Some Thoughts on the risks involved in writing a master thesis

Many web sites concerning thesis1 writing limit their advice to the enumeration of a number of successive steps. Although such recommendations are useful, they do not address the specific risks and uncertainties raised in thesis writing.
Upon embarking on the adventure of writing their master thesis, most students feel somewhat apprehensive and insecure. And justifiably so; they are, after all, expected to produce their “masterpiece”, a unique challenge to which, per definition, they have never had to respond before. But writing a master thesis is not only an adventure, it also is an investment.

The very first challenge is to identify a suitable subject. A major factor of success in writing a thesis is the student’s commitment. It should find its source in a practical or professional necessity or a personal urge to confront the research question. The apprentice’s enthusiasm for the topic of the thesis should be shared by the supervisor.

Especially daunting is the start of the journey. Many candidates are overwhelmed by the procedural instructions and formal requirements of academic writing. In my experience, students are, however, confronted with two additional fundamental sources of confusion concerning what ultimate success means in thesis writing. The first is the uncertainty about their understanding of the evaluation criteria that will be applied to their work. The second, relates to the insecurity concerning the risks they will encounter along the journey.

In this article I shall focus on this last issue and comment on three types of risk every author of a thesis will inevitably encounter: scope creep, misallocation of resources, and prioritisation issues.

Scope Creep

Initiating the work by defining the scope, the research question and the objectives of the thesis are challenging to both patience and intelligence because it is an iterative activity. The continuous revision of the work already undertaken in function of newly acquired information and the ensuing reorganisation of the work left to be done, can be very frustrating at times. But this scoping phase, which is preparatory to any redaction, is the most crucial to successfully control the most dangerous hazard in thesis writing.

Scope creep comes into play when the scope of the thesis is significantly extended beyond its initial limits during redaction. Adapting the scope during the writing of the thesis is unavoidable, but one of the major reasons for failure is modifying the scope to such an extent that the initial version is gradually replaced by another one.

The principal mitigation of this risk depends on the student’s aptitude to refrain from any actual writing before the general plan of the thesis has been agreed upon with the supervisor.

Misallocation of Resources

Writing a thesis requires the investment of a wide range of resources which most students are unaware of. Evidently, the essential resources involved are the student’s own time and money. However, few students consider the fact that the supervisor’s brain time, the use of the university’s infrastructure, research facilities and administration are limited supplies. The risk faced here by the student is to run out of research resources, or even worse, out of the supervisor’s allocated time budget.

Misallocation of Resources

The best way of mitigating this risk is to plan the use of the facilities efficiently. Interactions with the academic staff and with the supervisor in particular should be relevant and carefully prepared.

Prioritisation Issues

Conceptualising the tasks that need to be done is one thing, but executing them in the appropriate order is even more important. Everyone has the tendency to do first what one prefers to do. Some people like to read and collect documentation, others prefer writing, experimenting, structuring material, surveying… It is tempting, but often unproductive, to start with what one likes to do most. If the prioritisation of the tasks has not been defined and followed up correctly a lot of work will have to be repeated at later stages.

The supervisor’s role in avoiding these pitfalls is essential. Because students for the most part do not have any previous experience in thesis writing, it is difficult for them to resist starting with what they prefer to do. Frustrating as it may be, it is wise to discuss and to prioritise the tasks in collaboration with the supervisor and to stick to the plan.

Dedicated to my daughter Camille who is currently writing her master thesis
By Christophe J. J. de Landtsheer.

1. A dissertation embodying results of original research and especially substantiating a specific view; especially: one written by a candidate for an academic degree.

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