When it comes to theses, the guidelines depend on your university, your program, and your supervisor. Always make sure to follow these rules first.
I have written three theses in my academic career and passed all of them the first time.
This article will explain how to write a bachelor or a master thesis in social sciences.
- how I found my research question and two guaranteed methods to do so
- how I structured my work
- the five parts of theses and how to write them
- the different research methods and which ones to select
- how to find respondents
- the mindset to adopt to write your thesis
- how not to be late
You can also download my three theses to have a look at them yourself.
Table of Content
Click to expand/collapse
- Finding Yout Topic
- What to Do if You Cannot Find a Thesis Topic?
- Finding the Research Question and the Introduction of Your Thesis
- How to Establish the Theoretical Framework of Your Thesis
- Which Research Method to Select for Your Thesis
- How to Conduct the Research for Your Thesis
- How to Find Respondents for Your Interview
- Transcript Analysis and Presenting the Results of Your Research
- How to Conclude Your Thesis
How to Write a Thesis
Part 1: The Theory
Finding Your Topic
The first thesis was the most complicated to write.
Even though I was studying communication, the theme I had chosen was “business model innovation” because it looked interesting to me.
Initially, I had decided to write something related to online news websites.
I wrote my research proposal and sent it to my supervisor.
He hated it and gave me zero.
While everyone in my class was already contacting people to interview, I had to do it all over again.
But I didn’t want to.
I was angry, and I considered quitting my bachelor’s altogether.
I wrote an email to the faculty asking to change group and join a political-themed thesis class.
They said no. Great.
I wouldn’t graduate then.
As I was weighing my options, an idea came to me.
I had written days earlier a paper for another course about the challenges that TV stations had to face due to Netflix and Amazon.
I thought the theme was great for my thesis because it had all I needed: innovation, media, and business.
I asked my supervisor if I could research this theme, he said yes, and off I was.
The second thesis was easier. Written in the context of a master’s in management, I had decided to base it on the first one but with another industry.
Instead of writing about Netflix VS TV stations, I wrote about hotels VS Airbnb.
I bought a ticket to Colombia and wrote the paper under the sun of Medellin.
For my third thesis, I wanted to analyze the power of the US, China, and Russia.
However, it was more suited for a book, so I didn’t do it and wrote instead about an idea I wanted to publish in Quillette (but they never accepted it).
One day, as I was daydreaming, I wondered how we could improve political decision-making.
So I looked at how private companies handled their own decision-making.
Turns out that they use data, algorithms, and AI.
So I thought that political decision-making would probably come to that point as well, with all the consequences on democracy.
That idea stayed in my mind, so I wrote about technological decision-making in politics, namely data science within the EU Commission.
What to Do if You Cannot Find a Thesis Topic?
Take a paper you already wrote and derive your thesis topic from this paper.
Let’s be honest, it is difficult to randomly come up with ideas to research.
Look at what you have already done, and go deeper.
The alternative is to take a paper you enjoyed reading and to look at their “suggestion for follow-up research” section.
A thesis is no more than an answer to a question.
Look around you, read the newspapers, ask questions.
What are people wondering about? What are the impacts of new technologies? What could be the link between such a field and another one?
How do people perceive such a phenomenon? What does it mean for both people and the phenomenon?
Find what you wonder about, and go research it.
Personal trick: think for yourself.
When I was studying for my master’s in political science, everyone went to research boring topics in international relations. As a result, they all struggled to find supervisors.
I did not research a boring topic in international relations. I went for a topic that was different and that I liked. As a result, I had four different professors ready to supervise me, when most students couldn’t even find one.
Look outside the box and stop caring about other people.
The best way to succeed is not to be better than anyone else, but to escape competition and rule over your own empire.
To summarize, here are all of the ways you can find a thesis topic:
- Take an assignment or a topic you have already written about and go further for your thesis.
- Take a previous thesis that you apply to another area (like I did with hotels and Airbnb).
- Find an interesting scientific paper and look at the “further research” section.
- Same thing as 3, but with a thesis from a student that wrote it the previous year.
- Be aware of what you are daydreaming about and see if it could apply to a thesis.
- Ask a researcher or professor about the unanswered questions in their domain of expertise. Don’t be obvious though, they shouldn’t know that this is because you want to write about it. Make it sound like it’s a simple conversation you are interested in.
- Read a bunch of papers about a topic and see which question has not been answered yet.
- Replicate: take a study, do it again, and see if it replicates (great for psychology).
Finding the Research Question and the Introduction of Your Thesis
Back to my first thesis.
As soon as my supervisor gave me the green light, I worked like a madman for the next few days.
The first step is to find a research question, aka, a problem to solve.
The problem should be as simple and as small as possible.
That’s what makes research difficult.
It’s easy to find big philosophical questions. It is less so to answer them.
Find the smallest problem possible for your question, or your theme will be too broad and you’ll have issues.
My question, as we said, was the survival of TV stations. I imagined they were going to die because of Netflix.
To make sure this problem was real, I had to read maybe 4 or 5 academic papers talking about this problem.
Once I had my proofs, I could come up with a research question.
Originally, I wrote:
“What is public TV stations’ strategy and response to counter new competitors in the TV landscape such as streaming companies?”
But my supervisor didn’t like it and told me to write this instead:
“What societal remit should PSBs (public service broadcasters) fulfill in an increasingly innovative and competitive media landscape?”
Now, I kid you not, I understood the question only weeks after I had gotten my final mark.
I had no clue what I was writing about until after I had finished writing it.
Instead of focusing on what TV stations did to survive, my supervisor wanted me to focus on what was public TV stations’ role in society.
Instead of asking “what do you do to survive”, it was asking “why do you even exist?”.
That guy was smart.
Next up, you’ll have to formulate hypotheses (some people work without them as I did).
Hypotheses are answers you believe you will find. They are based on the current literature.
When you write hypotheses, it will help you later on to structure your questionnaire into different parts so that you can answer your research question.
While I’m not a fan of hypotheses because it gives you more work, I do admit it eases your task.
Ask your supervisor.
For my second thesis, I did the exact same thing as for the first one, but with Airbnb’s and hotels instead of TV and Netflix.
I could have also chosen Uber and taxis, but that looked more like a done deal since they are the same service.
Hotels and Airbnb still differ to some extent.
The research question was:
How do high-end hotels use innovative strategies to overcome challenges and be more competitive in the hospitality business?
My third thesis was written in the context of a master’s in political science and EU studies.
The research question was:
“How does the EU Commission use data throughout the policymaking process?”
As you can see, the second and third research questions suck. They are badly phrased.
Since a thesis is built on a research question, a bad research question will give a bad thesis.
Don’t do what I did. Do it better. Do it simpler.
Getting your research question is the most difficult and critical step of any research work.
Once you got it, you just need to put your brain on “pause” for one or two months, and follow the plan.
Theses in the humanities and social sciences are not about thinking, but about writing what people tell you to write.
Once I got my RQ (research question), I could write my introduction: for the first thesis, I wrote about the challenges of TV, then of public TV, then about the specific challenges that these streaming newcomers represented for public TV, then I introduced my RQ.
Afterward, I presented an outline of how I researched the problem (technically, an intro is the last thing you write, so if you write it first, write in the past tense) and what research method I used.
And boom. I got my intro.
Don’t forget to add the “academic relevance” (why your research is academically interesting) and the “societal relevance” (how it can be applied to society).
How to Establish the Theoretical Framework of Your Thesis
Next up is the theoretical framework, also called “literature review”.
The literature review consists of reading a bunch of academic papers and make them speak to each other.
What you need to write is who says what about what and who agrees with who or contradicts who.
You’d think that writing a thesis is about writing, but it’s not.
It’s mainly about reading, then rephrasing whatever you read (that’s one of the reasons why science stagnates, it has too many protocols and people are mostly concerned about what has been written instead of writing new stuff, but that’s a topic for another time).
So, reading then re-writing about 20-40 academic papers will do for your theoretical framework.
“40?! But Auré, how could you remember what you read?”
I didn’t, because I never read them entirely.
First of all, time is important (remember that at the end of the article).
You’ll most likely die before you turn 80 because of the micro-plastic in your body and the low-quality air you breathe, so you want to maximize your time spent doing cool stuff, not writing papers no one gives a crap about.
When you read an academic paper, you want to focus on three parts only: the abstract, the introduction, and the conclusion/discussion.
The rest has not been written for you and you can ignore it.
Here’s what I did. I read the paper, then write a summary on a word document that I called “sources”.
This document was my database containing everything I had read.
If I didn’t remember where I had read a particular piece of information, all I had to do was a quick search in my database, and boom, I got what I wanted.
Sometimes, I’d just copy-past the abstract or the conclusion and add some keywords to find them easily in the database.
Since I often had +- 50 sources for my theoretical framework, this database was huge.
Once you established your database with the academic papers, you can start writing your TF (theoretical framework). Basically, you should define and explain all the concepts of your RQ.
For my first thesis, I explained the evolution of the TV landscape, then explained Netflix and all of the issues and strategic problems they caused for public TV (well, “explained” is a big word, you’re not allowed to explain, only to rewrite what other people had already written for you).
For my thesis on data and the EU Commission, I explained the entire policymaking process, defined “data”, and defined the few evidence-based policymaking strategies that I could find (research was lagging, I couldn’t find much).
Once you got your RQ, your introduction, and TF in order, congratulations!
You’ve done about 69% of the thesis.
Which Research Method to Select for Your Thesis
I have no clue about theses in engineering or math, but theses in humanities and social sciences can choose between quantitative research (numbers) or qualitative research (people).
Needless to say, you should never go for quantitative research.
1. You need a lot of respondents: every year, Facebook is assaulted with “hey, I’m writing a thesis for my master in gender studies, can you please fill up this short survey that will only take 5 minutes of your time? Thaanks!!”
Students often need to find 100-250 respondents for their results to be valid, and that’s when you realize that your 1000 friends on Facebook are completely useless when you can’t even get 20 people to fill up your survey.
A girl I know was smart. She paid a company whose job is to find respondents and got her results within 2 days.
Trust me, you don’t want to waste time and alienate your Facebook friends, nor do you want to pay to find people.
2. Analysis is hard: dunno which software you’ll have to use, but if you’re not in love with statistics, the analysis of your data will be difficult. You’ll have to perform regression analysis and who knows what else.
Let’s not even speak of results interpretation.
A girl I knew paid a guy in Bangladesh to analyze the results for her.
That only cost her 25€, but still.
Qualitative research is much better (if you don’t know what it is, google it).
Whether you interview people (5-15) or do content analysis, you are the master of your time.
I did interviews for my three theses and never regretted it.
The only annoying thing was transcribing them, but it gets faster as you progress and gain skills.
In order to avoid interviews that are too long, don’t hesitate to interrupt your respondents if they give answers not relevant to your research.
How to Conduct the Research for Your Thesis
The next part of your thesis is the “research method”.
I am not sure if what I’m about to tell you is correct. The three research method sections I wrote were done differently according to the wishes of my three supervisors.
Make sure to always follow the guidelines you are given since they are the requirements on what you will be judged on.
For the first thesis, I had to write a mini-theoretical framework about the research method, basically explaining what is qualitative research, in which context it is used, and why it was suitable for my work.
For the second thesis, I had to add a small part on how I had conducted my research.
For the third thesis, I had to scrap this research explanation structure to explain the steps I had taken instead.
I believe the third one is the best.
If you haven’t done so yet, now is the time to create the questionnaire you will use for your interviews.
The questionnaire should whether answer your hypotheses (or your theoretical framework) and overall, answer your RQ.
Count around 5-10 questions.
Be specific in what you’re asking, and don’t hesitate to elicit more answers if your respondents remain vague and elusive.
How to Find Respondents for Your Interview
One easy way is to ask your supervisor if they don’t know anyone to interview. Usually, people in small industries know each other.
If they don’t, you’ll have to find respondents by yourself.
Contacting people by email is best.
If you’re a girl, you’ll have more success contacting men.
If you’re a guy, you’ll have to offer value in exchange for the time you’ll spend interviewing the person.
Start your email by briefly introducing yourself, then introduce your research project.
Ask if you can interview them, by Skype or in real life, whatever suits them best.
Don’t forget to add that you will share your results with them (they usually give you an interview because of that specifically).
If they answer they can’t give you an interview, ask them if they know anyone else.
Find below an email template I sent to people I wanted to interview for my first thesis,
“Dear Mister X,
My name is Auré.
I am a communication and media student at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. I am currently writing my thesis on the innovative strategies that public service broadcasters have implemented/are implementing in order to overcome the challenges of the media landscape.
In order to do so, I’m currently interviewing media innovation experts/managers from public service broadcasters.
Would it be possible for me to interview you?
I would be happy to come to Brussels to do so, or to do it over Skype, whatever suits you best.
I would of course be happy to share the results of my research with you, once it is completed.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Tip! Sending emails manually is a waste of time. There are many free email software out there you can use to send a high number of personalized emails easily (I use Zoho Campaigns, but use the one most adapted to your needs.)
Also, the Chrome extension Email Hunter will automatically capture any emails you run across on the web, and hunter.io enables you to find the email of an important person.
The second way to find respondents is to ask for names at the end of each interview. If you manage to find one respondent that gives you the name of one other respondent that gives you the name of etc, you will easily find all respondents you need.
As such, finding 3-4 respondents should be enough, as these people will likely help you find more people.
When I wrote my political science thesis, I only found 3 respondents myself, and the 9 others had been introduced to me by the 3 original respondents.
Don’t underestimate people’s willingness to help you.
We’re all humans and as humans, we are wired to enjoy helping others. It’s important to frame your work as you helping them rather than the opposite since you are the one tackling a problem they have.
No one has ever said no to free value.
Send as many emails as you can. I must have sent about 50 emails for my first thesis, more than 200 for my second thesis, and about 40 for my third thesis.
Writing a thesis is not hard. Like all things of value, it just takes time.
Side note: some industries have professionals that are sick and tired to answer students’ questions (marketing). Avoid well-known industries and choose a rare topic where experts are seldom interviewed.
Transcript Analysis and Presenting the Results of Your Research
Once you have all of your interviews and transcripts, you can do your analysis. First, I made a list of all the concepts I had asked questions. Then, I assigned a color to each of them.
Then, I’d read all the transcripts and highlight the corresponding concepts to the right color.
That made the organization easy when I had to write the results section.
When I wrote my first thesis, my supervisor told me to “make experts speak to each other”.
Basically, I had structured the section like I had structured the TF. Who says what, about what, and who contradicts who and why.
Afterward, I had written a conclusion and that was it.
For my second thesis, I was told to add a summary of the main findings. For my third thesis, my supervisor screwed me up (no, not in that way).
As I had finished a nice-looking analysis that had taken me two full weeks, she told me it wasn’t “enough”. My research also had to include content analysis.
So I went back to my computer, looked for content, and analyzed it. I subsequently presented the findings according to the hypotheses I had developed in the research question part.
The summary of the findings was included in the conclusion part.
How to Conclude Your Thesis
The conclusion is the easiest part. If it doesn’t include the “summary of the main findings”, it usually includes the following: recommendations, limitations, and suggestions for future research.
Recommendations are the part where you can freely express yourself without having to cite anyone else.
It’s you, as an expert, advising people that have the problems you researched.
Limitations are the problems with your thesis or the reasons why people that read it shouldn’t believe what you wrote.
The suggestions are what you think should be researched next.
To summarize, here’s how your thesis should look like:
1. Introduction part: introduce the topic with some background information and present your RQ, research method, possible hypotheses, academic and societal relevance.
2. Theoretical framework: the academic knowledge onto which your RQ is built.
3. Methodology: what methods you used, how (and why).
4. Your results: the part where you answer your RQ whether through your hypotheses or the structure of the TF.
5. Your conclusion: the part where you give your main findings, recommendations, limitations, and suggestions for future research.
Congratulations! You know now how to write a thesis.
If you’re interested in having a look at how the final result looks like, you can download below the three theses that I’ve written.
Obviously, I had to take down names and personal details.
Part 2: The Mental Behind Writing a Thesis
Here are some tips to make the process of writing a thesis easier.
Don’t Focus on the End-Goal – Focus on the Next Step Instead
First of all, take your eyes off the “final moment” when you’ll “be free”.
When Dilma Roussef was getting tortured, she’d think “one more minute, all it takes is one more minute” not to give up.
She could handle 20-25 minutes this way.
You should do the same: only look at what remains to do for the day.
You’ll reach the end before you know it.
Break the Routine
Writing a thesis is like sex: you’ll go nuts if you always do the same thing at the same place at the same time.
Go write at the library, in a café, at your friends’ house, change rooms in your apartment and never write in the room where you sleep.
Procrastination is what happens when doing something is more costly than not doing it.
When you enjoy what you do, you don’t procrastinate.
So make sure you find actual, meaningful reasons to write your thesis. Or choose a topic that’s fun to write.
Another way to look at it is to think about why you are studying/what are the perks you’ll get once you finish your studies.
It motivates and breaks procrastination.
Load up on Things to Do
“What?? But I already don’t have enough time, why would I load up on activities too?”
Technically, writing a thesis would take about one month if you wrote 6-8 hours/day every day, but no one does that nowadays because we’re all lazy and unfocused.
Let me tell you a story.
When I was a kid, I was doing music, sport, and theater. I’d perform best when I “didn’t have enough time” because I didn’t have time to procrastinate which forced me to create a schedule to be on time.
Hence, I was on time. Had I had a week to write something, I would have written it last minute because “I have the entire week, why bother now?”, but since I had many activities, I didn’t procrastinate.
People that procrastinate are those that have time to do so, hence, they end up wasting it.
If I told you that a bomb will explode in a month if you don’t finish on time, trust me, you will.
So the best way to finish on time is to give yourself just enough time to finish.
Load up on activities so that it stresses you out a bit before you run out of time to finish your work.
Realize What Your Time Is Worth
Sometimes, I get paid 10€/hour, sometimes, 15€/hour. That’s what my time is currently worth.
If I spend one hour on Instagram, I’ll “lose” 10€.
Once you realize that time is the scarcest commodity on earth, you stop wasting it.
You’ll End up Dying at Some Point…
This thought scares the hell out of me.
Not dying per se, but not having had time to do all I want to do.
It’s when I realized I wasn’t immortal that I started being productive and stopped losing time like I did when I was a teenager.
Contemplating your own death is a formidable motivational experience.
Use Parkison’s Law
Parkinson’s law says that an assignment will take you the time you allow yourself to take to complete it.
Should you decide to write your thesis within a month, you will.
This law though, is tricky. You may decide upon a period of time that will end up being bigger than needed.
For example, I had given myself until the 15th of May to finish the thesis but was done by the 22nd of April.
While I did use Parkinson’s law as a safety, I didn’t plan my work around it. I worked let’s say…reasonably.
I could have worked faster, but I didn’t want to because we were in lockdown and I had enough working 4-6 hours per day on my piece.
The Bottom Line
I used to be a last-minute guy until I realized that the ultimate last-minute moment is not the deadline: it’s death.
That was a life-changing realization. Also, as life got more and more complex, I realized I wanted to enjoy full brain capacity and that couldn’t be done if I had a list of things to do in the back of my mind.
If you are a last-minute person, then simply move back in time your deadline and make your own.
If you have a week to write something and think it will take two days, make sure you load up your week with activities two days from now.
Not only you’ll do more stuff, but you’ll have more time and will feel more productive, happy, and energetic.
Personally, the best periods of my life were the ones where I was working 10-14 hours a day.
But well, not everyone is crazy like that.
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