The Scholar: How to Edit your Masters’ Thesis

editing my master's thesis
at work on my master’s dissertation

In September 2011 when I began my studies in International History at Columbia University, I was amazed to see the orientation sessions filled with so many other young MA students like myself. New graduate programs are proliferating at American Universities. There are few statistics available yet about where today’s graduates go on to apply their skills, but there is certainly a tide of masters dissertations being written! These dissertations mean an awful lot to those who write them, particularly because we are often very early in our careers.

What is going to become of this type of research? It’s not clear if my university will keep a copy of my dissertation in its library. It certainly won’t be “digitized” even though I could have easily supplied a digital copy myself since it was written on a computer. Either way it likely won’t be available for future research online and in the very places where I conducted most of my own research. So far as I can tell, this dissertation is my work and if I want to do anything with it I will have to make that happen.

This fall, four months after “finishing” my dissertation and submitting it for assessment, I went back and rewrote my dissertation in my spare time because I wanted it to be a work I could be genuinely proud of. It took me, quite literally, a month of Sundays. This is what I have learned about what it takes.

HOW TO GO BACK AND EDIT YOUR MASTERS DISSERTATION:

1. Wait until you’re ready. It’s a good thing to wait after submission before you go back and reread your work. Four months was just about enough time for me to gain some perspective, to reflect upon on all the historical material I had actually gathered and the story my dissertation could tell. During that time, kindly friends and family kept asking me about what I had been up to over the past two years. It was much easier to tell my grandmother that I had been researching professionalization in the non-profit sector, rather than reading about evolving modes of expressing ethnicity. Having to talk about abstract ideas to “your average joe” was the most important thing I could have done to frame a better introduction to my work.

Relatively few people care about academic research, so how do you get people interested in your abstract research? At any occasion, there is going to be someone who wants to have a long and involved conversation about how things aren’t what they used to be, or politics, or some recent news. Even when people didn’t bring up my studies specifically, I found that I was often contributing my academic insight in a context relevant to the conversation at hand. The trick was to do this without people realizing what I was doing, to keep them interested enough to listen rather than alienate me as some selfish and boring conversationalist. Now, my own focus on ethnicity, migration, arts programming and non-profit fundraising are relatively topical academic subjects today. Someone who say, specializes in political treatises in 11th century Aquitaine might have a harder time doing this.

But I challenge you to do it. You will only be able to write a real Introduction when you can bring your research into a broader context. By no means would I say that academic research is only valuable because of how it relates to the present moment. I strongly believe that humanities research is valuable in and of itself because of how it helps us understand the world we have lived in. But I think that even the most obscure work is improved by transcending a narrow niche where experts only talk to each other in citations and jargon. Certainly challenging yourself to think broadly will allow you to express your own contribution clearly.

So with all this I think I talked my way towards a new introduction. When I finally sat down, I intentionally read through my whole dissertation in a single sitting. And I kept thinking, WOAH what about this, that and that? i had left out so much! I pulled out a legal pad and outlined three core concepts that emerged in different ways in each of my case studies. Then I rewrote my introduction to better frame those themes.

I am glad I rewrote my introduction first. The dissertation as a whole didn’t make sense without a proper introduction. Instead of a stilted “hook” and rambling historiography, I realized that there were several concepts that I needed to refer to throughout my work. So I explained those first. And then I said what I wasn’t going to say, and why. And then I said what I was going to say, and why it was interesting. And somehow, this straightforward approach pulled it all together in a way I couldn’t do in the two weeks I had before it was technically DUE.

It is hard to explain what edits I actually made, but I know I finally had the incisive voice necessary to introduce my research to an educated audience. It’s like that old adage about giving a speech: “Imagine the audience is naked.” To those of you writing an introduction: imagine you are at a barbecue, and your favourite uncle just arrived and the burgers are on and everyone has had a beer and is starting to argue about your thesis topic… This is a safe place to try out your wildest ideas.

2. It’s a good thing to be underemployed. At least, being underemployed after graduation gave me time to take my dissertation apart. It gave me time to reflect. Most people need time to really think about what they want to say, even after they have already said it.  You may need to reorganize your entire work to better reflect those ideas.

Luckily (or not so luckily for my final grade) I had restructured my dissertation the week before I submitted it. As I didn’t have much time at that point, my new 5-chapter layout was a bit haphazard. One of my chapters was based on quantitative research, and reviewing that analysis was relatively straightforward. Apart from changing the order of my paragraphs to present my data in a more logical sequence, that chapter hardly changed at all.

The other three chapters consisted of largely historical narrative and they needed more “tweaking” to flow. This was a very mysterious process… In my dissertation writing class, we had spent a lot of time discussing how to break down our thesis and elaborate arguments into chapter outlines. This was, of course, long before the research was complete. So I looked back at my original descriptive outline. Then rewrote it in order to clarify how the structure had developed! Finally, I added a lot more sub-headings to structure the work. Sub-headings are very useful.

3. Remember what you used to know about writing. You know, before you learned to use words like paradigmatic constructionism and hegemonic gender dynamics. In elementary school, we were taught to write with the Schaffer paragraph method. So I went back and made sure each of my paragraphs had a topic sentence, explained a concrete detail and ended with a concluding sentence. This was a lot of work. My paragraphs weren’t bad, but I had to cut and paste sentences here and there into a more straightforward order. I had to subdivide complicated paragraphs so there was only one idea in each. Most importantly, I had to make sure each concluding sentence made sense and actually transitioned into the next paragraph. I still have no idea how this works, but it either does or it doesn’t.

4. Don’t procrastinate. If you care enough to do this, it really is simple: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Whatever the relative merits of procrastination you have already waited long enough and I swear to you it is in your brain somewhere. You just have to sit down and let your fingers work away. Likely you already have developed your own study methods, so draw upon those skills to maximize your productivity. Just like, without a deadline.

Writing is not easy. At this point, editing is not about quantity, it’s about quality. Think about what you need to do and how you will do it. Set yourself reasonable goals. Edit one portion of the work and find out how long it would reasonably take you to do it again. And then plan to do it again. And again.

After I rewrote my introduction (which took me a week) – I was on a role and I proceeded to edit an entire chapter of my dissertation in one day. So I thought ok, I’ll give myself two days to do the same again. Then next day I opened up the bound copy of my dissertation and went at the next chapter with a red pen. Yes, I desecrated a printed and bound copy of my dissertation that cost me $40. It was easier that way. I used post-it notes to mark necessary structural changes and the larger themes to reiterate. Only then did I move to my laptop to input and track those changes in Word.  Then I went back and edited the chapter sentence by sentence. All four of my chapters were somehow fully edited in the space of a week.

5. Forming conclusions is always hard. Except it’s not. You already know what what you wanted to say before you started out. Writing the conclusion is the easiest part of editing your dissertation! Remember those motivations as you reiterate any specific discoveries. Only at this point is your writing finally able to wander into the unknown and ponder all those questions which got you started on this subject in the first place. It’s all very exciting.

After spending so much time editing my work, I decided to take about week away from the project to get some space from my ideas. Once I regained perspective, it was simple. In one sitting, my conclusion doubled in length and impact. Afterwards, I line-edited the entire piece in print because only when I think that I am finished, do I suddenly start seeing mistakes again. At some point, I called it quits. I had finally said what I wanted to say.

Now what? My own dissertation, aside from being a (hopefully) unique contribution to understanding transnational networks of cultural organizations within diaspora studies, is the culmination of years spent thinking, exploring and researching cultural centres all over the world. The first thing I wanted to do was to finally share my research with those who had helped me so much along the way. I reached out to colleagues, professors and my advisers – to thank them for helping me get to this point.

And I have a few ideas if I get the urge to share my work further. From my dissertation research I know which academic journals I might be able to contribute to should a relevant call for submissions emerge. Because my work on migration is topical, an Op-Ed might be an option as well.  If for some reason any of you are interested in reading my thesis, shoot me an email!

Building Ethnicity:
The evolution of Irish Cultural Centers in New York and London, 1960-1980

Abstract:
This dissertation examines the emergence of cultural centers and related emigrant non-profit services as a new organizational type of ethnic association in the United Kingdom and United States. In order to contextualize the ubiquitous cultural center, this research merges a macroscopic perspective of global migration patterns during the mid-to-late twentieth century with a microscopic perspective of three Irish Cultural Centers in metropolitan New York and London. This Irish case study provides insight to the professionalization of cultural and heritage projects within the non-profit sector while considering the transnational, multicultural and historical implications of global migrant networks.

Keywords: New York City, London Irish, Irish-American, diaspora studies, cultural center, ethnicity, non-profit sector, mutual aid, social networks, migration

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