Earlier today I posted a link to a video of John Piper discussing whether pastors should get PhDs. That video has begun to make its way around the blogosphere and has prompted a really thoughtful response (both appreciative and critical) from Dane Ortlund. Nick Norelli has also weighed in with a brief comment in favor of Piper’s overall take on the subject. I’d encourage you to watch the video, and then I’d like to hear what you think. I’d also be interested to know if you think that his arguments extend to Th.M. programs as well.
This series has ended up being much longer than I’d originally anticipated. So, I thought I would compile a list of all the posts in one place to make them a little easier to access. I’ll do this again once I’m all done (assuming I ever finish).
- Tips for the ThM – part 1 (journal articles)
- Tips for the ThM – part 2 (strong arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 3 (concise arguments)
- Tips for the ThM – part 4 (criticism)
- Tips for the ThM – part 5 (concise answers)
- Tips for the ThM – part 6 (I don’t know)
- Tips for the ThM – part 7 (summarizing research)
- Tips for the ThM – part 8 (writing proposals)
- Tips for the ThM – part 9 (the proposal process)
- Tips for the ThM – part 10 (picking a topic)
- Tips for the ThM – part 11 (finding a topic)
I’m sure that all of you who are in the program have already heard me talk about how to pick a topic for your Th.M. thesis or Guided Research projects. Nonetheless, it can’t hurt to hear it again, and it would probably be helpful to have it in writing. These comments would also apply to choosing a topic for your Ph.D. dissertation, so hopefully they’ll help in the future for some of you as well.
Let me say first what picking a topic is not about. It is not about wowing the world with your brilliance, making some amazing new discovery that will reshape your discipline forevermore, or otherwise establishing your reputation as a world class scholar. It’s always possible that your research will lead to one of these (don’t count on it). But, that’s not where your focus should be when picking a topic. Indeed, picking your topic really shouldn’t be about other people at all. Once you’ve picked your topic, you will absolutely want to know how your research will impact other people. Academic research should not be a solipsistic journey into ivory tower irrelevance. But, you don’t start by thinking (i.e. worrying) about what other people think. Down that road lies research paralysis.
The starting point for choosing a good research topic is you – i.e. your needs and interests. I’d suggest that a really good research topic will accomplish one or more of the following.
- Strengthen an area of weakness. We all have areas in which our prior training was not sufficient for what we want to do next. It could be a methodology, a background issue, a key debate, or some other issue. Spend some time reflecting on what you are preparing to do and how well prepared you are to do it. If you see some areas that you really need to address, a research project is the perfect time to do it. If it’s an area of critical weakness, then you definitely want to do something in the project that will help. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you focus your thesis in that area, only that you construct in such a way as to provide opportunities for development. For example, if you’re working in systematic theology and you’re weak in philosophy, make sure you deal with some philosophical issues in your thesis. That will sharpen your skills in an area of weakness, even while you chase a topic that accomplishes other purposes as well.
- Strengthen an area of strength. You research is the perfect time to develop an area of specialization. So, again, spend some time reflecting on your preparation and the areas in which you are currently strongest. Which of those would you really like to work into a specialization? Which could you see yourself pursuing on into the future? Which do you want to be identified with moving forward?
- Chase an area of interest. This one is pretty obvious, but also very important. Research takes a lot of time and discipline, don’t make it harder by picking a topic that you don’t find personally interesting. Even if it’s a great topic, you’ll hate it. And, you might not ever finish. Ask yourself what question you are trying to answer with your project, if you don’t find the question personally compelling, ask a differing question.
- Set yourself up for the future. What are you doing next? If you’re preparing for a PhD program, then you definitely want your thesis to set you up for success. Ideally, your thesis will lay the groundwork for what you do in your doctoral program, so make sure it helps you thoroughly explore its area of focus and the necessary methodologies. If you’re already in or headed toward ministry, spend some time thinking about the shape of that ministry and the kinds of issues involved. What questions/issues are most pressing? Where does your biblical/theological framework need more work to ground effective ministry? What everyday practices do you need to reflect more deeply on to make sure that they are theologically, rather than pragmatically, driven?
I could summarize all of this simply: pursue your research with the end in mind. The best way to pick a topic is by not starting with the topic. Start with your needs and interests. You’re going to spend a tremendous amount of time on this project. So, what would you like to accomplish personally in the process? Once you’ve answered that question, you’re in position to begin evaluating research ideas. I’ll comment in the next post on how to generate good research ideas.
Now I’d like to make a few comments on the specific proposal process here at Western. The process is really the same whether you’re writing a thesis or a guided research project. Feel free to post a comment if you have a question that I don’t cover here.
First, timing. You really want to start working on your research proposal the semester before you intend to start writing your project. That’s because, as I noted in my last post, the proposal can take a while to finish, and you want to have a completed proposal before you start on the project. Also, you can’t register your project until I’ve signed off on your proposal. So, give yourself plenty of time to get your proposal done. If you haven’t done much research on your proposed topic yet, I’d give it a full semester. It won’t take that long, but you’ll probably have other classes that you’re working on. Give yourself plenty of time to do some background reading, talk with faculty, and craft the proposal. If you’ve already done quite a bit of that, I’d still start working on the proposal at least a month before you want to start writing.
Second, first drafts. You will write a first draft of your research proposal and send it to me, your lofty and highly esteemed program director. (Since you need me to sign off on you proposal, sending small tokens of appreciation along with the proposal would not amiss.) Most often, I’ll comment on your proposal, suggest some changes, and send it back to you. My focus at this point will be on helping you craft a proposal that is clear and addresses all the things I discussed in my earlier post. It’s not uncommon for us to go through a couple of drafts at this point.
Third, finishing. Once we’re both satisfied that you have a clear proposal, we’ll agree on which faculty are best qualified to supervise your project. (Actually, we’ll have talked about this already. But, at this stage we need to make a final decision.) And, you’ll send your research proposal to them. They may suggest some changes to the proposal as well. Although you’ll have a clear proposal by this time, they know their area far better than I do, and will be reading your proposal with more of a focus on the content and research involved.
Fourth, registering. When, your faculty supervisor(s) are satisfied with the proposal, you’re ready to get signatures and register the project. Once you register your project, you’re on the clock. If you’re working on a Guided Research Project, you have to finish the project in the semester that you registered it. So, we’ll want to get that registered right at the beginning of the semester to give you enough time to finish. If it’s a thesis, you’ll be registered for one credit that first semester and every semester after until you finish (you have to maintain continuous registration until you’re done).
I think that’s the whole process. Again, if you have any thoughts or questions, post them in the comments.
The research phase of your Th.M. begins with your research proposal. Since many of you will be writing research proposals later in life as well, I’d like to start by offering some thoughts on writing good proposals in general. In a later post, I’ll make some comments on the specific proposal process for our Th.M. program.
First, a good proposal should accomplish at least four things.
- It should identify a clear and strong thesis statement. Your thesis statement will probably change as you begin actually researching and writing, but you need a clear thesis statement at the beginning because that will guide everything else.
- It should lay out a clear argument. I strongly encourage writing full sentence outlines at this point. The top-level of the outline shows how each major section (or chapter) of the project relates to the thesis statement. Use full sentences so that it is very clear how the logic of the argument flows from one section/chapter to the other. And, I would drill down 2-3 additional levels in your outline (depending on whether this is for a thesis or paper) to show how you will develop each section/chapter. When you’re done, another person should be able to read through your outline and see exactly how you think the entire argument will go. It’s very unlikely that your outline will survive intact through the researching/writing process. But, you still want a clear outline at the beginning so that you know how everything relates. (More on this in a second.)
- It should indicate why the research is important. If you can’t explain in your proposal why your research matters, don’t bother doing the research. At the very least it means that you’re not invested and you won’t really get what you need out of the project. And, you’ll never get a supervisor to sign off on a project if you can’t explain why it needs to be done.
- It should identify all the key works that you’ll need to engage. I’m not as convinced as some that a proposal needs to be a nearly exhaustive list of resources on your subject. I think it’s more important that you’ve clearly identified all the works that you must engage for this project to work. That will help you see whether the project is feasible. Here you want to demonstrate both that there is enough material for you to perform adequate research and that there’s not so much material you couldn’t possibly cover it all.
Second, you need to realize that a good proposal makes your life easier. Trust me. A good proposal takes a long time to put together, but it saves you time in the long run. With a good proposal in hand, you know exactly how to approach your topic. You won’t waste as much time (wasting some time is unavoidable) chasing issues only to discover that they’re not necessary for your argument. You can’t (and shouldn’t) avoid making revisions to your project, but a good proposal will result in fewer revisions at the end. And, you won’t find yourself halfway through a project only to realize that you’re not actually sure what your thesis is.
Think of it like this. I built some bookcases for our family room a while back. It takes quite a bit of time to think through what you’re going to do, what pieces you need, what size they should be, and how you’ll assemble them. It’s much more satisfying just to jump right in and start cutting boards. And, I’ve done it that way before. It’s depressing how much time, energy, and money you can waste by not having a clear plan at the beginning.
You’ll spend far more time working on your research project than I did on building the bookcases. Make sure you’ve developed a good plan before you get started.
Probably the most unnerving thing about an oral examination is to be asked a question to which you do not know the answer. Your first reaction will be to fake it, to come up with something that will disguise your ignorance and make you sound sufficiently brilliant. Ignore your first reaction. Your second reaction will probably be to deflect the question in some way, to divert the questioner onto some other issue about which you are better informed. Ignore your second reaction. If you really don’t know the answer to the question, you must say so. As I said in my last post, trying to fake your way through an answer actually looks worse than saying “I don’t know.” At least an answer like that demonstrates that you understood the question and are aware of the limitations of your own knowledge.
The key to saying “I don’t know” is to recognize that this is actually a part of the process. I’m not sure about other examiners, but it is actually my goal in an oral examination to get you to the point where you have to say “I don’t know.” And, I don’t do that simply to torture you. (The torture is just a perk of the job.) We all have limits to our knowledge, and one of the goals of the examination is to find out where your limits are. So, “I don’t know” is actually an expected part of the examination. It’s not a question of whether you’ll say “I don’t know,” it’s a question of when.
I should also admit that we are not beyond asking questions for which there is no good answer. (I am particularly prone to throwing in questions like this just to see what you’ll do with them.) If you get a question like that, feel free to say that you don’t know the answer because no one really does. If you want to go on from there and offer your speculative attempt to answer the question, go ahead. Just make sure that you clearly indicate that this is just your attempt to answer the unanswerable.
Having said all of that, of course, you want to avoid saying “I don’t know” too quickly. If you’ve prepared decently for the exam, you will be able to answer most of the questions adequately. So, if you think you don’t know the answer the question, make sure that you understood the question. There’s nothing wrong with asking the questioner to repeat or even rephrase the question. A lot of the questions that get asked in an oral examination are spontaneous, so they’re not always carefully crafted. It’s entirely possible that the question is simply unclear. Make sure you understood it properly before admitting that you don’t know the answer.
Today’s post is similar to my earlier post on the importance of thesis statements for developing strong arguments. A weak thesis statement does more than just contribute to a weak “explorative” research paper. It also sets you up for having an unclear argument that contains unnecessary material.
One of the more common comments that I make, particularly when reading theses and guided research projects, is that certain sections seem unconnected to the main argument. This can happen for two reasons. Maybe you didn’t have a clear thesis statement to begin with. If you don’t have a clear sense of what you are trying to accomplish with a particular paper or chapter, it’s very difficult to determine whether you need to include some piece of information or argument. Without a good thesis statement, you’ll end up with a hodgepodge of loosely related information that does not really take the reader anywhere interesting.
It’s also possible that you had a good thesis statement, but you forgot that the thesis is supposed to drive the argument. The thesis should guide every part of the paper. If something doesn’t directly contribute to the argument that you are developing in support of your thesis, leave it out. It’s as simple as that. It might be good information, but leave it out anyway. You may have spent several hours working on it. Kill it. You didn’t waste your time. You still learned from the experience, and you can always save it in another document for later use. But, get it out of your paper. If it doesn’t support your argument, you don’t need it. If you include it anyway, you will weaken your paper. When you are done writing your paper or chapter (every chapter of your thesis should have its own thesis statement), you should be able to go through it and say how every paragraph supports the main argument.
Even when you’ve determined how a section relates to your thesis, however, you are still not done. You still need to go on and ask a further question: “Is it necessary?” If I’m writing my paper on Calvin’s view of election, a section on Luther’s view of election is certainly related. It would help establish the overall context of Calvin’s view and provide background information on what other people of the day might have thought. So, it’s related, but is it necessary? Do I need that section for my argument to succeed? If so, I definitely include it. If not, I have a decision to make. I might still determine that it is sufficiently helpful to warrant its inclusion. That’s fine. “Helpful” can be good enough. Just make sure that you take the time to think it through. Don’t include it just because it’s interesting and related. Make sure it has an important role to play in the paper.
So, the question that you should be asking yourself constantly is, “Why is this in my paper?” What is the purpose of this section? How does it connect to the overall argument?
Many of the Th.M. research papers that I read manifest a common problem; they lack a clear, strong argument. Instead, students seem to prefer research papers that are more summative or explorative. Papers like this will sometimes explicitly declare their intent to “explore” a topic: “This paper will explore John Calvin’s view of predestination.” Others, will take a more indirect route and just start summarizing out of the gate. (Biblical Theology and history papers are particularly prone to this.) Either way, rather than staking out a position, these papers just summarize data.
There is nothing wrong with providing a good summary. Indeed, that is often critical for writing an effective paper. If you are dealing with a complex issue on which there are multiple perspectives, you need a good summary to orient yourself and your readers on the topic. But, a good summary is not enough for a quality research paper. That’s only the first step. The more significant part of the project comes when you identify the position that you will take.
That’s why writing a thesis statement for your paper is so important. The thesis statement clearly communicates what your are doing with the paper. If you have a weak thesis statement (“I will explore…” or “This paper will look at…”), you will have a weak paper. A strong thesis statement, on the other hand, makes an explicit claim that must then be supported and defended through the course of the paper. Something like, “I will argue that John Calvin’s view of predestination was more biblical and less speculative than that of later interpreters like William Perkins.” Or, “In this paper, we will see that Richard Muller’s arguments regarding the faithfulness and accuracy of Calvin’s later interpreters are correct.” If I took a little more time, I’m sure I could come up with better examples of strong thesis statements. But, you get the point. Make a claim. It doesn’t need to be a new claim, but it does need to be one that you will argue and defend in the paper.
A good Th.M. research paper, then, should clearly stake out a position, interact with the primary data/opinions that both support and contradict that position, and conclude with a statement of how all of this leads to the conclusion drawn in the paper. Don’t get cute. These are not creative writing classes. A good research paper can serve as the foundation for a more creative writing project later. For now, focus on developing a solid argument that is clearly explained and well defended.