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Writing your thesis

This page will provide you with necessary information before and while you are writing your thesis.

The subject of your thesis is very important. Not only would you want it to be relevant, but it should also be interesting enough for you to be able to stay focused on it for at least a couple of months.

Every institute has its own rules about who determines the subject of a thesis. Sometimes you can join groups that are already working on a specific topic, sometimes you can write your own research proposal. Be sure to find out on what level you can influence the choice of subject.

If you would like to know what subjects other master's students have written on, check out the Leiden University Student Repository.

It is very important that you support your thesis by referring to sufficient and up-to-date literature. Information on how to find the relevant literature is provided in the Master Thesis Lab bookcase. There are also courses on finding literature that are offered on a regular basis. If you want information about these courses, ask the SAM. The SAM can also make an appointment with the Library Information Specialist of your discipline. With her you can discuss all your specialized questions about finding literature in the specialized databases. 

For more information on this subject see the library website.

The library has 
online courses in finding literature and the use of the Catalogue/digital library. Here you 
will find specialized databases, arranged by discipline. Want to search the internet more efficiently? Need some tips for using the Catalogue? Any other places you can find information?  The search tools website of the Leiden University Libraries will teach you new tricks screen by screen.

If your thesis has to be written according to the APA rules, you can do the online tutorial Basics of APA style of the APA organisation itself. The APA rules demand that you add the DOI's (digital object identifiers) in your reference list. To find the DOI of an article that you cite in your thesis, you can use this DOl-search programme. Please note that you have to enter the exact title. If the search machine does not find the paper, this doesn't imply that the article has no DOI, and you should look elsewhere. In the Master Thesis Lab you can check the official APA-Manual.

A qualitative approach is appropriate when a complex, detailed understanding of an issue is required and when quantitative measures and statistical analyses do not fit the problem.

Qualitative research design

"Qualitative research begins with assumptions, a worldview, the possible use of a theoretical lens, and the study of research problems inquiring into the meaning individuals or groups ascribe to a social or human problem. To study this problem, qualitative researchers use an emerging qualitative approach to inquiry, the collection of data in a natural setting sensitive the people and places under study, and data analysis that is inductive and establishes patterns or themes. The final written report or presentation includes the voices of participants, the reflexivity of the researcher, and the complex description and interpretation of the problem and it extends the literature or signals a call for action." Creswell, J.W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions (2nd Ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, page 37. 

When designing your research you might want to begin by choosing a philosophical, paradigmatic and interpretive framework and then go on to choose a qualitative approach to your inquiry.

Qualitative approaches

  • Narrative research focuses on studying one or two individuals, gathering data by collecting their stories, reporting individual experiences, and chronologically ordering the meaning of those experiences (a life history, for example). 
  • Phenomenological research focuses on the meaning of an experience for a number of individuals, i.e., what all participants have in common as they experience a certain phenomenon. Using in-depth interviews, it develops descriptions (not explanations or analyses) ofthe essences and underlying structures ofthese experiences. 
  • Grounded theory research moves beyond description to generate or discover a theory. The researcher generates a general explanation of a process, action or interaction shaped by the views of a large number of participants (=grounded in data from the field). 
  • Ethnographic research uses a qualitative desígn in which the researcher describes and interprets the shared and learned patterns of values, behaviours, beliefs, and issues such as power, resistance and dominance of a culture-sharing group. 
  • Case-study research involves the study of an issue explored in one or more cases, bound by time and place, by detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information (observations, interviews, documents, audiovisual material). The case is selected to illustrate the issue.

The research proposal is about the why, what, where, how, how much and when questions of your research.

Before you start

Before you can start your research, you write a research proposal that has to be approved of by the first and the second reader. This proposal should provide clear and realistic answers to the WHY,'WHAT, WHERE, HOW, HOW MUCH and WHEN questions related to your particular research. The why and what are connected to the purpose of the research and together form the problem statement. The overview below lists the elements that are commonly found in the research proposal for a Master's thesis.

Introduction of the subject

Why did you choose this topic? Why is it relevant to investigate this? 

Problem statement

Each subject may be approached from a variety of angles. The problem statement provides closer demarcation of the subject. In the problem statement, a further distinction is frequently made between the aim/objective of the research, and the presentation of the question. The aim/ objective of the research is related to the WHY of the study; the presentation of the question is about what knowledge is necessary to reach the aim or objective already given.

Restrictions in time and space

In the research proposal for your Master's thesis, any restrictions relating to the problern statement should be made explicitly clear, for example restrictions in time and space.

Theoretical framework

The problem statement of a scholarly enquiry is always embedded within a theoretical framework. Which theory is investigated? Which model are we trying to fit, or which hypothesis is tested? This means that a short overview or review of relevant literature should be provided. Therefore, a list of references, with the correct bibliographical information, should also form an integral part of the proposal.

Empirical investigation

If the study is to include an empirical investigation of a theory, model or hypotheses, the research plan should make clear exactly how the theory, the model or the hypotheses will be investigated, fitted or tested. What methods and/or data analysis techniques will be used?

There are many possibilities here, varying from qualitative to quantitative or statistical. The expression "empirical" should here be understood in a wide sense, including for instance:

  • archive or newspaper research,
  • an analysis of samples of respondents to a telephone survey,
  • secondary analysis of existing data files, etc.


The research proposal should also contain a realistic timetable.

More information

If you want to know more about research proposals, have a look on our bookshelves. There you can find binders with additional information on writing a research proposal. If you want to use quantitative data analyses techniques, the data-analyseplan (in Dutch), written by Prof. Pieter Kroonenberg, may be helpful.

Recommended reading

On our Bookshelf you will find a number of books dealing with qualitative research. You can consult the books in the Master Thesis Lab.

Advice & examples

If you need advice, there are staff members specialized in qualitative research at the Master Thesis Lab who can help you with your project. Ask the SAM present in the Master Thesis Lab to make an appointment for you. It can also be useful to see how other students have tackled qualitative data collection and analysis. In the Master Thesis Lab there are examples of theses based on qualitative research.

Evaluation of your thesis

Be sure to ask your supervisor which criteria she/he uses to evaluate a master's thesis. These criteria may differ from institute to institute. Check the Prospectus of your Master's Programme for more information.

In evaluating a master's thesis, attention is often paid to the following criteria (check withyour supervisor for more detailed information):

  • The clarity of the research question, the precision of the data analysis and the controllability of the data;
  • The theoretical discussion gives a good overview and the research data fit in this discussion;
  • The discussion is clearly argued and the conclusions give answers to the research question;
  • The layout and care with which the thesis has been written;
  • The level of the master's thesis: has the student shown sufficient scientific knowledge and insight.
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