How to Write a Thesis (MIT Press, 2015) offers useful advice on crafting a thesis for educational purposes and real world applications outside of the classroom. Author Umberto Eco highlights unique research styles, information curating, developing a work schedule, polishing a final draft, and much more!
For Whom is This Book Written?
There are many students who are forced to write a thesis so that they may graduate quickly and obtain the career advancement that originally motivated their university enrollment. Some of these students may be as old as 40. They will ask for instructions on how to write a thesis in a month, in such a way as to receive a passing grade and graduate quickly. We should then say resolutely, this book is not for them. If these are their needs, if they are the victims of paradoxical legal circumstances that force them to graduate so they may resolve painful financial matters, they would be much better served by the following options: (a) Invest a reasonable amount of money in having a thesis written by a second party. (b) Copy a thesis that was written a few years prior for another institution. (It is better not to copy a book currently in print, even if it was written in a foreign language. If the professor is even minimally informed on the topic, he will be aware of the book’s existence. However, submitting in Milan a thesis written in Catania limits the probability of being caught, although it is obviously necessary to ascertain whether the thesis’s advisor held a position in Catania before teaching in Milan. Consequently, even plagiarizing a thesis requires an intelligent research effort.)
Clearly the two pieces of advice we have just offered are illegal. They are similar to advising an emergency room patient to put a knife to the throat of a doctor who refuses to treat him. These are desperate acts. We give this paradoxical advice to emphasize that this book does not attempt to resolve the serious temporal and financial problems that many university students currently face. However, this book does not require that the student be a millionaire or have a decade available to commit to his studies after having traveled the world. This book is for students who want to do rigorous work, despite the fact that they can only dedicate a few hours each day to study. This book is also for students who want to write a thesis that will provide a certain intellectual satisfaction, and that will also prove useful after graduation. As we will see, the rigor of a thesis is more important than its scope. One can even collect soccer trading cards with rigor, as long as he identifies the topic of the collection, the criteria for cataloguing it, and its historical limits. It is acceptable for him to limit his collection to players active after 1960, provided that his collection is complete after this date. There will always be a difference between his collection and the Louvre, but it is better to build a serious trading card collection from 1960 to the present than to create a cursory art collection. The thesis shares this same criterion.
The Usefulness of a Thesis After Graduation
There are two ways to write a thesis that is useful after graduation. A student can write a thesis that becomes the foundation of a broader research project that will continue into the years ahead, if he has the means and desire to do so. Additionally, writing a thesis develops valuable professional skills that are useful after graduation. For example, the director of a local tourist office who authored a thesis titled “From Stephen Hero to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” will have developed skills needed for his profession. He will have done the following:
1. Identified a precise topic
2. Collected documents on that topic
3. Ordered these documents
4. Reexamined the topic in light of the documents collected
5. Organized all this work into an organic form
6. Ensured that his readers have understood him
7. Provided the necessary documentation so that readers may reexamine the topic through his sources
Writing a thesis requires a student to organize ideas and data, to work methodically, and to build an “object” that in principle will serve others. In reality, the research experience matters more than the topic. The student who was able to carefully research these two versions of Joyce’s novel will have trained himself to methodically collect, organize, and present information, and for other professional responsibilities he will encounter working at the tourist office.
As a writer myself, I have already published ten books on different topics, but I was able to write the last nine because of the experience of the first, which happened to be a revision of my own laurea thesis. Without that first effort, I would never have acquired the skills I needed for the others. And, for better or for worse, the other books still show traces of the first. With time, a writer becomes more astute and knowledgeable, but how he uses his knowledge will always depend on how he originally researched the many things he did not know.
At the very least, writing a thesis is like training the memory. One will retain a good memory when he is old if he has trained it when he was young. It doesn’t matter if the training involved memorizing the players of every Italian A-series soccer team, Dante’s poetry, or every Roman emperor from Augustus to Romulus Augustulus. Since we are training our own memory, it is certainly better to serve our interests and needs; but sometimes it is even good exercise to learn useless things. Therefore, even if it is better to research an appealing topic, the topic is secondary to the research method and the actual experience of writing the thesis. If a student works rigorously, no topic is truly foolish, and the student can draw useful conclusions even from a remote or peripheral topic.
In fact, Marx wrote his thesis on the two ancient Greek philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, not on political economy, and this was no accident. Perhaps Marx was able to approach the theoretical questions of history and economy with such rigor precisely because of his scrupulous work on these ancient Greek philosophers. Also, considering that so many students start with an ambitious thesis on Marx and then end up working at the personnel office of a big capitalist business, we might begin to question the utility, topicality, and political relevance of thesis topics.
Excerpted from How to Write a Thesis, by Umberto Eco, published by MIT Press, 2015.