Surviving Master’s Thesis Writing 101

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Our columnist, Lavinia Disa, shared her experience in completing her master’s thesis at The University of Auckland, New Zealand. Some essential tips were also outlined by her in order to survive the process of master’s thesis writing. 

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In my final year at The University of Auckland, I enrolled in a 30-point dissertation, which made up only 12.5% of the overall structure of the MA programme. Regardless of the weighting, most Master’s students are likely to undergo a significant research project throughout their study. Sometimes the challenges come from time management, as students will work on a thesis while being enrolled in other courses as well. For some others, the difficult part is adapting to new research paradigms, ethics, and culture in foreign countries. Here I would like to share five practical tips on writing a Master’s thesis, dissertation, or any major research report which I learned first-hand.

  1. Know Your Supervisor’s Supervision Style and Your Preference

The relationship between a student and a supervisor will be unique to each pair, depending on each person’s style of communication and work and personality. My supervisor, for example, was very meticulous and strove for effectiveness. Over a year, we only met six times as she preferred e-mail correspondence to in-person meetings. Weekly or biweekly, I sent her my writing draft, which she would comment using track changes on the document. After revising it, I would send it back to her.

With my supervisor, Dr. Rosemary Wette
Disa and her supervisor, Dr. Rosemary Wette. Source: Personal Documentation

My supervisor demonstrated a role as “the editor” with high intensity of work that was product-oriented and focused on the language based on the styles of supervision laid out in this article. While I deem this, indeed, productive, sometimes I felt that I needed more encouragement. I could’ve clarified it to her that I needed personal support, but at that time, having my dissertation sorted was already a blessing. Thus, if you feel that the supervision style between you and your supervisor does not work out well, ask for some counselling time with him/her so that the two of you can get along better.

  1. Fill Out Human Ethics Application (if needed)

My research project involved human participants, and in New Zealand, this kind of research should be granted permission by the Human Participants Ethics Committee before the researcher can proceed with data collection. The purpose of the ethics assessment is to make sure that the participants’ involvement in the study will not harm them in any way, either physically or psychologically. The application form inquires about the study’s objectives, summary, design, as well as how the respondents will give their fully informed consent, among others.

Ethics application outcome
Ethics application outcome for Disa’s research. Source: The University of Auckland

In my experience, it took me a month to smoothen the application draft (my supervisor was really helpful by showing an example of a successful application by her former supervisee). The pre-screening result came out three weeks after the first submission. I finally obtained an approval to do the fieldwork a month after submitting minor revisions to the earlier application. This process can feel gruesome to you, but it’s necessary. As long as you follow the procedure and cooperate with your supervisor and the committee, the application process will run well. Just make sure that all details are provided in a clear and complete manner. The guidelines and other relevant information on the human ethics application at my university can be found here.

  1. Read a Lot about Your Topic and Organize Your Readings

I cannot stress it enough that being well-read and well-organized can be a life-saver for your thesis. In the initial stage of my research project, I attended a workshop by the university’s library to learn about Mendeley and EndNote. The session was useful, but as a non-tech-savvy, I found it too much of a hassle to learn how to install and use a reference organizer. Thus, I went for a more manual approach.

Every time I read an article or book chapter, I would highlight the important points, copy and paste them onto a Microsoft Word file, and make comments on which part of my thesis relates to a particular idea. Also, as soon as I finished making those notes, I noted the article down in the reference list to make it easier for me to find the name of the author and the publication year. This sounds tedious, but I managed to do it for my 96 references, and the effort was worthwhile.

  1. Agree on an Outline for Your Thesis

At the start of the writing process, you might want to write an outline for the thesis. It can start with a rough outline, following a typical structure of a thesis. Then, after picking up some readings, you will start clustering concepts into particular headings and sub-headings. My supervisor taught me to have such an outline, and after we both agreed on it, I could expand the plan for each sub-heading, even paragraph by paragraph. I did this step simultaneously with step 3 above so that whenever I finished reading a useful article, I would put the cited ideas from it in specific parts of the thesis draft. By the end of my long period of reading, voila! I already had a string of references ready to be paraphrased and integrated with my own analysis and the study’s findings.

Sample outline
Sample outline of Disa’s research. Source: Personal Documentation
  1. Get Help from a Support Group

As mentioned before, my supervisor preferred a more business-like relationship, so I had to look for emotional support elsewhere. Gladly, one of my classmates took the initiative of establishing a dissertation support group among students pursuing Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics. The five of us met up regularly on Fridays to check up on our respective progress with the dissertation. The other four students enrolled one semester earlier, so most of the time, what I did when coming to the meetings were learning from them and giving feedback to their work when asked. We also loved to share resources with each other and went to Palmerston North to present our individual paper in a symposium.

Members of Dissertation Support Group
Members of Dissertation Support Group. Source: Personal Documentation

This group was really useful as I could get a sense of being ahead of what my supervisor expected from me. Also, there was a personal touch to the meetings, and the feeling of shared struggles was incomparably reassuring. Doing a Master’s research project can, at times, put you in isolation due to the independent nature of the work. However, having a comrade (or more) to talk about your difficulties with should ease the tension, especially if your supervisor is not the communicative type or not relatively close. On top of it, fellow supervisees can forge a friendship for a lifetime out of their support for each other during rough times.

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All photos are the courtesy of Lavinia Disa W. A.

Editor: Yogi Saputra Mahmud