What Is It Really Like to Write a Master's Thesis?

Freelance Writer

Apr   2015



As I write this, I’m eyeing a pile of books in the corner of my room. It has slowly grown out of control, spreading across the floor like some sort of ivy plant gone rogue. The titles have changed over time, as has the size of the pile, subject to my whims and overdue fees. Committing to 50+ pages on one subject is a daunting task—even more daunting than the thought of returning this pile to the library—but the truth is, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a few things in the process of writing my master’s thesis . . .

Early advisor meetings

Most schools suggest meeting with an advisor before you begin, which put me at ease. My biggest fear was narrowing down that vast world of research to a unique yet valid topic, but thesis advisors can help suggest ideas if you have only vague ones. They can also prevent anxiety: once I found out about all the support measures in place for the thesis, I felt less intimidated. Finally, meeting early is helpful for learning ground rules in advance. I spent hours reading about Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago in preparation for my first advisor meeting—unnecessarily, it turned out, as my program rules state that I need to write on texts originally written in English. Good thing I went as early as I did.

Thinking of an idea

I’m struck by how much my idea has changed over time. Every text I read seems to lead to a new source, which can then lead down a different path altogether. As you research, you’ll likely discover that others have already stated or somehow challenged your ideas; you may change your mind or tweak your focus. My idea was based on a paper I wrote a year ago but has grown to encompass more as I traverse more interesting historical and literary paths. I assumed most of my research would be done later in the process, but most of it was done while simply trying to articulate my idea.

Holding others accountable

This can be tricky. Faculty advisors have a lot going on, and your thesis may not be at the top of their list. If you submit your thesis to them chapter by chapter, meet when possible, and establish clear feedback deadlines, it helps them manage the work. It also ensures that feedback comes earlier so you can prevent going in the wrong direction.

Bite-sized pieces

This is not necessarily a surprise, but my #1 enemy in this process has been procrastination. I’ve dealt with it by taking on small chunks at a time. I leave a stack of articles on my nightstand and read one each night before bed, or try to set aside two- or three-hour blocks for small, manageable tasks. Scheduling frequent meetings with advisors also helps hold me accountable: knowing a meeting is approaching prevents me from putting off work.

Editing, editing, editing

As you become more immersed in your writing, it gets increasingly difficult to spot errors. As an editor who focuses on master’s theses, I find that even well-written, polished work always contains typos and tense mistakes (especially in literature reviews). Having several people read your thesis—or if you’re especially uncomfortable, hiring an editor or talking a grammar-geek friend into helping—is definitely a good idea.

Surprisingly . . . fun?

Presumably, if you’ve made it to your thesis, you’re earning a degree in a subject that you enjoy. The opportunity to focus long-term on something that’s important to you can be very refreshing in today’s 140-character society, and the feeling of contributing to the literature in a subject you love is incredibly satisfying. I’ve become more immersed than I thought I would and have really enjoyed the process.

At least that’s what I’ll try to remind myself when I have to rent a moving truck to return all these books.

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About Jessica McCann

Jessica McCann

Jessica McCann works in research communications at Harvard University as well as a freelance writer and editor. She graduated in 2004 from Northeastern University with a BA in English and a minor in international affairs, and in 2017 with a master’s in English Literature from Harvard University Extension School. Outside of work, Jess is usually doing yoga, running, traveling, or eating ice cream cones on the beach.