Sunday, March 22, 2015

The MA thesis formula

I was searching around online seeing what help others offer with writing MA theses, and I was surprised to find that they were all quite generic, just the normal "focus your research questions!" and "write a little everyday!"  I already finished my MA thesis, of course, but I was curious to see if anyone else had broken it up into an easy formula like I had which allowed me to finish it in a very short amount of time.  Several of my colleagues have asked me for advice with their theses, and instead of just giving general advice about "never giving up!" and "write all the things!", I tried to explain each part of the thesis like a blueprint.  Seeing the layout so clearly and how each part relates to the others can suddenly make the MA thesis seem considerably less daunting and even, dare I say, simple.

I want to first say that I am only discussing quantitative theses because that is what I wrote and what I have experience with.  Qualitative theses, however, are not too different overall, so some of this could apply, but I can't guarantee it.

Each college has their own guidelines and rules for MA theses, but they all include the same general sections.  If you have ever written a lab report for a science class, it is actually very similar!  I had written dozens of lab reports for chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics back in my undergraduate studies, so it was very easy for me to understand exactly what to put in each section.  However, if you have never written a quantitative research paper before, it can be very daunting.

Introduction: This is often the hardest part for MA students to write, so many choose to write it last or at least not until after they finish the literature review or methodology.  In fact, many are often surprised when I tell them that I always start with the introduction whenever I write a research paper.  What makes it hard for many is that they just don't know what to include.  The easiest way to think of this section is that it is a very condensed summary of the literature review and the methodology with the first half focusing mostly on the rationale and the second half focusing on the research questions.  I like to start with this section because it provides a blueprint for the first half of the paper, and I can of course always fix it later.

Literature review: Many think that this section simply discusses the literature and research that relate to your topic, but it is more than that.  You are essentially developing and explaining the rationale behind your research questions.  You are telling the reader why your research is needed, how previous research has not yet done what you are doing, and why your research can be beneficial to society.  Your lit review must therefore follow an order.  You start as general as possible and pull information from other sources until you finally reach the core of your research.  Little by little, you show that there are holes in previous research that your research can fill.

Methodology: A quantitative research involves conducting some sort of research experiment whether it is something grand and takes a long time or something much smaller like a survey.  This is probably the easiest section to write because it is very straightforward.  You simply discuss everything related to how you carried out your research which will probably include research questions, materials, participants, variables, procedure, and analysis.  The only pain with this section is that you do have to be very specific and explain EVERYTHING, which can be tricky at times.

Results: This section is also pretty straightforward.  You simply state the results of your research using prose, tables, and figures.  The best way to write this section is organize your results according to your research questions.

Discussion: This section is probably about as time-consuming as the lit review, though maybe a little less.  After stating your results, you interpret and analyze them in this section.  You tell the reader what they mean and possible explanations for why these results occurred.  The best way to write this section is to organize the meanings and explanations by research question.  Then, pull them altogether and discuss their implications for society, how they can be beneficial or informative.  The next step is to then discuss the limitations of your study, the problems that you were unable to control for.  This then leads into a discussion of the possibilities for future research where you say what others could do to improve or expand on your work.

Conclusion: This is like a mirror of the introduction.  This section is basically a very condensed summary of the results and discussion.  You also want to bring in a little from your lit review and discuss why your research was needed.

These are the basic components of an MA thesis, but again, every college has its own layout.  For example, my university required that the Discussion and Conclusion be combined into one chapter, but the other sections each got their own chapter.  Other universities require that the Results and Discussion be combined.  Regardless of how they are combined or separated, the content is the same.

I might devote whole posts to each section in the future, but for now, if this can help anyone, I would be happy!

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