Welcome to the Thesis Student Path

The Thesis Student Pathway is intended for students pursuing a graduate degree with thesis, such as MA or PhD students. It was created by Maria Bastien, a doctoral student in the Faculty of Education. The exercises have been designed with the particular challenges that might be found in a thesis program, such as writing research proposals, comprehensive exams and articles, as well as the challenges exploring both academic and alternative careers. The exercises are intended to provide both guideposts for success as well as space for reflection.

Exercise 1: Strengthening your writing skills for the thesis research proposal

The following address was given to graduate students at a seminar event sponsored by the Faculty of Education Graduate Student Association. There are 4 main points that are mentioned to help thesis students with the writing of the thesis research proposal. Read over the text below. In your journal, (1) Jot down your own assessment of your current writing ability on each of these 4 skill areas. (2) In which area(s) do you believe you need to focus more attention? (3) What strategies do you plan on using to better attend to improving on these areas? (4) How will you know when you have attained some type of excellence in your proposal writing in these areas?

Over the past years I have had the pleasure of helping a good number of MA and PhD students cross that finish line with a successful defence. And as we can all imagine it is a day of penultimate celebration for everyone who has had a hand in supporting that journey. And for the accomplishment of that particular MA and PhD project, the official beginning out of the gates always started with the thesis proposal. Looking back over those student successes, I believe that there are 4 common features that distinguish a well written proposal from an excellent proposal. Those areas are; a critical appraisal of the literature review; the alignment of the conceptual or theoretical framework with the methodology and methods, the clear articulation of the researchers’ assumptions and presuppositions and the final overall significance or contributions of the research.

If I may I would like to say a few words about each of these sections that require a deep commitment to the drafting process of a proposal. Concerning the first quality of critical appraisal, we are all very good at summarizing studies into neat paragraphs and placing them one after another under a sub heading and then stringing our sub headings together in a section of the proposal that we call a literature review. Performing a critical appraisal of the literature is really your first piece of original writing inside the plan. I often tell my own students that there are two important elements for this appraisal; the first one is determining the paradigmatic approach that is inherent in each study cited and the methodological limitations of each study that is being referred to. Understanding the paradigm or worldview that is being espoused by authors is often tricky because it is sometimes hidden and can only be read “in between” the lines. To be able to discern these philosophical underpinnings of a study requires the writer to feel confident in their own epistemological stance and to have an appreciation of epistemological diversity. To determine the methodological limitations of cited works requires a knowledge base of analysis in quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods research. Being able to distinguish how your project topic has been studied through different ontologies and methodologies help to develop your argumentation and rationale for your choice of research design. This leads me to my second point- alignment.

An excellent thesis proposal has alignment. What this means is that a reader should easily see the symmetry among the sections of the proposal. Each section lines up, builds on the previous one and allows the project to be launched with confidence. This alignment begins with a clear depiction of the concepts and ideas that have been cited in the literature review, the actual visual configuration of the interplay of those concepts in a theoretical or conceptual framework and the exact manner in which those concepts will be used in the research design. Taking these sections of the proposed study together is like developing the strategic lines of the inquiry between the conceptual or theoretical lens and the methodology. It means that your framework has helped to nest your research questions. It means that you have determined the appropriate research design to answer those questions and it means that you have chosen the best ways of collecting information to seek what you set out to find. This is an important aspect of the writing exercise because at the end of day you need to make sure that you have data sources and data analysis path all line up to answer your questions.

Assumptions and presuppositions of the researcher refer to the axiology that accompanies the entire research process of the study. For me, it is the essence of our awareness of ourselves as researchers and the statement of our positionality as we conduct the project. It is like a contract and a warranty statement that we make with a reader that describes our ethical and moral behaviours. It should be written like a code of ethical practice that brings into account how the research will be conducted. It defines the integrity of the project. Writing this important section means that we need to do a deep reflection of who the “self “is as a researcher and who the “self” is in relation to the other people involved in the study. This reflection helps us to know ourselves, our situations and our experiences in a novel way. I like to see this statement being made early in the proposal as it guides how the study will be done.

My last point is related to how we think we will be communicating out findings to different audiences and communities and touches on the rhetoric that we will be using. An excellent proposal identifies contributions to theory, practice, and policy and requires some forward thinking about how this will happen. In my own work with students and their various drafts, this last section of the proposal is often tired sounding and resembles proposal fatigue. Think about what scholarly contribution your project will make to the advancement of knowledge. And here there are multiple definitions of what knowledge means drawn from the paradigm that you are working from. Think about how your project findings will re-shape certain aspects of practice. Identify those types of practitioners. Also think about the notion of reciprocity or how you will be giving back to the participants that contributed to you work because they were the cornerstones of your study. Think about what policy actually means to your domain area and how policy is formed and at what level in that process your findings can have an impact. Consideration of these areas will help you to think through your dissemination strategies. View this section as the place where you write your authentic signature.

In sum, developing an excellent thesis proposal prepares you for other types of writing. With competition for external grants even more rigorous today, project proposals of any kind need to have that added value that stands out from the others. Having sat on a good number of SSHRC adjudication committees there is always a common remark made about those proposals in the top 5% and that is how the writer has been able to “feed” the reader with a story containing all of the parts.

Best of luck on feeding your supervisors and thesis committees.

Maurice Taylor, Ph.D.

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Exercise 2: An Approach Towards Scholarly Writing for Thesis Students

The following address was given to graduate students and professors at a Faculty of Education seminar sponsored by the Education Research Unit on Adult and Workplace Learning. It was intended to present one viewpoint on how to think about our scholarly writing and how to translate a thesis or dissertation into a publication. Read over the text. In your journal:

  1. Describe why it is important for you to write a journal article based on the findings of your thesis?
  2. How will you decide which journal is best suited for your manuscript?
  3. Which professional association(s) or research community do you belong to and what are the different vehicles for publishing in that association?
  4. Do you have an opportunity to develop a peer-reviewed conference proceeding or make a conference presentation in that association or research community?
  5. What are the next steps for you to become a scholarly writer?

To help situate who I am as a faculty member and researcher and to give context to some of my comments, let me introduce myself as belonging to the Teaching, Learning and Evaluation concentration in our graduate program working in a domain area that is called adult education. As a means of reaching out to the faculty and as an attempt to develop a research cluster, in 2007, we created an Education Research Unit in Adult and Workplace Learning. One of our main purposes in doing so was to bring professors and students together to participate in the conduct of research in this area and we have been successful in doing so on a couple of fronts related to student writing.

For this afternoon’s panel, I would like to begin by addressing a fundamental question that we sometimes forget to ask. And that question is “Why are we all involved in this enterprise of scholarly writing to begin with?” Reflecting on this question as graduate students helps set the stage for the direction of your writing careers. It is the beginning point for all decisions around the reason and the mechanics of scholarly writing. From where I sit, the purpose of creating any type of new knowledge through scholarly writing is to build a research community that will help us ask good questions and solve theoretical and practical problems. As mature and novel researchers we have a professional responsibility to advance the discipline and the field that we feel closest to by bringing with us the diverse epistemologies that we believe in. Scholarly writing that is connected to an overarching purpose of building a research community gives meaning to every type of publication and dissemination activity that we are part of. And the point here is consider spending some time thinking and talking with us and your peers about your future as a researcher and writer and where you believe you can find your own unique academic identity and home. Once you have a sense of this direction then the types of writing possibilities and the types of journals will start to come into focus. Count on us to help you.

As a second point, I would like to say a few things about how I have used my own community which is the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education or CASAE as a type of research laboratory for my graduate students.  In doing so, I’ll mention some tips about moving from a conference abstract to conference proceedings to a fully developed article. I have used this type of mentorship with many of my students. For the most part, my own conference abstracts fall into the track of empirical study since they are outgrowths of SSHRC grants. The main headings for this CASAE call for abstracts are the usual- purpose of the study, literature review and theoretical framework, methods, findings and discussion and contributions to adult theory and practice. The 1000 word abstract allows for some early thinking of what information to include and once it is accepted we take that same very text and expand on it using a few additional headings towards a 3000 word proceedings. Usually the literature review is enhanced, more details included in the method and a deeper version of the discussion. Between submitting the proceeding and the actual conference date I start making notes on some of the areas that need attention especially around gaps in the structure. Then, once we have presented at the conference and have received feedback on the presentation, I meet with my student or team right away to discuss the next steps and as a team we decide which journal to aim for. We also talk about time frames and the writing commitments for the different sections of the manuscript. Moving from a 3000 word conference proceeding to a 5-6000 word manuscript submission often means a fuller integration of the literature review with the theoretical framework, a more complete findings section so that the study could be replicated, and a much wider  approach to the discussion and contributions section. This last part of the manuscript is the most creative and takes the longest to write and polish. In terms of time frames, generally the abstract is written in November, the proceedings in March and a manuscript submission to the journal in December of that same year ready to begin the peer review process in the winter.

My final thought is related to the some of the bumps and bruises that my graduate students have encountered in their first solo writing attempts for conference proceedings and journal submissions in adult literacy. These points stem from my background role as an outside reader and critical friend. A common pitfall is the lack of critical appraisal in the cited literature. Often, there is far too much description and not enough critique and an oversight on the methodological limitations of the cited literature. This is often accompanied by a lack of concise writing on the role and purpose of the theoretical framework or conceptual context in the study. As well, sometimes, there is a lack of clarity as to how the results of the study have built on the existing theoretical framework in the contributions part of the draft. And the discussion section often misses how the study has impacted the three key elements of research, policy and practice. This absence means that we have lost important readerships in our dissemination efforts. And the point here is that we all need to develop an elephant skin for rejection even for the most accomplished of writers. So in summing up, three things to keep in mind- think about finding a research community to make a contribution to over many years, think about finding a critical friend and mentor to help teach you the ropes and bundle up for the bumpy road ahead in becoming a scholarly writer.

Thank you

Maurice Taylor, Ph. D.

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Exercise 3: Planning to write your journal article in 12 weeks – A calendar for planning your article writing schedule

In 2009 Wendy Belcher developed a workbook to help academic authors and thesis students overcome their anxieties and produce publications that are important in their fields. The book which is titled “Writing your journal article in 12 weeks” and published by Sage Publications gives a week by week detailed description and plan on how to write and revise an article for a journal in the humanities and social sciences. The workbook is based on actual research about faculty productivity and peer-review, student’s triumphs and failures as well as the author’s own experiences as a journal editor.

The book provides the instruction, the exercises, the structure needed to revise a conference paper, a master’s thesis or an unfinished draft into a journal article. It discusses the most difficult tasks facing scholarly writers such as getting motivated, making an argument and creating a logical whole. As Belcher mentions, the workbook, which was developed over a decade of teaching scholarly writers does have a proven record of helping graduate students get published.

 In this exercise we present her actual “Twelve-week calendar for planning article writing schedule” from page 24 of the workbook. Look over the Calendar chart (.doc, 40 kb) and make notes in your journal as to how you might be able to begin your own article writing.

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Exercise 4: Guideposts for Comprehensive Exams (and Proposal too!)

The following notes are intended as guideposts as you prepare for life as a graduate student after the completion of your coursework. If you are a PhD student, your next concern is preparing for your comprehensive exams, which is the primary focus of this exercise. If you are an MA student, these tips are useful for you in a different way as maintaining blocks of content is also preparation for work on your proposal. To sum up the tips below, don’t wait until you’ve registered for your comprehensive exam to start thinking about it!

Guidepost 1: Build your reading lists as you go along.

  • As you take your courses, think about what your domain areas might be and keep either digital or physical folders of articles you come across, for courses you’ve already taken, review your reading list.
  • Take note of required course readings that match your areas, as well those that you find as you complete your assignments.
  • Don’t forget bibliography mining for articles, chapters, or books that might match your domain areas.

Guidepost 2: Don’t forget to annotate.

  • Keep notes! Everyone works differently, but be sure to have annotations for what you read to make it easy to find things when you are writing.

Tip: Some students use applications such as Mendeley for reference management and annotation.

Guidepost 3: Ask!

  • Don’t forget to ask for advice. There are many different people you might talk about your domains and your reading list with:
    • your supervisor
    • your committee
    • your colleagues with similar domains
    • contacts from your network (In Phase 3 of this virtual mentoring office experience you will do a network analysis – this may include great resources for you to reach out to as you prepare for comps.)

Guidepost 4: Use practice opportunities.

  • Use your coursework assignments as opportunities to practice writing about your domains.
  • When choosing topics for class papers keep your potential domains in mind, and use these opportunities to do some of your reading.

Having looked over these guideposts, which one is the most important to you at this very moment? Write about it in your journal.

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