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Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing


Traditionally in academia, the two main purposes of master's-degree and doctoral projects are (a) to provide graduate students guided practice in conducting and presenting research and (b) to make a contribution to the world's fund of knowledge or to improve the conduct of some activity.

The practice aspect goes well beyond the demands of a typical term paper or individual-study assignment, since the aim is to equip students to do research and writing of respectable, publishable quality in the future.

The contribution-to-knowledge aspect is intended to make the student's study more than just a learning exercise by using this opportunity to produce valued information or to introduce a point of view not available before. This aspect is what usually distinguishes a master's thesis from a doctoral dissertation, in that the contribution of the dissertation is expected to be of greater magnitude than that of the thesis.

Sources of Guidance

"If I'd known he'd be too busy to be of much help, I would have tried to find a better advisor."
At the outset of your project, it is well to identify potential sources of help and to recognize the advantages and limitations of each. Those sources of most value are usually academic advisors, fellow graduate students, experts outside of your own department or institution, you yourself, and the professional literature.


Policies for assigning faculty members to supervise students' thesis and dissertation projects can vary from one institution to another and even across departments within the same institution.

In some cases, the advisor who guides a student's general academic progress automatically becomes the supervisor of the candidate's work on the thesis or dissertation. Under such a policy, students are relieved of the responsibility of choosing a mentor, but they may unfortunately end up with less than optimal help. In other cases, an academic advisor will not automatically be assigned, but he or she will be only one of a group of several faculty members from whom a student can choose a guide.

Under these circumstances, before students announce their choice of a mentor they can profitably collect several kinds of information about the professors who form the pool of potential advisors. Included among the sources of information are fellow students, the professors within the pool, other faculty members, secretaries, research assistants, and the professors' publications.

Institutions and departments can also differ in the number of faculty members assigned to supervise and evaluate a student's research. One common pattern at the master's level is to have a three-member committee for each thesis, with the committee chairperson acting as the candidate's principal supervisor. However, in colleges and universities with large numbers of master's degree students, the entire master's project may be directed and assessed by a single faculty member. At the doctoral level, the supervising committee often consists of three to five professors.

In the following paragraphs, we describe kinds of information to seek about potential advisers. We then suggest useful sources of each kind.

(The rest of this book can be found at Questia's online libary by clicking here and searching for Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing By R. MURRAY THOMAS and DALE L. BRUBAKER)

Kinds of Information to Collect

In learning about the professors in your pool of potential mentors, you will likely find it helpful to discover their (a) fields of interest and expertise, (b) style of advising, and (c) attitudes about appropriate research topics and methods of research.

Fields of interest and expertise

Obviously, the closer an advisor's area of expertise is to your research problem, the better equipped she or he will be to identify difficulties you may encounter, recommend sources of information pertinent to your topic, and guide your choice of methods for gathering and interpreting data. There are several ways to learn about faculty members' specializations--the titles and contents of classes they teach, their published books and articles, the topics of theses and dissertations produced under their guidance, other staff members' opinions, and other students' experiences with those faculty members.

The task of deciding how well a potential advisor's interests and skills suit your needs is likely easiest if you already have a specific research problem in mind, or at least if you have identified the general realm you hope to explore. If you have no inkling of the kind of topic on which your study will focus, then the next of our selection criteria--style of advising--may become your primary concern.

Style of advising

Professors vary greatly in how they work with students on theses and dissertations. Those at one end of a monitoring scale closely control each phase of the student's effort, in some cases dictating what is to be done at every step, then requiring the student to hand in each portion of material for evaluation and correction. Advisors at the opposite end of the scale tell students to work things out pretty much by themselves and to finish a complete draft of the project before handing it in for inspection.
Advisors also vary in how available they are when students need them. Some are frequently away from the campus. Some require students to make an appointment with a department secretary several days or weeks ahead of time in order to confer about the individual's research. Others allow students to drop by the office or to phone any time they need help. Some answer queries only in their office. Others permit students to phone them at home.

Professors also differ in the way they offer advice and criticism. Some are blunt about the shortcomings of a student's effort, perhaps derisive and abusive. Others are direct in pointing out weaknesses in the candidate's work, but they do so in a kindly, understanding manner, recognizing that doing serious research is a new endeavor for the student and that mistakes along the way are not only expected but can function as valuable learning opportunities. Yet others are so cautious about potentially hurting a student's feelings that they are reluctant to point out weaknesses in the project and thereby fail to guide their advisees toward correcting the shortcomings of their efforts.

Consequently, you will likely find it useful to learn ahead of time about faculty members' styles of directing theses and dissertations--about how closely they monitor steps in the process, how available they are to offer help, and how skillfully they identify deficiencies and suggest solutions without unduly damaging students' egos.

Your best sources of information about advising styles are usually (a) fellow graduate students who are farther along than you are in the thesis or dissertation process and (b) other professors whom you know personally and who are willing to talk about their colleagues' modes of guidance.

(The rest of this book can be found at Questia's online libary by clicking here and searching for Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing By R. MURRAY THOMAS and DALE L. BRUBAKER)

Attitudes toward topics and methodology

Faculty members often disagree about what constitutes proper research. Consequently, you might end up with an advisor whose notions of suitable research topics and methods of investigation are at odds with your own beliefs. Therefore, three types of information you may wish to seek are your potential advisors' views of (a) quantitative-versus-qualitative methods, (b) positivism-versuspostmodernism perspectives, and (c) basic-versus-applied research.

Quantitative-versus-qualitative methods: As these terms are generally used, quantitative research involves amounts, which are usually cast in the form of statistics, but qualitative research does not involve amounts in any strict sense. Here are titles of projects that might be categorized under each type:

Germany's Economic Growth, 1950-2000
Rural and Urban Educational Achievement in Oregon
Amounts of Public and Private Finance for Welfare Programs
Generational Height and Weight Comparisons--Japan and the USA
The Growth of Tourism--Florida and Alabama
Short-Term Effects of Three Antidepressant Drugs

The Philosophical Foundations of Psychoanalysis
Silverado--The History of a Frontier Town
A Theory of Political Participation
One Week in the Life of a Deaf-Mute
Judaic Foundations of Islamic Doctrine
The Present-Day Relevance of William James's Pragmatism

Professors who locate themselves exclusively in the quantitative camp demand that students' research involve the compilation of data in the form of amounts. Hence, they reject historical chronicles, philosophical analyses, a line of logic leading to a conclusion, a comparison of the qualities of different societies, the detailed description of an individual's or group's style of life, and the like. Furthermore, adherents of quantitative studies sometimes prefer studies that focus on rather large numbers of people, schools, cities, or political constituencies so that broadly inclusive generalizations can be drawn from the research results. Such adherents thus disapprove of studies focusing on one autistic person (singlesubject research) or only a few subjects (three autistic children, two schools, four candidates for political office, five neighborhoods) whose results cannot, with confidence, be generalized to a wide range of people or events. Proponents of quantitative studies tend to prefer such research methods as controlled experiments and surveys that employ interviews, tests, systematic observations, questionnaires, and quantitative content analysis. (For arguments supporting the quantitative position, see the following references: Howell, 1997; Shavelson, 1996.)

In contrast, professors who subscribe strictly to qualitative methodology tend to belittle research that involves what they may refer to as "no more than number crunching" which they feel oversimplifies complex causes, dehumanizes evidence, and fails to recognize individual differences among people, among environments, and among events. Advocates of qualitative studies tend to favor such research techniques as historical and philosophical analyses, descriptive observation, case studies, ethnography, and hermeneutics. (For rationales supporting the qualitative stance, see: Bogdan & Knopp, 1992; Denzin & Lincoln, 1994.)

There are, in addition to the foregoing two polar positions, a great many faculty members who will accept a wide array of research approaches, quantitative and qualitative alike. We would count ourselves among their number because, in our opinion, the quantitative-versus-qualitative controversy is really off target. The issue, in our minds, should not be: Are quantitative methods better than qualitative, or vice versa? Instead, the issue should be: Which approach-quantitative, qualitative, or some combination of both--will be the most suitable for answering the particular research question being asked? This point of view, which respects the contributions that can be made by all sorts of methods, is the one we espouse throughout this book.

However, to be practical about your own situation as a student pursuing a degree in a particular department, what we as the authors of this book believe about the quantitative-qualitative debate is really not important. What is important is how well your own beliefs match those of the advisors with whom you might conduct your research. Thus, a useful twofold question to ask is: Which research methodologies do the potential members of my research-project committee prefer or even accept? And how well do my own preferences match the opinions of those professors? In effect, establishing a good match promotes efficiency, effectiveness, and goodwill in your work with advisors.

The rest of this book can be found at Questia's online libary by clicking here and searching for Theses and Dissertations: A Guide to Planning, Research, and Writing By R. MURRAY THOMAS and DALE L. BRUBAKER

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