So You Wanna Do a Thesis? Part 4: Paper Structure

Welcome to my new series about my decision to do the thesis option for my program, and my advice to those of you considering the same. Are you considering doing a thesis? Does your program require you to? Then join me on this journey! Follow along on Twitter (@JessicaLColbert) with #MSLISthesis.

In this series, I’ve talked about a lot of advice for keeping motivated and organized. I’ve tried to avoid doing specifics, as my thesis won’t look like your thesis. However, when I put out a call for what people wanted to see in this series, somebody mentioned they wanted to know how I was structuring my thesis. So that’s what I’m writing about today! My thesis is original social science research with human subjects, but I’m sure this advice should apply no matter what type of paper you’re writing.

Form Follows Function

Have you ever heard the phrase “form follows function” or “the medium is the message?” These are sayings from the Modernist movements of architecture and media of the early 20th century. Basically, what they mean is that the message you are trying to convey or what you are trying to do should dictate how you do it.

 

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My working Table of Contents

With a thesis, the structure of your thesis (your chapters and sections) should come from what type of thesis you’re writing and what it’s about. My thesis is social science research involving human subjects, so my chapters include stuff like “Review of the Literature.” I also have an entire chapter on my methodology, epistemology, and other theoretical frameworks that influence my work and analysis. After I’m finished with my data collection and analysis, I’ll have an entire chapter about my results, and then chapters for discussion and conclusion. My research is qualitative. If your research is quantitative, then your chapters will be different than mine, and so will the sections within those chapters.

 

So How Do You Do It?

Social science writing is new to me. I am but a humble English BA who wrote nothing but textual analysis papers for four years. I consulted three types of resources to decide how I should structure my paper: books on research design, social science theses and dissertations, and of course my adviser.

The main book I used to not only structure my paper but also to help with my research design and writing style was Research Design: Qualitative & Quantitative Approaches by John W. Creswell. (I’ve linked to a newer edition that includes mixed methods approaches). This book saved my life. There’s an entire section about the structure of papers that even has sample chapter titles. I began my thesis by creating these sections.

Then, I found a dissertation from my program that was on a similar topic to mine. I downloaded it, read it, and then looked at how it was structured. Dissertations are much longer than theses, but seeing how the author structured the paper and what sections she included was very helpful to me. To find theses and dissertations, see if your program has ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, or see if maybe you have access to some sort of institutional repository; your library might even have some!

Finally, I asked my adviser. This is why having a patient and supportive adviser is so crucial. She understood my background and that I was new to this type of writing, so she suggested resources for me. She also gave me feedback on any chapters or sections I proposed. For instance, I just met with her, and she said I didn’t need some of the sections I had within my introductory chapter. She also showed me a great resource on how to structure a research proposal and told me that those sections would become the chapters of my thesis.

Conclusion

One thing this whole process has taught me is that my thesis, until I turn it in, is a living document. It can change as it needs to. I changed it as recently as five days ago, and I’m sure I’ll change it more before I’m done.

When you’re writing, don’t be afraid to change things and move things around if you think it’s not working in its current state.

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