The Only Article You’ll Ever Need to Successfully Write Your Thesis
Tl;dr: Don’t take this guide as a universal explanation on how to write theses, it’s not. It’s a story of how I wrote three theses three years in a row. At the end of the day, the guidelines depend on your university, your program, and your supervisor.
In this article, you’ll discover how I found my research questions and how I structured my work.
In the end, you can download my three theses to have a look at them yourself.
Finally, I conclude the article with a short part on tips and tricks to succeed quickly and how to avoid falling into the procrastination trap.
Part 1: The Theory
Finding Your Topic for Your Thesis
The first thesis was without a doubt the most complicated to write.
As I’m writing this, I’m still not sure how research works after 5 years of studies, so needless to say that I was completely lost upon starting.
Even though I was studying communication, the theme I had chosen was “business model innovation” because it looked interesting to me, and I had subconsciously started to think that I had made a really bad choice with this bachelor (spoilers: I had indeed).
I had decided to do something related to online news websites.
I wrote my research proposal and sent it to my supervisor.
He hated it and I got zero.
While everyone in my class was already contacting people to interview, had to do it all over again.
Resistance appeared in my mind. I was angry at myself for having chosen “business model innovation” and did no longer want to hear about it.
I wrote an email to the faculty asking to change group and join a political-themed thesis class.
They said no. Great.
I wouldn’t graduate then.
As I was weighing the options of finishing my studies and become a waiter for the rest of my life, an idea came to me.
I had written days earlier a paper for another course about the challenges that TV stations would have going forward as screen-based entertainment offers were quickly diversifying with Netflix and other Amazon Prime.
I thought the theme was great for my thesis because it had all I needed: innovation, media, and business.
I asked my supervisor if I could research this theme, he said yes, and off I was.
The second thesis was easier. Written in the context of a master’s in management, I had decided to base it on the first one but with another industry.
Instead of writing about Netflix VS TV stations, I wrote about hotels VS Airbnb.
For my third thesis, I originally wanted to comparatively analyze the power of the US, China, and Russia.
However, I eventually thought that the theme was more suited for a bornmillennials article so I wrote instead about an idea I firstly wanted to publish in Quillette.
One day, I was thinking about how we could improve political decision-making and looked at how private companies handled their own decision-making.
Turns out that they use algorithms and AI, and so I thought that political decision-making would probably eventually come to that as well, with all the indirect consequences on democracy.
That idea stayed with me and I decided to write about technological decision-making in politics. I chose data science and the EU Commission, and off I was (you can read my findings here).
What to Do if You Cannot Find a Thesis Topic?
My advice is to take a paper you already wrote and to derive your topic from this paper.
Let’s be honest, it is extremely difficult to randomly come up with ideas to research.
Look at what you have already done, and go deeper.
The alternative is to take a paper you enjoyed reading and to look at their “suggestion for follow-up research” section.
A thesis is no more than an answer to a question. Look around you, read the newspapers, ask questions. What are people wondering about? What are the impacts of new technologies? What could be the link between such a field and another one? How do people perceive such a phenomenon? What does it mean for both people and the phenomenon?
Find what you wonder about, and go research it.
Personal trick: think for yourself. When I was studying for my master’s in political science, everyone went to research boring topics in international relations. As a result, they all struggled to find supervisors.
I did not. I went for a topic that I liked and had 4 different professors ready to supervise me.
Look outside the box and stop caring about other people.
The best way to succeed is not to be better than anyone else, but to escape competition altogether.
You can’t lose if you’re not competing against anyone.
Finding the Research Question and the Introduction of Your Thesis
Back to my first thesis.
Once my supervisor had given me the green light, I worked like a madman for the next days.
The first step you normally have to do when you write a thesis is to find a research question.
To write your thesis, you should look for a problem to solve.
The problem should be as simple and as small as possible.
That’s what makes research difficult. It’s easy to find big philosophical questions, it is less so to answer them.
Find the smallest problem possible for your question, or your theme will be too broad and you’ll have problems.
My question, as we said, was the survival of TV stations that I imagined were going to die because of Netflix.
To make sure this problem was real, I had to read maybe 4 or 5 academic papers talking about this problem.
Once I had my proofs, I could come up with a research question.
Originally, I wrote:
“What is public TV stations’ strategy and response to counter new competitors in the TV landscape such as streaming companies?”
But my supervisor didn’t like it and told me to write this instead:
“What societal remit should PSBs (public service broadcasters) fulfill in an increasingly innovative and competitive media landscape?”
Now, I kid you not, I understood what I was researching weeks after I had gotten my final mark.
I had no clue what I was writing about until after I had finished writing it.
Instead of focusing on what TV stations did to survive, my supervisor wanted me to focus on what was public TV stations’ role in society.
Instead of asking “what do you do to survive”, it was asking “why do you even exist?”.
Next up, you’ll have to formulate hypotheses (some people work without them as I did).
Hypotheses are answers you believe you will find. They are based on the current literature.
When you write hypotheses, it will help you later on to structure your questionnaire into different parts so that you can answer your research question.
While I’m not especially a fan of hypotheses because it gives you more work, I do admit it eases your task.
Ask your supervisor.
As I said, I wrote my second thesis in the context of a master’s in management and had decided to do the same thesis I had written for my bachelor’s, but with another sector.
Instead of doing TV and Netflix, I had chosen hotels and Airbnb.
I could have also chosen Uber and taxis, but that looked more like a done deal since they are virtually the same service while hotels and Airbnb still differ to some extent.
I eventually went to write the paper in Medellin, Colombia, but well, more on that later.
The research question was:
How do high-end hotels use innovative strategies to overcome challenges and be more competitive in the hospitality business?
I wrote my third thesis in the context of a master’s in political science and EU studies.
The research question was:
“How does the EU Commission use data throughout the policymaking process?”
As you can see, the second and third research questions are very badly phrased.
Since a thesis is built on a research question, a bad research question will not give you a satisfying thesis.
The questions in both cases are way too broad and not specific enough and don’t mean much.
Don’t do what I did. Do it better. Do it simpler.
Getting your research question is the most difficult and critical step of any research work.
Once you got it, you just need to put your brain on “pause” for one or two months, and just follow the plan.
Thesis in humanities and social sciences is not about thinking, but about writing what people tell you to write.
Once I got my RQ (research question), I could write my introduction: in the context of the first thesis, I’d write first about the challenges of TV, then of public TV, then about the specified challenges that these streaming newcomers represented for public TV, then I could introduce my RQ.
Afterward, I’d present an outline of how I researched the problem (technically, an intro is the last thing you write, so if you write it first, write in the past tense) and what research method I used.
And boom. I got my intro.
Don’t forget to add the “academic relevance” (why your research is academically interesting) and the “societal relevance” (how it can be applied to society).
How to Establish the Theoretical Framework of Your Thesis
Next up was the theoretical framework, also called a literature review.
The literature review consists of reading a bunch of academic papers and make them speak to each other.
What you need to write is who says what about what and who agrees with who or contradicts who.
You’d think that writing a thesis is about writing, but it’s not.
It’s mainly about reading, then rephrasing whatever you read (that’s one of the reasons why science stagnates, it has too many protocols and people are mostly concerned about what has been written instead of writing new stuff, but that’s a topic for another time).
So, reading then re-writing about 20-40 academic papers will do for your theoretical framework.
“20?! But Aurélien, how could you remember what you read?”
I didn’t, because I never read them entirely.
First of all, time is important (remember that at the end of the article).
You’ll most likely die before you turn 80 because of the micro-plastic in your body and the low-quality air you breathe, so you want to maximize your time spent doing cool stuff, not writing papers no one gives a crap about.
When you read an academic paper, you want to focus on three parts only: the abstract, the introduction, and the conclusion/discussion.
The rest has not been written for you and you can ignore it.
Second, I’d read a paper, then write a summary on a giant word document I’d call “sources”.
This document was my database containing everything I had read. If I didn’t remember where I had read a piece of particular information, all I had to do was a quick search in my very own database, and boom, I got what I wanted.
Sometimes, I’d just copy-past the abstract or the conclusion and add some keywords to find them easily in my “sources” document.
Since I often had +- 50 sources for my theoretical framework, this doc was each time fairly long.
Once you establish your database with the academic papers, you can start writing your TF. Basically, you should define and explain all the concepts of your RQ.
In my case, I explained the evolution of the TV landscape, then explained Netflix and all of the issues and strategic problems this caused for public TV (well, “explained” is a big word, you’re not allowed to explain, only to rewrite what other people had already written for you).
Once you got your RQ, your introduction, and TF in order, congratulations!
You’ve done about 69% of the thesis.
Which Research Method to Select for Your Thesis
I have no clue about theses in engineering or math, but theses in humanities and social sciences can choose in between quantitative research (numbers) or qualitative research (people).
Needless to say, you should never go for quantitative research.
1. You need a lot of respondents: every year, Facebook is assaulted with “hey, I’m writing a thesis for my useless master in gender studies, can you please fill up this short survey that will only take 5 minutes of your time? Thaanks!!”
Students often need to find 100-250 respondents for their results to be validated, and that’s when you realize that the 1000 friends on Facebook you have are completely useless when you can’t even get 20 people to fill up your survey.
A girl I know was smart, she paid a company whose job is to find respondents and got her results within 2 days.
Trust me, you don’t want to waste time and alienate your Facebook friends, nor do you want to pay to find people.
2. Analysis is hard: dunno which software you’ll have to use, but if you’re not in love with statistics, the analysis of your data will be difficult as you’ll have to perform regression analysis and who knows what else.
Let’s not even speak of results interpretation.
Another girl I knew was also smart, she paid a guy in Bangladesh to analyze the results for her.
That only cost her 25€, but might as well not spend them altogether.
As such, qualitative research is much better. Whether you interview people (5-15) or do content analysis, you are the master of your time.
I did interviews for my three theses and never regretted it.
The only annoying thing was transcribing them, but it gets faster as you progress and gain skills.
In order to avoid interviews that are too long, don’t hesitate to interrupt your respondents if they give answers not relevant to your research.
How to Conduct the Research for Your Thesis
Now, the next part of your thesis will be “research method” and I am not sure if what I’m about to tell you is correct because the three research method sections I wrote were done differently according to the wishes of my three supervisors.
Make sure to always follow the guidelines you are given since they are what you will be judged on.
For the first thesis, I had to write a mini-theoretical framework about the research method, basically explaining what is qualitative research, in which context it is used, and why it was suitable for my work.
For the second thesis, I had to add a small part of how I had conducted my research.
For the third thesis, I had to scrap entirely this research explanation structure and had to be very precise in explaining the steps I had taken to do my research.
I believe the third version to be the best.
If you haven’t done so yet, now is the time to create the questionnaire you will use for your interviews.
The questionnaire should whether answer your hypotheses (or your theoretical framework) and overall, answer your RQ.
Count around 5-10 questions, be precise in what you’re asking, and don’t hesitate to elicit more answers if your respondents remain vague and elusive.
How to Find Respondents for Your Interview
One easy way is to ask your supervisor if they don’t know anyone. Usually, people in small industries know each other.
If they don’t, you’ll have to find respondents by yourself. I found out that contacting people by email is best.
Start your email by briefly introducing yourself, then introduce your research project. Ask if you can interview them, by Skype or in real life, whatever suits them best, and ask them if they know anyone else you could interview if they are not available. Don’t forget to add that you will share your results with them (they usually give you an interview because of that specifically).
Find below an email template I sent to people I wanted to interview for my first thesis,
“Dear Mister X,
My name is Auré.
I am a communication and media student at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. I am currently writing my thesis on the innovative strategies that public service broadcasters have implemented/are implementing in order to overcome the challenges of the media landscape.
In order to do so, I’m currently interviewing media innovation experts/managers from public service broadcasters.
Would it be possible for me to interview you?
I would be happy to come to Brussels to do so, or to do it over Skype, whatever suits you best.
In case it would be impossible for you to be interviewed, could you refer me to a colleague or an acquaintance of yours that deals with media innovation and that I could interview?
I would of course be happy to share the results of my research with you, once it is completed.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
The second way to find respondents is to ask for names at the end of each interview. If you manage to find one respondent that gives you the name of one other respondent that gives you the name of etc, you will easily find all respondents you need.
As such, finding 3-4 respondents should be enough, as these people will likely help you find more people.
When I wrote my political science thesis, I only found 3 respondents myself, and the 9 others had been introduced to me by the 3 original respondents.
Don’t underestimate people’s willingness to help you.
We’re all humans and as humans, we have been wired to enjoy helping others. It’s important to frame your work as you helping them rather than the opposite since you are the one tackling a problem they have.
No one has ever said no to free value.
Send as many emails as you can. I must have sent about 50 emails for my first thesis, more than 200 for my second thesis, and about 40 for my third thesis.
Writing a thesis is not hard. Like all things of value, it just takes time.
Transcript Analysis and Presenting the Results of Your Research
Once you have all of your interviews and transcripts, you can lead your analysis. First, I made a list of all the concepts I had asked questions about and assigned each of them a color.
Then, I’d read all the transcripts and highlight in that color whenever experts were talking about that concept.
That made the organization easy when I had to write the results section.
In the case of my first thesis, I had been told to write the section to “make experts speak to each other”.
Basically, I had structured the section like I had structured the TF. Who says what, about what, and who contradicts who and why.
Afterward, I had written a conclusion and that was it.
For my second thesis, I was told to add a summary of these main findings. For my third thesis, my supervisor screwed me up.
As I had finished a nice looking analysis that had taken me two full weeks, she told me it wasn’t enough and that my research should also include content analysis.
I had rarely had my hopes crushed so fast to such an extent.
But I did it.
This third thesis was a bit different. I had been ordered to write hypotheses and so presented my research not by making experts speak to each other, but by answering the hypotheses with the interviews and the content analysis material.
In that case, the summary of the findings could be included in the conclusion part.
How to Conclude Your Thesis
The conclusion is the easiest part. If it doesn’t include the “summary of the main findings”, it usually includes the following: recommendations, limitations, and suggestions for future research.
Recommendations are the part where you can freely express yourself without having to cite anyone else.
It’s you, as an expert, advising people that have the problems you researched.
Limitations are the problems with your thesis or the reasons why people that read it shouldn’t believe what you wrote.
The suggestions are what you think should be researched next.
And voilà! To summarize, here’s how it should look like:
1. Introduction part: introduce the topic with some background information and present your RQ, research method, possible hypotheses, academic and societal relevance.
2. Theoretical framework: the academic knowledge onto which your RQ is built.
3. Methodology: what methods you used, how (and why).
4. Your results: the part where you answer your RQ whether through your hypotheses or the structure of the TF.
5. Your conclusion: the part where you give your main findings, recommendations, limitations, and suggestions for future research.
Congratulations! You know now how to write a thesis.
If you’re interested in having a look at what the final result looks like, you can download below the three theses that I’ve written.
I obviously had to take down names and personal details.
Part 2: The Mental Behind Writing a Thesis
Here are some tips to make the process of writing a thesis easier.
Don’t Focus on the End-Goal; Focus on the Next Step Instead
First of all, take your eyes off the “final moment” when you’ll “be free”.
It’s a story I have already told, but I’ll tell it again here. When Dilma Roussef was getting tortured, she’d think “one more minute, all it takes is one more minute” not to give up.
She could handle 20-25 minutes this way.
You should do the same: only look at what remains to do for the day.
You’ll reach the end before you know it.
Break the Routine
Writing a thesis is like sex: you’ll go nuts if you always do the same at the same place.
Go write at the library, in a café, at your friends’ house, change rooms in your apartment and never write in the room where you sleep.
Load up on Things to Do
“What?? But I already don’t have enough time, why would I load up on activities too?”
Technically, writing a thesis would take about one month if you wrote 6-8 hours/day every day, but no one does nowadays because we’re all lazy and unfocused.
Let me tell you a story.
When I was a kid, I’d perform best when I “didn’t have enough time” because I didn’t have time to procrastinate which forced me to create a schedule to be on time.
Hence, I was on time. Had I had a week to write something, I would have written it last minute because “I have the entire week, why bothering now?”, but since I had many activities, I didn’t procrastinate.
People that procrastinate are those that have time to do so and end up hence wasting it.
Should I tell you that a bomb will explode in a month if you don’t finish on time, trust me, you will.
So the best way to finish on time is to give yourself just enough time to finish.
Load up on activities so that it stresses you out a bit before you actually run out of time to finish your work.
Realize What Your Time Is Worth
Sometimes, I get paid 10€/hour, sometimes, 15€/hour. That’s what my time is currently worth.
If I spend one hour on Instagram, I’ll “lose” 10€, except that I won’t because I was highly probably trolling vegans which I do not consider a waste of time, but a gift to humanity’s wellness, a hobby and certainly an art.
Once you realize that time is the scarcest commodity on earth, you stop wasting it.
You’ll End up Dying at Some Point…
This thought scares the hell out of me.
Not dying per se, but not having had time to do all I wanted to do.
It’s when I realized I wasn’t immortal that I started being productive and stopped losing time like I did when I was a teenager.
Contemplating your own death is a formidable motivational practice.
Use Parkison’s Law
Parkinson’s law says that an assignment will take you the time you allow yourself to take to complete it.
Should you decide to write your thesis within a month, you will.
This law though, is tricky, because you may decide upon a time that will end up bigger than needed.
For example, I had given myself until the 15th of May to finish the thesis but was done by the 22nd of April.
While I did use Parkinson’s law as a safety, I didn’t plan my work around it. I worked let’s say…reasonably.
I could have worked faster, but I didn’t want to because we were on lockdown and I had enough working 4-6 hours per day on my piece.
The Bottom Line
I used to be a last-minute guy until I realized that the ultimate last-minute moment is not the deadline: it’s death.
That was a life-changing realization. Also, as life got more and more complex, I realized I wanted to enjoy full brain capacity and that couldn’t be done if I had a list of things to do in the back of my mind.
If you are a last-minute person, then simply move back in time your deadline and make your own.
If you have a week to write something and think it will take two days, make sure you load up your week with activities two days from now.
Not only you’ll do more stuff, but you’ll have more time and will feel more productive, happy, and energetic.
Personally, the best periods of my life were the ones where I was working 10-14 hours a day.
But well, not everyone is crazy like that.