Master Thesis. Writing a master thesis seems a difficult task. Fortunately, it will seem less daunting once you have a couple of chapters done. You will even find yourself enjoying it – an enjoyment based on satisfaction in the achievement, pleasure in the improvement in your scientific writing, and of course the approaching end. Like many tasks, master thesis writing usually seems worse before you begin, so let us look at how you should make a start.
PLANNING THE MASTER THESIS
First make up a master thesis outline: several pages containing chapter headings, sub-headings, some figure titles (to indicate which results go where) and perhaps some other notes and comments.
Once you have a list of chapters and, under each chapter heading, a reasonably complete list of things to be reported or explained, you have struck a great blow against writer’s block. When you sit down to type, your aim is no longer a master thesis – a daunting goal – but something simpler. Your new aim is just to write a paragraph or section about one of your subheadings. It helps to start with an easy one: this gets you into the habit of writing and gives you self-confidence. Often the Materials and Methods chapter is the easiest to write – just write down what you did; carefully, formally and in a logical order.
How do you make an outline of a chapter? For most of them, you might try the method that I use for writing papers, and which I learned from my master thesis adviser: assemble all the figures that you will use in it and put them in the order that you would use if you were going to explain to someone what they all meant. Once you have the most logical order, the key words of your hypothetical ‘explanation’ provide a skeleton for much of your chapter outline.
Once you have an outline, discuss it with your adviser. This step is important: s/he will have useful suggestions, but it also serves notice that s/he can expect a steady flow of chapter drafts that will make high priority demands on his/her time. Once you and your adviser have agreed on a logical structure, s/he will need a copy of this outline for reference when reading the chapters which you will probably present out of order. If you have a co-adviser, discuss the outline with him/her as well, and present all chapters to both advisers for comments.
Make a back up of these files and do so every day at least (depending on the reliability of your computer and the age of your disc drive). Never keep the back-up disc close to the computer in case the hypothetical thief who fancies your computer is smart enough to think s/he could use some discs as well. If you want to be really careful, you could transfer your back-ups to a machine at some geographically remote location (using FTP), without of course telling the system administrator that I suggested this. (For Macintosh files use Binhex to convert the files to ASCII form and FTP in ASCII mode. For Dos/Windows files, transfer using binary mode).
You should also have a physical filing system: a collection of folders with chapter numbers on them. This will make you feel good about getting started and also help clean up your desk. Your files will contain not just the plots of results and pages of calculations, but all sorts of old notes, references, calibration curves, suppliers’ addresses, specifications, speculations, letters from colleagues etc., which will suddenly strike you as relevant to one chapter or other. Stick them in that folder. Then put all the folders in a box or a filing cabinet. As you write bits and pieces of text, stick the hard copy, the figures etc in these folders as well. Touch them and feel their thickness from time to time – ah, the master thesis is taking shape.