Thesis Help: Tips for Finishing Your Master's Research on Time

Do you worry how to develop a research thesis proposal outline, write a research thesis proposal, go through its defense, collect and analyze your data, make it through final defense ALL in three years while also completing course work and living a complex adult life?

Tips for Completing your Thesis in 3 Years

Many people entering graduate school will be told by their university that it is possible to earn their research Master's degree in two years. The wise student will ask, "What percentage of your students actually do so?" I know from my experience both in pushing the systems at Columbia University to allow me to graduate (and I got it done in three years) and from the experiences of my students, that actually graduating in that period of time is difficult.

I was able to share what it takes with one of the universities I work for as they designed their research Master's program. I am happy to say that most of their graduates actually do complete writing their research thesis in two years; yet having now worked their system, I understand the compromises that allow it to happen. This article offers three tips of thesis help for people who are already on the path, and a series of considerations to be taken into account by those who want to get the research Master's degree, but who have not yet started their degree process. My experience is with doctors of education, social science, and business. These ideas may not apply to other fields as all research Master's degrees have their own peculiarities.

Tip #1: Be Clear on the Reason You Are Starting and Why You Want to Finish 

People enter the research Master's world for many reasons. Some want increased status in their community, some see it as an intermediate degree on a path they have been working on for a long time while others have concrete goals (frequently for some kind of advancement in their career). The reason you start and the reason you need to finish are often two separate reasons.

In my case, I started my doctorate on an intuitive moment because the place in which I was employed clearly valued people with that degree. You could say I started because of a desire to be valued more in my work. By the time I was moving towards the defense of my proposal, two years later, I had a very different goal. I knew that I wanted, and was on the path to, moving to Ireland, and that mattered more than anything I had ever wanted. I wanted it so badly that NOTHING was going to stand in my way. That turned out to be very helpful, because, although Columbia tells students that they can graduate in three years, no one in my program ever had. To say I was pushing a boat upstream to get it done is an understatement.

So why do you want to finish your degree? All of my students now agree that they want to finish, but those who take complete ownership of their own process have the greatest likelihood of getting it done. Why? Because it is the center of their focus and they put constant and consistent effort towards completing the tasks at hand while looking ahead and sorting through roadblocks before they occur.

Tip #2: Be Aware of the Journey and Plan Ahead

You wouldn't go on a long journey without a roadmap. Also, while driving, you would begin to look for the next gas station once you noticed your tank was below a quarter full. In a similar fashion, the research Master's student is responsible for their own path through the University, the defense of their proposal, their research, and then their final defense. Too many of my students put the responsibility on the University and never look ahead.

What kind of roadblocks should you be aware of? Universities are conservative organizations. They do things in a certain way over and over and over again. Therefore, every step that involves permissions or requires other people to read your work ends up creating somewhere between two weeks and a month time lag. This is not an environment where just because you are ready, they will help you to move on. From their point of view, too much is at stake. Research done under their auspices which is not well carried out could lead to liability issues. Researchers are ethically bound to proceed only after careful review of their work. These roadblocks are put in place to protect others. Other times, the student relies on professors who are very busy and their time is not organized around the reading of theses, and so it gets put on the back burner and the student waits for a while for feedback.

Speaking of feedback, assume it will tear your work apart and you will have to practically start over. If this is your assumption, when it happens you will not be dismayed and will not suffer from a week or two of lack of motivation due to harsh criticism. If it doesn't happen, feel lucky. Too many students go into a research thesis as though it was merely another assignment and since they are generally good at school they assume their assignment will deserve good feedback. Master's research is held to high outside standards and is nothing like any work you have done before it. Sometimes your initial guidance as to what is expected is weak but even when it is strong, you still will not know what you are doing and may face serious rewrites.

Tip #3: Start Working on Your Dissertation As Soon As You Start at Your University

When I started at Columbia, a good friend of mine suggested that I had been in school a month and was, therefore, a month behind on my dissertation already. It seems ludicrous, but in order to finish in three years, you really must think about what your personal research will be from the time you get started. The work that makes a graduate gets a research Master's degree, the task that is the rite of passage, is the thesis, and it demonstrates the ability to do personal research. This requires that you understand research methodology, that you know how to phrase a question so it is researchable, that you know how to collect and analyze data, that you can build a study that is valid and reliable. No matter what they teach you in your coursework, it is those skills that get you through to graduation. Don't lose sight of this fact.

Most research Master's candidates are fairly good students. They get lulled into comfort by taking classes and doing well in them. This is a trap because your own research requires a completely different set of skills and those need to be equally paid attention to. Also, realize that no matter how good your University is in helping you define and work through your research practice they cannot possibly tell you everything. In a nutshell, your advisor does not know what you don't know until you deliver a document that clearly shows your misunderstandings. Therefore, your outside work on what goes into a thesis, how they are written, how others describe each part of the process, etc. will be well worth your time. I highly recommend you start early and read books on writing research theses. In a similar fashion, find outside help. For instance, I run a website that offers guidance on all of the steps, others offer editing, statistical help, and support groups. All are good. Go look now for the help you need so that it will be there for you throughout the process. 

These three tips, when taken seriously, should guide you through to a successful ending. Each in their own way was critical to my success in finishing in three years, and these tips have proven themselves over and over again with the students I mentor. Serious candidates will take them to heart and keep a clear focus on their goal, own their process and push things through on their behalf, and start early while they work the process consistently through the three years.

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