Friday, March 5, 2010

On MA Research... (and Its Limitations)

Well, first a disclaimer. It's only my MA thesis, so I'm not paid or have a job to go with it or anything. So I know (almost) nothing about the lives of professional researchers and I don't claim I'd be a good one because, on the basis of the work I've done so far, that would be plain bragging.

But if you're doing or have done any research that requires a nice paper summing up the results, you know what I'm talking about. It's a totally unusual experience, not something that people come across in their everyday lives. You need a totally different set of skills to put so much information into a concise but understandable read. So here's my experience.

I've enjoyed it immensely. In fact, so much so that I have some nice plans for the time I'm done with this project. I'm going to have another blog with small "amateur" research projects, about things that have intrigued me a lot while doing this one but I didn't have time to look into them. I won't have to write thousand of words about the results (which I guess I will eventually but without setting such a goal) and there will be no pressure to meet any requirements.

So how's it going?

The hardest part of the work was to defeat my own worries. It seemed such a huge project that I didn't know if I was capable of carrying it out. I had to do lots of new things that I hadn't been taught how to do and sometimes I had no idea how to set about them. But I followed the rule, only considered the next step to take without worrying about the rest (not always easy), and finally it all turned out well.

One misconception I had all along was that I cannot fill up 40 pages. I'd written fairly good papers in 20 or so and I knew I could handle a project of that size perfectly. All along I had the conviction that this would make an awesome article in any periodical, only it wasn't to be one. It had to be 40 pages, and without any babbling. And that seemed impossible. Good studies are the ones that lack all the fringe, only contain the most important figures and details and make clear statements without going too much into detail. On the other hand, an MA thesis has a set length of 40-55 pages or so and I have to make readers believe that I've done all the work.

Sometimes I really felt silly writing 40 pages about a project I carried out on my own cost and responsibility. You might well imagine the scale of such a piece of work that a student can carry out, constantly fighting against the unwillingness of the people involved. I don't mean the participants -- but you have to get to them somehow... And that's not easy without any official authorization.

But then I began to see how it all works. Forget about the length requirements. If you think logically, your paper's bound to be that long, given the amount of literature on any MA topic and the findings of any well designed questionnaire. You'll have enough things to write about anyway. So just stick to good old research styles and start putting your thoughts into words. you can always revise later. I've rewritten a couple of parts and it was much nicer to do so then writing on blank sheets, even if the outcome was totally different from the draft. It's all psychology, isn't it? ;)

Anyway, I think it's much more enjoyable if you do it as a piece of professional research. I hadn't really read theses before, they're nicely locked up in the library and I'm not a fan of libraries. (They never have the right book and you have to keep quiet, go thirsty for hours and they all smell of old paper and you can't buy the books...) So all I knew about was professional research, which usually makes up 20-30 pages (or a bit more in textbooks, but that's another matter). So I was trying to tone my quality down to get more quantity out of the project. But that wasn't the right approach.

Now I'm writing the last chapter and I'm doing it the right way. I have a concept in mind, a line of thought I want to follow. I know where I want to start and I know what conclusions I want to reach. And if something is not related to what I wish to convey, then I simply won't go into details. I'm sure I'll reach the 40 page limit by the end, but if I don't I can always add some bits. I'd rather write a very short and concise thesis than a long, boring one.

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