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How To Write A Better Thesis ?

What Is a Thesis?

On theses:

  • There is no ‘standard’ definition of a thesis but it is generally understood to be the result of structured, original research that is produced for assessment.
  • The expectations for a thesis vary from university to university, field to field, and supervisor to supervisor.
  • There are several types of theses in the range of research higher degrees. Some theses are produced alongside the demands of coursework, and others fulfil the total requirements of the degree. The types of thesis vary in length, complexity, comprehensiveness, and even purpose.

On examination

  • You need to understand the criteria for examination of theses, and be sure to craft your own work so that it meets these criteria. Be familiar, from the start, with the attributes that are expected of student candidates.
  • It can be rewarding to read and analyze theses both from your own field and across other disciplines. Note weaknesses that you wish to avoid, and strengths that might be adapted for your own work.
  • A summary of examiners’ responses is included as an appendix to this book. Online resources:
  • There are numerous online indexes of theses and dissertations. For example, many Australian and New Zealand theses are available at the National Library of Australia’s website, or through individual university library collections.
  • Your university library should provide access (in paper or online) to all of the university’s PhD theses.
  • Policies for examination, and descriptions of thesis types, should be on your university’s website. You should also browse your university’s policies and procedures that relate to research candidature.

The ‘Standard’ Thesis Structure

The standard thesis structure has four parts: an introduction, the background, the core (for want of a better word), and a synthesis. Note how, as illustrated in the following figure, the sections are connected to each other. A conclusion responds directly to an aim, for example, and the background must directly foreshadow the core

How to Write a Better Thesis by David Evans


One way to think of the role of structure, and signposting, is as a kind of guide that walks readers along a road from what they did know (past knowledge) to what they should know (a knowledge frontier). When you write a thesis, it can be helpful to reflect on what you knew—and how you thought—when you began your work

The story, or narrative, that takes the reader along the road should be as straightforward as you can make it. That is,
you may think to yourself: I have had to fumble, and explore, and make mistakes to get here, but I am now writing the guidebook that helps the next person to painlessly come to the same point of view and the same knowledge

A key element to good writing is to clearly understand what the writing is meant to achieve. In my view, the twin concepts of narrative and audience—what you are trying to say, and who you are saying it to—are the most important lessons a writer can learn.

Non-standard Thesis Structures

Some theses do not fit into a standard structure. Across a wide range of disciplines there is a trend towards a blending, for example, of quantitative and qualitative approaches. Such work might include, for example, an in-depth examination of the context and history of a situation before arriving at a ‘statement of the problem’. A quantitative survey might inform the development of interview questions, and these in turn might lead to analyses of the results that may suggest yet another series of questions. A series of chemical experiments may be inspired by a revisiting of a historical dispute, and be built on an analysis of arguments for competing methodologies. A conceptual framework may be an outcome and not a starting point

If you are writing a thesis that relies on a non-standard structure—or are writing a thesis where the approach and problem might, in traditional terms, be ‘interdisciplinary’—don’t make the mistake of trying to reinvent the form of the thesis from scratch. Take the time to find other theses that have pursued similar problems in a similar way; read these theses, and others, to help yourself decide how your work should be organized and presented. Make sure you are familiar with the methods of both qualitative and quantitative research

Your thesis should be organized as follows

An Introductory Chapter

  • Tell the reader the problem you are tackling in this project.
  • State clearly how you aim to deal with this problem.
  • Limit the scope of your study.
  • Sketch out how the thesis is structured to achieve your aim

Background Chapters

  • Include in these chapters all the material required to lead up to your own work.
  • Ensure that there is a flow of narrative that explains why each topic is being discussed

A ‘Core’ Account of Your Own Work

  • Begin with a formal statement of your hypotheses or research questions.
  • Follow this with an account of the methods you chose to test your hypotheses or answer your questions, and why you chose them.
  • Report the results of applying these methods


  • You are now ready to pull the whole thesis together.
  • Discuss the implications of your results.
  • Draw strong conclusions backed up by your discussion.
  • Check that they respond to the aim stated in your introduction.

Things to consider:

  • Are you are blocked in your writing, or procrastinating? Do you understand why? If not, discuss it with someone. Think about how your thesis will work as a narrative.
  • Decisions about organization should have a rational foundation. Satisfy yourself
  • that you have good reasons for your chosen thesis structure.

Mechanics of Writing

Learn how your word processor supports authoring of long documents

  • Writing and word-processing habits learnt on short documents such as essays are not effective for thesis writing.
  • Use the right word processor for your academic community.
  • Use referencing tools for maintenance of chapter numbers, citations, and so on. Be aware of the distinction between presentation and content. Develop a style template based on the most common style of your field.
  • Use tools to check spelling and grammar, but check manually as well.
  • Use appropriate drawing and graphing tools, which may not be the ones you are familiar with from other tasks. Make sure the results look professional.

Document management

  • Develop a systematic method for determining what constitutes the ‘master’ copy of your document.
  • Back-up your work frequently and in a variety of ways. Explicitly maintain versions, with dates. Don’t rely on ‘track changes’.
  • Always label draft documents with the document name, your name, page numbers and the date. Start the document with a table of contents.
  • Be systematic in your maintenance of a database of references.

Writing tips:

  • Get feedback on your style early in the thesis-writing process. And listen to it.
  • Write in a natural, conversational style. Be easy to read rather than self-consciously intellectual. Avoid the passive voice.
  • Use an appropriate referencing style.
  • Be alert to common problems in academic writing.
  • Do not plagiarize or in any way inappropriately use text that is not yours. Do your own writing.

Online resources

  • There are plenty of online guides to preparing theses with specific word-processing tools; a web search such as ‘using Word to write thesis’ or ‘templates for thesis’ will return many useful results

Making a Strong Start

Starting your thesis:

  • Write early, and write often. Keep your research in parallel with your writing so they grow in parallel. Begin to develop your thesis as part of the process of initiating your research. Create a table of contents as early as possible.
  • If you do delay writing until after you have done your own work—although this is not the safest way to produce a strong thesis!—make sure that you are writing to the structure advocated above.
  • Start with confidence. Write your introductory chapter first, then put it aside while you work on other parts of your study. Come back from time to time to revise your aim and scope so that they align with the changes you make as you go along.
  • Let your writing drive your development of a literature review. Make sure that it is structured and critical. Use a rich mix of strategies for exploring the literature, including online academic tools, traditional libraries, and non-academic resources such as Wikipedia.
  • In the early stages, your research questions may develop or change. This is a good thing.
  • Some chapters are harder to write than others. A concrete chapter on your analysis, say, may be easy to produce and give you a sense of accomplishment; completing the background chapter will mean that the most difficult part of the thesis writing is behind you.

Within individual chapters:

  • Start with an introduction that tells the reader why this chapter is included in the thesis, what you intend to achieve in it, and how you intend to do this.
  • Develop the chapter in an appropriate and logical way to achieve the aim stated in the introduction. Avoid applying the same rigid template to every writing problem.
  • Write a formal conclusions or summary section. Make sure that conclusions include a statement of the implications of the findings.
  • Check that you have argued for the conclusions or findings in the body of the chapter.
  • Check that these conclusions respond to the aim stated in the introduction to the chapter

Writing strategies:

  • Remember that it is your writing that will be examined. Other tasks may not be productive unless they lead to material for your thesis. Be aware of the tension between creating and critical thinking, and consciously exploit it to help you develop a strong thesis.
  • There are many excuses for not writing. Most are a form of procrastination.
  • Make plans, and stick to them. Audit yourself and seek to understand and resolve reasons for lack of progress. When you find an effective writing habit, use it.
  • Make good use of your supervisor; think of her or him as a resource as well as a mentor

The Introductory Chapter

Your introductory chapter should consist of five brief elements

1.Context of the Study.

  • Provide a brief history of the issues to date.
  • Situate your particular topic within the broad area of research.
  • Note that the field is changing, and more research is required on your topic.

2.Problem Statement (or Motivation for the Study)

  • Identify a key point of concern (for example, increasing use or prominence, lack of research to date, response to an agenda, a new discovery, or perhaps one not yet applied to this context).
  • Refer to the literature only to the extent needed to demonstrate why your project is worth doing. Reserve your full review of existing theory or practice for later chapters.
  • Be sure that the motivation, or problem, suggests a need for further investigation

3.Aim and Scope

  • Be sure that your aim responds logically to the problem statement.
  • Stick rigorously to a single aim. Do not include elements in it that describe how you intend to achieve this aim; reserve these for a later chapter.
  • When you have written the conclusions to your whole study, check that they respond to this aim. If they don’t, change the aim or rethink your conclusions.
  • If you change the aim, revise the motivation for studying it.
  • Be sure to establish the scope of your study by identifying limitations of factors such as time, location, resources, or the established boundaries of particular fields or theories

4.Significance of the Study

  • Explain how your thesis contributes to the field.
  • There are four main areas of contribution: theory development, tangible solution, innovative methods, and policy extension. One of these contributions must be identified as the basis of your primary contribution to the field.
  • In contrast to reports for industry, theory development is an expected and required contribution; for PhDs in particular, it must be ‘original’

5.Overview of the Study (or Structure of the Thesis)

  • Sketch out how the thesis is structured. Don’t confine yourself to a list of the chapters, but show how they are linked and that one section logically leads to another.
  • Check whether the reader can see from this sketch how the aim will be achieved.

Revising your introduction, aligning your conclusion:

  • To avoid making promises to the examiner that you can’t keep or that you do not later address, regularly review your introductory chapter and revise it accordingly.
  • Consider starting your conclusion chapter on the same day that you begin your introduction, and, each time you work on one, work on the other, thus keeping them in alignment.

Background Chapters

The background chapters have the following two functions

To provide all the background material needed for your own research:

  • Historical, geographical, and other descriptions of your study area.
  • Definitions and usages of words and expressions as appropriate to your thesis.
  • Existing theory and practice for your research topic

lowing what other workers have done

To provide the stepping-off point for your own research:

  • The conclusions to these chapters should lead clearly to the research hypotheses or research questions that you pursue in your work

Writing your background material:

  • Write first drafts in the first year of your project. Use the style, referencing, and so on that you intend to use in the final thesis
  • Many researchers, particularly in the experimental sciences, put this writing off until they have finished their research. Don’t delay. Writing early drafts helps to sharpen up your research design.
  • These first drafts will probably not be well structured, as you are not yet on top of your topic. Be prepared to restructure them later, after you have done most of your own work. This double handling is not a waste of time, as it will make a fruitful contribution to your own research.
  • As you revise, make sure that the background does lead into your research questions or hypotheses

What you should include:

  • All necessary definitions and ways that you use words or ideas in your own work. Don’t assume that the examiner will know this. This is particularly important in cross-disciplinary research.
  • All the necessary geography, context, and history.
  • All the arguments that are in the literature, and some tentative judgments on where you stand (but don’t enter the argument yet; wait until you have described your own work).
  • Everything necessary to justify the conclusions or summaries to the chapters, which in turn have to lead to your research hypotheses or questions

What you should not include

  • Descriptive material that will never be used later in the thesis. Your first draft may contain a lot of this. Be ruthless: take it out!
  • Your own contribution to thinking on the theory. By the time you come to revise these chapters you should be in a position to make such contributions. Resist the temptation, and save these contributions for your discussion chapter.
  • Any foreshadowing of what you will be doing in your own research. You can’t do this until you have designed your own research, which can’t be done until you have finished all these chapters. Don’t get ahead of yourself

Establishing Your Contribution

Positioning your work:

Draw on the conclusions of the background chapters to identify your research hypotheses or research questions.

  • In the social sciences or humanities it may be necessary to describe both the research program and the stance you have adopted as researcher.
  • Understand where your work lies on the dimensions that are appropriate to your discipline: theoretical or applied, study or case study, and so on. Use this understanding to inform your explanation of your intended contribution.
  • Positioning requires justification. For example, if you decide on a case-study approach, explain why, and justify your choice of specific case to study; if a long description of the case is needed, note that you will do this in a separate following chapter


  • Discuss the range of research methods that could be used to test your hypotheses or answer your questions, and choose the most appropriate. Don’t forget to justify your choice, even if it is standard for your discipline.
  • Experimental validation requires an experimental design. Expect to have to explain it in detail, and also to justify it. Make appropriate choices of measurement or assessment mechanisms.
  • ‘Method’ and ‘methodology’ are not the same thing. ‘Method’ refers to specific techniques and ‘methodology’ refers to the stance you are taking as the researcher.
  • If only one method is to be used, describe the research instruments to be used in implementing it. If more than one method is to be used it is usually better to defer the descriptions of research instruments to the particular chapters where you implement the methods and obtain results.
  • If you have not already described your detailed research procedure in the ‘Research Design’ chapter you should describe it first before you go on to report any research results.


  • Design a narrative flow that takes the reader painlessly through the central part of your thesis—the part that consists of the new ideas that you are arguing for (and is thus the most unfamiliar).
  • Be alert to the different narrative structures used in different kinds of thesis.
  • Ensure that at all stages you have a clear understanding of the argument you intend to use for linking of question, data, analysis, and outcome.

Outcomes and Results

Research results:

  • Data comes from sources and experiments described in earlier chapters. Only include data that is derived from a process that you have described, that is, the reader must understand where your data comes from. Describe the data fully.
  • Have clear criteria for inclusion and exclusion of data and results. These should be independent of what the data shows, that is, it is not acceptable to only include data that confirms your hypotheses!
  • Make sure you have used the right kind of analysis mechanism for your data. For example, tools or approaches for large data sets may be unsuitable for sparse or irregular data.
  • Understand your variables.
  • Build a clear argument from data to knowledge. As you build this argument, be aware that interpretation of the results may lead you back to the data collection process.


  • Do not include raw, undigested data in the body of your thesis. Put it in an appendix, or better, back in your filing cabinet.
  • Display your results in an informative, appropriate way, either through charts, tables, diagrams, or carefully constructed arguments. In doing so, make sure that the presentation makes it possible for the reader to see whether your hypotheses have been tested or your questions answered.
  • Be open about shortcomings or limitations of your data or results.
  • Figures should be reasonably self-contained.
  • Use examples from elsewhere to guide your design of illustrations. Don’t be content with word-processor defaults, which often look unprofessional, and use the right tool for the task

Online resources:

  • There are excellent web pages with examples of illustrations—though choosing the right query to find them can be a challenge; ‘data visualization’ worked well for me for graphs, for example.
  • Wikipedia lists graphics software packages. Some of the best packages require that you write scripts in simple programming languages.

The Discussion or Interpretation

Structuring your discussion

  • The task of the discussion chapter is to enable you to reach your conclusions. Drawing up a tentative list of conclusions will help you identify an appropriate structure.
  • Begin by writing down all the things you know now that you didn’t know whenyou started the project. Rearranging this list will give you the titles of the main sections of your discussion.

Checking the thesis structure:

  • Before you start writing material in each of these sections, check your thesis structure by stringing together introductions and conclusions for all the chapters.
  • Check that the tentatively structured thesis responds to the aim and scope you set yourself in your introductory chapter.

Write with authority:

  • Make sure that your exposition of new theory or ideas places your thesis within the context of the field you are working in. This will require that you not only draw on your own results, but that you view these against existing thinking as expounded in your background chapters.
  • Acknowledge any limitations on your findings. Theoretical results may need validation before their suitability in practice is known, for example. Shortcomings or uncertainties should also be acknowledged.
  • If the thesis involves a case study, check that you have dealt with the problem of generalizability, or issues of transference, for your findings to similar situations.

The Conclusion

Connecting discussion and conclusions

  • Your conclusions are what your discussion chapter has been arguing for. You could write the conclusions to your whole study as the last section of a chapter called ‘Discussion and Conclusions’, but it is usually preferable to have a separate ‘Conclusions’ chapter.
  • If they form a separate chapter there should be no conclusions to the discussion chapter, and you should inform the reader of this in the discussion.

Rules about conclusions:

  • You should draw your conclusions solely from the discussion chapter.
  • There should be little further discussion in the conclusions chapter.
  • The conclusions should respond to the aim stated in the first chapter.
  • Summaries are not conclusions.
  • Conclusions should be crisp and concise.
  • The conclusions can be used to briefly explore the implications of your findings

Before You Submit

When your supervisor has ‘signed off’ on every chapter of your thesis you have only finished the first draft of your thesis. You still have two major tasks ahead of you: checking the structure and checking the detail.

From first draft to second draft

  • Check the structure of the thesis as a whole.
  • Read it through in detail yourself. Check the logic flow. Look for gaps in the logic, repetitions, things in the wrong order. Fix these up to the best of your ability.
  • Then (and only then) ask your supervisor to do the same. If possible, find a friend whose opinions you can rely on but who is unfamiliar with your topic to do the same. Fix up the problems they identify

Checking the details:

  • You now must check to ensure that you have done everything properly. A checklist is given in this chapter; you can find other such checklists online. Depending on how systematic you have been earlier, this task may take several weeks. Allow time for it in your thesis completion schedule.
  • Be professional. Do not use material that is not your own without proper citation, and be aware of ethical concerns that lie at the core of academic research

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