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400 - Developing the Thesis Project

400.1 - Choosing a Thesis Topic

The topics of student research projects are as varied as the interests of students themselves. The only limit on a study topic is that it has demonstrable relevance to clinical social work. Most studies are independent empirical inquiries although some projects may not involve the collection of original empirical data. The projects often explore issues or questions raised by the student's practice experience or classroom education.

Social work research generally addresses itself to: (1) social or individual problems, (2) policies, programs or practice techniques designed to alleviate those problems or to enhance social or personal well-being, (3) the identification of service needs or groups at risk, and the evaluation of programs and services to meet those needs, and (4) the advancement of general theory for the profession. Unlike research in other disciplines, social work research is rarely concerned only with general theory to the exclusion of its utility for professional practice. On the other hand, research dealing with human problems, practice techniques or programmatic issues can also contribute significantly to theory. Concerns are sometimes pragmatic and sometimes theoretical; the best theses address both. Students may explore social policy and social work values as well, as in the case of a student who is surveying attitudes of clinical social workers regarding advocacy. A student may wish to expand on the community project or link up an original study with another ongoing project at placement. The range of topics chosen is as diverse as the student body, but students must demonstrate relevance to clinical social work consistent with the School's specialization.

Whenever possible, however, it is wise for students to consider their specific nature of the second-year placement when making a final decision on a topic, assessing the client population and interests of the agency. Studies, of course, need not be based in the placement, but may be connected to the placement, both for the sake of convenience and for relevance. You may wish to consult with agency personnel who have responsibility for or interest in student research or scholarship. The supervisor and other members of the staff may be able to suggest important and productive areas for study. The supervisor should also be able to help you ascertain the feasibility of various possibilities that are considered and to learn about agency human subjects' review procedures. Still, students can often plan studies in advance because they are generic to most settings, are not tied to a specific setting, or because access to subjects can be arranged elsewhere.

Another way to develop ideas for a thesis topic is to consider expanding upon topics previously pursued. An upcoming issue of the Smith College Studies in Social Work lists the titles and abstracts of the most recent M.S.W. theses. Thesis titles from prior years are also available online at:
www.smith.edu/ssw/admin/academics_titles.php. Students may identify specific topics for additional study from one or several of these theses.

Finally, current professional literature is filled with observations that merit further study. Articles students read for the literature review or in conjunction with course work may contain ideas about needed research or suggest ideas or research methods to the reader.

Whatever the topic addressed or method used, it is essential that the thesis demonstrate the student's capacity to conceptualize. Application or examination of personality or social theory, the use of an identified conceptual framework for policy analysis, the identification and application of known practice principles--these or similar features would be evidence of conceptual ability in a thesis. In addition, students must address the implications of the work for clinical practice or practitioners.

400.2 - Study Methods

`Method' has to do, first of all, with how to ask and answer questions with some assurance that the answers are more or less durable. `Theory' has to do, above all, with paying close attention to the words one is using, especially their degree of generalizability and their logical relations. The primary purpose of both is clarity of conception and economy of procedure, and most importantly . . . the release rather than the restriction of the . . . imagination. (C. Wright Mills, 1959, p. 120)

Once you have chosen a topic, there are many designs that may be considered. You will want to weigh them in relation to your thesis, its purpose, and your interests. No general value can be assigned to a particular research method; one is not intrinsically "better" than is another. For a particular problem, however, a given method may be judged for its appropriateness, efficiency and probable outcome, although investigator preferences also enter into the matter. The choice of study method should be defensible and should reflect some familiarity with both the state of available organized knowledge relevant to the area and with the strengths and weaknesses of particular approaches.

400.3 - Types of Thesis Projects

The Theoretical Thesis. A theoretical project may examine a specific issue through comparing theories, comparing theoretical propositions to empirical evidence from previous research, or placing theories and concepts in their historical context. Historical research can also take the form of examining the evolution of a concept, practice or policy over time or of the analysis of some specific body of evidence to uncover facts about the past.

***Please Note: The research advisor must give approval in order for a student to move ahead on a theoretical project***

While the organizing principle of theoretical theses may vary from report to report, the theses will probably fall into one of several categories. Projects may develop theory deductively through the study and analysis of existing theories. Such an effort generates new theory by systematically looking at the relationships in existing theory. Studies may integrate disparate theoretical concepts. For example, one might compare cognitive theory and existential theory or behavioral theory and psychodynamic theories as applied to a specific issue. A study may apply theory to a population-at-risk or to an emergent social problem to test the limits of its generalizability. For example, a study may compare psychoanalytic developmental theory and self-in-relation theory as each illuminates menarche from the adolescent's point of view. Theoretical thesis studies must identify, compare and contrast two different theories.

Theoretical theses require examination of at least two theories that are normally used to understand and reveal aspects of a particular topic or phenomenon. The topic serves as a focus and serves to limit the scope of the study. Most theoretical theses also include a chapter on the empirical research knowledge related to the topic area. (For example, what we know about menarche and the development issues in adolescent development and in parental development.). A framework for the theoretical thesis proposal is posted on Moodle SSW997. This document, developed by Dr. Joanne Corbin, serves as a guide in terms of the structure, content and scope of the theoretical thesis.

In historical research, students advance an argument and study it in historical context. Literature is systematically sampled or read in its entirety. Trends and contextual factors supporting and not supporting the hypothesis advanced are evaluated. For instance, views of clinical social work might be studied in a historical context. Alternatively, two different trends might be integrated from an historical perspective. The interaction of social work and the development of feminism in the United States is an example. New information about the past may be unearthed and examined. For example, using the Sophia Smith Collection, one might investigate some aspect of Smith College School for Social Work over time. In fact, a few grants are available through the Alumni Office for students who undertake a thesis project on the experience of people of color at Smith. In all cases, primary sources are preferred in historical research, with secondary sources being evaluated carefully.

A literature review may constitute an acceptable thesis in itself, only if the body of work reviewed is sufficiently diverse and extensive, if the point of the review is to apply the literature to a new area of potential investigation, or if the purpose is to synthesize disparate findings and/or theories. Consult the advisor for approval of this type of project. However, it should be noted that literature reviews on a single subject are not acceptable to fulfill the thesis requirement. In order to meet the guidelines, reviews must integrate at least two ideas, whether two theories, a new population, or theory and new evidence. In short, conceptual synthesis must be involved in the process in order to meet the thesis requirement. Most literature reviews also include a chapter on the empirical research knowledge related to the topic area.

As with an empirical project, in a theoretical or historical thesis there must be a researchable question posed, and the study scope and strategy must show promise of shedding light on the study question. In other words, there must be a question and method of study specified in advance, just as with empirical projects. While theoretical projects are acceptable, it should be noted that such projects are often strengthened by the incorporation of case material or other empirical data in which to ground the theoretical ideas.

The Empirical Project. Empirical projects may take various forms, depending upon the state of knowledge in the field selected and the specific question to be pursued. Case studies may be acceptable if the intent is to examine the case systematically in relation to theory or in terms of evaluating an intervention strategy, as in single-system designs, provided enough data are available on the case to permit in-depth analysis. Many forms of qualitative studies, such as case studies, grounded theory studies, utilization-focused evaluations and narrative analyses may be undertaken. Exploratory studies, using qualitative observational, document analysis or interviewing techniques (or combinations of these three), may be undertaken. These are usually formulative or hypothesis-generating, in the situation when a new problem or aspect of a problem is being approached or when existing knowledge or approaches to an issue are being questioned. Phenomenological studies focus on the subjective meanings of problems or situations to the subjects and also employ qualitative methods.

It is also possible to undertake larger-scale descriptive, relational, quasi-experimental, or experimental studies. These kinds of studies typically employ quantitative tools. Survey or other descriptive approaches may be used to describe a sample or population or to examine relationships among variables. While longitudinal designs are often advocated, sometimes an ex post facto approach may be the best approximation possible in studying the developmental course, although there are known limitations in choosing a retrospective strategy. Quasi- and "true" experimental designs are used to test hypotheses and to demonstrate ways to create change in a phenomenon. The choice of design among these possibilities will be made based on the purpose of the research and on whether or not the variables of interest can be manipulated.

Previous literature in the study area, your research methods text, and your advisor are all resources to use in considering a study method. Do consider feasibility; it may be better to undertake a less ambitious plan and to do it well rather than to attempt more than is really possible in the time available. Again, your advisor's experience will be helpful in considering implementation plans.

The empirical methods just described all emphasize original data collection. Do not overlook the many valuable sources of existing data: historical documents, clinical records, and published literature, professional and popular. Content analysis of written or pictorial information can lead to interesting conclusions about such topics as stereotyping and professional attitudes. Secondary analysis usually refers to the re-examination of a body of data, but it also can apply to examining the empirical findings of a number of studies by a variety of researchers as data in a new effort to see relationships and develop new theoretical hypotheses in the form of a meta-analysis. This type of analysis must be tentative in its findings, but can be quite useful in providing the groundwork for additional study.

Program Evaluation Theses. When a student writes a program evaluation thesis based on a named and recognizable institution, agency or program, the thesis will not be published on the SSW website. Instead, the following steps will be taken: The student will write a longer abstract (500 to 1000 words) instead of the brief abstract typically required. The abstract will be submitted prior to the thesis deadline to the ctagency/Program Director for approval. The agency being evaluated will put in writing that they approve of the abstract. The abstract will be the only part of the thesis published. This process will insure privacy for data that could be sensitive or reflect poorly upon the agency. It preserves the agency's freedom to use the data in whatever way it chooses to maximize its utility for the agency, without compromising its privacy.

Cautions. Finally, there are a few cautionary notes on choosing a topic. Some questions are not researchable. These include questions to which there is only one acceptable answer. They also include questions of definition. Sometimes questions are not directly researchable because there is no feasible or ethical means of studying them. Consultation with an advisor, teacher or other experienced researcher is usually the most efficient way to determine whether such problems exist with a proposed area of study. On occasion, consultation will reveal that certain specific questions have already been studied extensively, but, in that instance, new related questions can often be identified.

Choosing a topic of personal interest helps to provide the incentive needed to carry on with the work over an extended period. However, choosing a topic with which there is too great a personal emotional investment can hinder the work. In addition to problems with objectivity, it is often difficult to finish the work, to let go of what is still unknown. Consultation with the advisor is often the best way to identify emotional over-involvement with the topic.

400.4 - The Process of Formulation

The identification of a promising study issue and the elaboration of a design for its investigation constitute a substantial part of the total research process. Accordingly, the schedule recommended for pacing work on the project allows time for this creative and challenging part of the project. Be sure and use the half-day weekly allotted for your thesis from the very beginning of the field placement.

You may elect to work with the mini-proposal you submitted as an assignment for the summer research course. In this event, you will need to acquaint yourself more fully with the theoretical and empirical literature on the subject and to check the defensibility of the issue you have already identified. It is usual to find that prior work justifies some narrowing or recasting of a study issue that was envisioned before conducting a complete survey of the literature. Also, your review of prior work and knowledge of feasible study opportunities may justify some revision of methodology proposed for your work. In order to enable your advisor to prepare for his or her consultation visit, mail a copy of your proposal and any further information you may have to the advisor 10 days in advance of the meeting.

Should you find that your study interests have shifted from the design you submitted as a course assignment, the interval prior to your advisor's first visit should be used to identify a new area of interest for your work and to begin its exploration in the literature. If you have pursued a new area of interest, you are asked to submit to your advisor, 10 days in advance of the first meeting, a brief statement indicating what that area is, what tentative study question you have identified, and a review of at least two pertinent items from the relevant literature. This material will enable the advisor to prepare for the initial meeting.

During the initial meeting, the research advisor will (1) examine with you the area and proposed study issue in order to help frame a focus for the project, (2) make suggestions about the overall plan, and (3) help plan a schedule for the rest of the work on the project. Also, be sure to find out the procedure for the Human Subjects Review Committee at your agency if you are conducting an in-house study and discuss this with your advisor. If you plan to use the services of the research analyst, Marjorie Postal, please notify her by October 26th.

The identification and written communication of the proposed study topic in the form of a proposal must be completed on or before October 24th. If a student is continuing with her/his summer research topic, the mini-proposal can serve as the base for the full thesis proposal. The research advisor will give feedback on what parts of the mini-proposal needs to be expanded and revised. Students are also strongly encouraged to work on their Human Subjects Review application and related materials during this period.

Any student who is unclear about the study focus or whose advisor is still questioning the study focus or its statement in November should understand that the work is significantly behind schedule. If this happens, the Thesis Coordinator must be notified.

400.5 - The Empirical Thesis Proposal

A proposal is a working document intended to help in the process of developing productive research. Only by attempting to orchestrate an interesting study issue, an accessible study opportunity, and effective study methods can the promise of a plan be appraised. Only by synthesizing in writing the components of a total plan can one foresee its problems. The proposal is thus expected to serve as a stimulus for consideration of the choices it expresses, and their alternatives, in order to progress toward the goal of an effective project. In planning and conducting further work and in weighing elaborations or revisions to the proposal, the student has an opportunity to exercise substantial initiative.

The following outline identifies a number of matters that normally are included in a proposal for an empirical project and which in expanded form will be contained in the thesis. The beginning part of the thesis, in fact, follows the same format as the proposal. The following sections, therefore, cover points essential to both the initial proposal sections and analogous final thesis chapters. Remember, of course, that your proposal is relatively brief and proposes what you will do, while the thesis reports in greater detail what you did.

Introduction: Statement of the Study Issue. This section contains the statement of the general problem or issue being addressed. Indicate the theories and ideas underlying the project, and try to state the central focus of the study in as few words as possible. Then clarify and elaborate the issue so that a reader can grasp the subject of the proposed inquiry and its importance. Indicate the basis for your choice of the study issue and discuss its promise for contributing to knowledge likely to be useful to the profession.

Literature Review. All good research and scholarship starts with a thorough examination of the literature. Attention should be directed both to theoretical material related to the topic and to prior investigations bearing on it. That is, the literature review serves as 1) the conceptual base for the study and 2) details and 3) critically appraises prior empirical work. Key theories, perspectives and philosophical issues may need to be described to frame your study. Rather than simply cataloging the work of others, present your analysis of it. Make clear its scope and limitations for illuminating the issue of concern. In short, discuss the literature relative to the point you are making. You must also include and discuss non-supportive or contradictory literature when it exists. A reference list of primary sources must accompany the proposal.

Consistent with the School's anti-racist stance, how are issues of diversity understood and included in prior work and conceptualizations. (They may not be included in prior work!) Attention to who has been studied and who has been ignored, and how various groups have been understood and studied should be a part of the literature review.

In a final paragraph, summarize the literature and briefly state the objectives of the study proposed. Tell the readers what you intend to do. Define the theoretical framework and the variables, and make a formal statement of your study question or hypotheses. Sometimes this statement of objectives constitutes the beginning of the Methodology section. Where it is placed is not so important. That it exists is crucial.

In preparing a literature review for the proposal and for the thesis, students should familiarize themselves with the rules governing the use and acknowledgment of the ideas of others. The current research methods text contains information about this process and examples of proper and improper citation. Other references such as style manuals also contain useful guidelines. It is expected that all students will familiarize themselves with the rules and conventions of scholarship. Normally, primary sources are reported throughout the thesis project. The advisor is available to offer advice on this issue as needed.

Methodology. This section should include a description of the specific research questions to be pursued and the general plan of study to be employed. It may also include thoughtful, critical analysis of prior methods employed on this topic. The form of the project and the basis for its choice should be stated. For projects with a substantial empirical emphasis, the plan should identify the data source, sampling techniques, and size of sample envisioned. The method by which you expect to secure and analyze the data and the procedure you expect to follow in the research should be outlined. For projects not emphasizing the collection of original data, an outline of the proposed work should be offered, including an overview of planned chapters and their contents.

In the proposal, it may not yet be possible to clarify every part of the plan in full. It is useful, however, to attempt to specify the plan in its entirety as far as possible, so as to identify the aspects which need further work. For the aspects of the plan that cannot be specified, the statement of design should indicate the procedure by which clarity about these matters can be achieved.

It is important to determine whether the resources needed for the pursuit of a project exist and are accessible. An efficient way to investigate the feasibility of the plan is to try it out. For example, pilot or pre-test interviews often reveal problems in the planned data collection procedures. Experience in attempting to implement a plan often serves to identify quickly the unanticipated problems. Part of design work is then charting a course around such obstacles.

Expected Findings. For the proposal, write a brief statement of your expected findings and their possible implications. What unexpected results might occur? What is the importance of this issue for the field? What possible implications for theory, practice or policy might flow from your results?

400.6 - Proposals for Theoretical or Historical Projects

A proposal is a working document intended to help in the process of developing productive research. Only by attempting to orchestrate an interesting study issue, an accessible study opportunity, and effective study methods can the promise of a plan be appraised. Only by synthesizing in writing the components of a total plan can one foresee its problems. The proposal is thus expected to serve as a stimulus for consideration of the choices it expresses, and their alternatives, in order to progress toward the goal of an effective project. In planning and conducting further work and in weighing elaborations or revisions to the proposal, the student has an opportunity to exercise substantial initiative.

Introduction. When the planned project is a theoretical or historical one, the form of the proposal (and of the thesis document) will be somewhat different. The proposal should begin with an introduction or statement of study issue exactly as in an empirical project. The following components should be included in the Introduction:

Conceptualization and Methodology. Since the project itself may consist of a literature review, this section should provide some background based in a partial review of the literature assembled to date. The approaches, philosophies and methods used by others should be conceptualized and reported to frame your study in terms of the phenomenon and the two theories. Finally, in lieu of a methodology section, a detailed chapter outline should delineate the scope of the project and the report planned. If specific readings are to be undertaken, they should be listed. Finally, a section on expected findings or possible implications should be included. This section should address the following:

Consistent with the School's Anti-racist stance, how are issues of diversity understood and included in prior work and conceptualizations should be assessed and reported. (They may not have been previously!) Attention to who has been studied and who has been ignored, and how various groups have been understood and studied should be a part of the conceptualization and literature review.

Updated 7/24/14