Guest Post: How to Turn Your MA or PHD Thesis into a Popular Book

This guest post comes from Hamideh Iraj, an MA in Information Technology Management from Iran. She has a background in software and has learned data science through studying about the possibilities of MOOCs (Massive Open Online courses).

This year Hamideh took her master’s thesis and turned it into a book aimed at a massive audience. It is the first book on data science of its kind in the Persian language. Here is her story about how she took her academic research and made it accessible to lay readers. She has great tips for academics who want to reach a wider readership. You can reach her here.

If you’re an MA or PhD, you’ve written at least one thesis. You know how much time and energy it requires. You spend hundreds of hours in libraries and at conferences, and seminars. Once you defend it, the thesis becomes the ticket for the next step in your academic career. Then you strip mine it and use it for articles or a monograph.

But have you ever wondered if you could do more with your thesis? My role model for this is Umberto Eco, who wrote a novel based on his PhD dissertation and won the Nobel Prize. I believe there is much more we can do with our research than simply producing the thesis itself. In this post, I’ll talk about how to turn your MA or PhD thesis into a popular book.

This isn’t actually that hard to do. Here’s why. You had to do original research in your discipline to receive your degree. You spent months or years researching a topic that was under-represented and under-researched. You wrote thousands of words and pored over every fact. Your supervisor and referees jumped on every vague point and made you clarify them. In the end you know more about this topic than anybody. Nobody is better positioned to write a popular book.

But few ever utilize their research this way. Here’s what usually happens with a finished thesis. It gets defended, then bound, then sent to the library where it sits on a lonely shelf and starts to collect dust. At best it is submitted to an ETD database and published online. At best a few peer-reviewed papers might come out of your thesis.

Doing it this way makes you miss out on an incredible opportunity. A wider audience who might be interested in your work will never find your thesis. They aren’t familiar with university libraries or ETD databases.

Since they won’t come to you, you need to come to them. You need to jailbreak your research from the library and make it accessible to the largest potential audience. The best way to do this is to write a popular book.

Here’s how you start. First, ask yourself who this wider audience is and why they would be interested in your research. They might be industry leaders, managers, researchers, students, university professors, or self-learners. To make your research accessible to them, you might need to reconfigure the main theme of your thesis. For my masters I researched different types of data scientists in my country. I asked what could be done in academia and industry to cultivate this professionals. When it came to publishing the book, I focused more generally on the field of data science.

Publishing your research for the masses is an opportunity that exists in any field of study if you know how present it for a mass audience. (Remember Umberto Eco?) If you know how to do this and have a specific audience in mind, finding a publisher is not too difficult. Simply look for a publishing house that serves this type of audience. They will likely be interested in your work.

After deciding to write a book, the second question is how to write it. When you are beginning your MA or PhD program, should you set out to write the thesis and the popular book at the same time? Or should you write the thesis first and then convert it into a popular book? It depends on your situation. I chose the first method and had both in mind when I sat down to write my thesis. I wrote it in a simple and intuitive way from the very beginning to be used for the book later. If you follow this route make sure to double check writing guidelines for your thesis. With enough planning you can find a way to do both tasks with minimal effort.

There are other advantages with writing a thesis with a book in mind. First, time spent on research feels more productive. You know that you are getting two publications for the price of one. This is a huge confidence boost in times when your research isn’t going well. It will motivate you to get through road blocks.

Second, your supervisor, consultant and referee are helping you write the book as well as the thesis even if they are not collaborating in your book project. Any problem they bring up with the thesis will also improve the quality of the book. Instead of feeling frustrated with their revision requests, you feel grateful that they are reviewing with a double purpose. If they say a concept is not clear, you know that it also isn’t clear to a reader. By doing this they are serving as both advisor and book editor.

Third, if you have already defended your thesis, you can refer to your thesis in your book. When readers see that you are a published academic, they understand that you researched the topic thoroughly, a university has approved it, and it was not written in haste.

There are a few more issues to consider when writing a book based on your thesis:

  1. Language:

A thesis uses different language than a non-academic book. Thesis texts are written for a narrow academic audience in mind. It uses formal, rigid language that – if not controlled – can become meaningless and unreadable. Your book needs to be written in simpler terms. Hard data and literature reviews can be swapped out with storytelling, case studies, and anecdotes. These changes make your text accessible for a wider audience.

  1. Structure:

A thesis is highly structured and hierarchical – both not suitable for a book. Flatten your narrative to make it more readable.

  1. References:

Popular books use more diverse reference types than a thesis. An MA or PhD thesis refers almost exclusively to scholarly sources. A popular book has any and every sort of reference – up to and including YouTube videos, tweets, conference videos, and websites. Think of it this way – a mobile app is more likely to be known by an average reader than a peer-reviewed academic paper. But don’t throw out all academic references. They bring a measure of credibility to your book.

  1. Your voice:

Books have a personalized, informal voice that would be completely inappropriate in a thesis. You can freely insert your opinions in a book, whether they come from your final results, preliminary studies, or even from pure conjecture. A thesis rarely allows for anything more than direct conclusions based on data analysis.

Here’s how I repurposed my thesis into a book. My original thesis was titled “Data Scientists’ Archetypes Detection by Clustering Their Skills.” I turned it into the book “Data Science: Concepts and Skills” It is the first Persian-language book of its kind.

The book carried over some parts of my MA thesis, specifically a literature review and a summary of the data analysis section. I wrote additional chapters for the book itself. These include teaching data science skills in university, creating the data science programs in university, and the status of data science in Iranian academia and industry. I used 129 sources in the book, far fewer that those in my thesis.

Language was originally a barrier for both my thesis and book. I had to write my thesis in Persian, which made it inaccessible to an international audience. I was unhappy with this at first, but I decided to turn this liability into an advantage. I branded my research as a pioneering work in Persian.

You can do more with your grad school research than a thesis or dissertation. All you have to do is repurpose it.

Please share your ideas in the comments section. Your ideas are worth spreading!

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