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Everything you always wanted to know about thesis writing (but were afraid to ask)

In her book of practical advice, Concordia professor Lorrie Blair seeks to answer the burning questions of grad students
December 6, 2016
By Jacqueline de Bartolomeo

This article originally appeared on Concordia's GradProskills website. Jacqueline de Bartolomeo is the site's communications assistant and a master's student in history.

When Lorrie Blair first sat down to pen her published how-to manual for graduate students, she thought of it as putting down into writing the advice she had been giving her own students as a supervisor for years. 

“At first I thought, this is the book that I’m going to give to the students that I supervise, with the things that I say over and over to my students,” explains the Concordia art education professor.

That changed as the book took shape.

“As I read and talked to other people, my tone really shifted, and I think it became much more for all students,” she says.

In its final iteration, Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation is designed to answer the burning questions students often have in mind, but can be afraid to ask for fear of looking ignorant.

Each of the book’s 12 chapters takes readers through an essential step in the academic career of a graduate student, from choosing the right supervisor (and getting along with them), writing a lit review and selecting the appropriate methodology for your research, right up to successfully defending your thesis. 

So Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation can be read cover-to-cover, but it can also be consulted for "troubleshooting" purposes when you’re unsure of how to proceed. And that "not knowing" can be a hard obstacle to overcome, as Blair acknowledges.

Part of her stated goal when writing was to combat the tacit assumption of academic knowledge — to provide the kind of information that either grad students can’t know or are often (wrongly) assumed to know.

“I’ve tried to give what I think was sort of hidden when I was a student,” says Blair. For example: “You don’t know your committee could be arguing among themselves, or how to form those committees.”

And that’s where Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation can come in.

How to find the right supervisor for you

Supervisor-student relations form a core portion of the themes covered in the book, as Blair realized the extent to which student experiences with their supervisors varied.

The book is dedicated to Terry Barrett, her own supervisor, who she says “understood what I needed, probably more than I did.”

Drawing on research from Mentoring Relationships in Grad School by Harriet R. Tenenbaum, Faye J. Crosby and Melissa D. Gliner (2001), Blair identifies four types of help that a supervisor can provide: psychosocial (being attentive to students’ concerns and feelings); instrumental (providing assistance to improve writing, presentation skills, mentor them for publications); networking; and financial aid (whether that means advocating for you for a TA/RA position, underwriting travel to a conference, etc).

By being aware not only of those four categories, but also what you expect from a supervisor, you can make sure your own priorities and needs are aligned with your supervisor’s.

How to manage expectations (including your own)

The completion rate for PhDs varies wildly according to program — a 2013 University Affairs article noted it could be as high as 78.3 per cent in the health sciences or as low as 55.8 per cent in the humanities.

Common to many students is the building up of unrealistic expectations surrounding what the thesis or dissertation should be.

In Writing a Graduate Thesis, Blair exhorts students not to fall prey to the idea that what you write needs to be the best scholarship you produce. Quite the contrary, in fact.

“The thesis is the entry level,” Blair points out. “It used to be the thing that you wrote at the end of your career. Now it’s what you have to write to get into the academy, and it’s got to be done faster and quicker and you’ve got to publish.”

As Peg Boyle Single, author of Demystifying Dissertation Writingwrote:

“Your dissertation should be the worst piece of research you ever write — not that your dissertation should be bad, but all your subsequent research and scholarship should be better.” 

Register for Lorrie Blair’s workshop, “Building an Effective Relationship with your Thesis Supervisor (GPLL18),”  scheduled for Friday, February 3, 2017. 


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