Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Robyn’s Guide to Master’s Thesis Writing, or, How I Scheduled Everything.

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The victorious, tired grad student!

This is my first post in about a month, so I thought I’d start by updating you all about what I’ve been up to over the last few weeks!

Basically, I finished my thesis draft in the two weeks after my fieldwork was completed (and the last post was written). Guys, I did it, I wrote my thesis!!

I added in the rest of the fieldwork information, updated references and formatting, and wrote all of the discussion and conclusion sections before sending it over to my supervisor for the rest of the edits. When I got the edits back, I made the changes, got everything prepped, and sent it off as a PDF in it’s final form. My thesis is out for review now, you guys! It’s been in review for a few weeks now, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that it comes back to me soon!

As my friend Steph Halmhofer just did a post about how she put her thesis together, I was inspired to do the same. Everyone has different and interesting ways of approaching a project the size of a masters thesis and it’s always interesting to see their processes! I wanted to share mine, along with any advice from my experience that might be useful for future grad students.

The program:
My program is a 2-year full time Master of Arts program in Archaeology, and the goal of which is to produce an archaeology Thesis, the size of which is guided by your supervisor. My supervisor, Dr. Barry Gaulton, suggested that I aim for 150 pages of text before images, bibliography, and appendices, which miiiight be on the longer side but my eyes lit up when I heard that. I loooove writing! My thesis, or the version in review at the moment, weighed in at 207 pages including everything, and I’m pretty pleased with it!

My process: 
I’m a planner, so how I worked this whole thing out was through lists and lists and lists, diagrams that were mostly scribbled, a religiously referred-to, day planning, sticky notes, and a giant notebook to lay out everything else! My program was long, and I had 2 field seasons and a massive research pile and statistical analysis to write about, so I could probably have written more but it might have turned into a PhD-length project if I had!

Step 1 – Research (before and during writing)
While it’s often advised that you hold off on really delving into your research during the coursework of an MA, I did most of mine during classes (but of course you’ll be doing research while writing as well and that’s ok!). That, if you’d like to not stress out about your workload, is maybe not the best idea. I did it this way because I needed my statistical analysis completed before May 2016, in order to inform the GPR survey…to inform the excavation that year. That being said, I refuse to pull all-nighters, so I slept fairly well throughout!

I tried to keep notes on paper throughout my research, since I have a bad history of laptops dying mid-project, and it’s much easier for me to keep things organized if I can see it all as a hard copy. You might work better on the computer! Keep track of you references is especially important, as well as a running list of people who assisted your project so you don’t forget to mention them in your acknowledgements. My list was broken down into faculty members & colleagues at MUN, historians/archaeologists/church people/museums workers/archivists whom I had contacted for information on sites or images, and the names of all of my volunteers from my two field seasons.

Step 2 – Write yourself a thesis outline!
The first thing I did was jot down what I thought were logical chapters. I wrote a list of all the topics I wanted to cover (stats, fieldwork, site descriptions, etc), and what I knew I had to add (terminology, methods, theory, etc). I took that list to my supervisor for a meeting, and we re-jigged the entire thing! My first outline kinda looked like this: Chapter Title, and sections with a few lines about what I wanted to cover. This was not anywhere close to the final chapter titles or organization, because as you write, your thesis will change and evolve, and that’s totally normal!

I also roughed out sort of how many words I wanted each chapter to be, based on how much I expected I’d have to say about each topic. Once I had the outline complete, I decided to make myself a writing schedule, which will really only be effective for certain kinds of writers, so if this kind of structure doesn’t work for you, try something else!

Step 3 – Creating a work schedule
Since most of my research was done ahead of my ‘writing year’, I spent September 2016 organizing myself, my data, statistics, fieldwork results, biblio, and images. It was important to make sure I had the permissions for images that might be under copyright so that they could be included in my thesis. Sometimes archives take a while to get back to you, so it’s important to get a jump-start on things like that! For my project, I was not looking at any human remains, but rather for a space where they were buried, so I did not have to seek ethics approval, but if you are working with remains, interviews, living communities, etc, you’ll need to do that long before your field or lab work!

I started writing in October of 2016. Personally, I find that I get stressed out and cannot concentrate close to a deadline, and I work better if I can make the work into small pieces. That way, I can write and do additional research without feeling like I’m cutting into the writing time, and still have time for additional projects so long as I stick to my schedule. Because I’d decided to do an additional 4 weeks of excavation this summer (2017), I was aiming to have a draft of everything I could have written completely finished prior to field work.
This was my plan:

  • 1 chapter per month, Oct – Feb/March
  • Write 500 words (approx.) a day, Monday – Friday, for 3/4 weeks each month.
  • Don’t work on weekends! You need to rest.
  • Use extra time on week days for additional research and/or side projects if you are that kind of person (like me!).
  • Week 4/4 of each month is used for editing, and prepping for the following month.
  • Completed draft (minus 2017 fieldwork and results) ready before end of June 2017.
  • Complete 4 weeks of fieldwork, adding summary to fieldwork chapter as I went.
  • Use two weeks following fieldwork to complete last sections, finish formatting and editing.
  • Submit thesis for review before Aug. 17th.

That was the plan I wrote for myself, and exactly what I stuck to. My thesis was finished on time through the management of my writing and research in manageable chunks that didn’t drive me crazy, or force me into sleepless nights.

Step 4 – Actually Writing
My supervisor told me, during our ‘plan my thesis’ meeting, that I’d better not dare to start with my introductory chapter. I pass on that advice!
I know it’s hard to sit down and make the words actually flow out onto your, so I found it helpful to write out a longer set of bullet points before starting each chapter of all the major things I wanted to touch on throughout the sections I was about to tackle. This acted as a check-list that I could glance over at as I motored through, to make sure I wasn’t leaving out a key piece of data or something.

I think the best advice I can give about writing is make sure you have a plan, know the ideas you’d like to discuss, and stick with your writing schedule! It will depend on your supervisor whether they want to edit your entire draft at once or chapter by chapter, but I found it very helpful to send each chapter draft over as I had it written because the edits on the previous chapter helped me to better form the next one as I went.

At the beginning of every week I’d write out a checklist for each day’s writing and research goals in my day planner, and keep the book open beside me on my desk so I could check off each task as it was complete. I found that this kept me on track, and also kept me from feeling guilty for not working in the evenings at home…I knew that if I stayed on track I would never have to!

Step 5 – Formatting 
For the love of whatever you like, do your formatting at the beginning or at the very least before you start to add tables and images. We all know the evils of Microsoft Work and what will happen to your figures if you so much as touch that margin!

Make sure you have a copy of your uni’s formatting requirements before you start fiddling with anything, because every university is going to want something different. If you can’t find a guide, ask for the rules from your department or school of graduate studies. MUN’s guide told me exactly what margin sizes, page number styles, and other fiddly bits it wanted in order to be accepted for graduation, and was super helpful!


This is my MA thesis abstract!

Helpful Hints.
I found it very useful to write my references down on paper, but there are programs and software available to help with that as well. I recommend maybe figuring out what referencing style you need to use before assembling your entiiiire bibliography, to save yourself from doing it all twice!!

While keeping track of your references, don’t forget to write down page numbers to anything that might not seem quite vague enough to just cite the entire document. Even if you’re not directly quoting something but want to mention a theory or idea that is covered within a few pages of a text, include those page numbers. Do it. Make note somewhere. I didn’t do this as much as I should have, because I was under the impression that some citations were general enough not to include page numbers and it resulted in me spending several weeks checking every. single. reference to add pages numbers to. Guys, my bibliography is like 20 pages, it took so long. Learn from my mistakes!!

I wrote out my major chapter sections on sticky notes and put them along the top shelf of my desk to help figure out what order I wanted everything in. It worked well for me because it was very visual and could be easily re-arranged.

When I went to put images into my thesis, I made a list of chapter titles and what I wanted to include, and then started at the beginning. This kept the images above from moving the ones below it around and messing everything up for the 40th time that day! Also, if you right click on the image in Word there is a button that says ‘lock to position on page’ instead of ‘move with text’ and that will save you some grief, I promise.

And that’s basically it! 
What I found the most helpful in the end of breaking my workload up into little chunks. If you have a series of small tasks, not only is that easier to schedule around the rest of your life, but the entire project doesn’t seem so massively overwhelming as it may have as a whole. I know my thesis isn’t perfect, no one’s is, but I’m very proud of the huge document I’ve produced and I just hope that my research will be helpful and useful to others working in the field down the line.

Thanks for reading!

I’m planning some further research posts in the next few weeks, which I’ll write between hunting for a job and waiting for my reviewers to get back to me! Stay tuned! 


Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Illustrator.

One thought on “Robyn’s Guide to Master’s Thesis Writing, or, How I Scheduled Everything.

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of August 20, August 27, and September 3, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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