Writing a Thesis

Image: L Hughes, 1945. George Orwell.

Last week a talk was given in the Research Methodology class of Mrs. Lily Philipose. It materialized upon experience in writing a bachelor thesis and emphasized on conceptual development, case study design and use of specialized academic software.

The talk seemed helpful to the students in the class, therefore herewith some operational insides will be shared for those of you, who will write theses in the (near) future.

Since this semester, the IBMan office provides in Moodle general guidelines, including inter alia design, deadlines, where to hand in and what to do in some special cases. Supposedly, other students’ offices issue similar guidelines, thus one should definitely look for them as a starting point.

General layout instructions can be found in the HWR Bulletin for Writing Scientific Works (in German), available also on paper in the left wing of the ground floor at the BSEL .

After gathering all requirements, one usually needs information about the conceptual development of a thesis. In the best case, guidelines are provided by the supervisor. Mine was kind enough to let me pass his instructions as a reference. Among the topics discussed in the document are:

  • where to start;
  • what to concentrate on;
  • how to structure the thesis;
  • how to cite;
  • how to do a case study;
  • how to prepare a questionnaire;
  • how to collect and analyse the data;
  • how to finalize the thesis.


Though Prof. Smith’s guide targets master dissertations, many of the insides are applicable for theses of any kind. Please note, you should always confirm the approaches you’ve chosen with your supervisor.

Furthermore, if you are planning to apply the American citation style, the HBS citation guide 2012 provides a comprehensive source. For those of you, who will be doing a case study, Sage’s (Very) Brief Refresher on the Case Study Method is a good summary. Moreover, some may find also The Wikipedia list of Latin abbreviations useful.

After the general insides, let us have a look at some handy software.

Docear is a mind-mapping tool, which integrates the reference manager Jabref, and is great in organizing and structuring information from pdfs. It imports every new file from a specified folder in an “incoming” mind map, including its annotations. The full functionality is presented in the introduction video.

Additionally, the Jabref integration allows the management and export of all references. The created bibtex database can be used for automatic citation and bibliography creation either in Latex or in MS Word, with the Bibtex4Word macro.

Finally, in this video you can see how the integration of bibtex information in Jabref can be facilitated with google scholar. Note, that you have to activate the relevant option, as illustrated in the following image:

Good luck!

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8 thoughts on “Writing a Thesis

  1. Luisa

    Great input Ivan – I already loved your presentation in class, but this summary also helps! Really nice tools, makes life so much easier – actually I’m trying to use them right now. Did you manage to repair your harddrive? And did you find your template by any chance? 🙂 Good luck with the colloquium and thanks again.

  2. Thank you so much for this, Ivan. A guide and experience report from students is what we need in this fast-expanding area of writing. Fast-expanding, because science and verbal expression cannot and will not remain unchanged in the presence of the web and global conversations…see some of the other recent articles on this blog!

  3. Jonas

    Also big thanks from my side! I actually would have appreciated if your talk could have been held a little earlier into the semester. I am fascinated by the tools you presented but somehow torn between putting in the hours to get familiar with the way they work and continuning in my unstructured way but stay focused on creating content now that the time gets less and less.

  4. ivan

    Thanks for the comments guys, i am glad you like it!

    @Luisa – i found most of the stuff, but it takes several hours just to scan the partition and than several hours to open the relevant part and than several hours to restore some data and so far it always crushes at some point, thus… sadly i am still losing time on it.

    But the latex template post is on the way.. The template is recovered and now I have to make it more “user friendly”. Once it is done, it should not take so much time to switch to it!

    @Johas – sorry about that! I handed in my thesis 3 days earlier and it was not really possible to come before-wards. I think it is a good investment, especially if you consider doing a masters later. Plus, there is high chance you may have one (or some) of those… not really productive days on the way (; So utilizing them by getting familiar with the tools may turn to be more beneficial at the end. And it really saves some time, once you get used to them.

  5. Thanks for the fine survey, Ivan!

    Thanks for the overview! I can refer my students to it and concentrate on customization, which you will find at: http://busapps2012.blogspot.de/2012/05/for-5612-research.html.

    The thing is, translating models into practice is difficult for many.

    I’ve been taking dance lessons for years, but I’m usually among the last of all to figure out a new figure.

    Usually, it works like this.

    First, the demonstration is wonderful, because then you see the whole impressive new thing and she looks great, but then we all stop breathing as we realize this is way, way beyond what we can do.

    Then, we line up behind our teacher and walk through her footsteps, so to speak, learning the basics.

    Then comes another demo in small parts, with music and then without, and we try to do it with our partners.

    Some of us get it, but many do not, because there is the theory, and then there is the practice. And that’s why we have partners. Partners help us find blockages, sometimes some “bad habit”, that we need to work around and eventually overcome; plus, with partners, when we finally “get it” we then have a witness and someone to applaud our little victory!

    So, too, in the university classroom. The guidelines you have found are excellent, and I can say that because I’ve gone on the web to find such things, too, and you’ll see my results on that page as well. But the guidelines, while necessary, are insufficient: putting them into practice is almost something else entirely.

    Like dance, research is a complicated business: to move one’s head into this or that idea, method, practice, conversation, and community simply does not come automatically nor readily follow from verbal instructions. In my classes at the HWR, I experience this every week. I love my subject, much of it I see as exquisitely beautiful, and so I enjoy sharing it in exquisite detail, writing things up, telling stories, offering examples, and so on: it’s great fun for me.

    But take a moment to pity my poor students trying to make sense of lessons learned 20, 30, or 40 years ago, in another place, time, language, subject, and humor …

    Everyone gets at least part of it, however, and what happens in group work — proper teams — is that these parts usually combine in opportune ways. Prof. Richard Light found this big time in his interviews with 400+ students at Harvard, http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ffp0604.pdf: group work = higher grades.

    We can see a little of this in an example from last week, http://fastexposure.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/publish-your-own-magazine-online/, where at the bottom of a student blog post you’ll find a comment that led the student to develop a far more sophisticated critical response.

    While I can claim a little credit for the assignment and organizing the groups, by the time I offered my comment the students had already worked thigns out: the happy solution is theirs.

    To be sure, in this example, we don’t actually see the wheels turning, and more generally, how this all works in any particular instance is difficult to determine. Sometimes they win by hearing things explained a second time, and sometimes by hearing things differently and in another language or with other examples. Sometimes, it appears, they win from having heard it spoken louder, or softer, with the threat of failure or the warmth of a generous care-giver. Sometimes people catch fire in the heat of competition.

    Prof. Eric Mazur just won $30,000,000 to further what I like to call his “speed dating” method, whereby students take a quiz at the beginning of class, they are assigned students with different results as partners, and are left to figure things out, as you may read here: http://chronicle.com/article/Harvard-Seeks-to-Jolt/130683/. Then another quiz is given, and the results are typically far, far better than when professors answer questions.

    This insight is shared by many in other fields. In business, for example, you’ll find a fascinating discussio in a new article on the Harvard Business Review website, “Leadership is a Conversation,” http://hbr.org/2012/06/leadership-is-a-conversation/ar/1.

    But of course just about everybody knows this full well, once they think about it.

    Team players know this. I think the best study group in all of my classes last semester was the “Spoggers”, http://spogging.wordpress.com/, from “sports + blogging”.

    If you’ve had an internship you know this. “You can toss those books into the garbage,” said my tutor at the ZEDAT a few years ago: “here’s how it is done.” And he was right: what I’d learned was lots of “how to” and what I needed to do was learn “know how”: the guidelines plus “wisdom” or experience or whatever it is that happens when you work with someone.

    It seems to me that this collating of formal guidelines is completely appropriate to do, because once we see how similar they are we can go on to the next steps.

    So, I’m encouraged to find other examples and hope you might be encouraged to do so, too. I know of a couple of other professors who have handouts on this topics, and maybe another website or two, and I am sure if we dig a little deeper we’ll find more. There are excellent guidelines on the websites of Harvard, Dartmouth, North Carolina … just about anywhere where there are active writing departments. And there’s even money being spent on such things at the HWR (which you could apply for!!) to the end of improving the quality of teaching and learning.

    While students might follow your links to Moodle to download this or that guideline, they’ll do this maybe only once: I think the interesting question for those of us who worry about “e-learning” is how students are daily using their smart phones, laptops, and the web to organize their studies, and as I hope to have shown above, how they are doing so to organize study groups and share and discuss their “work-in-progress”.

    In addition to the second semester IBMAN classes linked from the site above, you might check out the weekly blogging of students in my Themenfeld: Social Entrepreneurship classes, here: http://futureparts.wordpress.com/, http://social5forces.wordpress.com/, http://realfounder.wordpress.com/, and http://entrepreneurialcreativity.wordpress.com/. While some offer literature surveys as you have done so well, others report on the paths they are following to identify their topics, find and explore a variety of relevant resources, and to reflect on their learning.

    I’ll talk about some of this in my Blogging and Mobile Way, Way Beyond Blackboard, Moodle & Co talk at our September e-learning conference, and which I’ll be writing up on the http://brucespear.info/beyondmoodle/, blog I’ve just set up to “beta test” my ideas for it.

  6. ivan

    Thanks for this supportive and informative comment Bruce!!!

    I totally agree with the “transferring models into practice” notion. The links in the article are just a fraction of the guides i went through while preparing my thesis. And though they were useful in one way or another, the actual challenge was, as you mentioned, “almost something else entirely”.

    In this context, the insides you’ve provided complement the post by introducing other dimensions of thesis writing. Such, in which my experience and knowledge are pretty limited. Therefore, thanks again!

  7. Wow, Helpful information about Writing a Thesis. I really appreciate it for sharing.

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