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:
- 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.