlined the ultimate pieces of advice so that you can ace your master's dissertation and reach that finish line.
1. Know the purpose of the master's dissertation
Going into the writing of a master's thesis informed is the best way to ensure the process is fairly painless and the outcome positive. It can help, therefore, to have in mind the actual purpose of the dissertation. Broadly speaking, a master's thesis enables you an opportunity to develop (and prove that you have developed) a deeper knowledge and understanding of a particular area of study. In addition to developing a deeper content knowledge, you are also demonstrating research and writing skills.
The master's thesis is almost always at or near the conclusion of a course of study and so allows you a chance to work on some aspect of coursework that you would like to pursue further. The master's thesis is broadly understood as a demonstration of independent work and often, but not always, serves as a preparatory stage for doctoral work.
2. Begin early
Having to write a dissertation for your master's course shouldn't have come as a surprise to you. You'll most likely have found out in the first class you took. While the specifics of your thesis might not be at hand, the awareness that this process was one with which you would soon be engaged was. There are heaps of books on how to research and write a thesis, and you'd be wise to try and read them in the six-to-twelve months before you actually begin. They make for light reading and can be highly motivational. It will also be helpful to ask your instructors to suggest any helpful sources: each field usually has their own toolkits and expectations for preparing research writings.
3. Selecting a topic
Outside of actually finishing a thesis, the greatest cause for anxiety can be selecting a topic. You want it to be something interesting, not so narrow you cannot write on it, but not so broad that you come off as an amateur.
Supervisors can be influential, for good or ill, in this area as well, but you will want to have at least some general idea, and it will likely have been drawn from something encountered in your coursework. If you are at a complete loss, however, we recommend gathering up a half-dozen or so recent academic articles in your area that interest you. They should be as recent as possible because this indicates what people are talking about currently. Hopefully, after finishing these something will stand out that you can talk out with an advisor.
4. Always be reading
The simple formula for planning and completing a thesis is this: read a little, write a little, every day. and in the early planning stage, you need to be reading constantly. That is what it boils down to. Still, you want to read constantly. You will want to read the core works in your area, but do not hesitate to branch into other areas as well. A lot of good ideas come from cross-pollination and interdisciplinary thinking. You should probably aim for, at the very least, an academic paper or book chapter each day in the year or half-year before you begin. This is not necessarily specific reading, it is more like enrichment, or fertilising.
5. Build your bibliography
It is crucial in this reading process that you develop exceptionally amazing note-taking and bibliography building skills. Little can be more agonising to the process of writing a thesis than not being able to recall or find some vital piece of information that would make a point you need but has been lost. Or worse, that you remember it wrong. There are several programmes available to make this process easier. Find one and stick with it.
The truth is a master's thesis can be many things, but one thing all good submissions will have in common is a stellar level of organisation. Taking selective notes and organising these within your bibliography can be wildly helpful later down the road, even though you may only use one or two references from a work in the end.
6. Writing your dissertation
A common misconception amongst students is that a thesis can simply be written. But it's better to view a thesis as something that is continually rewritten. The undergraduate days of dashing something off the night before are long gone. By this point, you should be able to identify the errors and infelicities of your own thinking and argumentation. If not, a good supervisor will point them out to you. And that is another thing: cultivate a good working relationship with your advisor and accept criticism and feedback graciously. You may need to toughen up a bit because you will hear things about your work that you will not like. In the end, however, it should lead to a better-completed project.
We strongly recommend building your dissertation slowly, a page a day, over time. It can also help to write out notes as well as long extended discussion. Anything that comes to mind as you read. Do not hold on to everything, words are cheap. Some of what you write will be great, some complete dross. Know the difference and keep or discard accordingly. Not a day should go by, in the end, without something having been written.
7. Maintain your health
The last point to mention in this process, but the first to bear in mind, is your health. Writing a dissertation is a stressful undertaking. It is not uncommon for students to neglect their physical and/or mental health in pursuit of this goal. Don’t do that. It can be helpful to think of the process simply as a job, one that is scheduled into your day. Get eight hours of sleep, eat right, get physical activity in, and maintain an active and positive social life. Taking good care of yourself will ultimately help you write a better master's dissertation.