Thinking and Reading Critically as a Thesis or Dissertation Student
Since the ability to think critically is often among the skills attained while achieving an undergraduate degree, it may seem that there is little more to learn in this regard when working on a postgraduate thesis or dissertation. In some respects this may be true. Many students begin working on a thesis or dissertation with a sound understanding of the need to read in a critical way the various sources they consult while conducting their research. Even excellent skills of this kind often require honing and development when reading for a thesis or dissertation, however, and there are many other situations in which critical reading and critical thinking will be absolutely essential to produce a successful thesis or dissertation.
As a doctoral student, for instance, you will almost certainly be expected to assess the reliability of sources and the research they present. This may not be quite as crucial when you are reading peer-reviewed articles in an academic or scientific journal as it is when you are scanning blog posts online, but all the scholarship you consult as part of your research should be read with a critical eye alert for signs of questionable practices and interpretations. Even the guidelines you are asked to follow while writing your thesis or dissertation sometimes require critical reflection and creative application to enable the effective presentation of unique research. Remember that the traditional principle of always returning to a primary source whenever possible rather than citing a secondary one applies when working on most theses and dissertations, and it can be surprising just how often this will not only enhance research, but also prevent errors.
Critical thinking will also be necessary when reading the comments that your mentors, supervisors and committee members offer on the research you are conducting and the chapters you are drafting. This can be extremely difficult material to absorb and assess simply because it can feel so terribly personal, especially if it is critical, unexpected and necessitates extra thought and extensive revisions. Mustering as much objectivity as possible will help, but that can be far easier to advise than to practise, so focussing on thinking critically about the criticism you receive can provide an active way to address the matter professionally. Reflect on the perspective and expertise of the person commenting and set the comments firmly in the context of the aspect of your research or writing that has been criticised. The goal when assessing and making use of criticism is always to improve your work, so ask yourself what about the commentary can help you do that and then use it in the most productive ways.
Benefitting from the criticism of your mentors and supervisors in this way involves another level of critical thinking as well. I am referring here to the ability to turn that critical eye on your own research and writing. Try to imagine – and, yes, this is nearly impossible – what you might think about your work if it were not your own. Focus on the weak points that you may have been trying to avoid in order to move forward with drafting the thesis or dissertation, and then make whatever changes are required to transform them into strengths before you progress further. Doing so will sharpen your critical skills in new ways while enabling significant improvements to your work.
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