In many departments seniors and/or honors students are required to participate in undergraduate research their senior year. The experience usually culminates at the end of the year in the writing and oral defense of a thesis. In this section, we’ll discuss some strategies for making this experience a positive one.
Writing a Thesis
Writing a thesis is a challenging, complex task that will tax your abilities in many ways but this is an invaluable experience that will afford you the opportunity to develop many critical non-technical skills including time management, teamwork, and technical writing.
Writing a thesis isn’t like writing a term paper. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can craft a quality thesis overnight. By the same token, it is also important that you know that you can do this – write a thesis. Just follow the advice offered below and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help if you need help along the way.
At the start of the project:
A quality thesis begins with a good research problem, quality data, and sound analysis. Hopefully you are reading this at the outset of beginning your research for the thesis. If so, make sure that you identify a research topic that is interesting to you, well defined in scope, and has the potential of affording results in a reasonable time period so you will have ample time to write your thesis.
Make sure that you know at the outset what the thesis requirements are, if any, regarding time, layout, and structure. Establish a workable timeline and make every effort to keep to it.
The background on the research problem/project is often outlined in the first chapter of a thesis. This chapter should be focused and succinct in its coverage and presentation. Your goal should be to provide only the background needed so that the reader can understand the work that will be presented in the remainder of the thesis. Be careful not to try to present everything you know about the research problem, techniques, etc. As the content of this chapter is based on information from the peer-reviewed technical literature, this chapter is something you have largely under your control. Start work on this chapter early.
When you are ready to begin writing:
Create a weekly schedule and keep to it! When setting aside time for writing, make sure that you set aside useful blocks of time during the time of day during which your critical thinking and communication skills are at their peak. Identify a place to write where there is likely to be minimal external extractions and where you can keep needed resources such as reference textbooks, technical papers, etc. At some colleges and universities, thesis students can apply for a study carol in the library while they are writing their thesis.
Begin your writing efforts by devoting time at the start to the preparation of a thoughtful outline of the thesis. You will find it is much easier to write about something when you know what it is that you want to say. First, create a general outline of the thesis by identifying the topic of each chapter. Next, outline the contents of each chapter. Generally, scientists use the format of the technical paper in preparing chapters for theses and dissertations. This means that each chapter should begin with an introduction which is followed by an experimental section, then a presentation of the experimental results and finally their interpretation (discussion). For each section of each chapter, outline the major and minor (supporting) points.
Make sure you know who the members of your thesis committee will be. This is important as they represent the primary audience to whom you should be writing your thesis. What is their area of technical expertise and research interest?
Always make a backup copy of the computer files containing your thesis chapters and be sure to make new backup copies frequently. Keep these disks or CDs in a safe location in case you need them.
Writing can be lonely and isolating. Consider joining or forming (if there is none on your campus) a discussion group with other research students who may be writing their theses. These groups can be tremendous resources of moral support as well as practical advice.
When you have completed work on a chapter, submit the draft to your advisor for his/her review. It is important to get regular feedback from your advisor and to do this early on so that you know that both of you are on the same page with regard to the thesis content and your writing style. You may also find it extremely useful to solicit feedback on your drafts from the other individuals who will serve on your thesis committee.
Be sure to allow sufficient time at the end for editing and proofreading your thesis. Use a spelling and grammar checker.
Defending your thesis:
Typically a defense begins with a ten-to-fifteen minute oral presentation by the degree candidate. This brief presentation should provide an overview of the research problem, methods used, the key findings and their significance. The presentation is then followed by a sometimes lengthy question & answer session in which members of the thesis committee ask the candidate questions about his/her presentation and the contents of the written thesis.
If your department requires you to make an oral presentation and defense of your thesis, the best advice is: practice, practice, practice. Ask your advisor and other group members to participate in a mock thesis defense. If you don’t have anyone in your lab to whom you can turn, don’t be afraid to ask other faculty members and/or other research students for their assistance. If you do ask for this kind of help be sure that you listen to and act on any advice given.
As mentioned above, be sure that you know who will serve on your thesis committee. What are the members’ research interests and areas of technical expertise? This will help you to anticipate what kinds of questions they might ask.
Fielding questions is usually the most challenging element of the thesis defense. The goal of this element is to learn how deeply and how broadly the candidate knows his/her research field and research problem. The most important advice is to answer all questions as honestly as possible. Don’t pretend to know something if you really don’t. This is the one way you can really get into serious trouble in a thesis defense. If you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to admit it. Simply say “I don’t know.”