Home : Runny Noses, Sunspots and Thesis Writing

Certainly, thesis writing is one of the purest forms of self-publishing which is why I’ve included this post here. In my work as a professor, I regularly encounter students who get “stuck” while writing their thesis papers.  A good framework for developing, presenting and supporting a well-developed thesis reveals what to write, how to organize it and how to get it finished without a struggle.

First, it’s important to understand what a thesis is; many students don’t (and many institutions have difficulty explaining it). Two relevant definitions (according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary) are:

1 : a position or proposition that a person (as a candidate for scholastic honors) advances and offers to maintain by argument : a proposition to be proved…

2: a dissertation embodying results of original research and especially substantiating a specific view; especially : one written by a candidate for an academic degree

These definitions are closely related. The thesis itself is an assertion you intend to prove true. The thesis paper is, as stated, intended to substantiate a specific view. 

Observation: A thesis is driven by an observed problem. Let’s take two examples; one theoretical and one taken from an actual Graphic Design Master’s thesis.

Example 1. (theoretical) A patient has a runny nose.
Example 2. (actual) As a Graphic Design student, you observe that Art Therapy patients are rejecting visual, therapeutic materials.

You have identified a symptom. You have observed that something is wrong. The next step is to validate your observation. You’re trying to prove an assertion; any statement you make is subject to question. In the case of the runny nose, you may cite a simple doctor’s note as evidence that the runny nose is not an opinion; it’s a verifiable medical fact. Validate your observation that patients reject Art Therapy materials by conducting research, finding articles and interviewing therapists. Prove your observation is legitimate by showing it’s verified by third-party experts.

Consequences: Next, demonstrate that the observed symptom is connected to a problem. If the observed symptom has no consequences, it’s not worth correcting.

Example 1. Runny noses cause discomfort, loss of sleep, loss of work and potential spread of contagious diseases.
Example 2.  Patients who reject therapy don’t get the benefits of treatment.

As before, document the validity of your claims. Find an article by an expert discussing the spread of contagious infection from noses to hands to doorknobs to new hosts. Locate a study that reveals 76% of patients who undergo Art Therapy experience relief from post-traumatic stress syndrome after a year compared to only 23% of those who don’t (my made-up statistics). Evidence supports the validity of your observations. Evidence supports your assertion that the cause of the problem is worth finding and addressing.

Up to this point, you haven’t worried about identifying either the problem or its causes. You’re setting off down a road of inquiry; you need the blessings of your faculty advisors and thesis committee members to take that journey. Their job is to pressure-test every assertion you make. Before you begin your quest, you must convince them you are off to solve a real problem that causes real damage. To earn their support, verify that something is happening and that something is a symptom of a real problem.

Diagnose the Problem: Now, finally, you get to identify the problem. Be innovative. Make a clever diagnosis relevant to your academic discipline.

Example 1. A runny nose can be a sign of allergies, cold, flu or even leukemia. Perhaps you can link a high incidence of runny nose symptoms to something unexpected like sunspots? Do you have a new theory worth testing?
Example 2. Propose that Art therapists typically have Fine Art degrees and therefore lack the training in Graphic Design they need to produce engaging therapeutic materials.

You’ve made an assertion about what the problem is. In example 1, if you can plot runny nose statistics on a graph along with sunspot activity, you can (for purises of this discussion) produce statistical evidence supporting your claimed connection between the symptom and the problem you intend to prove is the cause of it. In example 2, the student investigated the educational backgrounds of Art Therapists. As a trained Graphic Designer, she analyzed their therapeutic materials. Do Art Therapists employ good type choice and type hierarchy? Do their images communicate in a visual language appropriate to their target viewers? Instead of judging the materials to be “bad” or “amateurish,” her even-handed critique was based on how these materials deviated from established good design principles and practices. She surveyed and interviewed patients to directly evaluate their reactions to the therapy materials and verify she found the problem.

This is an excellent thesis topic. Why? It could very well catalyze important changes in Art Therapy education and practice. It could open up new career opportunities for Graphic Designers. It could provoke changes that lead to more patients embracing and benefiting from therapies they might otherwise reject. It’s research that challenges the status quo. Even if its publication accomplishes nothing, the thesis demonstrates the student’s capacity for objective analysis and leadership.

Keep asking “why?” until you drill deep enough to find the real problem. When first discussing the topic, this student identified the problem as “Art Therapy materials suck.” It’s easy to confuse symptoms with problems; when she began to ask “why do art therapy materials suck?” it led her to discover an innovative, valuable and clever problem worth researching and writing about.

Prescribe a Solution: Having made and supported a diagnosis, it’s finally time to prescribe your treatment or solution.

Example 1. Sunspots can’t be controlled so all we can do is distribute tissue during times of high sunspot activity along with information that educates runny nose sufferers about the (probably) non-infectious nature of their symptoms.
Example 2. Create educational posters and develop a set of best-practices as a reference for Art Therapists to use when creating therapeutic materials.

Example 1 has reached its practical dead end so we’ll move on to example 2. Many solutions can address the problem of Art Therapists’ lack of Graphic Design training, but a reality check is in order. A graduate candidate’s thesis paper is not likely to convince the educational establishment that it has been mis-training therapists for decades. Instead, the student wisely elected to develop supplementary training materials that fill holes in therapists’ skillsets while stimulating discussion within their professional community. It’s a practical solution that doesn’t require a massive overhaul of an established profession and the educational system that feeds and credentials it. The scope of work is within the reasonable limits of what a Master’s Degree Candidate is expected to accomplish. Additionally, the supporting project work is clearly related to the written thesis.

These examples reveal a logical progression of assertions and supportive research that make an excellent foundation for thesis writing.

1. Make an observation and verify that outside experts can see it, too.
2. Show that your observation is a matter of concern. Research and explain its consequences.
3. Diagnose the problem as it relates to your discipline. Research and support your conclusions.
4. Propose and support a solution to the problem relevant to your discipline.
5. Conclude with a concise summary and include suggestions for further research and exploration as appropriate.
6. Create project work that demonstrates the validity of your proposed solution.

This approach also clarifies much of what doesn’t need to be included in the final paper. Though a student may initially think it prudent to gather a great deal of information about mucous membranes or the history of Art Therapy, it’s difficult to determine what real value that would add to the thesis paper. As long as readers have experienced a runny nose or are provided with a summary understanding of what Art Therapy is, it’s better not to burden them with pages of quasi-relevant information that don’t directly support the chain of supported assertions leading to a proven thesis.

If, like many graduate students, you find yourself “stuck” or “lost,” take the information you’ve gathered and consider whether it should be labeled “symptom/observation,” “consequence”, “disease/problem,” or “prescription/solution.” Make physical folders, copy-paste information into separate documents or use writing software to organize your work, but proceed only after you have a plan in-hand. Discuss gray areas with your instructors and then proceed down your road of inquiry with a full tank of gas and a good map of the route to success. You may find yourself actually enjoying the thesis writing process.


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