As a graduate writing instructor, I think about thesis writing much of the time. And this week I am thinking about the topic even more than usual. I am starting a new thesis writing course this afternoon, and I am making a presentation at a conference on Friday on thesis writing as professional development. Since thesis writing is all that I’ll be thinking about anyway, I thought I would devote today’s post to the idea of using resources for thesis writing.
In my presentation on Friday, I am going to discuss how a thesis writing course can be a valuable form of professional development for graduate students. Simply put, writing instruction becomes professional development when it focuses on the writer rather than on a particular piece of writing. As long as thesis writers see their goal as merely surviving the ordeal of writing a thesis, they are not likely thinking about their long-term development as academic writers. My presentation will focus on two ways that thesis instruction can encourage this sort of professional development. First, a thesis course can present the notion of thesis as genre, an approach which opens students’ minds to a new dimension to their responsibilities as writers; not only are they trying to complete a particular research task, they are also trying to convey that research in a form that is meaningful and valuable to the research community they seek to join. Second, a thesis course can also discuss the resources necessary for a student to thrive during the thesis writing process. It is this second aspect that I wish to touch on here today.
When I speak about resources in the thesis course, I am doing so in order to make students aware that there are so many resources available and that they can significantly improve their own writing process by availing themselves of such resources. Too often, I encounter students whose ‘writing resource’ is their supervisor; in some cases, of course, this works well, but more often it leaves the student feeling under-supported. Thesis writers generally need to move from thinking of themselves as fully dependent on a supervisor to thinking of themselves as developing academic writers who can take advantage of a range of resources. The sort of resources I have in mind include books on thesis writing; completed theses, especially if they are linked by a shared supervisor or by similar topics, methodology, etc.; thesis writing groups; courses on thesis writing or on academic writing more generally; published work in the student’s own field; and blogs about the thesis writing process.
Such resources are plentiful (and multiplying rapidly), so I’ll mention just one today. I particularly want to recommend The Thesis Whisperer. This site presents wide-ranging advice that is both accessible and wise. Broad topics include the writing process; working with a supervisor; the oral presentation component of thesis completion; using new technologies in the writing process; productivity and other psychological aspects of the writing process; publishing considerations; and general research support. Anyone writing a thesis will find some parts of this advice, with its warm and supportive tone, helpful and relevant. It is impossible, of course, for any source of support to be universally applicable; a necessary part of using a broad range of resources is developing the ability to distinguish between advice that is appropriate for your circumstance and advice that would be better suited for someone else (for instance, someone working in a different country or someone from a different discipline or someone with a different theoretical framework). That is, even the most general advice is inevitably rooted in a particular context, and we all must learn to ‘read’ advice and support in such a way that its value for us becomes apparent.
Taking advantage of an expanding range of resources is a way of improving the thesis writing process. Although we all know that we are not actually the first person ever to write a thesis, many of us instinctively approach our writing life as though we were. Figuring it out as we go along; hoping for the best; using trial and error to make key decision; treating a supervisor as the only source of support and feedback—all of these strategies tend to isolate us and keep us unnecessarily apart from the community of thesis writers. If you are writing a thesis, take stock of your current situation so that you can find the resources that will ultimately improve your life as a writer.