Western Institute For Social Research: Master's Theses & Doctoral Dissertations
John Bilorusky, PhD, is President and Faculty Member of WISR, longtime OPEN EXCHANGE lister in our Schools & Certifications category.
Students at WISR are strongly encouraged, and indeed, expected to choose a thesis topic that has strong personal interest for them. Unlike many programs, we do not want our students to choose topics just because they sound "esoteric" or "scholarly." All theses at WISR involve significant research and effort. We emphasize substance over form, encourage students to write in their own voice (i.e., take ownership for their ideas and research and write some sentences that begin with "I . . ."), and strongly urge that students consider how their thesis may contribute to the thinking and/or practical efforts of others in the larger community.
We recommend that students write a thesis proposal to help them to think more clearly about their thesis topic and how they want to approach their thesis. The proposal is a way of stimulating discussion with faculty and others who might be asked by the student to serve on their Graduation Review Board. Writing the proposal often helps the student to think further about his or her thesis topic and approach. The proposal is only a tentative starting point. Students almost always change the details of their thesis plans, sometimes very significantly, during the course of their thesis research.
The most important part of the several-page proposal is where the student articulates the main questions she or he wants to learn more about during their thesis. We ask our students to come up with questions that they genuinely feel they don't yet know the answer(s) to, but that are very important to them, and to some other people, as well. We tell our students that we want them to use the thesis to "learn more about" the questions without requiring that they definitively "answer" the questions. They may or may not come up with what they feel comfortable calling "answers." Consequently, at WISR, students complete their theses by instead coming up with new questions, better questions, tentative formulations, possible practical directions, and the like. Too often, in other institutions, people only ask questions that are easily answered. Or, they formulate easily tested hypotheses. In such theses, the "answers" provide little in the way of new and important insights, and little in the way of significant contributions to community improvements, professional practices or social change.
Theses can take many different forms at WISR. Some students do a combination of literature review with interviews with experts and/or informed community members to study in-depth a topic of personal interest that will also be helpful to others. Some students use the thesis to research and evaluate a community project or innovative program, to find out what did and didn't work, and to make recommendations for how they and others can proceed with this project (or others like it) in the future. Some students focus on doing the background research for planning a new project, program, or even a new organization they are planning to start. Very often, the thesis will draw on the student's previous knowledge and experience, in part at least. Some students initiate an action project and research the process of initiating it and the resulting insights from doing the project. Other theses are even more distinctive and don't fit into any of these categories. A number of WISR students have published their theses as books examples include a self-help book for people recovering from the trauma of being in an auto accident, a book on adult literacy focusing on the role of telling one's own stories, a book about the successful reclaiming of the Omaha tribe's Sacred Pole from the Harvard Peabody Museum, and a book on African American leadership and community development strategies.
In writing theses, students are encouraged to gather information from others and/or from their own experiences that provide rich examples and detailed stories, so that the thesis is more that merely an articulation of abstract theories or recommendations. We tell our students that theories and conclusions have more meaning and are more useful, if they are also illustrated by a variety of specific examples.
Most theses at WISR involve doing some review of the literaturenot to "prove" that the student has read a lot of what others have written on a particular subject, but more substantively, so that they student can build on the strengths and limitations of research and inquiry done by others. Also, the literature review helps the reader of the thesis get a sense of landscape of the previously done research in the area. Students are encouraged to convey a sense of the emphases in existing research, as well as a sense of what variety there is. What are the strengths in existing research, and what are the limitations and weaknesses? How does the student's research "fit in"i.e., add on, contrast to, augment, and/or build on previous research efforts? And indeed, how do these research efforts connect to practical and action-oriented efforts?
It is expected that all theses at WISR will involve some original researchsome original data gathering and investigation by the student. This usually means that the student will gather and use data based on some peoples' first-hand experiences. Often, students do some of their own participation-and-observation in their field of study, perhaps along with drawing on some previous observations, as well as conducting interviews with others to find out what light they can shed on the student's central research questions. Usually, the research methods are not quantitative in nature, nor do they typically involve highly structured questionnaires, surveys or experiments. WISR emphasizes action-research and qualitative research, and students are given help in learning how to do "messy" research where the specific research methods evolve over time during the course of the research itself. As part of WISR's action-research requirement, students are expected to write a "Research Methodology" chapter in their thesis. This chapter includes no only descriptions of the details of the student's research activities and methods (e.g., how they interviewed people, how the interviews went, what felt comfortable, what didn't go so well), but also the rationales for the methods chosen, and the student's critical reflections on the strengths and limitations of their own research methods. And importantly, the student should discuss how they would do the research differently if they were to do it overif they had the time or resources to do further research, what would they do to improve on this research effort?