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How To Write A Master's Or Doctoral Thesis

I have written three doctoral theses and before that two masters' theses, as well as various academic textbooks. In each case the thesis or book would not have been completed if I hadn't fixed deadlines for each chapter.

My first academic supervisor, Professor Arthur Johnston, warned me about the dangers of not establishing deadlines. It was when I was working on my MA dissertation at the University of Wales. He said he had known academics who had researched and read in libraries on their topics for years: they never felt they were ready to write, and in the end never wrote the thesis.


Professor Johnston said he had himself read and researched for ten years at Oxford before writing his doctoral thesis. Since then I've seen it all myself--research students, and even university lecturers, who never get beyond their first degrees, and yet who renew their registration for a master's or doctoral degree every year. Every year they pay the expensive registration fee; every year they send letters to their supervisors to explain why they haven't submitted any chapters! Procrastination is surely the thief of time. The truth is, we seldom feel ready to act.

Jesus said to the lame man at the pool of Bethseda: 'Take up your bed and walk.' There comes a time when we have to take the initiative and act. Before Jesus said that, he asked the man an important question. He said, 'Do you want to walk?' The man replied, 'Yes' - and only then could he take the initiative.

We must have a positive and willing frame of mind before we can begin to achieve our goal. We have to want to walk! We must want to possess the goal badly enough. And then we must identify deadlines, or progressive steps, in our journey towards the goal. After each deadline we must take up our beds anew. Each time it will be easier. Each time we will be stronger and wiser.

And each time we'll be nearer the goal! The power of God will come to us as we take that initiative at each step. The saying, 'God helps those who help themselves,' is full of wisdom.

It's like walking towards those closed glass doors you find at airports and departmental stores.

The doors remain firmly closed until you step onto the plate that activates the mechanism that makes them slide open. God opens doors in the same way. He will never open a door at the time when you ask for a door to be opened. You must ask, of course. But having asked, you have to believe in him--and in yourself. You have to get up and walk in confidence towards the closed door. When you get there, the door will open.

In other words, each step must be made in faith. The Bible tells us, 'Without faith it is impossible to please God.' It's absolutely true. I've tested this principle many times. Faith and positive initiative--stepping out in confidence--is what pleases God. Only then will he open the doorway to your selected and visualised goal.

Often, of course, the path towards your selected goal is uphill. But growth is normally upwards! Growth follows a law of natural development--from one vantage point to another. When I wrote my D.Litt. thesis (during full-time employment as a university professor), I did more than set deadlines for the progressive chapters.

I was methodical.

I asked myself, how many chapters do I want to write? Seven? Very well. Then I chose suitable and reasonable deadlines. I made those deadlines coincide with the end of university vacations, or periods of leave, or long weekends. I told myself that the research for each chapter should be completed by a week--perhaps two weeks--before the vacation, leave period, or long weekend began. This meant that I had to be ready to write a week or two before the vacation, leave or weekend break. This meant that I would have time free for the writing. I made sure that I didn't plan any other activities for those free times.

I made sure, in other words, that preparation would coincide with opportunity. All my research--my reading and note-taking--had to be completed by the writing deadline.

When the writing deadline arrived, I had to apply firm discipline. The whole family understood that I wasn't to be disturbed during my morning writing sessions at home. One of my little daughters understood this clearly and stuck a notice in her large scrawl on my study door: 'Don't disturb--daddy is WORKING.' I came to an understanding with myself that I would write at least three or four pages a day. It wasn't an impossible or very demanding workload. And usually I'd write six or seven pages--and complete the chapter well before the end of the vacation or leave-period!

An important rule was always to allow time to relax and enjoy with the family. I used the carrot-at-the-end-of-the-stick incentive, too. Always be sure to reward yourself for work done! During leave periods which were my writing times, I would always be sure to leave the evenings free. A morning of successful work--of four or five pages written and edited--would always ensure that a long walk, or evening free with the family, was enjoyed to the full. A rest earned is a rest enjoyed! All I was doing--unconsciously, perhaps--was applying the principle of positive reinforcement which B F Skinner, the behavioural scientist, wrote about. Skinner discovered that rats learnt the routes through mazes a lot faster when they realised a reward of cheese would be found at the end of the maze!

The principle of positive reinforcement--or self-reward--was a lesson I learnt early on in my writing career. When I was a lonesome postgraduate student working on an MA dissertation at the University College of Wales in Aberystwyth, fish-and-chip shops were plentiful as a source of reasonably cheap meals. As a student of limited resources I survived, in those days, on fish and chips! But there was a Chinese restaurant, too. There was my means of celebration--of reward.

I promised myself that, on the completion of each chapter, I would reward myself with an evening out at the Chinese restaurant. How I looked forward to those evenings! I would relish the pleasure of having another chapter complete and handed in to my supervisor. I would dress up and savour the Chinese meal--so different from fish and chips--with well-earned satisfaction.

(I remember how, on taking out a cigarette--another pleasure reserved for the occasion--the Chinese waiter always jumped forward to light it for me. The sense of self-importance added to the satisfaction!)

At all times throughout the periods of dissertation writing I would, of course, constantly reinforce my purpose by visualising the goal. In my study at home, for example, I would leave a space on the wall where I would hang my next degree certificate. In short breaks between spurts of writing I would look up and imagine--visualise--the framed certificate hanging in its allotted space! (And I would be sure to hang it in that space after it was awarded!)

Each chapter of a thesis--or book--had to have its own strategy, of course. Many research students use a card-index system. It's a good system because notes on cards can be filed and interchanged in a shoebox! For me it was a somewhat different system that worked. I used a series of notebooks. Each notebook had its own content.

Take, for example, my research for my chapter on Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White, which formed the third chapter of my D.Litt. thesis Drama and Melodrama in the Fiction of Wilkie Collins. In a notebook labelled 'R' I copied notes taken from contemporary newspaper and magazine reviews of the novel. In a notebook labelled 'B', I copied relevant notes from biographies on Wilkie Collins. In notebook 'L' I collected extracts from letters written by Collins's contemporaries about him or his novels. Notebook 'C' would contain notes collected from critical studies on Collins--in this case, on The Woman in White in particular. And so forth.

Then I would plan the chapter and use my own coding system of cross-references to the notebooks. I would have my skeletal plan, with headings and spaces, on a sheet of paper. This skeletal plan--the basic framework for the chapter--would look like this:

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