8 Handy Tips for Students Embarking on a Master’s Thesis

For those of you currently preparing to work on a Master’s thesis, congratulations and welcome to a new domain of academic life. As someone who recently finished his thesis, I thought I could write something to help quell some of your fears or trepidations as you begin what should be a rewarding creative journey. I hope that you will find this rigorous journey of scholarship more exciting than exhausting.

1. Do not get bogged down in reading and research

You are going to spend a great deal of time reading texts and taking notes. Luckily, Montreal is a city full of resources, including many book and film libraries (and not just the ones at Concordia). Nevertheless, just because there is a rich collection of scholarly and journalistic work at your fingertips does not mean you have to burrow into every last word about your subject. Pick the right books, chapters, and articles. One option is to do quick readings of texts that could be useful, and then do a more in-depth, critical reading of the sections that are the most valuable for the purposes of your paper. Be selective and focused, and the process will feel less daunting.

2. Read good essays (and perhaps other theses)

On Spectrum, the repository for Concordia University’s research papers, there are dozens of film- and arts-related theses written by Master’s and PhD students. Take advantage of this resource, which will give you an idea of the depth and scope of the MA thesis. Before sitting down to write, read a varied selection. Take notes about what works about a certain thesis, as well as the aspects that do not work. This will help you learn from the mistakes that other Master’s students have made. Furthermore, looking through detailed film analysis or long-form reviews, written in journals or professional publications, could also be a valuable source to inspire stronger, more concentrated writing about a particular topic.

3. Find the right time and place to write

When during the day do you work most efficiently? Where do you get the most work done? What kind of atmosphere provides for you the most space for focus and creativity? As long-time university students, you have likely figured out a routine that works for you. Good writing should not feel like a strain, so adapt your schedule to ensure that you hit as few barriers as possible during this process.

Macaulay Culkin looking for the right place to work. (The Pagemaster, Fox, 1994)

4. A good structure is just as important as a good sentence

Before writing the four main chapters of my thesis, I spent at least two days composing an outline. I looked back through the notes I made about the central and supporting texts that could help to serve the chapter, and bookmarked sections that would feel pertinent to the paper. It would be unwise to begin a chapter without knowing where your arguments and analysis is going, or how your sources will inform and add texture to your writing. Spend some time organizing a clear structure where your ideas can mix with the scholarly works from your research. A clean and coherent outline will also make it easier for readers to follow the various threads you introduce.

5. Don’t worry about having an excellent first draft. Writing is rewriting.

As excellent students and writers, it can be easy to fall into a trap of trying to make every word, sentence, and paragraph feel just right. Some people are effective editors who are able to refine every part of the chapter as they write. I’m guessing, though, that this will slow your process down. Worry more about getting the chapter done: even if your ideas are scattered and not presented in the way you initially intend, just find a way to get the words onto the page. When your rough draft is finished, work through presenting these ideas and arguments in the right order as you edit and revise different sections of your chapter.

6. Make deadlines, but also make sure they are manageable.

Set deadlines for each week and month so that you can remain on task. Remain consistent with getting the research and writing done in this time span, and you will likely get into a healthy working rhythm. However, unforeseen circumstances – such as illness, family emergencies, awful weather – can and likely will halt your process. So, give yourself a day or two every week as a break from writing, reading and taking notes; just in case there is an issue that arises out of the blue, you can use some of your break days to catch up and ensure you make the deadlines.

7. Keep back-ups of your work.

It’s better to be safe than sorry. As you carry drafts of notes and other writing on, most likely, a computer, there is always the chance that the technology can either fail you or be misplaced. (Important: never leave a bag with your computer unattended in a public space, like a café. There have been many thefts in the Concordia University area.) Keep sending your work to other places, like a close friend or family member’s computer (via email) or a spare USB key. Also, save your drafts frequently!

Make like Tom Riddle and back up your files. (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Warner Bros., 2002)

8. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion.

As you work, you may hesitate to seek out others to read over and edit your work. The feeling is understandable, since one can be very private about sharing a personal project. However, since this is a thesis you will be sharing with others, one should prepare to have other eyes (beyond just you and your advisor) looking through your arguments. Even if your peers lack the knowledge of your subject, they will likely have useful insights about the pacing, clarity, and style of the thesis. Hopefully some of you will benefit from the MA Thesis Workshop, where you will be able to peer-edit others’ work.