Guide to Thesis Writing

I have many lectures about advice to students in process of writing M.Phil. or Ph.D. thesis proposals, and/or the actual thesis. The most comprehensive advice is contained in the IIIE Student Guide to development of M.Phil. Research proposal. This entire website is a step-by-step guide about how to write an M.Phil. Thesis proposal. Other than that, there are a number of individual videos and lectures which deal with different aspects of this topic, listed below.

Ph.D. Thesis Writeup Guidelines is a summary of advice to Ph.D. Students written up in bullet points by my students Maaz Javed and Aisha Irum.

Guidance for Research for M.Phil./Ph.D. students provides a detailed English summary of an Urdu Video lecture on this topic, which is also linked in the post.

This post is about a Urdu Video Lecture (1hr 42m) given in Sep 2014 to PIDE students on this topic. An English summary in bullet points is provided after the video – Students are invited to ADD translations to the video directly on You-Tube, and also to ADD bullet points in comments, so that additional information can be made available to English speaking readers.

1. Before you start, ask yourself this question. Why are you doing research? As per the teachings of Islam, Intentions determine the worth of our actions. So, to make the process more meaningful, the answer has to be “To acquire beneficial Knowledge”. Seek knowledge for its own sake, not to get a degree, or a job or for making money. For a more detailed discussion of how an Islamic approach to knowledge differs from the Western one, see The Search for Knowledge.

2. In choosing a research topic Scarcity mode of teaching has tricked us into believing that almost everything has been researched. Students need to understand the Abundance mode which implies that we know only a little of what exists. The superiority of the west in physical sciences does not mean that they are superior in the social sciences too. We need to let go of this inferiority complex that by default, we do not have the skills worthy of producing well-researched content. There is a lot of work required to separate right from wrong and our collective effort will make it possible to construct a bigger and better body of knowledge. It’s an open field anything you do, any topic you choose is worthy of making a difference. Switch to Tawakkul mode that if you struggle for a good cause Allah will provide you with the means to fulfill it. What we know is a drop in the ocean, and the useful knowledge we need to learn is so immense that there is no chance of running out of extremely valuable topics to research. Detailed guidance on how to find a topic are given in the IIIE Student Guide.

3. Next, you need to write an Annotated Bibliography (AB) that requires you to overcome the fear of reading. Unlike the mathematical models of economics, which makes the economic theories look complex and almost incomprehensible, AB’s are very easy and simple to understand. Read a lot to get knowledge summarize it and prepare notes in the context of what the writing says about the real world. One of the many ways to be relevant is that you dig for the false assumptions behind the complex economic theories, do research and bring forth the arguments to prove these assumptions wrong. KNOW that all mathematical models are wrong, because they are based on wrong assumptions, vastly simplified, about the economy and about human behavior. You DO NOT have to create alternative mathematical models. Understand what is being said about the REAL WORLD, and use your own head and readings to assess, evaluate, and find alternatives based on qualitative and intuitive understandings.

4. Understand that research is not about discovering new things, it’s about learning how to be a part of a conversation. Most of what is being talked about is wrong, because it is based on wrong models and false assumptions, covered up with fancy mathematics to prevent people from realizing how absurd the theories are – see Quotes Critical of Economics. So how can you become part of a conversation where a large portion of what is being said is wrong? You have to look for a connection to an area which is of real importance, and can be treated using valid methods, to get linked to the conversation. You have to be politically correct and think about what is acceptable to the concerned audience. Finding a topic in the narrow range of areas where important and relevant things are being researched, and also using methods which are acceptable to modern economists, is a job which requires a knowledgeable thesis supervisor.

4. While reading literature look for the real-world problem under discussion. Understand the research question on which the case is built and then move on to the methodology that is connecting existing theories to the literature. See how the data is collected and the techniques applied to draw results. Read the conclusion, look at the policy implications and critically analyze that that which has been said is as real and convincing as the problem itself or not. Now the most important part is identifying the gaps and finding the room for intervention. For this, you need to consult your supervisor as it requires experience.

5. Research is done either by finding out controversy or identifying an important question to which the answer is not known. You can find an answer to the controversy easily by studying history. Students can be intimidated by controversies where many people have written different arguments for different positions. If so many knowledgeable academics cannot decide what is right and what is wrong, then how can I make any progress? This is the wrong way of thinking. Instead of thinking of yourself as a judge, who has to make the final decision about the right answer to a complex and difficult question, think of yourself as a student, who has to LEARN what everybody has said. The task you set for yourself is to UNDERSTAND all of the positions which different people have taken. Just read and understand the literature – this is what the annotated bibligraphy is meant for. It is a huge accomplishment to be able to understand all of the positions which have been taken by different authors.

6. Whatever topic you choose for doing research, your goal as a student should be that you become an expert in that field. The topic has to have articles ranging from 20-50. Choose a small topic so that you can become a leading authority in that. More than 50 articles mean that the topic is too broad to specialize in. Read and understand what all of these articles are saying. Do not be intimidated by the mathematics of the article, JUST as you are not intimidated by the fancy electronics inside a computer. You are concerned with the OUTPUT of the computer, not with what goes on inside. Similarly, you are concerned with what fancy theories and methods SAY about the real world, NOT with the equations and methods used to get the results.

7. You need to have the confidence to become part of the intellectual battle that is going on. Develop a deep understanding of the basic background of the topic. Don’t be intimidated by the technical skills required to deal with data. The computer will do the hard part of producing numbers for you; all you need to know is how to interpret those numbers. We also have a secret weapon, which we can use to produce good results, and find answers to difficult questions. The secret weapon is to “LOOK at the real world!”. Instead of trying to find out answers by running regressions, collecting data, and building mathematical models, study history, study what goes in the real world. For example, suppose we want to learn about the effect of FDI – Foreign Direct Investment. Instead of collecting data, learn about what this is in the real world. Who are the foreigners, and what have they invested? What kind of benefits has this created, and what have been the costs and disadvantages of this? Once you get outside the narrow framework of models and econometrics, you will find that you can study the history of who did investment, in which areas, and with what effects, in a qualitative manner, and really understand the topic. Then, after you have acquired a real intuitive understanding based on reading what many experts have written, you will be in a position to make a contribution.

8. At the end of the day evaluation of your thesis will be based on the human capital you have acquired. That is, the amount of learning that you have done by reading articles written by people who have worked hard to acquire knowledge about your topic. Remember that when you read an article, you are being given honey which has been gathered with great effort by people who went out into the world, and did difficult study and analysis to bring you the results which you can get without making the same level of efforts. Do not look for short-cuts. Study the literature and develop the skills without being afraid of the process. Contrary to conventional advice, do not worry about discovering new things to do research on. Instead work on understanding what has already been said and then replicate the work. You will automatically get to discover new things along the way.

9. Finally how you present yourself adds value to the work you have produced. To get some understanding of how to make a good presentation, see my slide-by-slide critique of several presentations made by students.

Date posted: September 28, 2019
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