[This is the first of a few follow-up posts written by our now-completed 3rd yr Single Honours / Major students. You can read the first post by Steven here.]
The undergraduate thesis was probably one of the most exciting, yet challenging, aspects of my whole three years in Maynooth. It provided an avenue to study, in-depth, something that I’m really interested in. We had never written anything near 10,000 words in length and the fact that it was a two-semester long project increased the challenge. A few aspects stuck out in particular and I’ll elaborate on them here for anyone doing their thesis next year.
The first big part of the thesis was coming up with an idea. I wasn’t the only one in the class that struggled to nail down a topic which both interested me and was adequately ambitious to be the subject of a thesis. I went through four or five ideas before settling on the right one. Bearing this in mind, it is good to start early. It doesn’t take up much time during the summer to think about ideas. Also, the nice part is that you can do it almost anywhere, doing almost anything. I was watching Ireland versus Australia in the rugby world cup when I finally came up with the topic I would later use. If inspiration is hard to come by, it’s good to flick through old readings. The ones that interested you might provide an idea for a topic you can explore yourself. Next, it’s always good to run the idea(s) by a supervisor to ensure that you’re on the right track. I was fortunate enough to have meetings with my own supervisor at different points throughout the summer. For people who are not within a reasonable distance of the university, emails could also suffice. Something that is really important to remember is that there is no need to be shy approaching anyone for help. The geography department is very student-orientated, and everyone I asked for assistance was very generous with their energy and time (good to bear in mind not only for the thesis, but if you’re looking to improve on your academic performance in general). It’s crucial to proofread your own work, but sometimes it can be extremely useful to get feedback on it from members of staff.
Reading was also a significant aspect of the thesis. It was beneficial to do readings relevant to my topic from early on in the first semester. It not only develops your idea, but if you can show in your work that you are covering a variety of books and articles, you are likely to score higher marks. It is also useful to read if at any point you hit a snag or suffer from writer’s block. Rather than wasting time staring at the page, read something relevant. Chances are this will provide new perspectives and ideas, while improving the overall quality of your work. It also pays off to challenge yourself with more complicated readings than you are used to. They contribute to a more sophisticated thesis, and as a bonus can look rather impressive sitting comfortably in your bibliography. Granted, these readings will be more difficult of course. But persistence pays off. For instance, I was reading Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (really useful for anyone interested in human geography) while writing up my thesis proposal. Although it was translated into English, it may as well have been left in the author’s native French as far as I was concerned. I left the book at that stage as the deadline for the proposal was fast approaching. However, I started reading it again as soon as I had more time (the breaks are really good for this) and I eventually got a grasp of the material. It would prove to be one of the central books behind the finished thesis.
The choice of relevant research methods is also an important part. The classes in semester one will be useful for identifying whichever of these suits your purposes best. Once the methods were chosen, my approach was to start the research relatively early (at the beginning of the Christmas break). This was to allow plenty of time in case of any hiccups. Also, because I was carrying out interviews I would need additional time for transcription. Anyone who will be interviewing as part of their research should bear it in mind that transcription is a notoriously slow process. Even if you are only transcribing the highlights of interviews, it is still time-consuming. Something which can make transcription far easier is the setting of the interview itself. For example, my first interview was in a coffee shop in Dublin City Centre on a weekday. It was very loud and as a result the recording proved difficult to transcribe. I carried out most interviews after that in quiet offices.
I hope this is of some use. All the best!