Focus on Research| What is a Thesis Statement?

One of the most frequent questions I am asked by students relates to defining a thesis statement for a research paper. Simply put, a thesis statement establishes your argument for your overall essay. The statement can be brief or several sentences long and appears in the introduction (i.e. opening paragraph of the essay).

Staring at the blank page doesn't help materialize a thesis statement

Critically, what distinguishes a thesis statement from a regular statement is that it is OPINIONATED and ARGUMENTATIVE. I often tell students that they have to imagine that while they are researching and writing their paper that they are like lawyers developing a "case" for what they are ultimately saying. Imagine as you are researching and writing that someone (like your professor) is asking you the following questions: "What are you arguing in this paper?" "How do you know that to be true?" "Where and from whom did you get your evidence?" "Show me examples to prove your point." "Describe how you arrived at that argument." "Prove it."

In a previous Focus on Research post regarding how to identify and refine a research topic, I discussed the usefulness of developing a topic question to help guide the process of locating and assessing sources. I also emphasized the point that the answer to your topic question will often help create your thesis statement. This is important in order to avoid ending up with a vague and non-specific research paper.

  • Sample topic question: Why is Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917) important to the Dada movement?

  • Sample thesis statement“Marcel Duchamp’s work Fountain (1917) is a pivotal work of the Dada movement and establishes many of the important features associated with Dada art.”


In other words, do not make the deadly mistake of researching a topic and merely describing it (or stating the obvious) without stating an argument of some kind. Also avoid the mistake students often make of simply restating someone else's ideas and viewpoints without  mapping out in the introduction what direction your paper will take through a thesis statement. Make sure that you establish what you will be arguing or setting out to show in your essay and use your sources to prove your points. Next week, I will be posting on the importance of outlining your paper before beginning the writing process to help map your argument. In the case of fine and performing art papers, you will also have the chance to add your own personal reading of the images/films/performances (in addition to the sources you find on the topic) to help prove your thesis through visual evidence.

    You must state an argument about your topic in
    order to have a good thesis statement such as:
    "Duchamp's Fountain (1917) is a pivotal work of the Dada
    movement and establishes many of its important features". 
  • Is this a thesis statement?: “Marcel Duchamp is associated with the Dada movement and created Fountain (1917)”  NO, it is simply a statement and not opinionated in any way

  • Is this a thesis statement?: “Marcel Duchamp’s work Fountain (1917) is a pivotal work of the Dada movement and establishes many of the important features associated with Dada art.” YES, it is a statement that is opinionated and sets forth an argument


For a very basic yet specific summary of the thesis statement, also watch the following video: