Step 7: Research Paper Thesis
A thesis serves as the guiding premise behind any research assignment. Structured as either a statement or question, the thesis usually appears in the opening paragraph of a paper. When you compile a research paper, the process of linking various ideas, facts and stats to a single theme will be easier with a solid thesis in hand. For your audience, the presence of a thesis will make your paper readily clear in its meaning and purpose.
Selecting a Thesis for Your Research Paper
The process of selecting a research paper thesis could partially be determined by the guidelines of your assignment. For instance, if your professor asks you to write about a very specific topic, such as the endangered status of rhinoceroses, the possibilities for your thesis will be readily clear as you do your initial research. But if you are asked to choose a topic within a loosely defined range of options, you will not be ready to brainstorm for a possible thesis until after you choose an actual topic for your research.
Once you have a clear and relevant research topic at hand, your next step will be to gather information on that topic from legitimate sources. To ensure that you have enough information for your assignment, you should try to obtain the widest range possible of scholarly, up-to-date sources for your research. For a lengthy paper on a topic like endangered rhinoceroses, you would want to gather as many sources possible that deal with the animal's three most depleted species: the Javan, Sumatran and east-African black rhinos.
The Two Types of Research Papers
The thesis you end up constructing, whether in the form of a question or statement, could largely be shaped by the direction of your research paper. In general, research papers fall into one of two categories:
The Argumentative Research Paper
The argumentative research paper is a paper in which you would present a complex and potentially volatile issue, explain the arguments surrounding it and then work towards convincing readers that your stance is the most rational and solvent one to take on the issue. By default, your thesis in an argumentative paper would likely come together as you write the sentence where you declare your stance.
The Analytical Research Paper
The analytical research paper is where you examine an issue and guide your audience along through a series of observations and discoveries without arriving at an ultimate stance. With this type of paper, your thesis would be most effectively delivered in the form of a question.
Constructing a Thesis for Your Paper
As you sink your teeth into the complexities of your topic, you will need to isolate the common issues that arise from your research. This will help you isolate a key theme regarding the topic and formulate an idea for a viable thesis. Without these steps, your finished work could end up reading more like a book report or expository essay, which would fall far short of the scholarly expectations of a research paper assignment.
You will also need to determine a parameter for your thesis that will suit the length of your assignment. The general topic of endangered rhinoceroses, for instance, could be sufficiently explored in a paper that runs 20 pages or more. But if your assignment only calls for five or seven pages, you would be better off narrowing down the topic and concentrating on one of the animal's three endangered species.
As you mull over the direction of your paper, it will also be necessary to tell the difference between plausible and far-fetched arguments. For instance, a paper regarding the issue of drug legalization could be written in an analytical or argumentative style, but the latter would need a thesis that isn't based on speculation or bias. While it would be perfectly acceptable to take the stance that drugs should be legalized, it would be sketchy to base your thesis on a prediction of how legalization would affect cities throughout the U.S., simply because legalization has yet to be tested in America. A more sensible thesis would simply state the reasons why you think that drugs should be legalized in the same manner as alcohol, and then your paper would go into detail explaining why you came to that stance.
The Unifying Idea Behind a Thesis
Behind every great thesis is a unifying idea that brings together all the facts, stats and conclusions from an extensive undertaking of research. The idea should be expressed twice in your paper: once at the outset, in the form of your thesis statement, and once at the climax of your paper, as you reaffirm your initial stance, observation or declaration of neutrality. As you begin your research, you can grasp this idea soon enough by analyzing your sources for common themes, and with that you could construct a trial thesis. If further research ends up altering or changing your impression, you can modify or radically alter your trial thesis as you work further along on your assignment. In the event that you run into difficulty at this stage, either due to a complicated topic or paucity of resources, you could possibly jumpstart your efforts with a purpose statement, which would help give your paper more of a direction as you immerse yourself deeper into the research.
You might feel very strongly about your trial thesis, but you should still keep your mind open as you continue on with your source gathering and reading. Further research could bring about different revelations, which could ultimately bring you to a vastly altered unifying idea as you finalize your paper.
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Developing a Purpose Statement (Trial Thesis)
1. Start with a broad statement
2. Narrow down to a time and place
3. Define key terms or give important background information
4. Thesis statement
Topic: Transgendered children
Facts: Children as young as six years old are now being diagnosed as transgendered.
Possible conclusion: Gender non-conformity in terms of dress, games and interests are perfectly acceptable behaviors for children who feel that way, but one could argue that transgender diagnosis should not be made on prepubescent children who are too young to even know about sexuality.
Purpose statement: This paper will explore the ethics of diagnosing young, prepubescent, gender nonconforming children as transgendered.
Topic: Women in combat
Facts: The move to integrate women in to full-fledged combat roles is underway in North America, Oceania and Scandinavia.
Possible conclusion: The exclusion of women from combat is not a matter of discrimination; it is a matter of protection. Placing women on the battlefields would weaken militaries because male soldiers would have their fighting instincts compromised by their protective instincts.
Purpose statement: This paper will explore the physical concerns and psychological ramifications of placing women in the frontlines of combat.
The above topics are both controversial, in part because they deal with concepts that are by and large untested, but mostly because people tend to get emotional about issues concerning children and gender roles. The first example would be more appropriate for an analytical research paper, since there is not enough scientific evidence about gender identity to draw any definite conclusions about the appropriateness of diagnosing young children as transgendered. With the second example, you could proceed to write an argumentative essay where you would present a series of documented facts about the physical demands of combat in relation to the general physical capabilities of women. From there, you could base your thesis on whether you find it appropriate from a physical and psychological standpoint for women to serve in combat.
Testing the Strength of a Thesis
As you proceed to the research and writing stages, it will gradually become apparent whether your trial thesis is ready for prime time, or if it needs further work. The following examples can help you further tell the difference between a weak and a strong thesis statement.
Weak thesis: The age of consent needs to be lowered in the United States.
Problem: The thesis merely states an opinion on a touchy subject without explaining the basis for that stance.
Solution: Form the statement around one of the problematic areas of the current age-of-consent in most states, such as cases in which a disapproving parent uses the law as a form of legal harassment against an underaged son or daughter's newly legal partner.
Strong thesis: Modifications to the current age of consent, in which anyone between the ages of 13 and 18 could legally consent to sexual relations with anyone within three years of their own age, would uphold the current standards that protect minors from being sexually exploited by older folks, while at the same time prevent disapproving parents from using the law maliciously towards an underaged teen offspring's newly 18-year-old partner.
Weak thesis: Primary voting restrictions are unfair because they leave unaffiliated voters out of the democratic process.
Problem: The thesis makes an agreeable statement, but gives a faulty example; unaffiliated voters are not technically excluded from the democratic process since they can still vote in the general election.
Solution: Structure the statement around a more concrete example of why primary voting restrictions are skewing the results of each election cycle.
Strong thesis: As more Americans refuse party affiliation, the Democratic and Republican parties have grown increasingly partisan, but if primary voting restrictions were eliminated, there would be less extremism among candidates and less election-day apathy among general voters.
With each new passage that you write for your paper, be sure to keep things tied to the idea behind your thesis. Whether you take the argumentative or analytical approach, your thesis will likely go through a trial and error phase as you uncover more information and gain new insights. But as you come to the end of your assignment, all of the contents should amount to a cohesive total that could all be summarized by the issue addressed in your thesis statement.
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