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The Oxbridge Editing Blog 16th September 2020

A complete guide to writing a master’s thesis

16th September 2020

If you’re reading this because you have been accepted onto a master’s programme that requires you to write a thesis – congratulations! This is a very exciting time in your life.

Hopefully what we’re about to tell you doesn’t come as too much of a surprise – as part of your master’s course you are going to be spending a considerable amount of time working on a single written submission. In fact, your master’s thesis may be the longest and most detailed piece of writing that you have ever been asked to complete.

With that in mind, getting some guidance before you begin is an important first step.

As you progress through your degree, you may have questions on exactly how to write a master’s thesis and are thus looking to obtain some thesis writing tips to help you on your way.

This post is designed to provide you with a comprehensive guide to writing a master’s thesis in the UK context. It will help you not just now, but will also be something you can refer back to throughout the duration of your master’s studies. If you haven’t already, we strongly recommend bookmarking this post so can you find it easily when you inevitably have questions during the thesis writing process.

In this post, we’ll clue you in to some strategies best suited to master’s students trying to complete a thesis. We’ll focus on what to expect at each stage, including creating a working plan, doing your reading, undertaking research, writing your master’s thesis, editing it, and leaving time to finish and proofread.

Hopefully, by the time you have finished reading, you will have the confidence and motivation to get going on a path that will lead to ultimate success in your thesis writing.

Start with a plan (and stick to it)

OK, we realise we may be teaching your grandma how to suck eggs here – starting with a plan is the obvious first step in any piece of academic writing.

And yet, as good as everyone’s intentions may be when students start writing a master’s thesis, circumstances (nearly) always arise that make sticking to the plan much more challenging.

So, first tip: when writing your thesis, make sure that your plan is flexible, and allows time for dealing with unexpected circumstances.

Next, reconsider your research proposal. It is likely you had to write one before you were accepted onto your master’s programme. If this was your first time producing a research proposal, you may read it back now and find it’s a little over-ambitious in its claims about what you planned to do. It’s a common trap to fall into, so don’t despair! Book some time with your research supervisor to determine whether your research proposal is actually realistic for your master’s thesis. If you claimed that you were going to do qualitative interviews of 200 participants across the UK, and you only have a year to complete your master’s, you might want to rethink your project and scale it to something that is achievable and not setting you up for failure.

Another tip on supervisors: make sure that you ask them questions about their expectations throughout the thesis writing process. Will they want to see drafts of your chapters as they’re written? If the answer is yes, finding out these dates will help you to develop a plan to achieve this without scrambling at the last minute.

Another tip for planning how to write your master’s thesis is to set yourself a goal of doing a little bit each day. Framing your thesis in your mind as a long-term project with a deadline very far away in the future will only encourage you to put off writing it. Then ‘far away in the future’ will all of a sudden be ‘next month’ and major panic will set in, and the lack of time at your disposal will make for rushed, compromised writing.

Set yourself milestones: a realistic plan for writing certain chapters by certain dates. Then within these milestones, commit to writing an amount of words per day, or per week. Then be disciplined and stick to your plan. Avoiding procrastination isn’t easy, but will very much work in your favour in the long run.

A final tip when devising your plan: it is easy to go back and delete words that you do not need during the editing process. Conversely, having to add thousands of words at the last minute will be stressful and sometimes impossible. Plan to start writing early, and budget for, say, 1000-2000 words every day. Not only will you then reach the full word count of your master’s thesis quickly, but you’ll leave yourself plenty of time to edit it, remove sections that aren’t working, and add more words that strengthen the overall assignment, all long before the deadline arrives.

Do your reading

The trick here is to find a balance between reading enough and not spending too much time doing so. There is so much reading to do and it can be easy to drift off topic.

Doing your reading and producing the final literature review are important components of a master’s thesis, but if you spend too much time reading there won’t be ample time for the data collection process and the writing up phase.

Here are some steps you can take to ensure that your reading process is both effective and efficient.

Step 1 – Understand your research questions

The first step in the reading phase of your master’s thesis is knowing what research questions you are trying to answer. Hopefully you have identified these questions with your supervisor before you started to work on your thesis. If you do not have a clear research question, your reading strategies will be severely hindered.

There are certain databases that are going to be more relevant to your area of study. Getting research from these databases is going to streamline the writing process for you to ensure that your project is focused within the context that it needs to be. A research librarian can likely help you focus this search, making the process significantly easier.

Step 2 – Make reading easier

There are several challenges associated with reading. First, it is easy to get distracted, especially if your reading material is lengthy and complex. So you want to keep your reading blocks short and sweet. ‘Chunk’ your reading. Spend 20 to 25 minutes reading without distraction (it hurts we know, but putting your phone on flight mode and leaving it in another room will ultimately help) and then take a 5 to 10 minute break (on your phone, if you must!) before starting up again.

Furthermore, whilst there is a lot of reading to do, it is unrealistic to spend your whole day doing it. Earmark just a portion of the day for reading, then make sure that you have other things that you can do with the rest of your time (like completing your ethics forms, or starting to create your research instruments). By dividing up your time, you are going to be able to keep your focus for longer, making you more productive and efficient overall.

Step 3 – Take good notes

It’s always worth remembering the forgetting curve – ah that’s a paradox if we ever saw one. The forgetting curve is the amount of information you will forget as time passes. It can be quite steep, and after a month passes you likely won’t remember much about what you have previously read. This could lead to disaster when writing up your literature review, so make sure that you take good, thorough notes throughout the reading process.

A good idea is to build out an excel spreadsheet or other list that documents your reading in a detailed and organised manner. You can keep track of key information, such as:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Date
  • Location of research
  • Sample size
  • Research methods
  • Main findings

Not only will this help slow the curve of your inevitable forgetfulness, but crucially, it will also make referring back to your reading much easier when you move on to writing your overall literature review.

A note to remember: not everything that you read will end up in your literature review. The purpose of reading is to make sure that you, as a researcher, understand how your project is positioned within your area of study. The literature review explains this to the reader but in much simpler terms. So to reiterate, the reading process is for your own benefit, not solely to find studies to include in your literature review.

Do your research

Even if you did research as part of your undergraduate work, research for a master’s thesis is a whole different story. As an undergraduate, your project was likely quite small or it was significantly guided by a faculty member; as a master’s student, this is typically your first opportunity to do research on a topic that you have chosen to pursue. While this is an exciting step, it also means that you are accountable for your actions.

Your research type and tools

The first step in the research process is deciding on what type of research you will do. Is it going to be qualitative or quantitative? Maybe it will be a combination of the two. You have likely documented this in your research proposal, but your answer to this question will have implications about how you will organise and analyse your data once it is collected.

Regardless of what route you choose, you will need software to help you manage your data. Many universities have free data management software tools available, and if that is the case for your institution then use them –tools available otherwise can rack up quite a hefty bill.

The most common tools are SPSS, which deals primarily with quantitative data, or NVivo which focuses more on qualitative measures. There are numerous other software packages available, and your supervisor may have suggestions about which management tool is most suitable for your project.

Planning ahead for better outcomes

The second step in the process is to think about timing and distribution. If you are planning a qualitative study, perhaps using interviews, remember that you will need to transcribe all of the words that are contained in the interview. While some programmes allow speech-to-text translation, it is not always accurate. The process of transcription takes considerable time, and therefore, as a researcher, you should consider how many participants you are looking to have in your project.

While a quantitative project may not have the same level of detail in the data input process, there are likely to be more participants and a wider range of outcomes. As a researcher, you must recruit these participants and ensure that they meet the criteria for inclusion. Finding people who are willing to participate in this type of project (often volunteering their time for free) can be challenging, and so as a researcher, it can be useful to have a minimum number of participants that you believe (based on past research) will give you findings that can be reliable and valid within your context.

It is also worth mentioning that you will likely end up with a lot of data, much more than can actually be presented in your master’s thesis.

One of the challenging pieces of the research process is deciding which findings make the cut for your thesis and which get saved for a later date. While your data are probably very interesting to you, it is important that you do not overwhelm the reader or deviate from the research questions that you set out to answer.

To sum up, the process of actually carrying out research and distilling it for the writing part of your thesis takes time. You need to carefully plan your research steps to ensure not only that you cover everything you intend to, but that you also do it in good time, leaving yourself ample space in your schedule to write up your thesis.

Write up your thesis

It’s helpful to start here by going over the structure of a master’s thesis. The precise way that different master’s theses are structured is largely going to depend on the discipline area. But most of the time, empirical dissertations follow a format including:

  • Abstract
  • Table of contents
  • List of tables/figures
  • Introduction
  • Literature review
  • Methodology
  • Findings
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Appendices

Before you start writing

Before you start to write, draft an outline of your approach to each section including the word count you expect to have (total word counts also vary by discipline).

Within each section you should also include all the major subheadings that you plan to include in the final version.

Before writing any of the sections, meet with your supervisor to ensure that your outline generally conforms to their expectations. Supervisors are the experts in the field and have likely seen many master’s theses, so they will be able to tell you if you are on the right track.

Beginning to write

It’s worth noting here that the order in which you write all the sections of your master’s thesis can vary depending on your process and preferences.

Once you have a detailed outline, there is no rule that says you have to start with the introduction and end with the conclusion. While the reader will inevitably read your thesis this way, you are free to write the ‘easy’ sections first and then move on to ones that you find more challenging.

For many students, beginning with the methodology chapter makes the most sense, as this allows the project to be framed around the steps that you, as a researcher, will take. The methodology usually includes:

  • The research question(s).
  • Any hypotheses that you might have.
  • Your theoretical framework, and the methods that you will use to collect your data.
  • Often, but not always, it includes ethical considerations, especially if you are working with human participants.

For many writers, the methodology chapter is written prior to the collection of data, whereas other chapters may be written after the data have been collected and analysed.

The same can be said for writing the literature review. For some writers, the literature review begins to take shape early in the project, but others choose to leave the writing until after data collection has occurred.

Both strategies have value. Writing the literature review early can give a researcher a clear indication of what data already exists and how this could relate to the potential project. The downside is that if the findings from the current project do not match the historical findings from the literature, the whole chapter may need to be revised to better align with the current findings.

Leaving the literature review until after the data collection means a bigger gap between when the reading was actually done for the project and the writing up period, meaning that the sources may need to be consulted repeatedly. In addition, leaving all the writing to the end of the project may seem tedious for some writers.

Another element that you will need to consider is how to present your findings. For some researchers, combining the findings and discussion sections makes logical sense, whereas for others, this presentation makes the chapter unwieldy and difficult to read.

Staying on track

There is no universal approach to writing a master’s thesis, but there are a lot of people out there who are willing to help you along the way. You will put yourself in a really good place if you seek advice at multiple stages in the process and from multiple different sources.

Your university library is going to be a useful source for research and reference, whereas your supervisor can give more discipline-specific advice on writing. Your university will likely have a writing centre too that can offer suggestions on how to improve your writing and make sure that you are staying on track. Making appointments at your writing centre can also help with accountability, as you will have to actually complete parts of your writing in order to discuss them with others.

It’s always worth considering paid help if you’re struggling or just want the peace of mind that comes with having support from a professional. Our sister company, Oxbridge Essays, offers expert guidance in the master’s thesis writing process. Their team of experienced academics has consulted on thousands of master’s theses and can provide valuable help wherever needed.

Finishing and proofreading

When you write those last few words of your conclusion and you have made it to the end of your thesis (hopefully in one piece – you, not the thesis), there may be a sense of finality. It’s a huge feat you’ve just overcome and for that, you deserve a pat on the back.

But finishing writing your master’s thesis is a little like reaching Camp 4 on an Everest summit trek. Without wanting to sound too ominous, there is still a considerable amount of work to do – chiefly, putting the finishing touches on your thesis through editing and proofreading.

Hopefully, during the process of writing your thesis, you sent drafts to your supervisor for review. These drafts may have included individual chapters or various sections within the data set that required clarification. Your supervisor would have provided feedback on these drafts either through written or verbal comments. It is essential that you keep track of these comments, as they will become crucial for the final stages prior to submission.

There are two ways that you can approach the editing of your master’s thesis. Both have value and it depends on how you view the process of writing. These are:

  1. Individually edit sections as they are returned from the supervisor.
  2. Edit at the very end, so that the editing can be consistent across sections.

With the first strategy, the editing process is broken up into manageable chunks, but at the end you will have to go back and re-edit sections to improve the clarity and flow.

With the second strategy, you may be able to achieve better flow, but the number of edits at the end may seem overwhelming and take up considerable time.

These challenges bring us back to the importance of a timeline. Leaving several weeks for the editing process is necessary because editing can take longer than you think. Also, once you have made these necessary edits, you will need to go through and proofread your document to make sure that the fine details are consistent across chapters. This includes things like making sure acronyms are clearly defined, tables are appropriately numbered/titled, that punctuation and syntax are accurate, and that formatting and alignment is consistent.

Something you may find challenging during the finishing process is knowing when to stop. With writing there are always changes that can be made – ideas or sentences that can be written just a little bit better or slightly more clearly. You could spend years (really!) refining your work – writing and rewriting sections to make them exactly how you want them – but the simple fact is: you do not have time for that.

Use the time that you do have for editing your thesis to the best of your ability, but also be willing to say “this is good enough” and submit your work.

Handing something in that you have worked diligently on for a long time is a truly satisfying feeling, so try to cherish that moment when it comes.

Also, it goes without saying but is always worth the reminder: the expert editors we have on board here at Oxbridge Editing can not only relieve a phenomenal amount of effort in this final hurdle of your assignment, but, thanks to their experience and skill, they will also ensure your thesis is flawless and truly ready for submission. You can find out more about thesis editing here.

Final words

Hopefully, by reading this post you have identified some tips for writing your master’s thesis that you can apply in your own context.

While the finished product will vary by discipline, the strategies listed above can apply across a wide range of contexts.

Above all else: start early and stick to the plan.

There are many examples of master’s dissertations that you can refer to for guidance so that you can identify the appropriate thesis structure for your project. By doing a little bit each day and by keeping track of your reading, you can ensure that you remain organised and efficient with your work.

Remember that writing your master’s thesis is your first opportunity to demonstrate to the academic community that you are a proficient scholar in your field. A UK master’s dissertation is no easy task, but there are lots of people and resources available to help you. Take guidance from your supervisor and use the facilities that exist on your university campus, including the writing centre and the library.

Best of luck!