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Start a thesis

How do you pick a topic and research question for your thesis or paper? And is your schedule realistic? Check out the tutorials and resources below.

Which steps should you take?

First of all, do you understand the assignment and the criteria? Write it down in your own words. What kind of sources do you have to use and when is the deadline? Are you allowed to choose your own topic? When deciding on a topic consider these pointers:

  • pick a topic that interests you (discipline, era, or method) for which you can find enough (1) relevant (2) academic and (3) accessible sources on the topic to base your argument on, without making the topic so broad that you are overwhelmed by its size. 
  • Take inspiration from your required readings, newspapers, or theses by former students. Making a mindmap might help you to see the bigger picture.
  • You can find background information on Google, Wikipedia, bibliographies and encyclopedia. Ask yourself: what can you add to the discussion.
  • Confirm that there are enough (1) relevant, (2) academic and (3) accessible sources which back up your argument. However, make sure that the topic does not become too big to maintain.

The tutorial Topic development helps you with choosing a topic (source: UMKC Libraries).

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Your research question needs to be focused and understandable for your audience.

  • Avoid questions that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, formulate a problem that you need to answer.
  • Choose an open-ended question by starting the question with ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘who’.
  • Write down what you know and still want to learn about your topic. 
  • Sharpening your question is always possible later on in the process.
  • For medical studies, take a look at the tutorials on the site Medischonderwijs.nl (Dutch only, you need a free account). 

Take a look at the tutorial 'How to write a research question' by George Mason University’s Writing Center

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It's important to make a realistic, concrete plan. This will help you to set goals and motivate yourself.

  • Start with a general overview of the amount of time you have: When is your deadline? When can you get started? How many hours can you realistically spend per week on this project?
  • Write down the steps you need to follow from start to end: go through this research guide to get an idea of how much time you need for your research. Don’t forget about things that might not be included here, such as spell checks, format checks, printing and binding etc.
  • A realistic schedule will help you to set goals and prevent stress by avoiding deadlines. Underestimating the amount of work needed to write a well-researched, well-written paper is the number one reason students get overwhelmed by the research process. So, be realistic about the amount of work you can put in in a day. 
  • Make a daily list of three practical things you want to have achieved at the end of the day and start with the most important one. 
  • Don’t forget to take a break: it is important to put aside your writing for a bit. When you revisit your text with fresh eyes, you’ll catch little inconsistencies which you overlooked earlier or you will have new insights to add to your argument. 
  • Read more about: setting goals, how to prepare a schedule or tips for time management.

Learn about prioritizing, setting goals, how to deal with distractions, procrastination, and what to do if you fall behind in the tutorial Time Management Skills (bron: the Open University).

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