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Natural Sciences
Thomas E. Kolb

Thesis/Dissertation Planning in the School of Forestry

A research-based thesis or dissertation is the most important component of master’s of science and doctoral degrees in the School of Forestry (SOF).  While there are class requirements for both degrees and good performance in classes is essential, the quality of the thesis or dissertation is considered by many to be the primary measure of a graduate student’s ability for critical thinking, problem solving, and research.  Below are a few suggestions for a successful thesis or dissertation based on my 15 years of advising graduate students in the SOF.

Hit the ground running when you arrive on campus by selecting your advisor carefully during the application process.  First, learn about the potential advisor’s research by reading his or her published papers.  More importantly, get a list of the advisor’s current and past graduate students and ask those students about their experiences.  Few recent published papers by the advisor and unfavorable comments from other students are a strong suggestion to continue searching for an advisor.  Second, explore potential research topics during the application process with potential advisors.  You and your advisor should have defined the general scope of your research before you arrive on campus.  Third, use the SOF’s Research Methods course (FOR 690) to polish your research questions and methods.  This course is offered every fall semester and requires students to prepare a detailed proposal about their research.  Iterative rounds of peer reviews and revisions are used to refine the proposal.  Students leave the course with a cohesive, persuasive plan for research that will fill important information gaps about the functioning and management of wildland ecosystems.

Use your committee early and often: Form your thesis or dissertation committee during your first semester on campus.  Work with your advisor to strategically select committee members who collectively are willing to provide expertise about the current status of knowledge related to your research questions, methods appropriate for your research, and technical writing and editing.  Meet with your committee at least once each year and provide members with written updates each semester. 

Line ‘em up and knock ‘em down: Take a minute at the end of each work day to develop a list of research-related tasks for the next day.  Focus on completing those tasks the next morning.  Do this consistently, and you will accomplish much in research and otherwise.

Write every day: Write something related to your research topic every work day.  The amount of daily writing can be small or large.  The key is to get in the habit of writing.  Type a citation into the literature cited section of your thesis or dissertation as soon as you finish reading an article (and read much).  Write a methods paragraph as soon as you perform an experiment or collect data.  Do not fall into the trap of waiting until the middle of your last semester to start writing.  Daily writing will make thesis and dissertation writing more manageable and rewarding, and will improve the quality of the final document.

—Thomas E. Kolb, Professor and Graduate Coordinator, NAU School of Forestry