It is important not to waste your time. This is a 38 week project and the examiners will expect to see evidence of a substantial amount of work. If you waste a term in pursuit of unrealistic research goals, for example because you have not thought through the practicalities before starting term, or if you cannot get down to serious work, you will have huge, probably insurmountable, problems in pulling together an adequate thesis in the remainder of the year. An intellectually empty submission, based on limited reading, for example based mainly on reviews and the secondary literature, is little more than an undergraduate essay and is not likely to attract good marks. It is possible to gain exceptionally high marks for a thesis, and your ability to do this is not necessarily correlated with your previous examination performance. But the converse is also true.
The hallmark of a good thesis is precisely that it should contain a thesis, a well constructed argument or set of arguments on the topic. Apart from showing a sound grasp of the secondary literature and an awareness of the problems of the topic, the writer deploys the evidence of the primary sources to support an argument. The text makes it clear how the writer has approached the topic, what conclusions have been reached and what is new. In addition you need to ensure that the underlying science is properly thought through and understood. A good thesis is well written and properly and consistently presented. Good presentation is usually combined with high quality of analysis and intellectual grip on the sources that form a key element in the thesis. Careless or unclear writing, misspelling and misquotation of sources indicate imprecision of observation and thought.
It is important to realize from the outset that a thesis is not merely a long tutorial essay. It is fuller in scope, and it must be based on primary sources. Theses may be based on unpublished materials, but this is not essential. Primary sources may be published and even translated from another language. The nature of the topic and the approach adopted will generally govern the kind of sources used. What is essential is that the author should use the primary sources – whether published or unpublished - intelligently and accurately. A thesis should therefore show a competent grasp of relevant sources both primary and secondary; and it will use primary sources not merely for illustrative purposes but as coherently organised evidence to support the author’s arguments.
However, historical evidence will not speak for itself. The ‘truth’ will not emerge through the simple piling up of research material. While you are doing the research, you should also be thinking about how you will shape the materials into an argument, and how you will present that argument in written form. Most theses are divided into chapters, each chapter engaging with a different section of the argument, and the whole culminating in a final section that brings the argument to a persuasive conclusion. A good historian, like a good scientist, is constantly testing, modifying and rejecting hypotheses about the significance of the material. Research, while sometimes frustrating, is intensely stimulating; collecting it can become an end in itself. But the historian who stops thinking during research has ceased to be an historian. Hence planning for the thesis should start as early as possible, and continue throughout the research process. Some of your plans may well need to be discarded until you have found the most feasible and convincing one. It is always best to assume that the thesis will take longer and require more intellectual engagement than anticipated: a good thesis will certainly require more than one draft of parts if not of the whole. And plenty of time should be allowed for getting the final typed version into presentable form. The deadline for the submission of the thesis is not flexible, and hasty and careless final production can undermine a strong and interesting thesis.