How to write a thesis
For most postgraduate students the idea of writing a thesis or dissertation is quite daunting. It will certainly be the longest writing task they have done, and many will feel nervous about how they will cope with it. In this section we shall look at a number of aspects of writing to show how any concerns you have can be dealt with, so that you can write a good quality thesis or dissertation.
How should a thesis or dissertation be organised?
There is no single formula for thesis writing. It is important at an early stage to look at some examples in your field just to get a ‘feel’ for what they are like. The easiest way to do this is to visit the university library and look at some examples from previous students. If you are not currently at university then you can still arrange to visit the library of your nearest university.
It is important to plan your thesis carefully. One of the decisions you will have to take is how your own thesis/dissertation should be organised. A typical thesis or dissertation might have the following structure:
• Title page – One page with the title, date, degree the project was submitted for and your full name.
• Abstract – A brief summary of the project, no more than a single page in length, summarising the aims, background, methods and findings. This should be the last part of the work that you write!
• Contents – Tables listing the chapters, the figures and the diagrams.
• Chapter 1: Background and context – A discussion of the background to the study and the reasons for its importance and interest as a research project.
• Chapter 2: Literature review – A summary of the findings of the literature review.
• Chapter 3: Research methodology – A description and justification of the methodology you have used.
• Chapters 4–6: Data presentation and analysis – Chapters presenting, interpreting and analysing the results.
• Chapter 7: Discussion and conclusions – The ‘big picture’ chapter, presenting the overall findings, the ‘answer’ to the research question and a critique of the research.
• Bibliography – A list of the references and wider reading that you have done.
• Appendices – Additional information you want to include. This could be some of the detailed data, or samples of some of the ‘raw’ results such as computer printouts or interview notes or a sample questionnaire.
The exact number of chapters will be for you to choose. You may need one or several data presentation and analysis chapters, particularly in a doctoral thesis. The chapters do not all need to be the same length. It is very hard to give guidelines on how long each section should be, because it will be unique for each thesis or dissertation.
When should I start thesis writing?
You should start writing as soon as you can. There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious one is that the writing will take a long time and the sooner you get started the better. However, there are a number of other aspects of writing that are important.
First, writing is a skill that develops and improves with practice. You will probably find that your first sections of writing take a long time and need a lot of revision and re-writing. Indeed, you may choose to discard some of your earlier efforts. However, over time you will become better and the quality of your writing will improve.
Secondly, it is important to write things as you do them. You should be able to write the first draft of your Background/Context chapter almost as soon as you start the project, and the Literature Review chapter can be written as soon as you have done some wide reading. The Methodology chapter can be drafted as soon as you have decided what you are going to do. The advantage of this is that the thinking you have done is still fresh in your mind. This does not mean that you will not need to rework or add to these chapters – but at least you will have a good first draft of what you want to say.
Thirdly, getting an early first draft of some of the chapters is a good thing to do psychologically. You will feel you are making progress and will have something to show for your efforts.
Fourthly, and most importantly, though, is recognising that thinking and writing are very strongly connected. By writing you will be forced to get your ideas sorted into a logical order and to clarify why you think what you do. You will need to bring the evidence forward to back up your ideas. This means that as you write, your ideas and thinking will improve and develop. It will also raise new questions in your mind, which you will be able to go back to the literature or data to check and work through.
How many drafts of my thesis will I need?
This depends on how good you are at writing, but you should plan to produce a first draft and a second draft of each chapter together with a first draft of the whole thesis or dissertation and a final draft of the whole work. This will enable you to get each chapter to a good standard and then draft it further so it fits as part of the whole work.
How can I develop and improve my thesis writing?
The only really effective way to improve your writing is to practise, and you will see your own skills develop as you progress through the work. Your tutor will give you some feedback on writing style and skill each time you submit a draft of a section for him or her to look at. There are three other approaches you can use to improve your writing:
• Read as much as you can. Reading academic writing in journals or books will make you increasingly familiar with good (and poor) writing style.
• Share your writing with friends and fellow students and give each other feedback on style, grammar, English language and academic writing.
• Most universities will offer courses or support on academic writing for international students. Find out if your university does this, and try to attend a course if you can. Your tutor may ask you to attend such a course if they feel you are having problems with writing, but even if they do not suggest it, you could still look for such a course.
How should I keep track of the sources I have used?
Studying for a taught degree looks at the importance of keeping a careful record of your sources and references as you prepare assignments. For your dissertation or thesis, reference management is even more important. If you do not do this properly as you go along then you will find you have an almost impossible task at the end to identify your sources and references. All universities will have software on their computer network to enable you to manage references. Learn how to use this before you start your literature review and your writing, and then use it carefully – when you complete your dissertation or thesis you will be very grateful that you did this.
How can I make sure that I avoid plagiarism?
It is important that you check your work to avoid plagiarism. ( Studying for a taught degree looks at what plagiarism is, and at a number of strategies you can use to make sure you do not commit this academic crime.) You should read that section again now. If you commit plagiarism unintentionally as part of an assignment you might be allowed to resubmit the work, or you may even pass the taught part of the course despite the fail mark you will get for that piece of work. Plagiarism in your thesis or dissertation, however, will almost certainly guarantee that you fail and are not awarded a degree.
How should I present my work?
The exact format for presenting your thesis or dissertation varies from university to university, and in some cases it varies between different subjects/disciplines in the same university. You will be given guidance on presentation and submission, probably in the programme handbook. It is important to read this guidance carefully before you start your thesis so that issues such as layout, font size, margin size etc. can be organised in the correct way right from the start. You should then read the guidance again when you start to prepare your final draft of the whole thesis to check, finally, that you will be presenting it in the right way.
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