Thesis/Essay Tips, Tricks, and Advice


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Working on my senior thesis has required the acquisition of a lot of new skills that I haven’t had to empty as much during the rest of my undergraduate degree.

As someone who didn’t really learn the skills relevant to success in college in high school, through trial and error I’ve learned how to be “successful” (which is a super subjective, relative term) academically. A large part of my thesis in anthropology is requiring me to basically learn how to “do” anthropology independently.

I have found in my experience that the capitalist, competitive, individualistic values of Western society discourage collaboration and knowledge sharing as if you share something that’s helped you improve, you risk that they will compete with you and limit your opportunities. I have this feeling in my mind a lot. However, as I read more literature I am learning that an aspect of my Black feminist work means that I need to unlearn divisive, competitive practices in favor of those that encourage sharing, exchanging, and building upon other’s knowledge.

So, here is everything I’ve learned so far working on my thesis.

Keep Track of Your Sources

Okay so, as you write you’re going to accumulate a ton of sources. These sources may take the form of PDFs from academic journals, online articles, ebooks, physical books, art, etc. Instead of accumulating these sources in just a document or bookmarking every relevant source, consider using a tool that allows you to accumulate and organize all your citations.

I personally use Mendeley, but there are alternatives (here’s a list of some) like Zotero (which my thesis advisor uses). Using Mendeley as an example, you manually add sources as citations or upload your PDFs where the software auto-cites them (to mixed results). Once your sources are added, through the UI you can annotate by way of highlighting and adding notes to uploaded PDFs, find similar sources, and cite your sources through a variety of conventions.

Having an resource manager like this is really helpful for me. Since my project has three components, I can create folders for certain sources and keep track of everything that I’ve read.

Read the Works Cited

At the beginning of my research, I spent a lot of time searching key phrases that were relevant to my research like “archaeology” or “feminist anthropology” in hopes of finding articles written about those topics. Instead of reading one thing and then searching the same terms again, I’ve been using the bibliographies and citations of articles I like to guide my literature review.

I find titles that interest me or see where they are cited within the work that I’m reading. If the idea interests me, I read that next, and so on. Imagine your thesis topic as a web, by finding different information (primary sources, interviews, autoethnography, field notes, etc.) you’re looking deeply at the web and uncovering all the threads that comprise the larger topic.

Going through the works cited enables you to see the theoretical threads and understand the ideas and concepts that have informed the other threads connected to it.

The only issue with this method is that if you have an inquiring or curious mind, a lot of interesting topics will appear that inspire your focus. However, I encourage to rely on the advice of your advisor, your proposal, and your intuition to guide you towards the most important questions and topics for your research.

Keep a Notebook

Because I’m a hipster, aesthetic silly goose and own a gajillion notebooks, I bought myself another notebook for my thesis. Within this notebook, I keep track of my project timeline, questions, interview notes, research questions, reading notes, and it acts as an autoethnographic diary. I think you’re supposed to have these all in different places, but for now I keep them all together.

It’s a really helpful resource for me and almost acts as a personal reference for all things related to my thesis. My field notebook has come in handy for meetings with my advisor to explain what I’m up to and for personal reflection on the trajectory of my project.

Here’s some books to help with keeping a field notebook:

Writing Ethnographic Field Notes by Robert Emerson

Doing ethnography today : theories, methods, exercises by Elizabeth Campbell

Notetaking & Concept Maps

Finding out the best way to take notes for my thesis has been really difficult. On the one hand, I need to have quotes identified for reference when I begin writing, but on the other hand I was really struggling to remember what I was reading after the fact. And so, my notetaking has become a multipart process.

When I first begin reading, I highlight important quotes (through Mendeley) if it’s a PDF and if it’s a physical text, I type out notes into a Word document. Once I’m done taking my notes, I begin with a concept map.

Concept mapping entails taking a larger idea and breaking it into smaller topics and characteristics. After I do the reading, I summarize the larger components to their core themes and connect them visually (I like those web metaphors) to help m

e understand how concepts interact.

…I guess it would be easier just to show you. Below is how I took notes from Sonya Atalay’s book, Community Based Archaeology. This content map describes the characteristics of a community based participatory research in archaeology. As a visual learner, it’s important that I use different colors and shapes to help me visually distinguish between ideas, see relationships, and recall the information.


In the past few months, this is what I’ve learned from doing my thesis. A lot of it is trial and error, “teaching” myself how to do anthropology, googling, and asking friends for help. It’s been a really humbling, invigorating, and inspiring process. Though there’s a lot of work ahead, I’m excited to see how my ideas continue to change and develop over the course of this project.

Do you have any thesis tips? Share them on my Facebook page or tweet me @noireandco.