The Power of Sources for Academic Dissertations

Choosing a topic for your thesis discussed very preliminary aspects of an academic thesis, starting with the formulation of the hypothesis and concluding in the selection of the dissertation’s topic. Here we continue with the next step: literature and sources review.

The Power of Sources

Based on your hypothesis, you have proposed a tentative title. At this point, don’t show excessive concern for the clarity, accuracy and length of the title. It’s probably wrong, but regardless of its inadequacy, this tentative title will prove a good guidance. The important point is to keep going forward. Then, we approach a decisive process: review of sources and literature. The primary purpose of this process is to check the current status of the problem you’re researching. In my opinion, academic and scientific journals represent the best sources, and the first ones you should browse and analyze. Some people prefer to start with traditional textbooks, to acquire an overview of the topic. However, modern society is characterized by a maelstrom of information, which may turn your textbooks quickly obsolete. But certainly, updated books are valuable. Of course, there are always exceptions. You’re smart. I know you’re smart because you’ve keep reading. Now, for instance, if your study focuses on a specific historic character, obviously all of her works, including her books, are mandatory sources.

Sources for Academic Dissertations
Sources for Academic Dissertations

Remember that sources should not be restricted only to text-based communications. You can extract critical information from…

  • Conferences
  • Interviews
  • Recordings (audio / video)
  • And even chats with peers and teachers can provide information and fresh perspectives on your research subject.

Searching and reviewing sources should follow two approaches: general and specific, in that order. Initial consultations are intended to approach the topic. Some basic scanning might suffice, followed by a more careful reading of the points you deemed more interesting. However, don’t torment yourself if you do not understand everything you encounter. However, you should be able to understand something. If you discover that best sources are totally inaccessible (you can not get originals or copies of them), or you fail to understand anything, or if you acknowledge that you will face enormous difficulty working on this research topic, you should redirect your research and select another topic. However, normally, preparation of a dissertation has often to cope with many hard-to-understand documents… they are difficult, but not impossible. The challenge of such documents does not mean inability of the student to approach such topic. This is normal in any research, and with dedication and by consulting other references, the content of the sources can become definitely manageable. But you should always be aware of your abilities and limitations, and pursue the balance between the time available and your ability to deal with the involved concepts and methods.

After a review of relevant sources you should achieve a lucid view of the status of your research problem. It might happen…

  1. That it is fully resolved. At this point, a lot of students go looking for another problem. I think you better look into the possibilities opened by this problem being already solved, because if you have interested on the subject, you will be surely interested on new opportunities and applications. Of course, if you have an extensive list of research topics, you can move to the next item on your list, if you prefer so.
  2. It has been partially solved. In this case, if you’re doing an undergraduate thesis, and unless you are a genius, I would recommend changing the subject, or find some application of the partial solution. Because the fact that the problem has not been solved completely generally means that the remaining research is either too long or too complicated or unsolvable. Of course, it depends on the area and type of problem… sometimes the problem was extensive original research, and what remains to be solved (or even part of the rest) may be considered as a new research problem.
  3. It has not yet been resolved. In principle, this is good news. But immediately after verifying that the problem has not been resolved, you should ask yourself why it has not been resolved yet: Is it not interesting? Is it for you? Is it too difficult? Is it easy for you? Is it new and no one has started (yet) to solve it? (Well great!, This may be your issue.) Or… nobody has tried the method or approach that you thought of? Congratulations, but before entering, make sure that:
    • Indeed no one has tried your method (or minor variations of your method, which can not be categorized as different methods).
    • Your method is applicable. Notice I said applicable. I’m not asking you to verify that your method really works and is a solution of the problem, because that belongs to the investigation. But sometimes, the methods have theoretical or practical preconditions which must be verified to justify their successful application.

An important remark. Normally, no problem is finally and absolutely closed, so the previous considerations should not be taken in a literal sense. Ideal, perfect solutions are very rare. It is likely that you find a popular, proven solution, but by no means infallible. In fact, your research might identify the deficiencies of established methods. Focus on cost and effectiveness of the current solution … Is it possible that your new solution lowers costs? Or could it be more effective?

If after you carry out a comprehensive review, you must continue to an extensive and detailed scrutiny of the sources. Get ready to organize the data from all the sources. In this sense, appeal to both physical and electronic notes. But ultimately, you will develop a bibliographic database, containing all your data sources. By the way, I use and recommend BibTeX format for these bibliographic records. This database will form the basis of the Bibliography (References) of the thesis. And be sure to document well all this literature review, including arguments, justifications and general answers you’ve given to the above questions. If you have raised new questions, if there have been doubts, register them. Take notes, and do not worry about the academic or scientific rigor of those notes: they are your private notes. You can write:

  • I don’t understand what paragraph A of article B really means.
  • I find it a waste of time to apply the method these authors recommend, because…
  • This technique is the same as presented in book C!
  • Is there any alternative to standard D?
  • The system described here is obsolete.
  • Methodology by author E is much better to follow and apply.
  • Conclusions F contradict those of G!

And so on. In short, write what catches your attention in the literature. You’ll notice that you’ve gained more knowledge about the topic. Please, remember to register all the literature you’ve reviewed. It may seem tedious, but you will be rewarded greatly later on.

As you deepen the literature review, check to see if the title should be improved (more clarity, more precision… what you think now?). This specific review of sources will only end when your dissertation has been approved. Indeed, during the development of the thesis you will have to frequently appeal to your sources, expand your knowledge, you will find to new sources, you will add new notes, you will modify your existing ones, and so on until you complete the thesis.

A few closing comments. If the thesis is an undergraduate one and, after searching extensively, you end up with very few sources, I recommend changing the subject. Finally, only by reviewing sources you will come to acquire a broad perspective on the subject, and what of it has been studied so far. If you carry out your review in a systematic, comprehensive and updated way, you can prepare a State of the Art article about your topic, and publish it on a specialized journal. Thereby, reviewing sources and literature fulfills another purpose: a publication. And publications are always a huge help (sometimes a requirement, especially for graduate degrees) to approve the thesis.

In a future post we will talk about the structure, content and presentation of a thesis.

One thought on “The Power of Sources for Academic Dissertations

  1. Great article, high quality. This is a good series which will be really useful for students.


    Mark J. Braswell

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