Theses

A thesis is a large report written to describe the process and outcomes of a research project. Theses are written by higher education students and are often a major (or sole) assessable component for admission to a higher degree. Theses are usually written for PhDs, but can also be for honours, masters and other degrees.

A thesis should follow the same principles of good planning and writing as other documents.

This section covers:

Researching the requirements of a thesis

The details of a thesis depends on the discipline, the size of the project and the requirements of your institution.

There is 1 golden rule:

Tip. Always find out what is expected.

This seems obvious, but it is important. Take nothing for granted. Find out:

  • how long the thesis should be
  • whether there is a set format to use (eg a referencing style; a list of required sections; a Word, LibreOffice or LaTeX template)
  • what review points you must pass
  • when it is due(!).

How long should it be?

Expected length should be discussed with your thesis supervisor. It varies with the task, discipline and degree.

In sciences and engineering, where a thesis may contain graphs, tables, mathematics and diagrams, typical total thesis lengths are:

  • PhD – 40,000 to 60,000 words
  • masters by research – 20,000 to 40,000 words
  • honours degree, major undergraduate project, or thesis component of a masters by coursework – 12,000 to 20,000 words.

In humanities and similar fields, the word counts are often higher, although fewer images are used.

Establish the expected length of the thesis very early during the project. This gives a sense of the magnitude of the job. A thesis is a major writing task, and must not be left until late.

Tip. Start the thesis when you start the project, not when you finish!

Is there a set format?

Here, format means the sectioning and styling of the document. Always find out the preferred format. If the format is left open, find an established one that is acceptable and use that.

Format information may include:

  • sections
  • type styles (eg minimum font size, heading styles)
  • 1-sided or 2-sided printing (1-side is now rare)
  • electronic file formats (do they want a PDF?)
  • citing and referencing style (see References)
  • what template to use (if one is provided)
  • printing and binding requirements (how many copies, what kind of binding and paper [stock] size, and other production details).
Tip. Find out if a specific format is mandated. If so, use it from the start to save converting to it later on.

What are the review points?

Your work is likely to be reviewed by your supervisor and institution during the course of the project. Most projects include at least 1 official review point, and PhDs and other major projects include more. Typically, a review may be a presentation to an audience plus the submission of early work, such as a literature review.

Be aware of these review points from the beginning. Ideally, tackle them in a way that will be useful for the final thesis. For example, work out the referencing system and software early on, and use it when writing the literature review.

When is it due?

Think about the size of the project and the due date, and work out a series of milestone targets. Some projects, such as PhDs, have flexible due dates. Others (eg an honours project) do not. Think about when your funding runs out (if relevant), and try to allow for unexpected delays. Do not set the deadline as the absolute final possible day of submission.

Working forwards from the starting date and backwards from the due date, establish a plan. Some dates will be fixed – the literature review must be ready by the formal review point – whereas others will be discretionary. Be realistic, but perhaps a little optimistic too.

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Structuring a thesis

Theses have much in common with books and reports. They should follow the principles of logical structure, within the limits imposed by any required formats.

A generic structure for the discussion of a topic or project is the ‘bowtie’ model:

Begin with the big picture to give the work context, then focus on the specific problem being tackled. The body says what was actually done, then the conclusions place that in the broad context established in the introduction.

In sciences, a common way of summing this up is IMRaD – introduction/method/results/and/ discussion and conclusions.

In other fields, a common way of thinking about structure is CEC – claims/evidence/commentary:

  • Claims – what are the contentions, ideas or interpretations being put forward?
  • Evidence – what is out there to support the claims?
  • Commentary – how does the evidence support the claims, and what can we learn from this?

When a thesis encompasses several topics – as many do – structure may require considerable thought. Should it contain separate methods/results/conclusions for each topic, or a single results section, but with 1 part for each topic – or aspects of both? Always think about what the reader will find easiest to navigate.

It might help to sketch possible structures :

Choice of structure depends on how much, and what, the topics have in common – do they share methods, for example? If so, the third structure might make sense.

Once the structure is worked out, writing becomes a matter of filling in each box.

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Writing a thesis

Use the principles of good writing. Be clear, consistent and write to the correct audience – in the case of a thesis, this is usually someone with a lot of expertise. Refer to:

Many theses deal with data, diagrams and illustrations. See Showing for information about the best way to show your results. Depending on the field, the following sections (and others) may be useful:

For information specific to various fields of study, see Subject areas.

Writing strategically

Caution! Do not leave all the writing until the research is finished!

A thesis is a major piece of work. There are many advantages to completing sections as early as possible. These include:

  • meeting formal review points successfully
  • building understanding of the material and generating new ideas that can contribute to the project
  • discovering problems sooner rather than later
  • preparing material for publication in a peer-reviewed journal during the candidature, rather than afterwards
  • having more time to review sections – useful if your supervisor is busy and not readily available
  • getting work done now so it does not have to be done later, when deadlines loom and the pressure is much greater.

Some parts can be written early, whereas others must wait for further results and data – perhaps from experiments, interviews or other fieldwork. So write the work up as it is done.

Tip. Write a section as soon as it can be written. For example, write an experimental methods section as soon as the experiments are completed, not right at the end of the project.

In many disciplines, it is possible and desirable to publish research results in the academic literature or at a conference before thesis submission. This has many benefits:

  • The student learns to write up their work and can use these skills on the thesis.
  • Gaps in understanding may be revealed in time to be fixed.
  • The work gains an extra round of review.
  • A thesis based on work that has already passed peer review is very unlikely to be failed.
  • Publications increase the student’s profile and help them gain their next job or position.

Choosing the content

Often it is best to work backwards to decide what to write:

  1. What are the key results the reader must understand?
  2. What must they be told if they are to realise why those results are important?
  3. What must they be told if they are to appreciate why the results are reliable?

This will reveal what methods must be explained, what background must be given, and what evidence must be discussed and endorsed or refuted.

A fourth question to help work out the required content is:

  1. What topics (in the eyes of the examiners) must the student show they have mastered?

Referencing

No matter what the subject area, citing and referencing are important. See References for a guide to referencing. Important points include the following:

  • Choose a citing and referencing system (eg Harvard, Vancouver), if not specified by the format information, and use it rigorously.
  • Choose citation management software and use it consistently throughout the project.
  • Become familiar with the rules around when a citation is needed, how source material should be quoted, and what constitutes plagiarism (see Citing other work).
Tip. Know what plagiarism looks like so you can avoid doing it by accident. Read your institution’s policy on academic integrity.
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Reviewing a thesis during writing

A thesis is a big document. A supervisor cannot be expected to read and review the whole thing at short notice, nor can they be expected to review it very many times. They can review, but not rewrite. The thesis must be the student’s work.

Establish a schedule, including:

  • in what order chapters will be written
  • when they will be given to the supervisor for review
  • when they will be given back
  • how often the supervisor is prepared to review them
  • how the review will happen (eg occasional face-to-face meetings coupled with use of Word’s change-tracking tools).

Factor in fixed deadlines, such as intermediate reviews, conferences at which the research may be presented and times when experiments must be done (eg if the research uses major national facilities, these have fixed schedules, and experiments may have to wait 6 months or more).

Tips.
  • Learn how to use change-tracking tools.
  • Keep track of versions of each section – for example, do not modify sections while they are being reviewed by a supervisor; harmonising several drafts of the same content is troublesome.
  • Ensure that both you and your supervisor are aware of the review schedule and expectations.

Expect the schedule to be flexible and to change, but do have one, and keep it up to date.

Did you know?

‘A goal without a plan is just a wish’ (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ (Helmuth von Moltke the Elder)

‘By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail’ (Benjamin Franklin)

The ability to write acceptable English reasonably quickly is a tremendous asset to a student writing a thesis.

Tip. Students should assess the quality of their written English as early as possible and, if needed, factor in some time and opportunities to improve.

Some e-learning modules may be helpful.

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Editing and finalising a thesis

See Editing for advice on how to improve a written text. All writers are likely to find GrammarSpelling conventions and Punctuation useful.

Important points include the following:

  • Ensure that grammar and punctuation are acceptable.
  • Ensure that the text is complete.
  • Ensure that all formal requirements are met (eg length, wording of the declaration, title page information). A typical thesis declaration is:  This thesis contains no material that has been accepted for the award of any other degree or diploma in any university. To the best of the author's knowledge and belief, it contains no material previously published or written by another person, except where due reference is made in the text.
  • Check the formatting of equations, tables, figures, photographs and other nontext content to make sure nothing has ‘happened’ to them  (see Showing); do this before and after printing and binding
    • Are images, photographs or equations missing or pixelated?
    • If colour is important, is the colour reproduction adequate?
    • Do the figures and tables agree with their captions?
  • Check that any URLs are current and correct, and do point to the indicated resources.
  • Check that the work of the thesis assessors has been cited, and their names are spelled correctly.
  • Proofread thoroughly – text, images, preliminary material, references, etc.
  • Double-check the requirements for printing and binding (eg number of copies, type of binding to be used, stock size).
  • Make sure the printer is supplied with correct, final and complete files of the right kind.
  • Submit on time!
Tip. It is acceptable to engage a professional editor to edit a thesis. However, there are strict rules about what the editor may change and what advice they may provide. Most, if not all, institutions have procedures about hiring editors.
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