The Right Thesis Statement Can Save You 12 Months in Graduate School

Your Thesis Statement Can Save (or Cost) You Years in Grad School

“Do you have a thesis statement?” I asked Mike during our coaching session.

He paused, and then asked hesitantly:

“A thesis statement? I am working on my slides, not my thesis draft.”

Mike was preparing for his committee meeting to defend his thesis proposal.

He had spent weeks preparing his slides, and his biggest fear was that he wouldn’t know the answer to a committee member’s question.

Mike, like most students, didn’t want to “fail” his thesis proposal defense or be humiliated in front of his committee.

However, he spent his time making micro-adjustments to his slides, rather than defining the most important part of his presentation: his thesis statement.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the purpose a thesis statement, and when it should be presented.

In summary, your thesis statement is the core argument of your research. 

Whether you are writing your thesis draft or presenting your work, the more concise and clear your thesis statement is, the better your audience will follow you.

In addition, the more clear you are about your thesis statement, the easier it will be for you to write your draft or prepare your slides.

If you are not sure whether you have the right thesis statement, ask yourself:

“What is the take-home message I want my audience to walk away with?”

The core argument of a well-designed manuscript or presentation can be summarized in 1-2 sentences.

Most students try to convey too many results to impress their committees.

When you bite off more than you can chew, you are penalizing yourself in two ways.

First, there is more work for you to do in researching and writing up such a broad thesis topic.

Second, a vague manuscript or presentation without focus will confuse your committee members.

They are more likely to disagree with your work, or ask for major revisions.

Your thesis statement needs to have three major components:

  1. Introduce the topic
  2. Your argument (you need to take a stand, not just regurgitate information)
  3. Why your audience should care

Before you dive into writing your thesis draft or presentation, define your thesis statement first:

“What am I trying to tell my audience, and why is it important?”

Once you have a clear and concise thesis statement, it will be easier to determine what information to include in draft or slides.

Don’t make the mistake of getting lost in the minutiae of your research.

Without a clear thesis statement, you may spending a lot of time writing about topics that will not make it into your final draft.

You can save yourself months, or probably years, in graduate school if you invest the time to define a clear thesis statement.

But, keep in mind that it can take some time for the right thesis statement to crystallize.

You may need to analyze your data in multiple ways, or collect additional information to fill in some gaps.

Keep in mind that the time you invest in defining the right thesis statement, will not only save you time down the road, but also stress on yourself and your family.

What constitutes a strong thesis statement varies across disciplines.

The best way to know what your committee is looking for is to read dissertations from students whose theses have already been approved.

The thesis statement is usually at the end of the introductory paragraph, to segway into the rest of the thesis which supports this statement.

How to Build Your Thesis Statement in 5 Unconventional Steps

Your thesis statement should include your argument and how you’ll prove the argument to be true.

The following 5 steps will help you to build a strong thesis statement:

Step #1: Break the rules  (after all, this is original research)

Think back to your early days in school.

The first time you wrote a thesis, you probably started with a definitive thesis statement, and then wrote your paper to back that statement up.

Perhaps your thesis statement was assigned by your teacher.

For your grad school thesis, or dissertation, I suggest you try a very different approach.

Instead of starting with a thesis statement and constructing your paper below, build your thesis from the inside out, by starting with your research question.

What is the difference between a thesis statement and a research question?

Your thesis statement is the argument you are presenting to answer your research question

Your research question defines the scope of your research.

When you begin by clarifying your research question, you can start to collect the relevant information to answer it.

Collect information to support your research question until you have all 3 components of your thesis statement:

  • Your topic
  • Your argument
  • Why it is important

You don’t have to have a perfectly-formed thesis in order to write your thesis statement.

In fact, your thesis statement will be stronger if you spend some time writing your manuscript before you formulate it.

Step #2: Just get started (you are more ready than you realize)

I remember taking weeks to get started on one of my first literature reviews for grad school.

I just never seemed to have a clear idea of what I wanted to say.

I’d stare at a blank screen for a few minutes, before giving up and going back to reading more articles.

When I told one of my classmates, she laughed. “I never know what I want to say in my first draft,” she told me, “I just start writing and figure it out along the way.”

I took her advice and just started writing.

The first draft was a complete mess, but it didn’t matter.

I already had a clearer view of my point.

Even after editing that first draft, I still had plenty of material I would be able to build on for the review.

Before you even think about writing down your thesis statement, it’s okay to just start writing whatever comes to you first.

Write about your methodology, your experiments, anything where your ideas are easy to jot down. You can even just start with summarizing results, without worrying about analysis yet.

If you get stuck on an idea or a phrase, just skip over it and start writing again at a different point.

Don’t worry if your writing is chaotic or disorganized.

The goal at this stage is just to get momentum going.

Some of what you write in this first draft will probably exceed your expectations.

Most importantly, it’ll give you a clearer picture of what you want to include in your final thesis.

Step #3: Write an outline—then change it if you want!

Once you’ve started writing a bit, sit down and create an outline of your thesis.

You don’t have to go into a ton of detail, just map out the broad sections of your thesis.

You can even start with a simple table of contents instead of a full outline.

Outlines are especially helpful when you’re writing your draft in chunks that aren’t in order.

This way, the outline will remind you of what you need to cover, and make it easier to put the sections in order once the time comes.

Above all, your outline should help you, so get creative to make it as useful as possible.

When you’re deep into the writing process, expect to rearrange your outline as needed, and do whatever will make that easier or more fun.

I’m a visual person, so I actually printed out my outline and cut out each section.

I put them in order on the corkboard above my desk.

During revision, I simply moved the sections around as needed.

It made revisions easier and less daunting, and helped me to visualize the finished product.

My workspace probably looked like total chaos to anyone else, but to me it all made perfect sense.

Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks about your writing process.

As long as you are creating a coherent manuscript, you are on the right track

In fact, the best part about staying flexible with your outline, is that it will help you to get into the flow of writing.

Step #4: Focus on your core

No, I’m not talking about Pilates, although exercise is a great way to beat writer’s block!

I’m talking about your hypothesis, or your core research question.

Before you started your research, you almost certainly formulated a research question, or core hypothesis.

Go back to that core for crafting your thesis.

If writing your thesis is like building a skyscraper, your core hypothesis represents the steel beams.

Even if no one sees your research question except for you, it’s still a fundamental building-block of your thesis statement.

While your hypothesis is the foundation for your thesis, it’s important to remember that they aren’t the same thing.

A hypothesis is a supposition that is the basis for your research, that may or may not be true.

Some theses are based on a core question instead of a hypothesis.

Either way, the purpose is the same: it’s a jumping-off point for your research.

Your thesis statement is the key conclusion you’ve drawn from your research, and how you will prove that it’s true.

The results themselves are the basis of your thesis statement.

Your thesis statement will change, and probably go through several drafts and incarnations, before the final draft is done.

This is all part of the process.

Step #5: Build on what you have 

Now that you have your broad outline, your core research question, and the beginning of a first draft, it’s time to really focus on your thesis statement.

Your initial hypothesis might have been broad, and probably only included a simple assertion without a lot of context.

That’s fine!

But your thesis statement will have to do more to be effective.

When you first write down your thesis statement, don’t worry if it sounds clumsy.

You’ll have a chance to revise it later.

Think of the first draft as more of a “statement of purpose” than an actual thesis statement.

While it doesn’t need to sound pretty, your statement of purpose should do everything that a good thesis statement does.

This means it should make an argument, define the scope of that argument, and briefly explain how you will prove it.

Here’s a thesis statement example that does all three of these things:

“The role of middle-class women in America expanded during the Victorian Era, which is evident from reading novels, personal letters, and prescriptive texts from the era.”

It has the argument: “The role of women expanded.” It has the scope: “middle-class, in America, during the Victorian Era.”

And it includes how you’ll prove the argument: “reading novels, personal letters, and prescriptive texts.”

Once you have a thesis statement, or a statement of purpose, that includes these three points, you’ve crossed a major milestone in your thesis-writing process.

This is the core argument that should guide the rest of your writing and revising.

What’s more, a good thesis statement will help you decide what you need to include in your thesis, and what you can leave out.

Anything you include in your paper should contribute to your thesis statement in some way.

A working thesis statement will keep you on track by setting clear parameters for your argument, and ultimately finish your thesis sooner.

What is your #1 challenge when it comes to writing your thesis or thesis statement?

Please leave a comment below and I will respond to you directly

Dora Farkas, PhD

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