Resolving to Graduate on Time: Troubleshooting Your Urban Planning Exit Project or Thesis

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For students facing the end of their masters programs, an individual exit project, paper, or thesis is often part of the final semester. Over the years I've watched many very competent students struggle with this process and delay graduation for years because they could not complete their thesis or project "book". Over the following months I am going to focus on the various parts of the process of writing these documents-from literature reviews and research questions to time management and creating informative illustrations. To help those currently near the end, in this entry I focus on key trouble spots for those a few months from graduation.

Proposal: Trying to do a thesis or project without a well-written proposal and a clear research problem or question is like navigating in a foreign city without GPS or map. So, finish your proposal and have your advisor review and approve it. Even a shorter research paper will benefit from a clear proposal-with a focused research question or problem and specific methods, both clearly situated in the literature (and more on the issue of literature in upcoming months).

Writing: If a proposal seems out of reach because you can't write a word, you are not alone. Two strategies can often provide positive results.

  • First, there's a mini-industry in books to help people overcome writer's block. My favorites are two older books. Becker's Writing for Social Scientists (1986, Chicago) has terrific chapters with titles like "Freshman English for Graduate Students" or "Terrorized by the Literature." For those with more fundamental writer's block, Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones (1986, Shambhala) is organized into dozens of two-to-four page sections, each with a helpful strategy for getting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. There's something for everyone.

  • Second, join a writing group. I find writing fairly easy but I've been part of such groups for years. Group members can provide support, give advice, comment on drafts, or just acknowledge that you completed five pages this week. They can be your "ogres" instilling guilt when you don't perform and take the pressure off your relationship with your faculty advisor. Though some groups meet via email, when starting out it is best to meet face to face every week or two. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (2007, Chicago), mentioned in more detail below, has a section on creating a writing support group.
Research and Literature: For those daunted by the idea of research, the very readable book the Craft of Research by Booth et al. is now in its second edition (2003, Chicago). The authors emphasize coming up with a research problem (their term for the final research question) that is important to others beyond yourself and are particularly strong on how to link your work to wider debates (the literature). They also lead the reader through the research process step by step. There are other excellent books of this type but this one was the one recommended to me by students. It can help you refine and focus your current proposal.

Methods: For those uneasy about research and planning project methods there are many resources.

  • Talk with your faculty advisors.
  • Take an additional class in methods.
  • As you try to develop research methods, first look at the methods in the publications you are reviewing in your overall literature review (more on this very important topic in an upcoming blog).
  • If you have statistical queries, just about every university has a statistical consulting service offering free advice to graduate students and faculty. These are typically very friendly and customer-oriented statisticians-both faculty and graduate students--with useful contributions to make to both more heavy research and to practical projects using statistics. As a faculty member I use such services myself.
  • To supplement these sources there are many specialized research and practice methods books. On the research side I find the quickest way to locate these is to look at the web sites of major methods publishers such as Sage and Wiley. Both have large methods series written by reputable scholars in a fairly accessible style. From how to write a literature review or run a focus group to an overview of recent advances in statistics, these can be an easy entrée. For those doing a practical project, the American Planning Association's bookstore at http://www.planning.org/APAStore/ provides a quick way of sifting through the mountain of books available to find resources targeted at planning. Jot down some titles and borrow them from the library.
  • Web sites dealing with methods can also be useful but their quality varies a great deal. University sites are more reputable but consult a faculty member or librarian and be very careful in using them for more than a quick overview or to look up a technical term.

Formatting: Although it seems very tedious, now is the time to start getting your formatting right.

  • If you are careless about citations and reference lists it will add days if not weeks to the end of the writing process. While your university may have a preferred format, Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (2007, Chicago) is a good place to start. The seventh edition has been revised by the team responsible for The Craft of Research so the two books work together. Cite early and often and with specific pages even for paraphrases-you can always remove citations but it's a total pain to put them back in at the end.
  • Having a style sheet-a page or two of simple rules--for headings, capitalization, comma placement, bullets, and other similar items can seem a waste of time but getting it right can again save days. Turabian provides a good starting point. Make up a page of rules for the areas where you may want to differ or that Turabian may not cover e.g. capitalization of headings and subheadings or the spelling of unusual words, and stick to them. If the university has a set format-stick to it. Otherwise you may well waste more time at the end.

If you are truly daunted by this process and have the option, consider alternatives to the individual project or thesis-for example a capstone studio or group workshop, an additional concentration, or an exit exam. These options are particularly handy for those who have some years of work experience and don't need to prove they can do individual work.

This is just a start in terms of writing a thesis, project, or exit research paper. More will come in future months.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.

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