The Journey of a Thousand Miles… (Or How to Survive and Thrive in the Thesis Writing Process)

This post was written by Catherine Giroux, a second year full-time M.Ed student based out of the North Bay campus. We’d like to thank Catherine for her well-researched, experiential contribution to our community.

Maybe it’s the lovely summertime weather or maybe it’s the fact that I’m reaching the tail end of my first thesis draft, but my concentration (like Elvis) has totally left the building. I’m finding that common in the M.Ed., actually. There are periods where it is really easy to focus on my thesis and then there are others where I lack the necessary motivation. It’s completely normal.

Despite my current writing plateau, I’d like to share some tips, tricks, and resources that I’ve learned while writing my thesis so far.

The 10 Commandments of Thesis Writing

  1. Thou Shalt Read the Thesis Handbook

Before you even consider writing a thesis, make sure you read the thesis handbook! It can be accessed here. Many of your thesis-related questions can be answered within, including how to choose a topic, how to find your ideal supervisors, how to write a proposal and go through ethics, and things that you should know for your defense. It truly is an invaluable resource.

  1. Thou Shalt Read Thine APA Manual (multiple times if necessary)

I can’t emphasize this one enough. I am finding the APA 6th ed. manual incredibly helpful. Even though I used APA format throughout my undergrad, it has been updated and it’s always a good idea to check my accuracy. Also, no one ever really tells you exactly how to write a results section or a discussion section, but if you read the APA manual, there are whole paragraphs and chapters on how to do just that. It’s very useful, so definitely take the time to read it!

  1. Thou Shalt Find a Way to Be as Organized as Possible

I know that you’ve probably heard this over and over again but finding a way to organize your research- your articles, your sound files, your participant interview transcripts, everything- is essential. I use a mix of Mendeley (I like that I can categorize my articles) and Dropbox (so I can share important documents with my supervisors and we can update them as necessary). There are undoubtedly other ways to do it though and I would certainly be interested in learning from you so feel free to drop me a line and let me know what works for you.

  1. Thou Shalt Not Send Unedited Drafts of Anything to Thy Supervisors

Remember back in the day before computers when things had to be written out by hand? Things would be written as first and second drafts before being typed as a perfect final copy. Think of your thesis as an important document that needs to be done in drafts. You want your supervisors to see your best work – not something riddled with spelling, grammatical, and structural errors. Work those out in your first draft. Your supervisors are there to help you out, but they aren’t your editors and they will be much happier to receive your work if they can read it through with ease and make comments on the content rather than the conventions.

  1. Thou Shalt Use Thy Supervisors as Resources

Don’t forget that your supervisors are fantastic resources. They are the professionals! They’ve totally got this school thing down. If you have questions about the program, your thesis, which route is right for you, or anything academic, feel free to talk to your supervisor(s) or faculty advisor(s). I’ve found working through problems and bouncing difficult thesis sections off my supervisors to be particularly helpful. If there’s a section I don’t quite know how to write, I can talk with them in person, organize a Skype call, or we can email back and forth. It’s a tremendous help.

  1. Thou Shalt Consider Presenting Your Work At Conferences

I know this isn’t exactly part of the writing process but it certainly helps to shape the writing process. Sharing your work with like-minded peers can be very informative and eye opening. Even if you aren’t very far in the research or writing process, peers and faculty at conferences can provide you with invaluable feedback that can shape the future directions of your project. Conferences might also take you outside your comfort zone, which can lead to personal growth.

  1. Thou Shalt Not Procrastinate (Too Much)

I find that with every section of my thesis, starting is the hardest part because I have to overcome mental block and the fear of failure. It’s like impostor syndrome sets in with each new chapter. Not only that, but every section of the thesis has a unique tone and writing style. How you write the results section is very different from how you write your literature review. It seems like I procrastinate every time I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. It’s my coping strategy. It’s not a good one though. Once I finally start writing, the words just kind of flow and it helps the mental block go away. That’s why I find it helpful to work on my thesis a little bit every day (or at least a bit every week). Even if I’m just reviewing it so that it stays fresh in my mind, looking at it and dealing with the content is important. Break it down into chunks. You can do it! As Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

  1. Thou Shalt Take Time for Thyself

On the flipside of the last commandment, your thesis can’t be the only thing you ever do. You need to find some sort of balance. I personally enjoy adding activities like swimming and Stand Up Paddleboarding into my weekly routine to mix things up. I must admit though that combating the isolation of online learning and thesis work is difficult and people who “get it” are sometimes hard to come by. That’s why making an effort to get together with peers is so important. Whether you attend the biweekly EGS Meetings, set up regular coffee dates with friends, or create a thesis/BBQ club during the summer, getting out of your own head and away from your thesis for a bit is every bit as important as working on it. I also find that when I put it away for a bit and do something else, I return to it with a fresh perspective and better ideas.

  1. Thou Shalt Remember to Thank Thy Supervisors

I can only imagine that it’s a lot of work to be a supervisor for an M.Ed. student. There’s certainly a lot of reading involved. Letting them know that you’re thankful for their efforts goes a long way. Chocolate is also a nice touch.

  1. Thou Shalt Honour Thine Inner Geek

Inner Geek

Everyone has a motivation for writing a thesis. No one (that I know of) wakes up and says, “Hey, I really just feel like writing a 100-200 page document for the fun of it.” If you do, all power to you! Remember what drew you to your topic and return to that when you feel like giving up. Remember that your work has value and is adding to the current body of knowledge. Something got you excited about your topic when you chose it; try and return to that excitement throughout the writing process. It makes the writing much more fun.

And in case you need more… Here are some helpful resources!

  1. Completed Dissertations and Theses: You can access these through the Nipissing Library and pull ones that have similar styles to yours to see how former students wrote certain sections that you’re struggling with. They can be found here:
  2. How to Write a Discussion Section: Here is a document from the APA for Grad Students on the Dos and Don’ts of writing a discussion section. I found it very helpful because this, for me, is the hardest part of my manuscript!
  3. How to Write an Abstract: I also found this very helpful. The U of T has some great writing resources worthy of exploration.


Please feel free to share! If you have something really neat and helpful that hasn’t been mentioned, share it in the comments section so that we can all add to our Grad Studies tool-kits. Happy Thesis-ing!

Critical Friendship

The following is a dialogue between Laura McRae and Marianne Vander Dussen, both in their first year of the Master’s program. We decided to build our blog post to capture the conversational quality that has enabled us to act as critical friends and editing partners.

MVD: In my first term, I noticed that Laura was in all three of my classes, which I thought was a fun coincidence. Initially, her posts intimidated me; she always had her responses ready right at the beginning of the week, and reflected a high level of writing ability and critical thought. After a few weeks, the isolating effect of working alone in an online program was starting to take its toll on me, and I was desperate to connect with other students. I reached out to Laura to see if she would be interested in partnering with me on an assignment for our Research Methods class, and I’ve been working with her as my accountability partner and sounding board ever since. It was a little scary… I was afraid she’d say no!

LM: I was definitely thinking along the same lines as Marianne. Her posts were always exceptionally insightful and thought-provoking, and almost poetic in style. She is an excellent writer, which intimidated me at first! I was very happy when she reached out to me, as it gave me a chance to get to know her as a real person rather than to keep seeing her as another paragraph on my screen – a side effect of doing an online program that I am still not 100% comfortable with. Having Marianne to bounce ideas off of and to share learning experiences as well as frustrations with has definitely helped me feel more connected to my learning environment, and has helped me be accountable to more than just myself (which, personally, I need in order to remain on-task and on-time).

MVD: I agree. The accountability piece is huge. We worked together to set deadlines for each other for drafts and final pieces. Knowing that I had someone who I respected who was waiting to review my piece made me much more inspired to push through and get the work done. It meant that through my Fall and Winter terms, I was able to stay on top of my work and not allow it to pile up. It was also very helpful to have another set of eyes, in terms of catching APA errors, and noticing where there were gaps in the logic or in the supporting research. I would always look forward to her feedback, because I would much rather have a critical friend alert me to inconsistencies or areas of need than discover it after reading the grading professor’s comments!

LM: Agreed! Style was a big part of it too. Knowing Marianne would review my work without judgment made it much easier to ask about specific spots in assignments that I was having trouble with stylistically. I also enjoyed having an insider to work with – a new perspective on what our professors were after, if my work reflected the course expectations, and how she thought our professors would react to my work. Obviously we would never approach an assignment from the exact same perspective, so reading her assignments, and getting thorough feedback, helped me gain new perspectives, new ideas (which we sometimes shared) and a better understanding of course material. I wonder if we had ‘graded’ each other’s work (like we did in our Research Methods course) if we would have come out with more from the experience of working with a critical friend?

MVD: I wonder what that would look like… what we do with each other is so completely subjective. Although we both work within the context of the assignment structure whenever we’re swapping our work, our viewpoints are always tempered by the fact that it is completely and totally our own thoughts and opinions. I think that provides a layer of safety; when I’m giving my piece over to Laura, I’m not expecting her to take on any responsibility whatsoever for its academic success. Having another set of eyes is really just for my own improvement and betterment; she’ll ask questions, note areas where clarification is required. She’s incredibly thoughtful and thorough. But we’ve both released each other from any kind of responsibility about the paper’s grading once it’s been submitted. Our work is just that… our own, even though we’ve had the opportunity to share, tighten, and hone.

LM: I completely agree with this, but I also feel that Marianne’s comments and suggestions have always helped me to achieve better grades (even though I never held her accountable for my grades)! I also feel that having Marianne as a critical friend has helped me overcome a lot of my anxieties about taking Master’s level courses, specifically in relation to ‘impostor syndrome’. When I started my first semester, I felt overwhelmed and like I was not keeping up academically – when Marianne reached out to me as a critical peer, I gained confidence in my position in the program and insight into the mind of another new graduate student. I think the EGS blog offers a lot of the same social benefits of having a critical peer – in that it helps connect students to the program, but I would definitely suggest going a step further and finding a critical friend. I definitely would not have had as much success this year without Marianne’s insight and support!

MVD: As we move into the next stage of our Master’s work (we’re both pursuing the thesis route) it helps to know that we’ll both be there to empathize with each other’s struggles, and also be willing to unconditionally celebrate successes. The level of detachment that exists, since we haven’t ever met each other in person, serves us well on the more objective front whenever I want honest, clear feedback, but in many ways we’ve overcome those barriers of distance because we’re able to share our stories with each other without fear of judgment. Earlier this week, I was sharing some of the challenges I’ve come up against as a researcher; I’m nearly halfway through my data collection, and sometimes when I listen to the recordings of my research sessions, I get embarrassed or down on myself because I didn’t facilitate as well as I could have, or I allowed a conversation to drift on too long before redirecting it. Laura reminded me not to be too critical, and suggested envisioning myself as a third party listening to the research as opposed to being thrown off by my own voice. It was solid advice, and helped immensely. I think the secret to our success as critical partners is empathy. We’ve both independently selected almost identical courses (5 out of 6 were the same), we’re both choosing thesis, and we’re both pushing through our own respective life challenges. Her ability to manage her workload is an inspiration, and helps me break free from moments when I’d rather watch cat videos than do actual work.

LM: I couldn’t have summarized our partnership better! Marianne is lighting the way for me as she collects data and does field work, while I am still in the process of acquiring a thesis supervisor and team… Knowing she will be there for me as I begin to research and collect data is comforting – it will be a long process for both of us, and yes, cat videos are tempting, but we will keep our course!

MVD: Moving forward, I think anyone who needs ongoing support (and really, who doesn’t?) would benefit from finding a critical friend.

What we would personally look for is:

  • Someone who completes work at a pace that matches yours… were they the first to comment? The last? Find someone who has similar working speed to avoid frustration.
  • Someone whose writing style speaks to you and engages you.
  • Someone who is able to take a critical approach in discussion, while remaining tactful.
  • Someone whose interests parallel or complement your own – (i.e., literacy and FSL complement each other, or with a similar preference for methodology)
Avoid this problem...find someone in your area of interest!

Avoid this problem…find someone in your area of interest!

Evolution of the Thesis – Part 1

This post is written by Marianne Vander Dussen.

Further to the Demystifying the Thesis post, I wanted to share some of the things that I have learned over the course of the past six months that may help in your own considerations of whether or not to pursue the thesis. I will be providing more information for a part 2 follow up after my data collection has commenced.

This post is grounded in personal experience, and is not meant to be a universal how-to, but rather to provide a contextualized perspective with the goal of making the thesis option more accessible.

If you have any questions whatsoever about what the thesis route entails, beyond this post, please contact your faculty advisor, or Michelann Parr (Graduate Studies Chair) at

Thesis 2

I have always known that I would pursue the thesis route in the Master’s program; but initially, it was because I didn’t actually realize that other pathways even existed! Several of my friends already have Master’s degrees under their belts, and had discussed their thesis work at length, so I assumed that thesis research was a necessary component of acquiring the MEd degree. However, even after I learned that there were two other routes (Major Research Paper (MRP) and Research Project and Seminar (RPS)), I remained committed to the idea of pursuing a thesis.

This was mainly due to my positioning and my long-term career goals.

I am a full-time student living very close to the Nipissing campus, where I have ongoing access to both my supervisor and other professors with knowledge in my field. I acknowledge that this is a privilege that most students in Nip’s online program will not have, and while it has certainly smoothed the way for taking the necessary steps required for thesis, it is still definitely doable for distance learners.

In terms of my long-term career goals, I wanted an opportunity to develop as both an academic writer and researcher, which the thesis route facilitates. I am very interested in eventually pursuing a PhD, and many universities require a demonstration of research work prior to admission and making decisions about funding. Plus, I knew that the Master’s was the ideal place to try doing research for the first time to decide if I even enjoyed it…if I couldn’t do a Master’s level thesis, would I even be up for doing a full dissertation?

If you ever intend on working as a faculty member at a university, ongoing research and contributions to the academic community are mandatory, and the earlier you develop your research skill-set, the better. I’ve had conversations with several people (who are outside of the university) who were under the false impression that once you scoop up a PhD, your research work is over, and then you can get yourself comfortably situated in a postsecondary institution, delivering lectures to the admiring hordes while resting upon your laurels. Nope, although that sounds lovely. If anything, the research gets more complex and longitudinal, so the Master’s is the perfect arena to experiment and get a little messy.

That being said, there are many who equate research with number crunching and staring at graphs, which is a method, but not the only method. I’ve just received ethical clearance on my research project, in which I have chosen narrative inquiry and participatory action research as my methodology, and it’s purely qualitative. This essentially means that I’ll be working directly with my participants as we create, explore, and converse. There may be some interviews as we progress, but they are guiding the work, and it will be an organic process. The methodology matches my experience and passion; I love storytelling, and so I get to use it as the tool through which I collect and disseminate my data. Qualitative is a recognized, valid, and respected approach to research, and it’s entirely possible to do a thesis through interviews, observations, and stories (so long as you’re able to provide a theoretical framework to support!).


The ethics process itself was a little daunting, and it took me approximately one month to get the form to the point where my supervisor and I felt comfortable submitting. If you’re thinking about doing a thesis, I’d go to the website and print off the form, just to keep a copy by your desk. You never know, as you’re working through your courses, you could jot down an idea or two in the appropriate boxes, making it easier for when you need to go through and fill it out.

After I submitted to ethics, I received recommended revisions by email approximately one month later. It is unheard of that someone makes it through ethics on the first round, so do not have any expectations about being able to immediately start your research. Allow yourself a buffer zone. It took about a week or two to make the recommended changes (mostly because I just needed to take a few hours, sit down and focus on it), and I resubmitted. I received conditional ethical clearance one week later, pending the school board’s approval, which has its own separate procedure for approving researchers. You may wish to investigate this prior to applying to the Research Ethics Board, as you may be able to kill two birds with one stone in your applications.

Forming the backbone of your ethics application will be your research proposal. In all likelihood, you have one from your mandatory Research Methods course. For the purposes of submitting to your supervisor, second reader, and the Chair for approval, this will likely need to be fleshed out in order to meet with their expectations.

Whoa, wait, what? Second reader? Chair?

When you write your research proposal, you will require both a supervisor and a second reader. Usually, the second reader is another professor with experience in the field you will be researching in, allowing them to provide you with additional references, suggestions, and ideas that will be applicable to your work. Your supervisor or faculty advisor may have suggestions for who to approach to be your second reader.

Once both your supervisor and your second reader have approved your research proposal, it goes to the Chair (or to the Dean if the Chair is your supervisor). He/she will offer suggestions, revisions, questions, etc. Once you have passed through this process, you will be able to register for the thesis course, and you’re off to the races!

The process can be incredibly stressful, and sometimes seems about as clear as Mississippi mud water. I’ve done my fair share of fretting, worrying, and complaining. When I think about entering into the school in less than a month to meet and work with my participants, I feel like I am entering into the proverbial lion’s den, and I’m terrified. But I also have enough trust in myself to know that I will be fine, and that the path I’m walking is well-tread. Because I am passionate about the nature of my project, I’m allowing myself to be nudged along by the belief that it will all be for something.

While doing a thesis may not be for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine, it’s definitely the right decision for me. Don’t be discouraged by the idea of a defence, or feel dissuaded from investigating thesis options because you’re doing distance learning. Now that I’m past the first set of gates, I can see in retrospect that it was a series of small steps, as opposed to the gargantuan goliath-beast that I had initially conceptualized. Contact your school/school board (if you will be working in a school). Prepare your research proposal. Fill out and submit your ethics forms. Revise everything based on feedback. Resubmit. Receive approval (hopefully). If not, revise again, and that’s okay. You’ll be there before you know it.

For the MEd thesis handbook, including a step-by-step breakdown of the thesis process from start to finish, please visit here