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Research typically begins with a consideration of what has been written previously in your field of study, or a review of the relevant literature, so as to become acquainted with current issues, debates and developments in the area. This allows you to become aware of the work of other people, to avoid duplication and to ensure you make an original contribution to research.
Let's examine the context in which your reading of academic journal articles takes place. There are a few things to note.
Reading the most recent research is crucial. Researchers communicate their findings by publishing journal articles and these usually precede books. Each researcher is endeavouring to advance the knowledge of their field and thus utilises and acknowledges the work of others.
Researchers, in most disciplines, seek to persuade readers to their point of view. This varies according to the discipline, but even in presenting scientific findings, the writing can be exerting a persuasive effect on the reader.
This means that often you are not reading pure facts and information, but reading one writer's argument about a particular issue or a piece of research. Thus one of the tasks of a review of the relevant literature is to be able to sort out very clearly who is saying what, and the evidence they are presenting to persuade the reader to their point of view.
However, a review of the literature must be focused, and this is often an area of confusion for new students. The reason for surveying the literature relevant to your research is to enable you to locate your work in a context or tradition. You should try to answer the questions:
You need to get very specific in reviewing each relevant article and telling your reader exactly which parts of another researcher's research have contributed to yours. It may be their methodology or insights that they have communicated. It may be the theorists that inform their work.
It is crucial that you reach a point of clarity in your reading of journal articles - it is a key building block for the writing task.
At the postgraduate level, you should be a habitual note maker because you will retain very little otherwise. Note making is an important foundation of good writing and clear thinking.
You can make notes on EndNote files or store them elsewhere on your computer, or file them together with a copy of the article in a filing box or cabinet. Some students prefer a handwritten card system. Whichever system you use, you must have a filing system and use it meticulously because of the volume of reading you will be doing over the life of your project.
As well as comprehending material and making notes you should be reflecting critically on each article or piece of research.
Questioning is the way to begin thinking critically - and this is a key aspect of postgraduate research. It is through asking questions of your material that you will advance your own thinking about your work.
Then you must plan how you will discuss the articles for your literature review and this involves organising your ideas. Concept mapping - where you draw what you know - can be very useful for organising a large body of material. Perhaps you can organise it around themes that have emerged from your review of the literature.
Through your postgraduate candidature you are being trained as an apprentice researcher and academic. You thus have to conform to the conventions of academic writing. The main requirement, of course, is that every thesis must have a central argument, often known as the thesis statement or claim. A thesis may have a number of claims which it sets out to investigate. They are in fact the organising concepts of your research and of the whole thesis. Within the thesis there may be sub-arguments sustained throughout the document. The whole of the thesis must logically refer often to its main thesis statement. So how do you generate thesis statements?
The thesis claims or statements may develop from your initial research questions, or issues that arise from your literature review or which occur to you at any time.
These thesis claims need to be discussed in the introduction of the thesis and again in your conclusion. They suggest a structure for the whole of the document, as it must proceed logically and refer back to these claims regularly.
Developing a logical structure for your thesis flows from the thesis claims. Logical structure is crucial - it is an important part of how your writing is assessed. So planning or developing a road map for your writing is essential.
So that the length of the document does not become intimidating (around 80,000 words at Deakin for a doctorate) you need to plan it in sections and chapters and then plan each of these individually as you prepare to write each segment. Then the writing project becomes a series of essays rather than one huge document.
You can chart your progress and it is wonderful how quickly that large word limit can be realised.
Remember there is a 50,000 word limit on masters and a 100,000 word limit on doctoral theses. Bear in mind that these are upper limits. The thesis should only be as long as necessary. Examiners complain about lengthy theses, but never about short ones.
Writing is a major means of knowing what we think. This is because writing captures our thinking. If we don't write our thoughts down we risk them going around in our heads and not advancing anywhere. An argument must advance logically throughout your document. Most of us can only take an argument further through writing it down, analysing it, thinking further beyond it and writing this all down as we go. So, regardless of what discipline you are in, we recommend that you write constantly - not just formally, but informally as well.
Keep a journal and write down your thoughts daily. Insights on your topic will occur at quiet moments; always write these down. Another huge advantage of doing this is to reduce anxiety. The idea is that you have been writing informally around and about your topic for so long that the formal thesis writing becomes a natural extension of the thinking process and not a huge barrier producing fear and dread.
We often don't know exactly what we are arguing until we have written the document. That is fine, as long as you then go back and redraft your introduction or whatever you need to do by way of editing. Many people write their introduction last because they feel they can't fully 'know' their thinking until they have written it.
Critical thinking is another important skill you need to be developing and incorporating into your written work. A way of developing a critique of a text is to ask questions of the text. In answering these questions you will articulate insights about the text.
It is very important to work out your position in relation to the texts you are reading. This is called being self-reflexive and, particularly in the arts or social sciences, this is well regarded. Being critical of what you are reading - this means seeing both the positives as well as the negatives - is part of your studies and it is expected that you will develop critical thinking through your engagement with your academic work. You should try to include your observations or insights about a particular text into your literature review and throughout your thesis.
Writing in an academic style does not mean writing to impress but, rather, writing to clearly and accurately communicate your message. However, at postgraduate level, mastery of the language of your discipline is, of course, expected, so you have a dual responsibility - to use the language of your discipline accurately but in a clear, concise way.
We have looked at the importance of developing a thesis statement and articulating an argument throughout your document. We have also mentioned the form of the document. What you now need to do is to signpost your argument or logical structure throughout the document, and to make your work clear and accessible to your readers.
Another essential requirement is the acknowledgement of every source that has contributed to your thinking and to the writing of your thesis. This is done through referencing.
Your attribution of sources for your thesis must be beyond reproach, because failure to reference suggests plagiarism and that can be grounds for failure. Make sure you check with your supervisor or your Faculty HDR coordinator as to the style of referencing which is required for your discipline and check with your faculty for more specific style guidelines for your thesis.
Researching and writing a thesis can be very challenging but ultimately rewarding as it gives you the opportunity to really engage deeply with your subject matter and discover new knowledge.