Thesis writing guide
Choosing a research topic
Choosing your research topic is usually one of the most exciting parts of your research experience. You will be exploring areas nobody has ever examined in quite the same way as you are proposing. In this sense, your project soon becomes very much your 'baby', and you have a personal relationship with it in a way you did not relate to most work set you as an undergraduate.
This said, there are a couple of points you will need to bear in mind when deciding on a research topic:
1. Why do I want to study this topic - or indeed for an Master of Arts or PhD at all?
For most graduate students, their graduate research is incredibly satisfying, and they have a freedom to explore intellectually that they may never enjoy to quite the same extent again.
However, you should bear in mind that research in the humanities and social sciences is mostly of an individual nature, and some highly intelligent people find that they are not cut out for the sometimes lonely existence of the research student. Before committing yourself to at least 18 months of research, examine your own motives, and convince yourself that they are sufficient to carry you through. For instance, are you pursuing a higher qualification for essentially instrumental reasons - notably a better job, or promotion within an existing job - or simply because you have a passionate interest in the topic? In fact, either of these constitutes a good starting point, and should help you survive the sometimes arduous lifestyle of a researcher. On the other hand, if you are undertaking research primarily because of external pressure (from your family or a partner, for instance) or because you cannot think of anything else to do, you might find the life of the researcher hard - and perhaps you should reconsider.
2. Am I qualified to research this topic?
There are many qualifications you might need in undertaking a social science research topic. In addition to the basic entry requirements, you might need a foreign language, training in quantitative methods, knowledge of a related discipline (eg. philosophy, economics, law, psychology). Since many prospective research students are lacking at least one of the skills they will require, the School offers various 'catch-up' programs. Before you and your prospective supervisor finalise your research program, ascertain whether or not you will need to take courses in addition to your actual research. This applies even if you are proceeding straight to a research-only degree. Don't be put off by such requirements - look on them as an investment, the acquisition of new skills that you might well use in your future career even if you do not become a professional scientist in the areas of poltics, criminology and sociology.
3. Does the University have the necessary facilities?
There are several aspects to this question. First, is there anyone in the School with sufficient expertise to supervise your intended project? This can easily be ascertained by consulting the list of School staff and their research interests, or by contacting via email the School's Research Officer.
Second, does the Library have sufficient holdings? The University's Baillieu Library will have sufficient holdings for almost all your needs; items not held can often be obtained on short-term loan through the Inter-Library Loan Service. Only very rarely will it be the case that a shortage of research materials will prevent you from studying your preferred topic. Assuming you have managed to find a suitably qualified potential supervisor, he or she will be able to provide guidance on this.
Third, what additional facilities will be needed, and how likely is it that you will have access to these? For instance, will your project require fieldwork overseas? If so, what funds are available? Answers to these sorts of questions can be found under "Scholarships and Grants" on the School's website.
4. Is this topic feasible
In addition to the facilities-related aspect of your proposed topic, you will need to ascertain whether or not the topic you are proposing is manageable within the given time-frame. Your potential supervisor will be able to advise you on this. If your topic seems to be too big, you and your supervisor will in the vast majority of cases be able to cut it down in such a way that the most interesting core of the research will remain. Moreover, you will probably find it a relief that the parameters of the research project have been clearly defined and circumscribed.
Writing a thesis
Obviously, no two theses are the same, and what is an appropriate layout and approach in one will be quite inappropriate in another. However, many new to research will find the following guidelines of use; the extent to which you stick to them, if at all, is up to you. In preparing and structuring your thesis, it is suggested you bear the following in mind.
1. At the beginning of the project
What are you trying to show/argue (ie. what are your objectives)? Devise question or questions, then provide some provisional answers you might expect. These can serve as the basis of your hypotheses.
2. Structuring the thesis
Many theses follow rather similar lines, and you might wish to structure your own more or less along the 'normal' lines.
a. Introductory chapter. Some very introductory paragraphs, explaining what you are interested in and why, and in a general sense how you intend to study your topic; in short, you are specifying your objectives.
- Hypotheses and justification for studying the topic; this is a more rigorous and detailed elaboration of your project
- Literature review (there are 3 main points to this - first, legitimising yourself by demonstrating your familiarity with the literature and that you are not 're-inventing the wheel'; providing an exegesis of the major debates in the literature, and your position on these; identifying gaps in the literature that you might fill)
- Specification of the theory [-ies] and methodology you will be applying; this includes specification of the limitations of your intended project
- Layout (explain and justify content of chapters)
b. Substantive chapters.
c. Conclusions. Always re-read your introduction to see what you promised to do, and ensure you have met your own objectives; summarise the main findings/arguments; interpret and contextualise these, and open up to future (never foreclose by suggesting the topic has been completely finished).
The word limits to your thesis are exclusive of the contents page, preface and acknowledgments, end- or footnotes, appendices, and bibliography.
You may use either the traditional (Cambridge) system, or the newer Harvard system - just be consistent.
Many students find they can deal with the problem of over-length by transferring some of their material to notes or appendices. This is perfectly acceptable, as long as you stick to reasonable limits. Appendices must be limited to supporting material genuinely subsidiary to the main argument of the thesis. If in doubt, be guided by your supervisor.
This should include all sources used and cited. However, it is not customary to elaborate all details of items from more ephemeral publications, such as newspapers and magazines. Rather, you should merely list the newspapers, etc. you have used.
5. Contents page
This should be included at the beginning of your thesis.
It is advisable to produce an abstract of your thesis - of no more than one page - and insert this at the beginning of your thesis.
Your supervisor and you
Your relationship with your supervisor is an important one, and in order to maximise the likelihood of it being a good one, certain basics need to be understood at the outset.
First and foremost, it is your supervisor's responsibility to get the best s/he can out of you. This means you will need to take heed of what s/he says about your work. This said, it is important that you appreciate that you are the person writing the thesis, not your supervisor, and that s/he cannot be blamed if your thesis is awarded a lower mark than you believed it was worth.
Similarly, what you get out of the relationship depends partly on you. Supervisors are there to help - they can only do this if you turn up to meetings as scheduled, let them know of problems (academic) you are experiencing, etc.
Most graduates do follow these simple guidelines, and find their relationship with their supervisor both pleasant and rewarding. Indeed, your supervisor might well get almost as much out of the relationship as you, in terms both of learning and getting satisfaction from helping you solve problems in your research project.
All PhD students are now required to have an associate supervisor, in addition to their main supervisor. The associate supervisor is there to provide additional support and feedback, particularly in the early stages of candidature. At the very least, the associate will be present at your confirmation hearing, and will read the final draft of your thesis.
The Melbourne School of Graduate Research (MSGR) has introduced supervision panels for all PhD candidates. These panels are intended to ensure PhD candidates receive ongoing support towards the successful completion of their thesis, by ensuring access to a wider range of academic staff for feedback and support. The supervision panel will play an important role at several stages in the candidate's candidature, meeting to discuss the research progress reports at the milestones identified in the table below.
How often you meet your supervisor depends partly on what the two of you believe is most appropriate to you at the particular stage of your research. This said, it would be rare that you would need to see your supervisor more than once a fortnight, while a gap of more than 6 weeks between meetings is not normally advisable.
In all events, you should stay in constant contact with your supervisor; you must let him or her know if you are going to be away from your normal residence for any length of time (say more than a fortnight).
Return of work
You have a right to expect to have written work returned promptly and with adequate comments. No hard and fast rules can be laid down about how quickly work should be returned, although it seems reasonable to expect work back within 2 weeks under normal circumstances. But please be understanding if your supervisor takes a little longer than this in the peak undergraduate examining periods (June and November), or if your supervisor is away (eg. at an overseas conference).
The University Counselling Service is available for students who are experiencing personal problems.
Number of drafts
There are two main reasons why there are limits on how many drafts of chapters or an entire thesis you may reasonably expect your supervisor to comment on. The first is an equity one vis-a-vis other students; it is not fair if one student has had their thesis looked at twice, and another five times, since it might be assumed that the latter has had far more help in bringing a thesis 'up to scratch' than the former has.
Second, your supervisor is almost certainly already overworked, and it is not fair to expect her or him to devote far more time to you than to other students. For these reasons, you would normally expect your supervisor to examine up to two drafts of each chapter, and one final draft of the entire thesis.
Problems with your supervisor
Although such cases are mercifully rare, serious tensions occasionally develop between graduates and their supervisors. The reasons are several, ranging from various forms of harassment to what can only be described as significant clashes of personality. If you are experiencing such problems, it is often worth mentioning them to your supervisor in the first instance; it might well be that s/he is unaware of the problem, and is quite willing to cooperate fully in sorting it out.
But if this does not work, or does not seem like a viable option, you have several possible alternatives. One is to discuss your problem - confidentially - with one of your graduate representatives; often, you will feel comfortable with them, and that they understand your problem better than members of staff.
However, they will probably only be able to recommend options to you, rather than be able to solve the problem. Sooner or later, you will probably have to confide in either the Head of School or the PhD student Coordinator; they will ensure maximum confidentiality, and will want to be as sensitive to your problem as possible. In extreme cases, you may have to refer to Student Counselling or the Equal Opportunity Unit.
The School has a duty - and a desire - to be as supportive as possible if you are experiencing problems with your supervisor. Do bear in mind, however, that there are practical limits to the range of options open to anyone trying to solve your problem. Most notably, while the School will do everything possible to find you a new supervisor - if this appears to be the most sensible solution - it could well be that a substitute will not be as much of a specialist as your previous supervisor.
Comments from people other than your supervisor
The School hosts two graduate symposiums each year. They are an opportunity for students to present their work to their peers and academic staff. Students give a presentation chaired by an academic in the School, followed by a ten minute period of discussion by staff and students. All research students are encouraged to present at these seminars.
Submitting your thesis
The Arts Faculty maintains a page of information about the Master of Arts thesis submission procedure, including thesis formatting requirements.
Similarly, the School of Graduate Research provides detailed information about PhD thesis formatting and submission procedures. It also produces a series of 'in detail' pamphlets about submission and other aspects of thesis production.
It is advisable that you submit the copies of your thesis for examination thermally bound. This is an inexpensive way of binding your thesis in such a way that it is not likely to disintegrate if posted overseas or interstate. Thermal binding facilities are available in the Melbourne University Bookroom and the desktop publishing facilities in the Graduate Centre.
Once a thesis is passed by examiners, it must be permanently bound before your degree is awarded. The Postgraduate Association (UMPA) keeps a list of recommended bookbinders.
University regulations state that you may not know in advance the identity of your examiners. However, you may name people you do not want to examine your thesis. In addition, your supervisor may seek your views on appropriate examiners, even though s/he may not reveal the final choice. Both examiners will be staff members outside the University.
How long will the examination process take?
Two main factors affect how long the examination of your thesis will take. The first is the speed of your examiners. They are then given two months (three in the case of PhDs) to write a report from the time of receipt of your thesis. Many examiners need to be reminded that their report is due, so it can be longer before the University receives both reports. If your examiners disagree on the result, there will be a further delay as the examiners are asked to consult each other to reach an agreed result. In rare circumstances, a third examiner must be appointed to resolve the discrepancy between the original two reports. The University will try to keep you informed of delays in the examination, but the procedure must remain confidential until a definite result has been confirmed.
Remember that a prolonged examination does not necessarily mean the result will be unfavourable.