Thesis Writing Overview - Graduate Writing Center

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Thesis Writing Overview

A thesis is a complex project: it requires you to identify a significant topic and craft a good research question. You'll connect with an advisor, who will play an important role in how your research is planned and executed. A well-crafted thesis proposal will get you started on your research journey. As you progress, you'll have to make decisions about how to organize your information into chapters, what function each chapter serves, and how each is structured. Your ultimate goal is to edit, refine, and polish your text and citations to a publishable level.

For students writing theses, the NPS Thesis Processing Office (TPO) is a critical source of information and support. Before you even begin researching and writing your thesis, it is worthwhile to visit the TPO's website to learn more about the submission process, the thesis template, and iThenticate review.

It’s never too early to start thinking about your thesis, but don't rush to make big decisions. Your understanding of your field and the research within it will become more nuanced after your first quarter. Pay attention to the issues and questions that you find especially thought-provoking in course lectures, discussions, and readings, or those that are particularly relevant for your professional community.

Pick a topic that interests you and one that is modest in scope. Selecting a manageable, as-yet unaddressed portion of a relevant topic allows you to conduct in-depth research and thinking. You may also wish to review previous theses to get a sense of how others have approached the topic. Often, you may be able to use course assignments to learn more about your topic.

For any well-chosen topic, you’ll be able to identify more than one angle of approach, design of experimentation, or worthy case study for analysis. Understanding that you could tackle a topic in multiple ways can help you make decisions about your research. Pick a line of attack that works best with your available time and resources!

You may wish to view "Selecting a Thesis Topic," from the NPS Systems Engineering Department Thesis Research Guide. The advice provided is valuable for students in other departments as well! 

After selecting a topic, you’ll identify and create a relevant research question. You should be able to express your research interest in the form of a question, complete with a question mark!

If you’re 100% certain you know the answer to your question before you begin research, it doesn’t leave much room for discovery. Overcommitting to a hypothesis can also lead to bias and “cherry-picking” as you conduct your research. Create a question that could conceivably lead to surprising results. The value in your work is in the significance of the topic, well-designed research methodology, and rigorous scholarship – not being right about the answer before you start.

Note that many theses discuss opportunities for further research in their final chapter; these discussions are an excellent way to get a sense of other scholars' thoughts about important emerging research questions. Likewise, faculty members are experts in their field and can help you shape your interests into a substantive and viable question.

For a pithy rundown on choosing and working with advisors, watch our must-see videos featuring Dr. Zachary Shore—it's the best relationship advice you'll get in grad school! You’ll learn about 1) how to find a thesis advisor, 2) your advisor's role, and 3) your role with your advisor.

Your advisor is your "north star" during the thesis process. The guidance provided by your advising team is the most important input you will receive. Usually you will have a role in selecting your advisor. Some advisors are very involved; some are very “hands off.” Consider what style might work best for you. Though the most important criteria in selecting an advisor is compatible research interests and expertise, you may also want to ask potential advisors how they prefer to work with thesis students. Both students and advisors enjoy working together more when they have well-matched styles and shared expectations.

Advisors can be incredibly valuable sources of guidance, information, and support during the thesis process. Your advisor can help you shape your research question and help you with your research design and methodology. Advisors will often direct you to valuable source material and will help you understand criteria for selecting high-quality sources. Conversations with your advisor about the timeline for researching and writing your thesis can be critically important to finishing comfortably and on time.

When asking your advisor to review chapter drafts, it is often a good idea to provide context about the draft and/or to ask specific questions. Let your advisor know what parts of your draft are more polished and complete, and let them know what you are struggling with. Perhaps your draft is quite rough in grammar and mechanics, but you’re seeking their comments on content and structure; let them know that you intend to refine and correct the language once the ideas are sound. Some advisors still find this very painful, but clear communication can help.

For still more information on working with advisors, see our Advisors and Advising page and Dr. Shore's Grad School Essentialschapter 5, pp. 99–103.

Researching and writing a thesis might be described, reductively, as: “read a lot of books and write a lot of pages.” In practice, it is a much more complicated endeavor. Having a structured approach to your note-taking and record-keeping, your time management, and your drafting process will all benefit you enormously.

There are many tools and techniques available for keeping track of your sources and information. Some students value the humble index card or spreadsheet, while others choose software designed specifically for writers and researchers. Talk with other students about what they use and like. The coaches at the GWC can also help you think about your needs and talk through how to design an effective note-keeping practice. Visit the library's citation guide to help you determine which citation style you should use and to learn how to use it correctly. Learn the basics, too, of avoiding accidental plagiarism.

Set deadlines and targets for your phases of research and writing. Certain parts of your thesis can be written relatively early, while others must wait until your research is completed. Decide with your advisor when each chapter of the thesis should be completed. Also, consider your sequence for soliciting feedback from advisors, peers, and writing coaches. Scheduling appointments in the GWC to serve as “soft deadlines” for thesis sections is a practice that many students find useful.

Early on in your thesis process, consider how you will divide your finished product into chapters, and what the function of each chapter will be within the document. How will you outline the content for each chapter? What will your main sections and subsections be? Having a clear sense of your thesis "skeleton" allows you to divide and conquer, staying focused as you write each piece of the larger whole.

Theses at the Naval Postgraduate School may range in length from roughly 30 to 150 pages, but most fall between 60 and 80 pages. Departments have different expectations for how long your thesis should be. It is always a good idea to review theses from your department from the recent past on Calhoun, the NPS institutional archive. Your advisor also can help you plan the length of your thesis and chapters.

All students may hire an editor if they choose to. The International Graduate Programs Office (IGPO) supports international students by providing editing services at no charge. The TPO connects international students with this service during the final-quarter thesis process.

While the GWC does not provide editing or proofreading services, working with writing coaches throughout your thesis process may provide sufficient help and guidance, allowing you to avoid the extra expense. If you do decide to hire an editor, be sure to understand the differences between developmental editing, structural editing, copyediting, proofreading, formatting citations, and formatting within the thesis template. This familiarity will enable clearer communication with your editor.

Please note that the GWC coaches and TPO processors are unable to recommend or refer you to private editors. You may wish to ask other students who have used an editor for references. You may also opt to search Craigslist, Yelp, or LinkedIn for editors with experience editing NPS theses.

Thesis overview links


Books on Thesis Writing (NPS Library)