How to write a Thesis, Assignment or Essay

How to write a Thesis, Assignment or Essay

Here are 12 suggestions to transform you into a professional writer and researcher, able to write any thesis, essay, or assignment with some action plan. If you practice these 12 tips and revisit them while work is under way, I can guarantee you to improve the quality of your outcome and have a greater feeling of purpose, control and guidance.

So, with no further ado, here they are (click on each topic for quick navigation and use the “top” links at end of each section to come back to index table):

 1. Milestones & Planning

2. Agile Techniques

3. Brainstorming & Mind Map

4. Reference Management Tool 

 5. Two Doc. Approach

 6. Work in Cloud

7. Search All Content

 8. Google Scholar & Academia.edu

 9. Relevant Authors

 10. Peers & Bookmarks

11. Ideas Production

12. Productivity Tips

1. Milestones and Planning

Producing a thesis or essay is a project in itself. It has resources – eg, you, your supervisor, your colleagues – it has materials – eg, scientific articles, images, videos, – it has deadlines, and has people that can influence what you do (stakeholders). Therefore let’s take some tools from Project Management that you can use – in particular from Traditional Project Management.

Traditional project management (TPM) techniques are very intensive in terms of planning. This I don’t recommend for you to use. But there are things you can use from TPM that will help you a lot. TPM is really useful in projects where what you are tackling does not change much. If you realise that the overall of what you are doing when writing a thesis or essay is very well defined, then there must be something in TPM that you can use. 

These are the 2 things I recommend you use:

-High level view Gantt Chart of your project where you should include at least:

  • number of weeks until deadline
  • important milestones of your project
  • what you are going to do (overall) in each week
  • identified the people involved at which point in time
  • identified when you are tackling specific things at which point in time
Sample Gantt chart

Sample Gantt chart

Activities you’re planning should account for:

  • Admin tasks/official procedures (paperwork, requests, applications, bursaries,  proposals, etc.)
  • Version milestones
  • Description of milestones sub-tasks
  • Ask for feedback and processing it
  • Revision and corrections after each feedback
  • Printing
  • Presentations

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2. Agile Techniques

Agile is a project management methodology that has some very interesting tools and techniques that you can incorporate in your work as a writer, student, or researcher. The ethos of Agile explained to a non-professional project manager is:

Work in away that makes you be able to cope with change, continuously deliver working parts of your product, involve the ones that will use your product – your supervisor, your peers, real users that can apply your material, and so on – and organise your endeavour in small chunks of efforts.

Much, much more could be said about Agile and in a more formal way, but that is out of the scope of this post.

The Agile techniques I recommend you to use are:

  1. Short delivery cycles
  2. Kanban boards
  3. Continuous feedback loops

Here’s a description of what they mean:

Short delivery cycles

Organise yourself in a way as to deliver every week (for small assignments), every 2 weeks (for larger assignments like MSc thesis) or every 3 to 4 weeks (for PhD thesis) a draft version of part of your work that can be read by your supervisor or some friend/peer. This part will have the main concepts tackled and for that you would have collected articles, ideas, titles, paragraph structures, introductions, conclusions, and so on. These may not be final, but should have at least something outlined about that part of your work. Then you iterate on that draft version – every week, 2 weeks or 3 to 4 weeks depending on type of work.

So, if you’re working on a MSc thesis this means that on 1st and 2nd weeks you have decided how many paragraphs section 2 of your thesis will have, how many sentences and words per sentence. You would have also identified which articles you will use for this section. You would have an idea for the introduction of that section, you would have which idea goes into each paragraph. you would have roughly the direction you want to go on the conclusion of that section. Then, by end of this first 2 weeks you are going to ask your supervisor or colleagues for feedback on this.

Then on 3rd and 4th week, you are going to improve the introduction and the first few paragraphs. By end of this 2 weeks you are going to ask your supervisor or colleagues for feedback on this.

Then iterate until you get your final, refined, fine-tuned work complete. The main idea is to keep delivering chunks of it that you can call a small unitary part of your whole greater massive work. By dividing it into much smaller chunks and involving your supervisor you are getting the notion of things accomplished and getting constant feedback and corrections that you can incorporate on time, instead of just in the end when it will be a nightmare to change parts of your project.

Example taken from my MSc Dissertation:

MSc thesis with 50.000 words.

Table of Contents

1 -Introduction

2 -Literature Review
2.1 – Agile Development
(…)
2.4 – Conclusion of the literature review

3 -Methodology Research
3.1 – Process of primary research
3.1.1 – Process of questionnaire preparation
3.1.2 – Process of questionnaire launch
3.1.3 – Process of Questionnaire data analysis
3.1.4 – Process for Interviews

4 -Survey Analysis
4.1 – Part 1: “Who you are – Subject Characterization”
(…) 

 

5 -Discussion
5.1 – The Importance of Communication For Agile
5.2 – Biggest Challenges
5.3 – Tools For Virtual Face-to-Face Communication

6 -Recommendations
(…)

7 -Conclusion
(…)

8 -References/Bibliography
8.1 – References
8.2 – Bibliography

9 -Appendices
9.1 – Appendix 1:- Survey Questions
(…)

First Cycle – “Introduction” Section

Weeks 1-2
Section Heading Introduction
Number of Words 672
Number of ideas
(corresponds to number of paragraphs)
14
Number of words per paragraph 672/14=48
Number of sentences per parag.  
Main Articles to Ref. <list here>
Links to visit <list here>

 

Kanban boards

They provide a visual quick look on the status of your current cycle of delivery. You should use Post-Its of different colours and have a code for each colour representing a category of tasks to do in a project such as a thesis: eg, green is “Primary Research”, blue is “Secondary Research”, cyan is “Official Procedures”, yellow is “Communication”.

Important columns:

  • ToDo
  • In Progress
  • Waiting For (or Paused, or Blocked)
  • Review
  • Done

Here is a good example of such a board:

Kanban Board

Kanban Board

Continuous feedback loops

Getting feedback often from multiple colleagues, your supervisor, even from non scientific people, can provide you with invaluable input to correct your thesis, make it clearer, sharper and juicier. The right time to have it is as soon as you have some draft version ready and then every so often. These “every so often” should coincide with the cycles mentioned above of 1, 2 and 3 to 4 weeks, depending on how big a task your project is. Bottom line is: keep getting a second pair of eyes through your work and feedback that to improve as you go.

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3. Brainstorming and Mind Map

Brainstorming is a technique where you give freedom to ideas and write them down without any particular structure. Just take note of any word, sentence, concept or insight you have on a session of between 5 to 60 minutes on a topic.

There are many free apps that allow you to do produce amazing mind maps, and you can also use online mind map tools like Draw.io, MindMup and Xmind. I highly recommend installing Xmind since it is free and offers loads of nice little features that will make you be as structure-free or structure-heavy as you want to be.

Once you have those unstructured words written down, start to organise them into a Mind Map. Here you should group each word/sentence by concepts or context areas.

Here’s an example of what a mind map looks like after being organised by topics and sub-topics:

Xmind explained in a picture Xmind explained in a picture ↑ top

4. Reference Management Tool

You should use a reference management tool to take care of automatically building a bibliography and inserting the proper references in your work. To do this by hand is a nightmare and really prone to failure. Failure in this area means plagiarism – a big no-no.

So, most of the tools mentioned below go as afar as having a plugin for Microsoft Word and LibreOffice/OpenOffice that you can add and then once you are writing your document all you need to do is click a button on Word/LibreOffice/OpenOffice and it takes you to your reference management tool (Mendeley, etc) where you click on the original document you want to reference. It will do the rest for you automatically. You can even change from Harvard style to Wikipedia or any other reference style in the world at any time, and rebuild the bibliography, keeping the order of it all.

Here are a few of the options available to you:

Mendeley – https://www.mendeley.com/

Mendeley is a life saver for any researcher. It allows you to organise your
references, read pdfs and annotate them, synchronise it all with their cloud, access it from anywhere and share your collections with others. I have used it in my MSc dissertation and it was an amazing tool that saved my researcher’s life at the time.

To learn more about Mendeley watch the following video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gv6_HuCYExM

Zotero -https://www.zotero.org/ 

Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources. 

Zotero is the only research tool that automatically senses content in your web browser, allowing you to add it to your personal library with a single click. Whether you’re searching for a preprint on arXiv.org, a journal article from JSTOR, a news story from the New York Times, or a book from your university library catalog, Zotero has you covered with support for thousands of sites.

Zotero collects all your research in a single, searchable interface. You can add PDFs, images, audio and video files, snapshots of web pages, and really anything else. Zotero automatically indexes the full-text content of your library, enabling you to find exactly what you’re looking for with just a few keystrokes.

To learn more about Zotero watch the following youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqFiCj1XV-E

 

Readcube – https://www.readcube.com/

Readcube seems to be an amazing tool that I have never used before. They have loads of videos on youtube that show you how to use all their features and they seem to be very complete. I would definitely take a look at this tool before choosing your final option.

These are the official video tutorials from Readcube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXcG5LpfPT38hgXC0he8Rnw

And here is an example of Readcube tutorial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4EK6zi_-pc

 

EndNote – http://endnote.com/ 

 

Note

Before closing this section it’s worth mention an article that addresses these services and the problems in the future as far as staying free goes.

The part “Purchase by Elsevier” is also worth a read at the wikipedia page for Mendeley.

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5. Two Documents Approach

This is a technique that works quite well, but requires you to be careful so that you don’t get into plagiarism. But let me describe it first.

As you read through your collected material – scientific papers/articles, presentations, videos, and so on – you copy ipsis verbis the parts that most interest you into a draft document that only contains copy/paste parts of material. This document will be a temporary repository of the most important parts of what you read that you want to include in your work. So, they represent a collage of what you will rewrite in your own words, cross reference, compare, contextualise, re-formulate, criticize, highlight, and so on, after digesting all of your readings and giving it a final wording to include in your final work.

These are the 2 documents described for a better understanding:

  1. Formatted doc to official rules:
    • Should have the right margins as per official rules of your university, school, etc. Also, is formatted to the right type of font, size, headings, sections, index, header, footer, first page layout, page count – all of it configured in a Word document, or LibreOffice/OpenOffice, Google Doc, whatever you use.
    • This will hold final text of dissertation
    • This doc will get info from doc 2, below,  but rewritten to your words and with your own data and ideas
    • Don’t ever copy text to this document that hasn’t been rewritten, referenced and made plagiarism-free.
  2. As doc 1 but with only parts of text copied from articles, books, videos, magazines, publications, presentations, and so on.
    • When reading articles, copy the text you want and next to it place a quick reference to where the text came from.
    • For every section and heading of your dissertation place in this document the number of words, paragraphs, ideas, outline you planned for it in your Mind Map.
    • Use highlight colours for each paragraph to represent if you have re-written that bit and used it in your final document (doc 1 mentioned above). 

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 6. Work in Cloud

Don’t ever store your work on your desktop/laptop only. That is a HUGE risk, because if your computer breaks you lose your work. Instead, create a dropbox account or google drive, and place your work there, then synchronise it with your desktop/laptop. That way you always can access it from any place – on your internet browser, or installing an app on your smartphone for dropbox or google drive – and if your computer breaks you won’t lose your precious work.

Then organise your folders in a structured way so you become more productive. Here’s a suggestion:

  • 01_Thesis
  • 02_Research_Material
    • 01_Sci_Articles_Papers_(pdfs)
      • Area 1
      • Area 2
    • 02_Images
    • 03_Videos
    • 04_Presentations
    • 05_eBooks
  • 03_Official_Documents    (like pdf with thesis official layout, documents from your school with warnings or information, etc)
  • 04_Other_Thesis
  • 05_Other_Documents

structure excel (spreadsheet with entries for articles, books, thesis, etc, and planning of words,  paragraphs,  etc…see zip file mentioned below) 

bibliography – articles, books, … – thesis doc, official docs, supporting docs, media – imgs, vdos, ppts ……see zip below) + schedule/calendar

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7. Search All Content

Most of the times people forget that there are images on google search available on a subject that quickly, visually and concisely explain a concept that otherwise would require hours of reading through books. To do this just click on images on google.

These are some of non-text type of contents you should search for:

  1. Videos: youtube, vimeo
  2. Presentations: slideshare
  3. Courses: Coursera, Udemy, MIT and MITx, and do search google for something like “online courses on <the_subject_you_are_after>”
  4. Infographics: google for infographics on your topics

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8.  Google Scholar and Academia.edu

Google offers an amazing search tool for scientific articles and papers. You can find it at scholar.google.com. By searching for a topic of research you will find links to the pdf’s of the articles, at least most of them, and you can even build your own personal library of citations to use in your research.

But the most important part of google scholar is to use it as a big helper to prioritize which articles you should definitely read first. To do that, search for a topic and then order by number of citations. By getting the most cited articles you will understand who are the most important authors in your field of research and the top papers you should definitely read about.

Academia.edu is a social networking website for academics that can be used to share papers, monitor their impact, and follow the research in a particular field. Learn more: https://www.academia.edu/

Other tools offered are: advanced search, metrics on articles and alerts on queries.

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9. Relevant Authors

  • Dont start reading books and articles right away before planning and inception.
  • Start by analysing your field of knowledge so you can be critical and then be able to make good judgement on what books and articles to read (you won’t have time to read it all).
  • Informal, quick searches on images and slides on google and slideshare can prove more fruitfully than articles or books.
  • Search Amazon for top rated and most reviewed books on search terms.
  • Search scribd and google books.
  • Search online bookmarking service like reddit, bookit, etc.
  • Search online research bookmarks services.

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10. Peers and Bookmarks

Many other scientists, researchers and students in academia have already compiled some sort of bookmarks on subjects of your area, and you should and can tap into those. Following is a list of online services that will have a collection of information on areas you might be working on and which can server as a basis for your own research:

To use those just search for your topics of interest and dig into the resources available.

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11. Ideas Production

Here are some ideas production techniques:

  • Go for a walk and with a choice recorder ramble about the topic, then process that info
  • Research sci pubs, sci pub idea web sites like ifl, online groups of sci discussion, online forums of sci discussion
  • Write a blog of stuff you like related to your research
  • Read about related fields of knowledge
  • Talk with friends about their opinion/ideas

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12. Productivity Tips

Start on your favourite topics:

Start reading/writing about your favourite parts of the work so you get up to speed quickly.

Good readings/meta-research:

  • Skim reading techniques
  • How to do online research (on google, etc.)
  • How to use mind maps
  • How to format word/office docs (styles, index, headings, tables, images, …)
  • How to do infographies
  • How to do/prepare questionnaires and interviews

Important links:

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_bookmarking

http://connectedresearchers.com/online-tools-for-researchers/

http://www.accreditedcolleges.com/guide-online-academic-research/

http://www.researchgate.net

Google: “online bookmarks for scientific research”

Search by sci dbs. ===> academic dbs, eduroam account, pirate articles site, google scholar

draw a org chat for research terms: sets of research on google/sci dbs… mind map this

Use online tools to check for Plagiarism

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