Pondering the thesis

So, now that I know I’m going to do a thesis for the second year of my Masters degree instead of more coursework and a smaller project, I’m facing a plethora of decisions. I’ve got a very basic concept of what I want to research, but over the course of the next twelve weeks I’ll turn a basic idea into a detailed project proposal. As I’m diving into the research issue it’s becoming clear I have a big year ahead of me.

After the first two weeks of our research course, we’re just getting introduced to the mindset of researching. Is that a verb? Well, we did a brief introduction to research last summer, but this course will actually see us produce the detailed research proposal we will use moving forward. For the rest of my cohort, this will be a roadmap for a six credit paper to come later next year, but for me (as I was deluded enough to actually want to do a thesis) this is what I will use to guide me after July, as I am cut loose from my cohort after this. At this stage it’s mostly about the structure of good research and the pitfalls of what to avoid. We’ve discussed what goes into a thesis or dissertation, read a couple theses and done a rudimentary critique comparing them.

Even in just doing that, I was struck by just how much difference there was in the scope, style and quality between the two. I guess what I really thought about was how they both were accepted by different committees in different institutions, and bare little similarity to each other. While their structure and length were roughly the same, everything else was quite different. A thesis is so unique for so many reasons – topic, institute, supervisor, committee, external readers, researcher – that I guess it’s bound to be different from any other. However, I was thinking that the language and approach would need to be the same to meet core competencies at the Masters level, such as:

  • communication
  • leadership and teamwork
  • critical thinking
  • analysis
  • knowledge

In fact, one of the two theses I read was situated at BCIT and deals with a related subject to the one I want to do. It’s also the far better one in my opinion and I just finished a 45 minute phone chat with the researcher tonight. While I’m no more secure at this point that I will pull off a work of academic art when I complete it, she had some really solid advice for me about things that I might consider to avoid wasting time. In particular, obtaining demographic data to prove representativeness of my sample will be a particularly important thing to do upfront, in light of issues specific to BCIT.

During the course of our online discussions of what we felt went constituted a good research topic or proposal, I had indicated that in my experience so far I found the following issues to be key:

  • the research topic is of personal and professional interest
  • I have experience with the subject of the research topic
  • the literature on the topic is weak, so the opportunity exists to add some new knowledge in the area
  • the research is situated at the institute where I work
  • the supervisor works where I work (not necessary, but should certainly be helpful)

One of the key things that has also emerged in our readings so far, is to ensure the thesis project is scoped properly. It seems far better to do a small project well, as opposed to doing a large project poorly. The two papers I read bore this fact out. While the other one was not a bad paper by any stretch, because the scope was broader, the researcher was trying to cover more ground. As a result, the data analysis seemed weaker and there was more glossing over of seemingly important information. At the end of each paper, it seemed fairly easy to connect the concreteness of the conclusions to the starting point of the project.

I’m hoping I’ll remember some of these good lessons at this very early stage, when I’m knee-deep in this stuff.