As a professional procrastinator, writing my Master’s thesis has been incredibly joyful and stressful at the same time. When I started my research a few years ago, I wish I had clear and simple reading materials to learn from - not huge scientific books on methodology. This is essentially what I will try to do with in this piece hoping that new postgrad students can have an idea on what they are expected to do for their Master’s thesis. I will explain step by step the process from finding a research topic to writing the thesis. I won't specifically talk about my own sociological research on the discourses of authenticity within the vinyl-DJs groups, rather mention it as an example when relevant. 

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Find a topic:

What should be the easiest part can sometimes be the toughest. As a Master’s student, your supervisor is expecting you to create knowledge and not just repeat it from what you have read. And as you can imagine, it’s easier to create knowledge if your topic is very actual or has rarely been treated before. But first and foremost, it should be a topic you are passionate about because you are going to read about it for a year or two.

One thing to keep in mind: the world of research is very proactive and if you are interested in a certain topic, it probably means that some scholars have already looked into it before you, even if you swear you can't find anything about it. As an example, I started studying the importance of physical mediums such as vinyl and CDs in music in France and I couldn't find much on the "vinyl revival". I thought I was onto something so fresh and new only to discover when I arrived in Australia and had better access to Anglo-Saxon’s resources that many people had actually written about it. This is not a bad thing at all, it just means that you need to look at what other countries are doing as well if you want to cover your topic properly.

Finally, your topic is supposed to elevate a few questions in you; questions that can’t be answered by a yes or a no. It is supposed to be filled with little problems, incoherencies, paradoxes and debates. For instance, when I thought of DJs playing with vinyl, I thought: why do they play with analogue when digital has been legitimated in our contemporary practices; why are there issues/debates around the superiority of analogue; how are the audiences/industries reacting to this; does a medium/tool can itself enable a DJ to build a discourse around its authenticity in his field…

Research or professional?

For most Master’s program today, students may have the choice between doing a research thesis or a professional one. The difference is huge and this will completely impact the rest of your thesis – actually, it can also impact your thesis topic as well. Basically, a research thesis is based on your scientific resources (things you can read, listen to and watch) and your study field – we will talk about the field later. A professional thesis is based on a professional experience and is usually a very good occasion to undertake an internship whilst studying. It will also be based on scientific resources and a study field but that study field is already given to you: it is the company you work for.

Some people would argue that professional thesis are slightly easier because a lot of it is based on observation. Also, as I said, you study field is already in your hand. You don’t need to chase people for interviews; they are already in front of you every day which makes things a lot easier. Plus, the topic is going to be a lot narrower and very local to the company your work for. It will typically turn into a study case with scientific sources to back up your thoughts. However, a professional thesis still requires to find a real actual problematic and even if the study field is sort of given, the workload doesn't differ much from a research thesis.

It’s really important to think of the type of thesis you want to do and if you decide to do a professional one, you will have less control on your topic because it will depend on your internship. 

The research part

Whether it’s a professional or research thesis, you always need to do some research. To be honest, research is a lot of work because you have to read about your topic from different perspectives (historical, sociological, technical, etc.) in order to bring some paradoxes to light. Basically, you need to create parallels between authors and develop your own hypothesis and questions: “this author is saying this but that other author is saying that, does this mean that and if it means that well it’s a pickle and it becomes a question we are asking”

Your readings need to be academic for them to be valid in your argument. You can use media releases, press articles, radio talks as examples or as a topic (maybe you want to study the way general media are representing feminists since since 2000) but never as proofs for your argument. Books are here for you.

The research part will be organised and will represent the first big part, usually 1/3, of your written thesis.

Your study field

Before you actually start the investigation, you need to prepare it. At this stage, you have read everything about your topic and you know where you are going (kinda…). You have a problematic and a few hypothesis. But you need to integrate yourself in a field with its own methodology. Indeed, your study is going to be completely different whether you are doing sociology, anthropology or musicology. Knowing where you “belong” is essential and you need to read book chapters and articles about it because all your investigations, observations, interactions will be based on that. For instance, anthropologists are very fond of immersion and participatory observation but sociologists believe in not interacting too much because they might biased results.

Once you know your field (technically you should know it from the start because it also depends on your program (like you are not going to do an anthropology thesis if you are a psychology student)), you need to refer yourself to a few authors by saying that you are using their methods.

Then, you start building your investigation by finding people that would be interesting in being interviewed; you prepare the interviews and always question your choices: why this person and not another, why these questions, etc.

Observations, investigation and interviews

This is usually the fun part because it’s the moment you get to meet people (unless your research is purely based on books but having oral opinions is usually recommended). Don't forget to justify yourself and explain the method you have chosen. Why are you interviewing and how (qualitatively or qualitatively?). Again, use methodological books from your field of research to guide through this process. At this stage it’s important to transcript all your interview – do it one by one and not at the last minute because it’s boring and long.

Depending on the social science you are basing yourself on, you need to look at the types of attitudes and postures the scientist has to take. As I said earlier as an example, this is very different if you are doing a sociological study or an anthropology one.

Always remember your problematic and hypothesis and don’t freak out if people don’t say the things you wanted to hear. It’s part of the process and it’ll make think of the things you hadn’t thought of before – being reflective and honest is very important so take the time in your conclusion to talk about the things you didn’t anticipate so you can do better next time.

Results and Analysis

Your results are sort of descriptive and are supposed to highlight the content of the interviews. This represent the 2/3 of your thesis. Basically you need to organise this part in themes and then insert the results of your interviews. Be careful, results and analysis are very different. In the result part, you describe, you explain; in the analysis part, you analyse, you look for reasons, you bring perspectives and you personally argue. Arguing means that you come up with your own knowledge. Arguing isn't about giving personal opinions but it should show that you are engaged with your topic and that you have the scientific resources to back you up.

This sounds very complicated to do; but think that even if many people have written on your topic, no one has ever studied your local area. In my case, I was studying vinyl-DJs in Melbourne and my results were very different than studies about vinyl-DJs in Berlin. Your novelty can be in the way you compare your results with other studies as well.

Very probably, your results will have make you realise that you’ve missed out on a lot of things during your research part. So you research again and you find new books and articles to back up your new arguments. The analysis part represent the last 1/3 of your thesis (excluded introduction and conclusion)

Writing

The writing part is very personal and I can only speak from my experience. I am a pressure addict; I procrastinate all year long and when the stress from being (very) late on my schedule comes, I work like a beast to catch up. It usually works fine for me, but to be really honest, it has also kept me from being a much better student than I am now. This pressure technique is great in the professional world because I’m quick and adaptable but a thesis work is long and needs to be processed. Anything that will help you anticipating and planning is welcome; weekly planner, alarms, study groups sessions. Find what works for you and stick to it.

Use a weekly planner and set yourself achievable goals. There’s no point trying to write 25 pages a day, you will only feel disappointed afterwards. I personally am a quick writer and I usually write 5-6 pages a day maximum.

In general, the writing takes a while because of all the rules such as referencing. I wouldn’t recommend trying to write in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable for you. Not all writers should employ difficult words and this can really effect the clarity of your argument if not used properly.

Don’t forget to give yourself some breaks. Sometimes there’s nothing more efficient than a little walk to set your brain straight again. New ideas might even come from it.

The thesis defence

This part can be terrifying for some people as it requires to "defend" your work in front of (usually) your supervisor and another professor. The defence work needs to be reflexive and shouldn't merely be a repetition of what you have already written in your thesis. It needs to brings new perspectives, some insights but also some limitations.

Usually, the defence goes for about 30 minutes with 10/15 minutes of presentation and 10 minutes of questions and feedback from the professors. A good way to structure it would be:
- Explaining why you picked this topic and why it is relevant today
- Go through the major terms, problematics and hypothesis 
- Mention how you methodologically and empirically built your study field and how it went on the field
- Question the limitations of your work: what could you have done better and why didn't you do it?
- Conclude by giving some new perspectives on a future research

Don't stress too much and think that at a Master's level, the professors aren't here to "destroy" your work but too give you the right feedback so you can do even better at your PhD. They will definitely question your argument so don't hesitate asking your supervisor what he/she thinks could be a potential question. The best way to prepare is to note down a list of a few potential questions yourself by reflecting on the limitations of your work.

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To conclude, writing a thesis is awesome. When you finish it, you feel like an absolute champion. At a Master’s level, it's already challenging but largely doable if you are organised and truly interested in your topic. So no need to worry about it; just do it and enjoy the ride. You will love yourself for it later on.