Each year around 20 or so of our third year students (those who take the Single Honours or Major-Minor option) write approx. 12,000 word undergraduate theses. This year three of them completed First Class theses and so we asked them to jot down some reflections on the thesis-writing process. In the first of these guest blog posts, Rhonda McGovern shares some of her insights.
Writing a thesis can be quite a daunting task. It seems unimaginable at times. Narrowing down interests to settle on one topic is an experience itself. My problem is that I’m interested in lots of stuff. I was a youth worker before returning to education and I followed that career path because of the variety it offered. As such, trying to pinpoint a thesis idea was a big challenge for me. I had three biggish ideas in mind. One was to look at children’s geographies and how spatial boundaries reflect the ways young people interact within their communities. Another was to examine music and the impact it makes on social change, with a plan to focus on radical geographies and the work of Rage Against the Machine. The third and final idea won out: I analysed the long-term Irish temperature series and assessed it for monthly, seasonal and annual changes, and then decadal scale variability. It sounds like the most boring of the three topics and for that exact reason I really wasn’t sure whether to take it on, or not. But in the end I knew I wanted to do something related to climate change and here was a topic that really hadn’t been explored in sufficient depth. That was the catch for me: the fact it hadn’t really been done before.
The plan I started out with was not what I ended up with. The thesis proposal I submitted was whittled down a great deal from what I began with. Yet still one of the key pieces of insight given to me after I presented my thesis proposal was that each of my three research questions could be individual theses: I was told in no uncertain terms to “cut it down”. This was a big surprise to me. Everything up to that point had been about breadth of subject, whereas a thesis is so much about depth. The advice was spot on. I had to drop some of the key things I wanted to explore. The more you dig, the bigger the project becomes, so keeping quite a narrow focus is critical.
This project of writing an undergraduate thesis will begin with much thought prior to the semester beginning. You will start to read articles and books on your chosen topic either before you start the first semester of third year, or as soon as it begins. The real research / investigation bit, along with the process of writing takes place from January to March. The thesis must be handed in at the end of April, so it’s a good idea to leave that month free for editing, formatting and re-reading. This is time-consuming yet vital to producing a decent thesis. Know your weaknesses before you begin (mine was choosing a topic and keeping it narrow). Be prepared to read a LOT on the topic. Begin to form your own opinion on what has gone before and what you think is required in the future. Be open to doing anything: I really could have gone with any of my ‘biggish’ ideas. Geography is an all-encompassing subject; geographies that were radical and new a few decades ago are standard today.
To wrap things up here, for those who are planning to do a thesis, here are a few pointers that I think are important:
1. Go to the department page on the MU website (https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/geography), look through the biographies of the departmental staff. It is possible there are people listed there that you have not met through lectures but may be doing something you are interested in.
2. Talk to as many lecturers as you can, find out their office hours and go along and ask questions. This can be as simple as, “I’m trying to work out what I’m going to do for my thesis, can you talk to me about what you did and how you came to decide on your topic?”. One conversation will lead to another and you will leave with plenty to ponder.
3. Check out the geography seminars, every Thursday (almost), in the Rocque Lab from 4-5.30pm. These provide a great insight into other areas of potential interest to you.
4. Once you have narrowed your subject choice, find your research questions. Be specific and keep them tight. This will make your life so much easier as you go through the research and writing stages.
5. Communicate regularly with your thesis supervisor. Work out a deadline for each section and stick to it. Ask for feedback and ways to improve what you are doing.
6. Finish with enough time to get somebody else to read it, or to give yourself a chance to step back for a while and return to re-read it with fresh eyes. Editing will gain you more marks, the more time to allocate to editing the better the outcome.
7. Expect the unexpected. Things will go wrong, it’s just a part of the process. Minimise risk by backing up data, research notes, chapter edits, etc. It may change the course of your thesis somewhat. I discovered I was dealing with inaccurate datasets which resulted in a large reshaping of content.
8. Start an annotated bibliography and be true to it, use it as though nobody else will ever read it. This will become your guiding journal, as such.
9. The most important piece of advice I got from everyone I asked was “do something you enjoy”. It really cannot be stressed enough. The thesis is worth twice as many credits as any other module and to do well it is important to enjoy it.