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Graduate Theses and Dissertations
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6. Graduate Theses and Dissertations

 

 

 

Camante, no hay camino, / Se hace camino al andar. (Traveler, there is no path, / Paths are made by walking.)

 

—Antonio Machado

 

6.1  THE THESIS AND YOUR GRADUATE PROGRAM

 

Except for works of rare genius, a thesis or dissertation cannot be produced in a week or even a month. (I will use thesis to mean either thesis or disser-tation unless it is preceded by master’s.) The thesis is the final report on the research that you pursue throughout your graduate program. To make the most conservative use of time, coordinate the writing with activities such as course work and professional meetings as well as the research itself. Drafts of litera-ture review, methods, results of individual experiments, and preliminary con-clusions can all be written as your work progresses. Any drafts that you have started or completed early will make those last months of your program a great deal easier.

 

As you get into your graduate program, develop a tentative time line with dates of proposed milestones from the beginning to your expected graduation date. Be sure to review the policies of your institution regarding due dates, committee requirements, and other procedural issues that can impact your time line. Along the line will be as much detail as you can enter, and you will revise it as you proceed through your degree program. Figure A6.1 in Appendix 6 is a hypothetical time line that can serve only as a model. Yours must be indi-vidualized and will include a greater number of specific details. Coordinate the milestones with times for course work, the steps in the research itself, gradu-ate exams, job search, making presentations at meetings or in your department, and whatever else fits your individual program. If you find it difficult to jug-gle all these activities, read Molly Stock’s (1985) book, A Practical Guide to Graduate Research.

 

The thesis is the document that records your research efforts and the results of them and reflects what you learn along the way. Characteristically, your thesis should be built upon knowledge you have gained from the following:

 

  1. A complete review of literature—on what has been done on your specific research topic and closely related subjects

     

  2. Your original research or professional project—field and laboratory experi-ments based on a research proposal or project as approved by your advisor and graduate committee

     

  3. Your syntheses—putting together and deriving meaning from your data, ideas from others, and your own conclusions.

     

    Neglecting any one of these foundations for your thesis will limit the quality of your work. Success depends on your knowledge of the literature, meticulous work with your own research, and your efforts to give a clear, accurate perspec-tive to the entire study. When these points have been given appropriate atten-tion, the other criterion for success is communication—the writing itself.

     

    Expectations for both master’s and doctoral theses are inconsistent even in the same discipline. Common requirements are set forth by the department, the college, and the graduate school from which you get your degree, but your advi-sor, your committee, and your degree program may specify other expectations. As you begin your graduate project, check on any criteria for theses from your grad-uate school and department, talk with your advisor and committee members, and peruse several theses that have been produced in recent years by respected gradu-ates from your department. In other words, get a clear feel for what your thesis should be long before you write it. What you do during the first few weeks of your graduate program to understand what is ahead can make a major difference in the time it takes you to finish the degree. The format your thesis takes may be one or more journal manuscripts with or without additions such as a general introduction, proposal, appendices, and an overall abstract. The thesis can also be a traditional form not designed for immediate publication. Whatever the form or style, the contents of your thesis will typically include the following:

     

  4. Introduction—general justification for the study, the hypothesis or question behind the research, and a specific statement of objectives

     

  5. Literature review—a detailed report of what has already been done on your subject (sometimes combined with the introduction and included as content in journal manuscripts)

     

  6. Materials and methods—an account of the specific techniques used in the study, including materials needed, procedures, statistical design, and data collection and analyses

     

  7. Results—a presentation and meaning of the data acquired from your research

     

  8. Discussion—significance of your own data as well as the relationship between your work and the findings of others (results and discussion are sometimes combined)

     

  9. Conclusions—a summary of your findings and their significance and perhaps suggestions for further research or applications for the findings

  10.  Bibliography—references to the literature used

     

  11. Appendices—related material that supports a point and provides additional information but is not essential for understanding the thesis itself

     

  12. Abstract—required for doctoral dissertations and may be needed for master’s theses.

     

    Writing the thesis will be easier when you visualize a clear picture of the content and organization involved. As with your proposal, the content of your thesis will present a question or questions to answer or a problem to solve. You will establish objectives for your study by talking with advisors, reviewing the literature, and suggesting a hypothesis or answers to the questions involved. (See Chapter 5 for distinctions between hypothesis and objective.) If your proposal is carefully written and followed, it can become a foundation for the introduc-tion, literature review, and methods sections of the thesis. Once you have tested your hypothesis with your methods, you can report and interpret results relative to the original questions or objectives. With a vision for the format and contents of your thesis in mind, consider use of the following resources.

     

    6.1.1   Graduate College Requirements

     

    Most graduate schools furnish information on requirements for graduation in a published or online catalog or in a guide for preparing theses. Keep these instructions handy and check for updates periodically. There are deadlines to meet and fees to pay. Requirements for both the college and your department include deadlines; committee composition; and technical details for the thesis, such as margins, type font, spacing, and the kind of paper required. Knowing these things ahead of time or having a guide to refer to will help you avoid prob-lems later.

     

    6.1.2   Style Sheets

     

    For technicalities in the composition, another important guide is a style sheet. For points of style beyond those specified by your department or graduate school, the discipline in which you are working probably has a style to which it generally adheres. Scientific Style and Format (Council of Science Editors, 2006), The ACS Style Guide (Coghill and Garson, 2006), and the AMA Manual of Style (Iverson et al., 2007) are convenient references for various disciplines on points of style such as abbreviations, punctuation, and bibliographical style. Other scientific groups, such as the publisher to whom you will submit manu-scripts and government agencies and associations, have specific style require-ments. Scientific Style and Format (Council of Science Editors, 2006) contains a list of style manuals for scientific disciplines. If you do not know which style to use, ask your advisor. Sometimes your advisor or committee will recom-mend that you choose a professional journal in your discipline and follow its style. Styles for publications differ with journal editors or publishers, but most provide “Instructions for Contributors” or other style sheets to follow. Become

    familiar with the style of your professional societies and have a style sheet handy. For further information on style, see Chapter 8.

     

    6.1.3  The Library

     

    The sooner you get acquainted with a library, the more time you will save yourself. The simplicity or complexity of your literature search will depend on your knowing what you want to find and how to find it quickly. Also, be quick to question the value and reliability of the sources you find. Some literature can be found and read through the Internet. Your library may have a librarian who specializes in your field. That person can help you navigate the manual and online indexes available and will be a valuable resource throughout your program. More information on the literature search and on evaluating sources is in Chapter 4.

     

    6.1.4  Your Advisors

     

    Your major advisor is probably your most valuable resource. Take advantage of his or her expertise. Be independent, think for yourself, and find answers to questions with a graduate school catalog, a style manual, or other resources, but report to your advisor regularly too. Because departments and graduate divisions differ in their requirements for theses, I cannot provide the final word for what your thesis should be. Your advisor has many of the answers, but also consult the persons in the department who know answers regarding policies and procedures. This may be your advisor or it could be an administrative assistant or staff person. In addition, your other committee members can be valuable consultants as you proceed with your study. Each is on your com-mittee for a particular reason. Get acquainted with them early, visit with them periodically, and use their expertise. If possible, take a class with each one to learn more about them and their interests.

     

    6.1.5   Other Professionals

     

    You may need to work with specialists in addition to your major advisor and the committee. For example, your thesis will most likely contain quantita-tive data, and a statistician may be available to consult even as you plan your experiment and collect the data as well as when you complete the analyses. Formulating the design for your experimentation and stabilizing your plans early in your research can pay big dividends in both time and research quality later. You may also have available a writing center or someone with expertise in writing, revising, and editing. These experts can prove valuable in getting the thesis put together well. Think for yourself, be independent, but do not hesitate to use all these people and sources of information to assist you with your work.

     

    6.2  AVOIDING PROBLEMS

     

    Your thesis is the written record of your graduate research project and should contribute substantially to your professional reputation and your discipline. It will probably form the basis for a final graduate defense or oral exam by your committee. Building and maintaining your reputation with your peers, faculty, and other professionals in your discipline will depend on not only how good the final product is but also how you handle problems along the way. The pro-posal, your research, cooperation with others, and the thesis will illustrate your scientific acumen and professionalism. How well you integrate these individ-ual activities will determine, in large part, how successfully you complete your degree and what kind of recommendation you will get from your department when you apply for a position.

     

    Weeks, months, even years of delay can result from poor planning and execution of the graduate research project and thesis writing. You may want to read Getting What You Came For, particularly Chapters 17–19 (Peters, 1997), before you get too far into your program. Work closely with your major advi-sor but assume full responsibility for your program. Do not wait for the profes-sor to tell you to write a proposal, search the literature, and write a literature review. If these chores are not required by your department, you will be ahead to do them anyway. Work both cooperatively and independently, but do not get so independent that you step across the line of diplomacy and discretion. The department has policies, and you are probably using resources that belong to your department. The advisor may be supporting your research from funds des-ignated to accomplish specific goals, and your research must contribute to those goals. Consult with your advisor before taking drastic steps. As you become acquainted with departmental procedures and the personalities you work with, you will be able to determine how much independence you have. The following suggestions can help you avoid pitfalls common to graduate students.

     

     

    6.2.1   Get Started Early

     

    The responsibility for getting the thesis finished is yours alone. From the day you begin a graduate program, planning for your thesis begins (see Appendix 6, Figure A6.1). Decide very early what area you want to work with so that your advisor, your course work, your exploration in the library, and your research in the laboratory or field can be chosen with the specific objectives of your the-sis in mind. If you realize as you get into your topic of research that it is not really the subject you would prefer to pursue, consider your options and objec-tives, but do so early in your program and be sure you make any changes in a professional manner. If your major advisor has agreed to support your project financially, it may be that the funds he or she is using come from a grant that requires the pursuit of a specific topic. If you have agreed to work on that project, it may be that the advisor can no longer support you if you change your thesis topic. Changing advisors, changing topics, or even changing majors is possible but not recommended, and once you have written a proposal that is accepted, remember that it is a contract and withdrawing from that contract affects your major advisor and your department as well as your own pursuit of the degree. Breaking any contract, whether or not it is a legal matter, is detri-mental to your reputation. Talk with your advisor and other professionals and make any change smoothly and professionally.

     

    6.2.2   Maintain Professional Relationships with Your Advisors

     

    Recognize that advisors are humans with unique personalities. A single gradu-ate student is probably not the primary focus nor the only student they advise, but they should be actively involved with all their students including you. Most advisors are attentive to their graduate students, but do not be offended if your project does not take precedence over their many other activities. If your major advisor is sometimes too preoccupied to help you, take charge of your own destiny, with finesse and discretion of course. Work cooperatively but do some independent thinking too. That is part of being in graduate school. If you assume your own responsibility for your program, you should finish your degree on schedule regardless of how much or how little input the advi-sor contributes.

     

    Professors are abused in two ways: You ask too much or you ask too lit-tle. You waste time with questions you could answer by consulting a diction-ary, a college catalog, or a style manual. You can waste time for the professor with bits and pieces of your thesis that are too fragmentary or difficult to read, with too much casual talk, or with too many intrusions into busy schedules. However, graduate students also abuse their professors by avoiding them. A casual question or remark, a handy reference you find at the library, a per-sonal revelation—these things can be important to the advisor’s knowing you and your subject. The professor has an interest in your work and a responsibility to work with you. Maintain a constant, congenial, and professional relationship. Your work is important. Consultations on courses you should take, subjects of common interest, your research and your thesis—all are important for both of you, and advisors do not feel that such things are a waste of time. Discuss such issues as your time line, your responsibilities, and your position as author of any publications that come from your research. Certainly, the research for your thesis and the writing of it are points that bear repeated discussions.

     

    6.2.3   Draw Up a Carefully Planned and Well-Written Proposal

     

    An attempt to pursue graduate research and produce a thesis without a written proposal is like taking a trip through unfamiliar territory without a road map. You may find your way and even be successful, but most likely you will waste time, have to double back over some roads, go down blind alleys, and even get lost.

    Working out hypotheses, objectives, justification, literature, and methods for the proposal will sharpen your perception of your subject. The written proposal pro-vides an early draft or outline of the thesis, and it will serve both you and your graduate committee in communicating and keeping on track. If the written pro-posal is not required, write a draft for yourself and take at least an outline of your plans to your professor. Be sure to include specific objectives and a hypothesis as well as some information from the literature and suggestions for specific meth-ods. These things show the advisor that you are really ready to begin research. Ask for advice and then suggest that you submit the entire proposal to your com-mittee and meet with them for their opinions. Your advisor will likely be pleased that you are assuming responsibility. Be ready to accept or at least discuss his or her modifications to your plan.

     

    6.2.4   Maintain Accurate, Complete Data

     

    All data you collect should be considered important. Gather them carefully, write them legibly, analyze them thoroughly, respect their revelations, and then store all of them, not just the part you use. Read Macrina (2000) on keeping scientific records. Do not trust your memory. A short pencil can be more reli-able than a busy brain. Write down field plans. Write down chemical analyses. Write down techniques and amounts you use. In field observations, record the weather. Record full references from the library with page numbers and full names. Using et al. can get you in trouble. Your good memory cannot always fill in the blanks.

     

    In addition, for many of you, a camera can help record data. Have access to a quality camera and use it often. Pictures you take can be important in showing methods and results of your research and can often be used in the thesis and certainly in slide and poster presentations. For these formats, you will likely want color, but for publication you may still want black-and-white photographs.

     

    6.2.5  Write the Thesis as Your Work Progresses

     

    It would be a formidable task to write the whole thesis at one time. But you can divide the work into logical portions (see Appendix 6, Figure A6.1). Both Peters (1997) and Bolker (1998) suggest that you write some every day. I agree. Before you begin your research or when you write the proposal, you should make a complete literature search and write a rough draft of the literature review. At this point, you can compile a first version of your references. When you set up your proposal and plans for research, you can also write the mate-rials and methods. As portions of your research are finished, you can draft the results and discussion section(s). All of these sections will require revi-sion, but the easiest time to write first drafts is when details are fresh in your mind. The introduction and conclusions can be the last sections you write.

    The introduction may be a modification of the introduction to the proposal. The purpose for the introduction is to direct the reader into the thesis; the conclu-sions need to focus the reader’s attention on your most important findings. You can best accomplish these purposes after you see where you have been.

     

    6.2.6   Be Proud of the Final Copy

     

    Be certain that the content of your thesis is something you can be proud of by doing a meticulous job with your research and by having a thorough knowledge of what others have done and how your study complements or adds to the estab-lished literature. Write a clear, well-organized, and developed text. Make the appearance of the document attractive and professional. Choose details such as font and spacing carefully. Your name stands alone as the responsible author.

     

    6.2.7  To Publish Is to Build Your Reputation

     

    The best time to publish is when your research and data are new in your mind. Sometimes, but rarely, a doctoral dissertation can be published as a book or monograph. You may want to register a copyright for your work. If your work is a doctoral dissertation, your graduate school may require publication of an abstract with Dissertation Services (UMI Dissertation Services, 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI, USA 48106-1346). The graduate school office will prob-ably take care of submitting the abstract for publication.

     

    Whether or not you copyright or publish your entire thesis, you should con-sider publication of your research results as journal articles. If possible, have a journal manuscript or two ready to send or already en route to a publisher when you graduate. From your thesis, you can choose the most significant data and arrange them to comply with the format of a given journal, or your advi-sors may encourage you to include in your thesis the manuscripts ready in the style of the journal. If you postpone the effort to have your manuscripts ready for submission, you often never carry out the task simply because it becomes increasingly difficult as time passes. You will have new goals involving your career that do not allow time for revisiting old data. Without extension of your materials into an active journal, much of your valuable data can grow stag-nant in your thesis sitting on a library shelf. Work toward publication from the beginning of your program.

     

    6.2.8   Last-Minute Jobs Can Delay Graduation

    After your thesis is written to your satisfaction, final chores will take more than a couple of weeks. They could take months if they are not accomplished in an efficient and timely manner. First, revisit the guidelines that you perused when you began this thesis project. In preparing for your final committee meeting or defense of your thesis, be sure to get copies to committee members

    well in advance to give them plenty of time to read and evaluate your written work. If possible, you will want to visit with each of them individually for spe-cific suggestions before the final meeting. New suggestions invariably come from individual committee members and their joint considerations. Allow time after their reviews and the defense to change entire sections and particular details.

     

    When you have polished your thesis by incorporating the suggestions from committee members, the procedure for most disciplines requires that you take to each of them your letter-perfect thesis along with three or more copies of a signature page for final approval. You may be lucky. You may get the signa-tures in 2 hours. However, 5 days later you may be still trying. One committee member is out of town collecting research specimens, another is at a meeting in London, and a third just happens to be out of the office every time you check. Still another committee member would like extended time to look over the revised thesis before signing it. That person is probably not being disagreeable nor harassing you. Advisors should thoroughly understand what they are sign-ing. Their reputations and that of the department, college, and graduate school, as well as your own, are at stake. Although almost any student wishes for quick approval of the final thesis, serious students know that their own degrees and reputations are far more respected if permissive is not the key word in the repu-tation of the department from which they graduate. The professor should check your thesis a final time and ask for further alterations in text, if needed, before signing the approval page. This careful scrutiny only adds to the quality of your final product.

     

    The last minute has now evolved into days or weeks, and you still are not finished. Proofread and double-check your graduate school instructions to be certain you have followed all guidelines. When you deliver copies to your department, the library, or the graduate office, your thesis can be rejected if you have not been careful enough with details. Along with the thesis, you may need copies of a copyright release that you have to sign to allow library person-nel to reproduce your work for research purposes. Because this signature must be yours, do not leave your thesis with a friend to hand in without signing the forms. Obtaining original signatures can take days and delay your graduation if you are pushing deadlines to their limits.

     

    With your thesis delivered to the designated offices, you are almost finished. You should offer a copy to your advisor and even to committee members who have special interest in your subject. You may want a bound hard copy for your-self. You will probably not want it in sight for some time, but someday you may even display it—at least on a bookshelf at your home or your office.