Your thesis is not something to be put off, but something to get started on early!
Daniel has just completed his BA History and Politics at Magdalen College. He is a disabled student and the first in his immediate family to go to university. Daniel is a Trustee of Potential Plus UK, a Founding Ambassador and Expert Panel Member for Zero Gravity, a Sutton Trust Alumni Leadership Board Member and a History Faculty Ambassador. Before coming to university, Daniel studied at a non-selective state school, and was a participant on the UNIQ, Sutton Trust, and Social Mobility Foundation APP Reach programmes, as well as being part of the inaugural Opportunity Oxford cohort. Daniel is passionate about outreach and social mobility and ensuring all students have the best opportunity to succeed.
The undergraduate thesis is most probably the longest piece of writing you will have encountered but can be the most rewarding. It gives you the opportunity to follow your passions and conduct historical research that may have never been done before, in a new field or deepening understanding in an area you had already explored. Based on my recent experience here is my advice for how to put it all together:
Choosing a topic
You should begin thinking about this in the January of your second year. Most work on your thesis begins in Trinity (summer term) of your second year, so use Hilary (spring term) to brainstorm what you want to write about. Reflect on which bits of the History degree you have really enjoyed, or any areas you wish to learn more about. Don’t just go for the most obvious topics. 20th century British political topics in some cases have very little unexplored material, so you want to choose an area where you can really add value. Make sure your topic is small enough to be able to do it well in 12,000 words, as that becomes surprisingly few words when you are putting it all together.
You may cover something where there has been some research, but find a new approach or a new angle. In my case, I used the new donations of materials on the Oxford Union’s ‘King and Country’ debate as one way my thesis would be original.
You want to think about the sources you would potentially need to consult, and where they may be stored – no point choosing a topic if the archives are in a language you don’t understand or they are inaccessible. You need to think about logistics and ensure there will be enough material to write about. Not enough primary material can really hold writing back. You don’t need to travel across the world (though it can be very cool) to put it together. There are plenty of subjects that haven’t been explored that could be answered by archives within the University of Oxford. That’s another way to bring value from your thesis; focus on a well-known topic, but in a local context where it may not have been researched.
If you are struggling to choose a topic, don’t worry as there are lectures and sessions to support you throughout the thesis process from the Faculty of History and your college tutor. Not every idea works first time either, so do leave yourself enough time to explore the primary material available.
Introductory reading and your supervisor
At this point it is worth seeing what secondary material is available so you can begin to get a clear idea of what you are writing about. The History Faculty Canvas page is a good place to start. Use reading lists from other papers to put together an introductory reading list for your thesis. You could also attend relevant lectures if you start early enough to gain an understanding of the key ideas in each area.
Don’t worry if you aren’t sure how you want to move forward, your thesis supervisor is there to support with this. They are a tutor who has some experience in the area you are writing about; they have subject specialist knowledge which will be invaluable in driving your thesis forward.
Throughout your thesis writing process you can access up to 5 hours of support (inclusive of time spent responding to email questions as well as meetings), so don’t use all your time up at the start. Leave time for feedback on your thesis draft (I would recommend saving around three hours for this). Talk about your ideas and where you are stuck, and they will be able to suggest relevant reading or sources of primary material.
Ideally confirm your topic and supervisor by the end of Trinity (summer term) of your second year. You can meet before the summer to set out what work you are going to do over the long vacation.
Primary source work
The vast majority of this should be completed over the summer, given you only get Hilary (spring) term of your third year to write up. You are likely to need to spend around 2 weeks conducting primary research, looking at archives or conducting interviews depending on what you are studying. You want to make good notes while doing this and make sure to note down all reference codes for the material you access in the archive. Anything quoted in your thesis will need to be referenced (including page numbers), so note these early to save having to do so again. This is particularly important for sources located a long way away.
You will require ethical approval from your supervisor before you undertake any interviews. This process can take some time, so make sure you submit the request early as you don’t want your thesis timeline to be derailed by this review. Also consider how you will reach those you want to interview; are they likely to want to be involved? What is the best medium to engage with them (online or in-person)? What are the strengths and limitations of such an approach?
While conducting primary source analysis, think back to the question you initially discussed with your supervisor and consider if your enquiry is developing differently. You may find your focus in archival research is slightly different to what you outlined initially. That is fine as long as you can complete a good piece of writing on it.
As you go, begin thinking about the two to three chapters you may break your work into. Also reflect – is there enough material to write about? You don’t want to be going into third year with too much primary source analysis left to do. Keep thinking what you want to cover in your thesis and identify gaps early so you can continue to develop your enquiry.
You will need to submit a short proposal in Michaelmas (autumn term) of your third year. This is signed off by the exam board, to certify your thesis is a viable proposal. By now you should know if there is enough material to cover the topic you want. You can make changes after the submission, but I think it’s a good deadline to see if you are on track. It doesn’t need to be too detailed; suggest a title, list the sources you are consulting and what you are hoping to investigate. Your supervisor or tutors in college can give feedback on this.
You will already have done some secondary reading as part of choosing a topic, and through your initial meetings with your supervisor. While conducting primary source analysis over the long vacation, it is also advantageous to do some more secondary reading. Secondary reading helps to put sources in context and allows you to see where your work fits in to the wider historical debate. Your thesis may be responding to an author or building upon their work. If possible, you could even reach out to them to get their advice or suggestions for unexplored avenues of enquiry.
It is worth flagging you are unlikely to have any time during Michaelmas (autumn term) to work on your thesis. The earliest you are likely to get back to your thesis is at some point during the Christmas vacation or the 1st week of Hilary (spring term).
You must submit your thesis by midday on Friday of 8th week of Hilary. As you can see the timelines are tight. It is therefore worth finishing any primary source analysis as a priority at the start of term, before devoting a few more weeks to secondary reading. During this time, keep checking in with your supervisor to stay on track.
How long you spend on secondary reading should be determined by how long you think you need for writing; my advice is learn from the Extended Essay that you completed in Michaelmas (autumn term) to know your timings. If it took much longer to write than planned, this needs to be factored into your timings. You don’t want to spend all your time reading if writing is the most challenging aspect. You can also read while writing, as the writing process can expose gaps. So give yourself more time to write than you think you need, and prioritise your reading by where you think you need more knowledge.
You should have a detailed plan for your thesis, breaking it down into two to three chapters and what you want to cover in each chapter. With a long piece of writing, it is easy for the quality to drop in the middle as you lose steam so be aware of this. You want to be selective as you only have 12000 words and referencing counts within that limit. Just like any piece of academic writing, it needs an argument so make sure you have a clear train of thought throughout.
I would advise you start writing by the beginning of fourth week. You ideally want to submit your thesis to your supervisor by the end of fifth week to give time for review. It is likely to take your supervisor a minimum of a week to review your thesis (they may be supervising multiple students), so check when they need it by to ensure you have ample time to make the necessary improvements.
When writing, you may want to write a sketch version first where you write all of your thoughts before adding the detail with references. Make sure your referencing format is consistent and make the work as good as possible so your supervisor’s feedback can be focused on how to get your thesis to the next level rather than simple mistakes. For things like spelling and grammar it is down to you to ensure your thesis is readable.
While it can be tempting to leave writing until the last possible second, you will get your best work by working consistently over a week or two with clear goals. You don’t want to be in the library every waking hour, as this will come through in the quality of what is written.
When working with a supervisor, it is all about communication. If you do find issues while writing your thesis, you can always meet your supervisor to get some steer. Some supervisors like to review it chapter by chapter, so establish how you want to work at the start of Hilary (spring term) and stick to it.
Proofreading and re-drafting
When you receive your supervisor’s feedback, it can be useful to schedule sessions with them to run through it on a granular level. Some supervisors will go through chapter by chapter, others will be steered by your questions.
You will hopefully have at least one or two weeks to make the necessary edits, which could be as drastic as restructuring an entire chapter. It is worth rewriting with time to spare, so you can proofread it to ensure the thesis reads clearly. Do follow the University regulations if you would like others to review your thesis.
The final step is sending it in before the deadline – some students submit up to a week in advance if they are happy with it, where others (like myself) give it a final read on the morning of submission. Make sure to back up on a cloud-based platform so if there are any technical issues you can obtain a recent version.
Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable process, where you get a lot of freedom to work at your own pace on a topic you are interested in. My main piece of advice is don’t let that freedom get you off track, as there is little time to catch up if you do fall behind (particularly during Hilary term). Your thesis is not something to be put off but something to get started on early!
My undergraduate thesis will be published on the Oxford Union Library and Archives website in due course, and a physical copy can also be found within the Oxford Union Library