Getting Started With Your Thesis or Dissertation


Most graduate students at UBC will devote considerable amounts of time and energy toward designing, developing, and presenting a graduate thesis or dissertation. The tips in this guide are provided for general consideration around the initial stages of thesis or dissertation development. They are adapted from the comprehensive document, “Writing and Presenting Your Thesis or Dissertation” by Dr. S. Joseph Levine at Michigan State University. However, students need to be aware that procedures and expectations vary in different programs. When in doubt, always consult with your supervisor. You should stay in close contact with your supervisor through all stages of your thesis or dissertation and be certain that you are following appropriate procedures and timelines.

How Do I Begin?

Graduate programs and faculty members have particular areas of interest and expertise. Typically, graduate students choose to enter programs that emphasize areas of interest to them and to work with faculty supervisors who are expert in those areas. Thus, your research topic will likely address a topic of interest to your supervisor.

In some disciplines, the general research topic is selected by the research supervisor, although students typically have some choice of projects on which to work. In other disciplines, students have considerable latitude in selecting their own research topic or program of work.

If you are expected to select a topic more or less independently, you will undoubtedly engage in a period of thinking about and considering various topics. Here are some tips to keep in mind during the "Thinking About It" Stage:

  • If selecting a topic, be inclusive with your thinking. Brainstorm your ideas with your research supervisor, who will assist you in identifying “hot topics” or “burning issues” in your field. Read some of the latest studies about those topics. Don't eliminate ideas too quickly. Build on your ideas and see how many different research projects you can identify. Give yourself the luxury of being expansive in your thinking at this stage — you may not be able to do this later on. Try and be creative.
  • Write down your ideas. This will allow you to revisit an idea later on. Or, you can modify and change an idea. If you don't record your ideas, they tend to be in a continual state of change, and you will probably have the feeling that you're not going anywhere. It is a great feeling to be able to sit down and scan the many ideas you have been thinking about, if they're written down.
  • Bounce your ideas and topics off other people. Get feedback on your thinking and suggestions for additional reading.
  • Don’t spin your wheels ruminating about the “perfect” topic. Some students stall out because they can’t decide where to begin. If you find you are stalling out, meet with your research supervisor to regain momentum.
  • Become thoroughly familiar with the scope of research specialization among faculty in your graduate program before deciding in consultation with your research supervisor upon members for your research supervisory committee. If you decide on a specific research topic and discover your interests aren't shared by your supervisor or other members in your graduate program, consider whether it would be useful to consult with faculty in another program.

It is a good idea to take into consideration your career goals when developing your research topic. The wise graduate student examines the range of possible topics with an idea of the type of professional direction he or she would like to follow after graduation. By doing so, you have a much better chance of selecting a topic that is not only of interest to you, but also advances your career plan.

Be strategic in developing your research. Consider these points when finding and developing a research topic (from Robert Smith, Graduate Research: A Guide for Students in the Sciences, 1984: ISI Press):

  • Can it be enthusiastically pursued?
  • Will it sustain your interest?
  • Is the problem solvable?
  • Is it worth doing?
  • Will it lead to other research problems?
  • Is it manageable in size?
  • What is the potential for making an original contribution to the literature?
  • Will the research prepare you in an area of demand or promise for the future?

Be realistic about the time that you're willing to commit to your research project. If the project you'd like to do is going to demand more time than you’re willing or able to commit, then you have a problem. There are strict timelines for completing a degree at UBC. Keep these in mind when you select a project.

It's never too early to create a timeline for the project. Try using the 6 stages below. Put a start and a finish time for each step. Post your timeline in a conspicuous place (above your computer monitor?) so that it reminds you how you're doing. Periodically update your timeline with new dates as needed.

  • Stage 1 — Thinking About It
  • Stage 2 — Preparing the Proposal
  • Stage 3 — Conducting the Research
  • Stage 4 — Writing the Thesis/Dissertation
  • Stage 5 — Sharing the Document with Others
  • Stage 6 — Revising the Thesis/Dissertation

It can be helpful at this early stage to conduct a small preliminary (pilot) research study or scholarly paper. Preliminary work of this sort allows you to test out some of your ideas and can help you gain confidence in what you'd like to do. This pilot work will also give you a chance to get closer to your research and test whether you really are interested in the topic. And, you can do it before you have committed yourself to doing something you may not like. Take your time and try it first.

Developing Your Research Blueprint: Preparing the Proposal

Students need to consult early with their research supervisors and with the UBC guidelines for Dissertation and Thesis Preparation.

Assuming you've done a good job of “thinking about” your research project, you're ready to prepare the proposal. A word of caution — those students who tend to have problems writing a viable proposal often are the ones who have tried to rush through the “thinking about it” part. They move too quickly to trying to write the proposal. Here’s a final check. Does each of these statements describe you? If they do, you’re ready to write your research proposal.

My supervisor supports my pursuit of research in this particular area.

____ Yes, it’s me
____ No, it’s not me

I am familiar with other research that has been conducted in areas related to my research project.

____ Yes, it’s me
____ No, it’s not me

I have a clear topic in mind.

____ Yes, it’s me
____ No, it’s not me

I have a clear understanding of the steps to follow in conducting my research.

____ Yes, it’s me
____ No, it’s not me

I feel that I have the ability (e.g., technical skills) to get through each of the steps necessary to complete my research project.

____ Yes, it’s me
____ No, it’s not me

I know that I am motivated and have the drive to get through all of the steps in the research project.

____ Yes, it’s me
____ No, it’s not me

Okay, you're ready to write your research proposal. Here are some ideas to help with the task:

Read through someone else’s research proposal. Very often a stumbling block is that we don't have an image of what the finished proposal should look like. Ask your adviser to see some sample exemplary proposals from students he or she has supervised in the past. Chances are your adviser has a file drawer filled with them.

How was the other proposal organized? What headings were used? Does the other proposal seem clear? Does it show that the writer knows the subject area? Can I model my proposal after one of the ones that I've seen?

Make sure your proposal includes a comprehensive review of the literature. Now this idea, at first thought, may not seem to make sense. I have heard many students tell me that “This is only the proposal. I'll do a complete literature search for the dissertation. I don't want to waste the time now.” But, this is the time to do it. The literature review consists of two lines of argument: 1) this research is needed, and 2) the methodology I have chosen is most appropriate for the question that is being asked. Why would you want to wait? Now is the time to get informed and to learn from the scholars who preceded you! If you wait until you are writing the dissertation, it is too late to be sure that you've developed those arguments. You've got to do it some time, so you might as well do it now.

When you read something that is important to your study, photocopy the relevant article or section, or archive it in an electronic citation management system such as Refworks, Mendeley or Zotero. Keep your photocopies or archived references organized according to categories and sections. And, most importantly, copy the complete bibliographic citation so that you can easily reference the material in your bibliography. Then, when you decide to sit down and actually write the literature review, bring out your photocopied or archived sections, put them into logical and sequential order, and begin your writing.

What is a proposal anyway? A good proposal should consist of the first chapters or sections of the thesis or dissertation. It should begin with a statement of the problem/background information (typically the first section of the dissertation), then move on to a review of the literature (second section), and conclude with defining the research method and plan (third section). Often the plans we state in our proposal turn out different in reality. We then have to make appropriate editorial changes to move the document from proposal to dissertation.

Focus your research very specifically. Don’t try to cover too broad an area. You may think that a narrow focus will distort what you want to do, but a broadly defined project can be unmanageable as a research project. When you complete your research, it is important that you have something specific and definitive to say. Otherwise, you may be left with broad, vague conclusions that provide little guidance to scholars who follow you.

Include a title on your proposal. I’m amazed at how often the title is left to the end and is then somehow forgotten when the proposal is prepared for the committee. A good proposal has a good title, and it is the first thing to help the reader begin to understand the nature of your work. Use it wisely! Work on your title early in the process and revisit it often. A good title:

  • has the most important words toward the beginning
  • avoids ambiguous or confusing words
  • is broken into a title and subtitle when you have too many words
  • includes key words that will help future researchers find your work

It’s important that your research proposal be organized around a guiding set of questions. When selecting those guiding questions, write them so that they frame your research and put it into perspective with the literature. Those questions establish the link between your research and the research that preceded yours. Your questions should clearly show the relationship of your work to your field of study.

Here are a few more ideas regarding defining the scope of your project in your proposal:

Be aware of ethical considerations and procedures.  View the Prepare for Ethical Review section of the Game Plan for more information

Choose your methodology wisely.  Methodological considerations are a core issue as you develop and refine your research topic. Consider questions such as the following: What are the most common research methods used in your discipline? Which methods are most strongly supported within your program and by your supervisor and supervisory committee members? What are the leading methodological debates within your discipline, particularly in relation to your research topic or problem? What methodological issues have been raised in recent research literature in your area? You need to be thoroughly acquainted with effective principles and practices of choosing research methods for your thesis or dissertation. Be sure to discuss methodological questions and issues with your supervisor and committee in the early stages of your proposal development.

Select and prepare your supervisory committee carefully.  If you do your “homework” well your supervisory committee will help you.  Don’t select committee members solely on content expertise, although this is important. Select faculty for your committee who are supportive of you and are willing to assist you in completing your research. You want a committee that you can ask for help and know that they will provide it for you. Don’t forget, you can always access content experts, but you rely on your committee members for guidance and encouragement.

Set up a formal meeting with your full committee to discuss your research proposal as soon as possible. Make sure that your supervisor and committee members are fully supportive of the project before you begin. The proposal meeting should be seen as an opportunity for you and your supervisory committee to reach agreement on the fundamental goals and procedures for your research. Don’t go into the proposal meeting with the feeling that it is you against them!

Provide the committee members with a well–written proposal well in advance of meetings.  Check with them to see how much time they will need to read the proposal.

Plan the proposal meetings well. If graphic presentations are necessary to help the committee, make sure they are clear and attractive. Rehearse your presentation. A well planned meeting will help your committee understand that you are prepared to move forward with well planned research.  Depending on the amount of detail you included in your proposal, you may not need or want to repeat every point.  However, you should not assume all your committee members read the proposal carefully, and you should be sure to cover all important facts and issues.

Bringing Your Research to Life: Writing the Thesis or Dissertation

The major myth in writing a dissertation is that you start writing at Chapter One and write straight through. This is seldom the case. The most productive approach in writing the dissertation is often to begin writing those parts of the dissertation with which you are most comfortable. Then complete the various sections as you think of them. At some point you will be able to print and spread out in front of you all of the sections that you have written. You will be able to sequence them in the best order and to see what is missing and should be added to the dissertation. This approach builds on those aspects of your study that are of most interest to you at any particular time. Go with what interests you, start your writing there, and then keep building!

View What is a Dissertation? (pdf) by Gary Shank for more.

If you prepared a comprehensive proposal you will now be rewarded! Pull out the proposal and check your proposed plan. Change from future tense to past tense and then make additions or changes so that the methodology section truly reflects what you did. You have now been able to change sections from the proposal to sections for the dissertation. Move on to the Statement of the Problem and the Literature Review in the same manner.

If your study has specific names of people, institutions and places that must be changed to provide anonymity don’t do it too soon. Write your dissertation using the real names. At the end of the writing stage, you can make all of the appropriate name substitutions. If you make these substitutions too early it can confuse your writing.

As you get involved in writing your dissertation, you will find that conservation of paper will fade as a concern. As soon as you print a draft of a chapter, you will notice a variety of necessary changes, and before you know it, another draft will be printed. And, it seems almost impossible to throw away any of the drafts! After awhile, it can become difficult to remember which draft of your chapter you are looking at. Print each draft on a different color paper, or date the pages of each draft. Then, it will be easy to identify the latest draft.

One area where I caution you about using a word processor is in the initial creation of elaborate graphs or tables. I've seen too many students spend too many hours in trying to use their word processor to create an elaborate graph that could have been done by hand in 15 minutes. So, the simple rule is to hand draw elaborate tables and graphs for the early draft of your dissertation. Make sure your data are presented accurately so your supervisor can clearly understand your graph/table, but don't waste time trying to make it look word processor perfect at this time. Once you and your supervisor agree upon how the data should be graphically represented it is time to prepare “perfect” looking graphs and tables.

Dissertation writing should be clear and unambiguous. To do this well, you should prepare a list of key words that are important to your research, and then use that set of key words throughout. There is nothing so frustrating to a reader as a manuscript that uses alternate words to refer to the same thing. If you've decided that a key phrase for your research is “educational workshop”, then do not try substituting other phrases like “in-service program”, “learning workshop”, “educational institute”, or “educational program.” Always stay with the same phrase — “educational workshop.” This helps the reader.

Review two or three high quality, well organized dissertations produced by other students in your department or group. Examine their use of headings, style, typeface and organization. They should assist you to begin writing with a clear idea of what the final product should look like.

A simple rule — if you are presenting information in the form of a table or graph make sure you introduce the table or graph in your text. Following the insertion of the table/graph, make sure you discuss it. If there is nothing to discuss, then you may want to question even inserting it.

Another simple rule — if you have a series of similar tables, use similar words to describe each one. If each introduction and discussion uses similar wording then the reader can easily spot the important features in each table.

We are all familiar with how helpful the Table of Contents is to the reader. What we sometimes don’t realize is that it is also valuable to the writer. Use the Table of Contents to help you improve your manuscript. Use it to see if you've left something out, if you are presenting your sections in the most logical order, or if you need to clarify your wording. Thanks to the miracle of computer technology, you can easily copy/paste each heading from the document into the Table of Contents. Then sit back and see if the Table of Contents makes logical sense to the reader. You will be amazed at how easy it is to see areas that need more attention. Don’t wait until the end to do your Table of Contents. Do it early enough so you can benefit from the information it will provide.

In the Conclusions/Implications section of your dissertation, make sure you really present conclusions and implications. Often the writer uses the conclusions/implications section to merely restate the research findings. Don’t waste my time. I've already read the findings and now, at the Conclusion/Implication section, I want you to help me understand what it all means. This is a key section of the dissertation and is sometimes best done after you've had a few days to step away from your research and put it into perspective. If you do this, you will no doubt be able to draw a variety of insights that link your research to other areas. I usually think of conclusions/implications as the “So what” statements. In other words, what are the key ideas that we can draw from your study to apply to my areas of concern.

Potentially the silliest part of the dissertation is the Suggestions for Further Research section. This section is usually written at the very end when little energy is left to make it meaningful. The biggest problem with this section is that the suggestions are often ones that could have been made prior to conducting the work. Read and re–read this section until you are sure that you have made suggestions that emanate from your experiences and findings. Make sure that suggestions for further research link your project with future projects and provide a further opportunity for the reader to understand the significance of what you have done.

Be judicious in your use of abbreviations. Excessive use of abbreviations makes a thesis more difficult to read. Do not abbreviate terms only used a few times in the thesis. Provide a table of abbreviations used throughout the thesis so that the reader can quickly interpret an abbreviation they have forgotten. Do not include common abbreviations in this table. Abbreviate consistently throughout the thesis.

Now it’s time to write the last chapter. But what chapter is the last one? My perception is that the last chapter should be the first chapter. I don’t really mean this in the literal sense. Certainly you wrote Chapter One at the beginning of this whole process. Now, at the end, it's time to “rewrite” Chapter One. After you’ve had a chance to write all the way to the end, you should turn back to Chapter One and reread it carefully with the insight you now have. Does Chapter One clearly help the reader move in the direction of the final chapter? Are important concepts necessary for understanding the final conclusions presented in Chapter One?

Adapted from S. Joseph LeVine, Ph.D. (2004). Writing and Presenting Your Thesis or Dissertation.

Learn more about Graduate thesis guidelines at UBC. All UBC graduate students should carefully review “The Graduate Thesis” from the Handbook of Graduate Supervision