Writing a Thesis as a Communications Graduate Student

By Erin Hackenmueller

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Early in my academic career, I thought of research as something that is strictly reserved for science-related careers. I never saw myself as a serious researcher. Boy, was freshman Erin wrong.

Not only is research incredibly important to the public relations industry, but it also has a rich academic history. Everything that we do as PR practitioners is built on the knowledge researchers have uncovered. Pretty cool, right?

But if you’re like me and never saw yourself doing academic research as a communications student, here’s some advice on how to stay sane while writing your paper.

Pick a topic you like.

You know how you always had to write research papers based on whatever topic you were assigned and you hated it, because how are you going to make writing about some war that happened hundreds of years ago actually exciting?

Well, I have good news for you. You get to write about whatever you're interested in! You have to make it applicable to your degree, but hopefully, as a graduate student, you enjoy your chosen field. Think back to your coursework or even your life. Do you have any burning questions about the world that you want to be answered? Picking a topic that you’re genuinely interested in will make the next year of your life exciting rather than excruciating.

Find a supportive committee chair.

I would have been lost without my committee chair (thanks, Dr. Holiday!). I had never written something at this caliber before, and my chair was full of advice, knowledge and words of affirmation. It was exactly what I needed in a chair. Find someone who motivates you the way you want to be motivated and that you’re comfortable asking them questions (because trust me, you’ll have a lot).

Check out format guidelines and stick to them right away.

Before you start writing, check out what your school’s guidelines are for formatting. If you just write with the correct style at the beginning, you could save hours at the end.

Deadlines. Like, for real.

Everyone works differently, I get it. But as I talked to my cohort, I found universally that a thesis is easy to push to the backburner. We’re all balancing work, classes and clubs on top of our theses. There are always more pressing deadlines that come up and feel like they need to be taken care of now, before the thesis. But the more you push it off, the more you’re scrambling at the end.

Setting deadlines for the bigger milestones like a full draft of your proposal or a completed analysis section is a good start. But I recommend going even deeper than that; setting mini-deadlines can help you to prioritize correctly. Create weekly goals you want to meet. Set deadlines for when you want to finish writing each of the subheads in your paper or for when you want to be halfway done with your data collection. It’s OK if these deadlines have to change, but this way you’ll know if you’re still on the right track.

Find someone to talk to about everything.

A thesis is a gigantic undertaking. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to your fellow graduate students, your friends from back home or your parents. The University of Alabama even has a support group for women writing theses and dissertations. The people in your cohort are going through the same things, and talking to them about it can be very therapeutic. It’s also OK to take a night off, split a pizza and think about anything but your thesis. It’s important to prioritize yourself.

Writing a thesis will be one of the most challenging and rewarding things you’ll ever experience. Never in a million years did I think I would be writing a thesis about advertising, but so far, it’s the accomplishment in life that I’m most proud of. If you’re debating whether or not to do a thesis, trust me ... it’s worth it.

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