How to Write a BA Thesis

A Practical Guide from
Your First Ideas to Your Finished Paper

by Charles Lipson

An excerpt from the book


How to Read This Book

This is a practical guidebook, designed to help you through every stage of your thesis project, beginning with your earliest ideas about writing one. It helps you turn those tentative ideas into a workable project, then a draft paper, and ultimately a polished final version.

Completing a thesis is a substantial project, one that most students find both challenging and rewarding. The most rewarding part, students say, is picking your own subject and reaching your own conclusions. You reach them by doing independent research, writing about it, and discussing your ideas with your adviser.

As you begin, though, the thought of actually finishing this project might seem like a distant goal, perhaps even an unreachable one. In fact, you can reach it, and you can teach yourself a great deal in the process. I’ll offer suggestions and support at every stage.

The early chapters of this book will help you launch this project on solid footing. They focus on

They are covered in chapters 1–4.

You’ll be doing all these during the first couple of months of your senior year; that’s when you should read chapters 1–4, too. This schedule assumes that your thesis will take two semesters. If it’s a one-semester project, you need to do the same tasks on a swifter schedule. Chapter 20 offers some ideas about how to do that and provides an abbreviated work schedule.

The middle chapters of this book accompany the middle months of your thesis project, approximately months 3–5, or possibly 3–6, depending on your school’s schedule. These chapters concentrate on

For help with all these aspects of your thesis, read chapters 5 and 7–11.

Two other chapters (6 and 12) cover related issues, but ones that aren’t relevant every thesis. Chapter 6 explains how to study individual cases in depth, a common method in the social sciences. Chapter 12 explains how to use maps, graphs, and other visual materials. If you are not using case studies or visual materials, you can skip these chapters.

Chapter 13 discusses everyday issues of working efficiently on your project, everything from study habits to writing. If you have any special problems along the way, such as procrastination, sleep difficulties, or personal issues, you will find chapter 14 helpful and supportive.

As you turn the final corner on your thesis, you will be

These tasks should take about three or four weeks. Set aside the time. Doing a good job on them will make your thesis much stronger.

There are no new chapters to read at this stage. You’ve already covered them. Still, you may find it helpful to revisit some chapters as you complete your work. After you’ve finished most of your research, for instance, you’ll probably discover a few gaps that you need to fill. That’s covered in earlier chapters on doing research. You’ll probably be working on your opening and closing sections, which are covered in chapter 10. You’ll need to edit and polish your text. That, too, has been covered—in chapter 11, on editing. Just review these earlier chapters as you move into the final stages of your thesis.

Every chapter has useful tips, all of them specially marked, to assist your research and writing. The most important ones are pulled together in chapter 16, which serves as a summary of the book’s main ideas. A related chapter (17) answers some frequently asked questions (FAQs). To help you stay on top of the various tasks, I’ve included a checklist at the end of most chapters.

Several chapters also have time schedules. They give you a sense of how you should be moving through the various tasks and approximately how long each one should take. Chapter 15 reviews the time schedule for the whole project. Using this schedule as a guide, you can draft a customized schedule of your own, one that suits your pace and your project.

Tip: To get a quick overview of the book and its main recommendations, read chapters 15 and 16.

  • Chapter 15 gives a general schedule for completing a thesis and explains the main tasks at each stage.
  • Chapter 16 brings together the most important tips for working on the project.

By reading them early, you’ll have a clear sense of how to move forward through successive stages of planning, research, and writing.

After you’ve handed in your thesis, you still have a few small tasks left to do:

Those are covered in chapter 18.

Some schools add special requirements to the thesis project. One is a thesis defense, where you explain your findings to several faculty members and answer their questions. Other schools require that your thesis be approved by a second faculty member, in addition to your adviser. Chapter 19 explains how to prepare for a thesis defense and pick a second reader.

Some students need to write a thesis in only one semester, either because of their own schedules or the school’s requirements. Chapter 20 provides an accelerated timeline for doing that. It offers some concrete suggestions for speeding up your work, and some ideas about what not to speed up.

I’ve also added some useful items in three appendices. The first lists the best places to turn for additional help. If you want to read another book about writing or editing, for example, you can find it here.

The second appendix explains how to prepare footnotes, endnotes, and citations, using the three main styles: Chicago (from the Chicago Manual of Style), MLA, and APA. It covers each in detail and shows exactly how to cite books, articles, chapters, Web sites, and much more. With this appendix, you should be able to handle all your thesis references.

A third appendix is intended for new faculty members who are supervising their first thesis projects. Most of it mirrors the advice given to students, but seen this time from the professor’s side of the desk.

Taken together, these chapters and appendices provide a full road map for your thesis project and specific guidance for moving successfully from your earliest ideas to a polished final paper. They are not a substitute for working closely with your thesis adviser. Quite the contrary. It is important for you to work well together. I offer suggestions about how to do that, sprinkled across several chapters. The goal, in every case, is to help you work more productively—with your adviser and on your own.

Most of all, I hope this guide will help you write your own best thesis.

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