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I am currently trying to defend my second MA degree. I got my first one from the university of Warsaw (Poland), where I graduated summa cum laude, so I always thought, I had some idea of how to write a thesis. At this new university however (it's in Kazakhstan, but it follows a curriculum that's leaning towards that of what's considered to be a typical US university), I've been told that my thesis is no good, as it's in the wrong format, has not research question and is generally bad. Now, I'm aware that this thesis is certainly not a masterpiece, it was written during a lockdown when I had little access to literature, so the literature review part of the thesis is merely 20 pages long. However the most confusing part for me was that of this "research question" matter. I've been told that there isn't one, to which I replied "that's because I didn't ask any question". My thesis is describing the lack of certain aspects of ESL education in Kazakhstan, including a survey in which teachers and students were asked whether those missing aspects should be included in the curriculum or whether they find them irrelevant. I've written my first thesis in the exact same way, and I was told it was fine.

My question is, is there any way that I can get this though a defense without completely rewriting it?

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    This is more or less impossible to answer without knowing the details of the field, the thesis, and the university standards. And, most importantly: what the advisor / committee thinks. I assume that "you were told" means by your advisor, if that is true that most likely means you need to change your work until they are satisfied. – cheersmate Apr 15 at 8:11
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    What would happen when we said you did not have to? You would show that post to your advisor, and suddenly your advisor changes her/his opinion because some random person on the internet said so. That does not sound that likely... So the short answer is that your advisor determines what is acceptable or not, so if your advisor says you need to rewrite your thesis, then you need to rewrite your thesis. – Maarten Buis Apr 15 at 8:59
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    It seems to me you already have a research question and you simply need to make it explicit, such as: "What aspects of ESL education in Kazakhstan are absent [subpar, under represented, etc.] as compared to xxx countries [yyy standards, etc.], and to what extent is their absence considered significant by Kazakhstan teachers and students?" – Dave L Renfro Apr 15 at 9:52
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    Formal requirements are set by your institution. So if you want to know what the requirements are you need to ask your institution. – Maarten Buis Apr 15 at 10:22
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    Someone needs to grade your work. So even if you don't have someone you call an advisor, there is still someone doing the grading. If that someone who does the grading says your thesis needs to be rewritten, then you need to rewrite the thesis. – Maarten Buis Apr 15 at 10:25
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Disclaimer: I'm in STEM, not the humanities, and I'm in the UK. But the idea of "research questions" (or, alternatively, research aims) comes up in all our student theses.

I usually define a project as having three parts:

  1. Find a problem (or ask a question)
  2. Propose (or find) a solution (or find an answer)
  3. Evaluate your solution (how "correct" is the answer?)

But there is another way a thesis can be structured:

  1. Find a solution
  2. Propose a potential problem
  3. Evaluate the extent of the problem and propose/highlight new research directions to solve it.

My thesis is describing the lack of certain aspects of ESL education in Kazakhstan, including a survey in which teachers and students were asked whether those missing aspects should be included in the curriculum or whether they find them irrelevant.

This is good. It sounds like you've found a solution and have identified a potential problem with it. And it sounds like you've evaluated that problem, too. So, your research question might be something like "Is the lack of certain aspects of ESL education in Kazakhstan problematic for users of the educational services?". Or, if you want to avoid a closed question: "How problematic to service users is the lack of certain aspects of ESL education in Kazakhstan?". Defining it as a question makes your research suitably cautious. Maybe there isn't a problem at all, and your research saves someone else from proposing a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Maybe the problem is massive and obvious and everyone knows about it but no one has written it down.

You have your research question at the start of your thesis, then at the end, you reflect on it. What is the answer to your research question? How well have you answered it? Everything in your thesis should be driven towards answering your research question (or questions), and that will help to avoid going off topic.

----- Edit ----- Just editing to add: it already sounds like you have a research question (even if you didn't know it), and it sounds like your thesis is written on topic to support your research question. A huge re-write is possibly not necessary, but at least top and tail the whole thing and each individual chapter with sections on what this means for your research question. At the start, say why this chapter relates to your question, at the end say how this partially answers your question. It'll give the document more focus and it'll keep the reader on track, too.

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  • I like the three step schedule! – henning Apr 15 at 12:08
  • Thanks @henning--reinstateMonica! It saves me asking "What are you going to do? Why will you do that? How will you know if it's worked?". You wouldn't believe how many people ignore "evaluation" when it's probably one of the most important parts. – Pam Apr 15 at 12:12
  • Great answer. Note, however, that even if one composes the research question chronologically after obtaining and writing up the results, one would still normally state the research question before presenting the results in terms of the order of sections in the thesis (at least in STEM - I guess things may be different in "grounded theory" approaches in the social sciences.) – Daniel Hatton Apr 16 at 10:55
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In all situations that I am aware of (social sciences, Western Europe), almost every student paper and certainly every thesis needs a research question. Deciding on the research question is a crucial and early part of the project and should be done in close coordination with your supervisor. In fact, when I supervise BA and MA theses, I spend a lot of time and work with my supervisee on exploring and then narrowing and pinning down the exact research question.

It's not unlikely that your supervisor applies a similar standard, but only they can tell you for sure. I'm surprised that this topic hasn't come up much earlier in the supervision process. The fact that you don't have a supervisor (as you mention in a comment) is very bad and unusual. Get one now. You are entitled to at least formal supervision.

What you should do next is talk to your supervisor and ask them if you can introduce a research question ex post, and if so, how. In terms of efficiency this is much less desirable than starting with a clear research question right away. However, it is only natural that in the early, exploratory stage of your work, the research question will change somewhat and needs to be at least reframed. Moreover, your thesis most likely does not completely lack a research question, it's just implicit in your discussion and needs to be made explicit, placed up-front, and motivated by a rationale. After you've done this, you will have to make (probably many) adjustments to the text, so that every sentence is part of an answer to your research question. Thus, if your supervisor is on board with this approach, not all is lost. Of course, there is a lot of work ahead, but it's easier than starting from scratch.

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  • That was my original thought. But is it mandatory to make it explicit? – Ghoulkin Apr 15 at 9:41
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    Again, your supervisor's opinion is what matters. But yes, it's a widely shared academic norm that every paper needs to have a clear and explicit research question. – henning Apr 15 at 9:44
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Sounds to me your research question is clear. You are attempting to quantify or qualify a deficiency and examine the attitude about that deficiency. Now finish it off with the possible consequences of that deficiency and wrap it up.

You are way ahead of many grad students, who will not even bother doing a lit review.

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