Thesis Writing Tips:

The Glocal Experience gets top tips from master thesis writers Annie Heslinga & Pierce Kehoe!

At our last thesis workshop meeting, themed ‘Business of Innovation’, two GLOCAL alumni from the Rotterdam pathway, Annie Heslinga and Pierce Kehoe, presented tips on thesis writing and preparation, based on their different experiences and approaches.

They opened their presentation by asking our group of seven students what specific questions or struggles they had. They were:

  • “I am struggling to pick the right theories and methods to apply to my research.”
  • “How should I approach narrowing the scope of my topic?”
  • “How to find the discipline to best anchor my interests?”
  • “I feel my topic is too narrow. How should I go about expanding it?”
  • “How should I narrow my literature to what’s relevant?”
  • “How should I format the questions for interviews?”

After collecting the room’s questions, Annie and Pierce proceeded to present their tips, hoping to address the questions and concerns.

The topic you start out with, and the topic you ultimately write your thesis about will likely not be identical.

Identifying your research question and the research approach can feel like a chicken-and-egg scenario, according to Annie. On the one hand, you will find it difficult to formulate your research question because you are not yet familiar with the boundaries and limitations of your topic. And not being familiar with the boundaries and limitations of your topic will, in turn, make it difficult to formulate a clear research question. This tension is normal, Pierce added, but in going through it, you get closer to the goal of creating a ‘rock-solid’ final proposal of your thesis topic, outlining what your main research question is, what your sub-questions are, and how you think you will get your answers.

As a suggestion for making this phase of the process less radically uncertain, Annie recommends writing hypotheses you have in response to your research question(s) in advance. This can provide some control over the development of your topic refinement.

In the end however, Annie and Pierce concluded that everyone would have their own approach to finding and defining their thesis topic. Each topic is unique, so the approach to finding yours will be as well.

Make your own thesis timeline and collaborate with your adviser to stick with it.

It is important to take a proactive role in managing the time you have to plan, research, write, and edit your final thesis. Your university may have a general timeline for all students, but just as your thesis topic is unique to you, so is the schedule required to complete it. Annie and Pierce recommend creating your own timeline and discussing goals (early on) with your thesis adviser. It is not the thesis advisers’ job to make deadlines for their students, but when students fall behind, they just might!

Annie and Pierce presented the following dates they recalled from their thesis schedule at Erasmus University in 2019:

  • Proposal due: End of February
  • Internships: February to March
  • Thesis Presentation: Early June
  • Final Due Date: Late June

Reflecting on this schedule, they also recommended the following deadline to make room for writing and ruminating on your ideas as you read more and gather more data.

  • Data Collection: Feb and March
  • Data Analysis: March and April
  • First Draft: April/May

Outline the debates throughout your literature review.

Try to find the arguments and debates among your literature. Why is there a debate? What are the main positions? Expand on these questions when writing your literature review.

When it comes to narrowing down your literature review to the essential ones for your paper, constantly ask yourself: ‘why is work important, and why is it relevant for my topic and research question?’ It is good to have read a lot for your topic, but it’s even better to be able to analyze what you have read to clearly identify which works engages with your topic most (and why), as well as which do not (and your arguments why).

The worst thing to do is to not do a thorough review of literature to anchor your thesis in its academic context and other works in the field. How is your work ‘additive’ to what already exists on your topic?

Nail your sub-questions down.

Sub-questions can be a helpful way to specifically answer an aspect of your main research question, as well as serve as chapters in your final thesis outline. A chapter for a sub-question can be 4000 to 5000 words in length, so Pierce recommends combining certain sub-questions together when appropriate. 

Like the main research question, the sub-questions can change as the research progresses. This was the case with Annie’s thesis. After collecting data, both her main and sub-questions were changed to best use the information she gathered.

Have a strong theoretical framework.

Theory runs through your thesis. In most cases, you won’t know how theory will ultimately be incorporated into your thesis, so Pierce advises that it is best to start working with some and be open to adapting as you go.

Differentiate between methods and methodology.

Methodology is a system of theories, and methods are the means you apply your theory. Your methodology is the ‘tool’ you use to help you reach your goal of answering the research question you set out for yourself. There are many different methodologies and methodologies out there, including mixed-methods and mixed methodological approaches. It ultimately boils down to what best fits your research inquiry and helps the most with directing your data collection process. When you explain this part in your thesis proposal, you should be able to explain why the method and methodology you chose is appropriate for your research.

Annie recommends picking one method and one methodology if you want to keep it simple – although mixed methods are perfectly ok!

Interviews are a common method, sometimes methodology, among GLOCAL theses thus far. If this is your method, it is important to have structure, both in what you ask and how you organize your interview transcripts. If interviews serve a more dynamic purpose, semi-structured interviews are recommended. Annie advises keeping interview questions general, and to ask the same core questions of your interviewees to have constant variables of comparison. She also recommends following up with topics as interviewees bring them up as such insights can lead to a myriad of different developments in your research.

Annie used her own experience as an example of how she ultimately differentiated between methods and methodology. Initially, she thought case studies (Robert Yin) would be the methodology she would use for her topic on the Dutch game industry. As Annie delved deeper into her research, however, she realized that she was using discourse analysis and comparing the stakeholders of the Dutch game industry she interviewed. In the end, case studies became her methods. William J. Gibson and Andrew Brown also have a research book on using qualitative research methods available as an ebook via the University of Glasgow library.

Beyond interviews and case studies, Pierce and Annie shared other approaches that GLOCALs at Erasmus University used for their thesis:

  • Using another scholar’s framework for making editorial comparisons of advertising (visuals and copy), supplementing the analysis with interviews.
  • Conducting embodied research to observe spaces and how people interact within them, such as creating heat maps of frequented areas of activity. This approach requires the research to note important and relevant interactions.

It is also possible to create your own methodology and methods, but if you choose to do this, make sure you clearly explain their design and how they help address the gaps you seek to fill and the question(s) you seek to answer.

Have consistent formatting.

Get into the habit of using correct Chicago Manual Style formatting from the beginning of your assignments, if you have not already done so. Even if the writing is complete and the research is finished, a thesis written with inconsistent or the wrong formatting is not done. 

Always revisit these questions: Why is this relevant? Why should people care about this topic?

While almost every other aspect of the thesis journey should be open to changes and adjustments, the opinion you have of why your topic is important and valuable, should stay as constant as possible. In many ways, this clarity helps to ground your work to a ‘core’, especially when there are moments you can get ‘lost’ reading literature across different disciplines, bridging your data with what you have already researched on your subject, etc. For Pierce, having clear answers to why his topic was important and why a new piece of information he read was relevant, provided a way of measuring how solid his research proposal was. The more the answers fluctuated, the less clear the research question ultimately was.

Internship and data collection

Without an internship, your timeline may be different, so don’t worry.

Internship experiences among GLOCAL 1: those who did an internship related to their thesis was helpful, but that also depends on your own priority. Pierce had his own internship that had no relevance to his thesis topic and this was not too much of a problem, although it could result in more work.

For data collection, have a system in place to organize your information. Think about how your material will fit into the thesis and what processes you must do to achieve this. For interviews, you might want to code them – schedule, conduct interview, then archive them. Atlas Ti is a software that allows you to code different types of media. This software allows you to assign certain keywords and phrases to media, showing visual representations of the occurance of keywords and their relationship to one another.

“Finally, just keep calm and start writing”

The process also builds confidence and helps develop your flow.

Final top tips:

  • You can also approach your writing in the most strategic manner.
  • The research question needs to be solid before you can approach any other aspects.
  • After your research question, start with your preliminary data collection. From there, gather preliminary results. Based on what’s in your results, you can then revise your research question. From there, you can write introduction and conclusion.
  • Know how to cite correctly.
  • Be proactive with your thesis adviser. Advisers will be busy in June (because everyone will be asking for last-minute help).
  • For your interviewees, ask them for advice (proofreading, focal points, other contacts, and further interview suggestions).
  • Approach interviews as a curious researcher.
  • Don’t forget data consent forms!
  • Know when to take breaks because it’s a marathon! You will question your existence and have low point.

Useful resources:

  • Zotero
  • Koninklijke Bibliotheek archives
  • Archives (ex: Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision archives for Dutch news and media)
  • LaTex (software to make your report look nice)