How to Write a Thesis
MIT University Press, 2015
For doctoral students transitioning from the role of “student” to “candidate,” the second, third, and fourth years of their program are devoted to completing an exciting (but potentially daunting) task: the preparation, writing, refinement, and defense of a research-intensive thesis. Navigating this journey brings its own special blend of challenges. In such circumstances, a thoughtful, funny, and learned guide that can clarify both pitfalls and opportunities is useful to have available. The Italian philologist Umberto Eco lends just such a hand in his newly translated text How to write a thesis, the first English translation of the 1977 classic Come si fa una tesi di laurea. Eco’s faithfully translated book is written with the intent to be applicable to a broad range of subjects, and should be added to all emerging scholars’ bookshelves.
One of the first things the reader will notice is that the book is largely bereft of all-too-common academic stuffiness and impenetrability. It is written as a chapter by chapter examination, with sections and sub-sections bearing amusing titles such as “Must you read books? If so, what should you read first?” and “How to avoid being exploited by your advisor”. Indeed, for some (including your correspondent) who appreciate prose that gives off hints of an opinionated polemic, this text reads like a breath of fresh air. Eco is delightfully unique and, in places, appropriately irreverent. He does not handle braggadocio well (“there is nothing more irritating than [foot]notes that seem inserted only to impress”), nor is he willing to tolerate academic conventions merely because they are de jour. A memorable example of the latter can be found in a section on conducting research, where Eco explains that one academic writing convention is “quite popular in the United States, and I find it quite annoying.” This type of bluntness makes an otherwise potentially dull topic manual much more readable. Eco delivers advice in such a way that you are unlikely to quickly forget it—he advises us to remember to select “a topic that is extremely limited, perhaps very easy, and perhaps despicably specialized”, and derides “emotional” writing as characteristic of inexperienced writers on their way to self-published releases.
Eco is a fervent promoter of meticulousness. He sees the thesis as a sort of training stage—a deliberate, methodical exercise that lays the foundations for future output—and explains that he relied heavily on the skills first developed in the thesis process to make his later (and more broadly impactful) scholarly and popular contributions. This rigor begins at the very start of the thesis process, rooted in the scientific method (a process meeting core conditions like “the research deals with a specific object, defined so that others can identify it” and “the research is useful to others”) and extending to the use of note cards, cross-referencing, and sheer hard work to arrive at evidence-based conclusions and empirical recommendations. This, along with things like careful bibliography and reading file compilation, contribute to what Eco calls “erudite etiquette” – an admirable framework that shows a polished scholar with an awareness of their discipline’s conventions and requirements.
Of course, an awareness of human frailties is important too. Eco’s demands for diligence are such that one could be forgiven for, at times, expelling gasps of exasperation at some of the requirements (I, for one, could not assemble readings outlines with the level of dedication that Eco suggests). But the results of pursuing academic excellence are sweet, and— if one works hard enough—will be wonderful to savour. Be authoritative, he counsels, when making declarations on what you have found in your research—especially since you could very well be the global expert on that (very narrow) specific subject!
Although the book is brimming with useful short tips, a few are particularly worth sharing. To start with, Eco understands that the thesis endeavour is idiosyncratic, and as a result, a wide range of considerations need to be assessed when determining how best to proceed. For example, when choosing a topic, Eco urges geographical practicality (a sensible recommendation, given that scholars can sometimes undertake initiatives that pull them far from their place of residence, with all the attendant financial and familial burdens). Moreover, he holds that there is nothing wrong with further exploring subject areas in which you are comfortable or to which you have personal exposure—indeed, it may be required, such as when one is tackling primary works that involve a need to understand a foreign language. One of Eco’s injunctions, quoted on the book jacket, summarizes this perspective nicely: “If you do not know the definition of a term, avoid using it. If it is one of the principal terms of your thesis and you are not able to define it, call it quits.”
In addition, Eco urges focus—an important concept for those of us (and I am certainly guilty of this) who can be drawn into the spiral of dilettantism all too easily. A thesis does not exist to impress new love interests or as a method to summarize one’s command of the English language; instead, “your thesis exists to prove the hypothesis that you devised at the outset”, and you should not be afraid to tailor it to meet this need. Don’t try to cover too much, as this will make it much more difficult for you to be comprehensive. Consistency is also key—for everything from footnotes to referencing—and needs to be carefully monitored at all times.
The twin themes of “focus” and “consistency” overlap nicely with the related issue of brevity. Eco is a strong proponent of suitable conciseness. This applies to our word choice, as well as the length of our sentences. Extended sentences, he counsels, need to be abandoned, as do fears that repeating the subject is a bad thing. “Begin new paragraphs often”, he says, and do not try avant-garde writing styles that take you outside of the traditional thesis mold. Citation customs that I was unfamiliar with also get some attention. Eco proposes the term “cf.”, a term with which some students from outside the humanities might not be familiar (it refers readers to additional material for the purposes of comparison), and he reminds us that we should avoid citing “notions of common knowledge.”
Eco also nicely tackles the sometimes fragile supervisor-student relationship. Accept it as a worthy challenge, he advises, if a supervisor trusts you enough to assign a thesis on a topic that the supervisor finds new and interesting. The student can take it as an intellectual compliment and an encouraging sign that they will be prodded and molded during the adventure into unfamiliar territory. At the same time, your correspondent believes that you should not be afraid to push back if you do not agree with the demands or cannot meet the supervisor’s needs with your current skill set (or, as Eco would say, “you must write a thesis that you are able to write”).
A few shortcomings are worth noting. At times, the undeniably erudite Eco can come across as pedantic, as he repeatedly uses series of long, difficult to follow names to make his points (lines such as “Castelvetro’s and Robortello’s sixteenth-century commentaries, the Loeb edition with the parallel Greek text, and Augusto Rostagni’s and Manara Valgimigli’s…” give the reader a taste of the complexity found in these pages). Eco imputes his blazing intellect on to his students, and this tendency, as other reviews of this text have noted, could make new researchers feel somewhat inferior, especially if their still-developing thought patterns do not make the links and interconnections that naturally occur to an intellectual of Eco’s age and pedigree.
Another shortfall is that, given that the book was first published nearly forty years ago, some of the advice is simply unnecessary to think about in the modern academic environment. Word processors, Google Drive, and other technological tools have made the problematic aspects of Eco’s era of scholarship seem out-dated (it is, for instance, safe to claim that prohibitively high costs of typewriting and typewriter editing are not likely to be a major consideration in a 2015 student budget). Today’s students are now far more pre-occupied with increasing costs of living and rapidly growing tuition costs and, needless to say, his suggestions on how best to make use of limited technical resources can probably be safely ignored.
Finally, a word of caution is in order. A few of Eco’s suggestions are presented as best practices, but they are subjective. He lays out detailed prescriptions for scholastic excellence in referencing, for example, but there does not seem to be any a priori reason to strictly adhere to Eco’s approach. To his credit, he acknowledges as much, noting that the bibliography presentation will be dependent on the type of thesis, but given the extensive coverage that is provided in the text, it is important to remember that Eco’s methods are not necessarily superior to the mainstream formats. I, for one, prefer to remain in my comfort zone and consult the APA manual, whereas others opt for Harvard and Chicago, which may or may not be required by publication venues, the university, or the discipline’s conventions.
Eco’s work will provide welcome advice for those students who are worried about how best to demonstrate their intellectual aptitude in the thesis, a pursuit which, even if they continue on to post-doctoral fellowships or a professorship, represents the culmination of years of training in and of itself. While readers will need to pick and choose the portions of the text with applications to their research—a typical English-speaking physical geographer studying carbon cycles is unlikely to worry about the importance of using the correct translation of the books of ancient philosophers, while a mathematician is probably writing a thesis largely lacking in foreign accents—there is something for everyone here. Writing a thesis is about the journey, not the ultimate destination, and it should be an enjoyable—even exhilarating!—experience. At the very least, graduate students can absorb Eco’s conclusions; namely, that “writing a thesis should be fun”, and “writing a thesis is like cooking a pig: nothing goes to waste.”
Joel Krupa  is a doctoral student in the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto, Canada. He completed his M.Sc. at Mansfield College, Oxford.