[Written originally June, 2011]
Students frequently ask the same questions when beginning their MA (Historical Theology) thesis. They are not certain where to begin. The prospect of a 30,000 word project itself seems daunting and then there is the problem of choosing and narrowing a thesis topic.
You should decide for yourself, in consultation with your advisor, what your topic should be but these guidelines and questions may help you narrow things and find a way to think about your research.
- Decide which epoch you want to study (patristic, medieval, reformation, post-reformation, or modern to 1950). Which period interests you most? Which has drawn your attention thus far? In which field might you want to continue study?
- Within that epoch narrow the question or field. Obviously, a 30,000 word project cannot and should not try to cover every aspect of a person, question, text, or event (PQT or E). Having picked a PQT or E, decide what is it about that PQT or E that you want to investigate.
- Pick a topic (PQT or E) that needs to be done i.e., that hasn’t been done to death or that fills a gap in the existing literature. My advice is to avoid Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and the like on the theory that the secondary literature is too overwhelming and that the world probably doesn’t need another MA thesis on one of these greats. There are always exceptions to such rules. You may discover some aspect of a great PQTE or E that has not yet been investigated and that can be managed within the space of a short study.
- Remember that the MA thesis is as much a demonstration of skills and ability to do serious research as it is about the research itself. Thus, though it is hoped that you will not do something that has been done to death it is also not expected that your thesis will turn the academic world on its collective head. The hope is that you will research a question that has been neglected and so perhaps make a modest contribution to the discussion or understanding of a PQT or E and thereby grow in your understanding historical research and writing.
- Pick a topic (PQTor E) that can be done, i.e., one for which there are sufficient primary sources and for which the body of secondary literature manageable for an 30,000 word MA thesis. This usually requires that one narrow the question. It also means that researching a PQT or E where there are not existing texts to study will be that much more difficult and time-consuming. For example, if you wish to study an event for which primary source documents do not exist then you must must create a body of primary sources (e.g., transcripts from interviews) that would be analyzed and that would form the basis for the thesis. Are primary sources readily available? Can you read them easily or will you have to translate them. Be realistic about what you can do in the time that you have.
- Students sometimes worry that there is not enough secondary literature on a given PQT or E. That may be a good or a bad sign. It may signal that others have considered a question and decided that it is either not worth pursuing or that the “payoff” is not worth the effort. It might mean, however, that other scholars have simply missed this PQT or E. There is no way to know which is the case until you have done the basis research but the relative absence or paucity of secondary literature does not itself mean that a topic should not be done.
- As always the the reference room is the place to start. That’s where you will discover the basic information and the state of the question. From there you should go to ATLA and WorldCat to see what research has been done your prospective PQT or E. You will want to use a variety of likely search terms to avoid being surprised part way through your project, e.g., discovering three weeks before submission that someone has recently published a book making the very same argument that you are completing.
- Be patient. Walking through these steps carefully may take you a couple of weeks but it will save you time in the long term. If the prospect of doing this sort of research does not interest you that may be an indicator that the MA thesis process will probably not interest you.
Chronology of the Thesis
You need to ask and answer these questions before your final academic year. You want to have a clear idea of your topic heading into your last year. Students typically finalize their topic in the summer and begin focused research then (if not before). In consultation with their prospective thesis advisor that research may even be turned into draft a draft chapter or two in the fall semester. In this period you also need to select a second faculty reader for your thesis. You want to find someone on the faculty who has some interest or background in your thesis topic. The thesis proposal submitted in January finalizes what has been worked out in the months prior. By January writing should be under way. January-March is the heart of the thesis writing season. By this point you should be writing at least 1 finished page per working day in order to meet the deadline. In March and April revisions should be underway. Depending upon the number of candidates in a given semester, submissions may begin in mid-April.
Miscellanies for Farther Down the Road
You are strongly encouraged to submit drafts of your thesis chapters serially (one at a time) rather than all at once. This will relieve pressure on you and on your advisor/reader and give them opportunity to make suggestions and to offer help earlier rather than later.
Sometime between January and March you will likely be tempted to give up. Do not be discouraged. In the midst of a major research project it is easy to lose perspective. In reality, if you have done good research, by this point you probably know as much or more about your topic than you think you do. If you are working closely with your advisor all will be well. If you find that you are unduly anxious talk to your advisor immediately.
A good thesis calls attention to the PQT or E rather than to the author. A mediocre or poor thesis says, “Look at me, look at what I’ve learned.” The good thesis is focused on the reader and it teaches. It takes the reader by the hand and says, “Let me show you what I’ve learned.”
Students are often tempted to think that “knowing” or substance is more important than “teaching” or form. Your advisor and reader, however, and your thesis defense jury must judge what you know by what you present and how you present it. Thus, attention to detail and form is more important than you might initially think.
The key is to know when to stop learning, for the moment, and to begin teaching (by writing). From January you will continue reading but the balance of your time will be spent more and more on writing and less and less on reading. By mid-March your focus will largely be on writing or the “teaching” aspect of the project.
Your draft submissions should be clean but they need not be perfect. Your thesis submission prior to the defense should be essentially finished. After you submit you will have sufficient time to make minor corrections to the form of the thesis and to prepare for your oral defense.
Remember, as Bob Godfrey says: there are two kinds theses, the good and the finished.
The keys to a successful oral defense are three: be clear, be concise, and be cogent. Compose your defense on the basis of your thesis. Introduce your topic, summarize the literature, re-state your major argument and the major lines of evidence, and summarize your major thesis in your conclusion. Be sure you have a clear, concise, statement of the one great thesis (argument) that explains your research. Your project must explain that thesis. Your outline should flow from the thesis. Once you have an thesis sentence and an outline then you’re ready to write.
Read it through, out loud, several times before you present it. It is wise to read your defense in the room where the thesis will be presented at approximately the same time of day. The more familiar your suuroundings the less uncertainty there will be during the actual defense and the easier it will be to concentrate on the actual thesis defense.
Reading your thesis defense orally will help you find typos and other errors. It will also help you to determine whether your defense is too long (the limit is 30 minutes).
Kate L. Turabian, A Manual For Writers