Guidelines for Theses / Scholarly Projects

MURILLO METHOD: A GUIDE     (Introduction)     (Part I)     (Part III)


Your project is a research and/or scholarly report. The report concerns a problem or topic in an area and it should describe what was known about it previously, what you did toward solving or discussing the phenomenon, what you think your conclusions mean, and where or how further progress in the field can be made.

Some General Advice:
For many writers, the project is the longest manuscript they've written, so its very length is often the most overwhelming aspect of the task. Yet the task won't overwhelm you if you adhere to the following advice.
Think of the project as a series of small related tasks. Do not think of the whole task. You don't have to "write the project"; instead, you have a series of tasks to perform, many of which you have probably performed in the past:
1) Do some research of the literature (similar in scope -- if not in exact procedure or techniques -- to research you have performed for various classes).
2) Summarize and perhaps comment upon the literature that you have examined. You have probably done literature searches for classes before.
3) Perform some experiments or do some fieldwork. Again, these are tasks you are probably already familiar with from classes.
4) Write up the results of those experiments or interpretations to fieldwork.
5) Draw conclusions from what you have done.
6) See how your results and conclusions fit in with the literature and work in your field.
7) Put all these pieces together into a coherent whole, following the prescribed format.
8) Edit your document carefully for format, spelling, grammar, and mechanics.
Seen from this perspective, writing a project is merely performing a series of tasks with which you are already familiar.
Similarly, do not think "I have to write a whole project!"
Instead, think of writing several small pieces, each piece no longer than manuscripts you've written in the past. The only difference here is that you will be stitching all those pieces together into a whole document at the end of the writing process. One of the biggest mistakes project writers make is trying to write the whole project rather than writing it a piece-at-a-time.
In the same vein, do not put off writing the project until the end.
Another typical and costly mistake that project writers often make is trying to do all the other (more familiar) tasks first (e.g., performing experiments, conducting the literature search) before they write a word. This is not a productive approach. Start writing now, even if it is only your random thoughts. As you search through the literature, for example, keep comprehensive notes. On a day when you can't get to the library or when you've looked at all possible sources, start writing your summaries of the literature. Also write long notes to yourself about how you think your topic will connect to the literature you've read. These notes will do two things: first, they may be a valuable source of information later on in the process; second, they get you writing. In short, any task that you are performing can be written about.
Try to write 15 minutes every day.
This writing may be the extensive notes mentioned above, a description to yourself of the experiment you performed today, or perhaps thoughts about the project as a whole. By writing every day you accomplish at least two things: first, you reduce anxiety about WRITING by proving to yourself that you can do it every day; second, much of what you write will probably be, either directly or indirectly, the source of material for your project.
Don't forget that you have written several successful documents before (or you
wouldn't be at this stage of writing a project).
You are not alone.
Almost every scholarly writer, including many of the professors whose work you admire and whose guidance you seek, has felt overwhelmed by the task.
Don't isolate yourself during the project process.
Although it may feel difficult at first to discuss your fears or doubts, talk to other people in your program (other project writers, other students, faculty members). You'll discover that they too have fears and brief bouts with writer's block. Sharing your feelings will get rid of much of the anxiety by showing that you are just like everyone else. Also, share suggestions about how to overcome obstacles.
Don't endure writer's block.
Most writers get writer's block occasionally. It's not a career-ending disease, but it can make life miserable. There are two kinds of writer's block -- the total block (you can't write anything) and the partial block (you can write, but the writing is very painful and difficult and is taking much more time than it usually does).
Whatever you do, don't simply try to suffer through either kind of block; don't try to "gut out" the block. Instead, get advice. Fast. Not getting help will get you into trouble since part of any writer's block is caused by "deadline anxiety." The longer you put off solving your problem, the closer the deadline gets. So the block gets worse, not better. Where do you get help? Talking to friends and faculty members can help.
One final note: In deciding what goes where and what to include, you will have to make many judgment calls. There are no cut-and-dried formulas for making these decisions. You have to think carefully about the purpose of your project and who will be reading it. Ask your Chair / Readers and/or program for advice on any such issues.
Having a ``writing buddy'' is a good idea. If they're working on their project at the same time, so much the better, but the most important thing is that they be willing to give you feedback on rough drafts, meet regularly to chart your progress and give you psychological support, and preferably that they be familiar enough with your field to understand and review your writing.

   Getting Feedback:
To be successful, it is essential that you learn to cope with criticism, and even that you actively seek it out. Learn to listen to valid, constructive criticism and to ignore destructive, pointless criticism (after finding any pearls of wisdom that may be buried in it).
In order to get feedback, you have to present your ideas. Write up what you're working on, even if you're not ready to write a full chapter, and show it to people. Write carefully and clearly, to maximize your chances of getting useful comments (and of having people read what you wrote at all).
Giving feedback to other students and colleagues is also useful for many reasons. First, it helps you to polish your critical skills, which are helpful both in understanding other people's work and in evaluating your own. Second, it helps you to build a network of people who will be your colleagues for years to come. Finally, if you give useful feedback, those people will be more likely to make an effort to do the same for you.
It will be helpful (to you and to the person whose paper you're reviewing) to organize comments on a paper in descending order of abstraction: high-level content-oriented comments, mid-level stylistic and presentation comments, and low-level nitpicky comments on syntax and grammar. Try to keep your comments constructive (``this would read better if you defined X before introducing Y'') rather than destructive (``this is nonsense'').
You'll want to read a paper at least twice -- once to get the basic ideas, then a second time to mark down comments. High-level comments describing your overall impression of the paper, making suggestions for organization, presentation and alternative approaches to try, potential extensions, and relevant references are generally the most useful and the hardest to give.

   The Biggest Obstacles to Selecting a Workable Topic:
The biggest (interrelated) obstacles I perceive as constraining students in selecting their topics are these:
1) often students want to do something "meaningful" for their project, which gets translated into selecting a very broad topic, often with sustainability in the title. The broader the topic, the harder it is for students to get anywhere, in my experience.
2) often students think that a successful project will be their mark on the world, that is, a grand statement of their world view and how to solve major problems. The difficulties caused by this view are the same as above.
3) sometimes students do not want to actually select one topic, because that means saying no to all the rest of the appealing topics they could imagine. The problem is that time passes, and students do not get done. This problem is exacerbated by the desire to do something "meaningful" as in (1) above.
You get the picture. The difficulties do not stem from students wanting to "underachieve' in terms of the effort they put into the project. Rather it is the opposite problem: the students are over-ambitious in attempting to attack a big problem with limited time and resources.
The answer to all these obstacles are to pick a topic that is well-defined, reasonably well-constrained, and that can be addressed well with the methods and information you have available. I personally would think about topics that have some professional appeal to you.
Adopting this approach would go some distance to overcoming what I see as the biggest difficulty the faculty faces in supervising masters' students. This difficulty is the tendency for masters' theses to become two thirds (or more) of a Ph.D. project. This difficulty arises remarkably often. Sometimes the student finishes with no problems, but in other cases, talented students have difficulty finishing because they take jobs, run out of money, or have changes in their personal lives that make it hard to continue.
Obviously, one of the responsibilities of the faculty is to help the students pick workable topics that make sense as a master's project.

   Basic Steps:
Generally, the student (you) have to take the lead in identifying a topic. In a professional program like this one, it would be rare for your Chair to have the funding that is needed to identify a topic and ask a student if they want to work on it, with financial support. While this process happens sometimes, it is not common, simply because we do not have the resources Moreover, a part of graduate school training is that students need to learn how to ask, and answer, sensible questions. So picking a topic is part of your training.

   The Project Proposal/Prospectus:
Once you are ready to move beyond the One-Pager, I suggest you write a Proposal/Prospectus (although this step is not necessarily required by the Program). It may vary in length, but usually ranges between 15 - 25 pages. The purpose is to provide a plan for the program that will encompass your larger project. The proposal/prospectus does not contain the actual study. What it does is contain the following elements:
   1) Context: Where does the project fit?
Your presentation of this context will place your project in a scholarly context, identify the problem (to be detailed in), show the ways in which your project is similar to or different from other studies, and demonstrate why the topic is of scholarly and professional interest.
   2) The Project: What are you proposing to do?
Your presentation of the context will have helped you to identify the problem (call it the topic if you prefer). Now you can tell your readers what you are going to do with the problem.
Very often, writers provide their hypotheses, an educated guess at the result of the project. You do not know the result until the project is finished (indeed, if you have already decided, your work will simply make an argument rather than outline a research project); however, the hypothesis indicates to the Graduate Committee that you know where you are heading. The hypothesis does not have to be confirmed as correct in the final product itself.
   3) Methodology: How are you going to do it?
The methodology should be appropriate to the kind of project you have undertaken. If you are doing a textual analysis of, for example, the court decisions in the disputed Lau vs. Nichols, you need to state, among other things, the text you will use and the theoretical apparatus you will adopt. If you propose to investigate the ways teaching oral skills in a multilingual classroom shapes students' writing ability, you need to talk about elements such as data collection,
methods of teaching oral skills, how you analyze your data.
   4) Significance: So what?
Why is it worthwhile for you to spend a significant portion of your life on this project and for your readers to read it? The significance of the project can be theoretical and/or practical. Very often a short paragraph, in which you discuss possible contributions the project will make to the field and/or practical implications the project may have on, say, the teaching of composition, ESL, or literature, is sufficient.
In addition to the above items, the following may be helpful:
   5) Feasibility: Are you able to handle it?
This is one of the concerns of your Project Committee. If you want to prove that there is life after death or on the moon, they want to make sure that you can actually do it. Therefore, if you convince them that you have had sufficient training and preparation in astronomy, access to NASA archives, among other things, you may get a green light from them. Otherwise, they might think: "It is a great idea, but..."
    6) Outline: What will your project include?
A chapter breakdown would be helpful if you want to indicate to the committee that you have already organized your ideas at some macro level. In terms of presentation of the proposal, you need to pay attention to the following:
The topic should be narrow and specific; the goals should be clearly stated. Tell them unambiguously what you are proposing to do. Remember: phrase your statement in one sentence, read it to others, and ask them what they think you plan to do. Define your terms. Treat the Committee as lay readers in your field, although they are most definitely not. The ability to discuss complicated issues in simple terms shows that you have a clear idea about what you are doing. Avoid unnecessary excursions or fluff. Unnecessary concepts. issues, and terminologies very often do one thing: they open a can of worms. Use the right tone: be assertive when needed; be tentative when needed. Use proper manuscript form (APA style). It is important to be succinct and clear. Make sure that what you say is what you mean.
If approached correctly, the proposal/prospectus is the first half or first third of your final product It should serve as a blueprint for your final product.
    Although totally optional I suggest the following outline:
1) Introduction
    a. Statement of the Problem / Topic
    b. Goals and Objectives
    c. Significance of the Project
    d. Statement of Needs
    e. Definition of Terms
2) Review of Related Literature
3) Design and Methodology
4) Appendices
5) References