The aim of the thesis is to produce an original piece of research work on a clearly defined topic.
Usually a thesis (dissertation) is the most substantial piece of independent work in the programme, while a thesis is usually associated with master’s degrees, although these terms can be interchangeable and may vary between countries and universities.
A thesis is likely to be the longest and most difficult piece of work a student has ever completed. It can, however, also be a very rewarding piece of work since, unlike essays and other assignments, the student is able to pick a topic of special interest and work on their own initiative.
This write-up is a general guideline designed to give you some idea about how you might carry out writing your thesis in the absence of, or in addition to, any specific guidance from the University.
Organising your Time: However organised you are, writing your thesis is likely to be one of the most challenging tasks you have ever undertaken.
Like an academic paper for journal publication, thesis generally follows a fairly standard structure.
A typical research proposal contains:
Identifying your Topic
The first step in any research is to identify the topic of interest. Think about which areas have most interested you in your studies to date, and what you would most like to explore.
Defining your Research Questions
Once you have identified your field of interest, you can then start to identify one or more research questions to answer. Again, a narrow question that you can research in detail is better than a broad one that you will not be able to cover in full.
Choosing a Title
Once you have a topic, and research question(s), then you can decide on a title, which should broadly cover your research question(s) and summarise what you are going to do.
Using your Supervisor
You can and should use your thesis supervisor as a sounding board as you develop your thinking. It’s usually better to ask for a meeting to discuss your ideas, rather than trying to have a discussion by email.
Once you have defined your research questions, you need to set out broadly what you plan to do to answer them, and why.
Your outline methodology should explain:
The introduction to your thesis may well be the last part that you complete, excepting perhaps the abstract. However, it should not be the last part that you think about.
The introduction provides the rationale for your thesis or other research project: what you are trying to answer and why it is important to do this research.
Your introduction should contain a clear statement of the research question and the aims of the research (closely related to the question).
It should also introduce and briefly review the literature on your topic to show what is already known and explain the theoretical framework. If there are theoretical debates in the literature, then the introduction is a good place for the researcher to give his or her own perspective.
The introduction should also indicate how your piece of research will contribute to the theoretical understanding of the topic.
Drawing on your Research Proposal
The introduction to your thesis will probably draw heavily on your research proposal.
The introduction needs to set the scene for the later work and give a broad idea of the arguments and/or research that preceded yours. It should give some idea of why you chose to study this area, giving a flavour of the literature, and what you hoped to find out.
Some good ideas for making your introduction strong include:
Drafting and Redrafting
As with any other piece of writing, redrafting and editing will improve your text.
This is especially important for the introduction because it needs to hold your reader’s attention and lead them into your research. The best way to ensure that you can do this is to give yourself enough time to write a really good introduction, including several redrafts.
Your literature review should not simply be descriptive but should also provide a critical analysis of the body of work, and demonstrate that you understand how it fits together as a whole and how your own research fits with previous studies.
A key aspect of a literature review is what sources you select to include, and which you exclude.
Sources covered in the review may include scholarly journal articles, books, government reports, Web sites, etc. The literature review provides a description, summary and evaluation of each source. It is usually presented as a distinct section of a thesis.
Choosing and Refining your Search Terms
Your search terms are one of the most important elements of finding the right sources for your research project and developing them is an ongoing process.
It is a good idea to start with a phrase that you think others will have used about the topic, perhaps that you have identified from your lectures and/or earlier study. You will probably find that your first few searches don’t turn up much that’s useful.
Use the one or two articles that you find that are on the right lines to identify alternative search terms, and continue to search until you turn up useful articles.
You can also use a tool such as “Google Adword Keyword Research Tool” to identify phrases and keywords that are similar to your chosen term(s). This tool is usually used by internet marketing professionals to help them find keywords similar to their own but can be useful for academic research too.
How Many Sources?
Your university or college supervisor will be able to give you an idea of how many sources you should include in your literature review.
You will probably need to read at least double that number to find enough that are suitable for inclusion. You should also try to find several different sorts of sources: books, journal articles, dissertations, conference papers, working papers, and so on.
You need to make sure that you identify the key texts for the subject. Check a few references, and see which texts are cited most often, or ask the librarians how to use the databases to check how often each article is cited.
A key part of your thesis is the methodology. This is not quite the same as ‘methods’. The methodology describes the broad philosophical foundation to your chosen research methods, including whether you are using qualitative or quantitative methods, or a mixture of both.
What to Include in your Methodology
If you are submitting your thesis in sections, with the methodology submitted before you actually undertake the research, you should use this section to set out exactly what you plan to do.
The methodology should be linked back to the literature to explain why you are using certain methods, and the academic basis of your choice.
If you are submitting as a single thesis, then the Methodology should explain what you did, with any refinements that you made as your work progressed. It should have a clear academic justification of all the choices that you made and be linked back to the literature.
Common Research Methods for the Social Sciences
How to Choose your Methodology and Precise Research Methods
Your methodology should be linked back to your research questions and previous research.
Visit your university or college library and may ask the librarians for help; they should be able to help you to identify the standard research method textbooks in your field.
Such books will help you to identify your broad research philosophy, and then choose methods which relate to that. This section of your thesis should set your research in the context of its theoretical foundations.
The methodology should also explain the weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to avoid the worst pitfalls, perhaps by triangulating your data with other methods, or why you do not think the weakness is relevant.
Structuring your Methodology
It is usually helpful to start your section on methodology by setting out the conceptual framework in which you plan to operate with reference to the key texts on that approach.
You should be clear throughout about the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen approach and how you plan to address them. You should also note any issues of which to be aware, for example in sample selection or to make your findings more relevant.
You should then move on to discuss your research questions, and how you plan to address each of them.
This is the point at which to set out your chosen research methods, including their theoretical basis, and the literature supporting them. You should make clear whether you think the method is ‘tried and tested’ or much more experimental, and what kind of reliance you could place on the results.
It is worth spending plenty of time on this section to ensure that you get it right. As always, draw on the resources available to you, for example by discussing your plans in detail with your supervisor who may be able to suggest whether your approach has significant flaws which you could address in some way.
Results and Discussion
When writing a thesis, the results and discussion sections can be both the most interesting as well as the most challenging sections to write.
You may choose to write these sections separately, or combine them into a single chapter, depending on your university’s guidelines and your own preferences.
The Results section should set out your key experimental results, including any statistical analysis and whether or not the results of these are significant.
You should cover any literature supporting your interpretation of significance. You should write your results section in the past tense: you are describing what you have done in the past.
If you are unsure whether to include certain results, go back to your research questions and decide whether the results are relevant to them. It doesn’t matter whether they are supportive or not, it’s about relevance. If they are relevant, you should include them.
You could choose chronological, which should follow the methods, or in order from most to least important in the answering of your research questions, or by research question and/or hypothesis.
You also need to consider how best to present your results: tables, figures, graphs, or text. Try to use a variety of different methods of presentation.
Make sure that each table and figure has a number and a title. Number tables and figures in separate lists, but consecutively by the order in which you mention them in the text. If you have more than about two or three, it’s often helpful to provide lists of tables and figures alongside the table of contents at the start of your thesis.
This section has four purposes, it should:
The discussion section therefore needs to review your findings in the context of the literature and the existing knowledge about the subject.
You also need to demonstrate that you understand the limitations of your research and the implications of your findings for policy and practice. This section should be written in the present tense.
Conclude by summarising the implications of your findings in brief, and explain why they are important for researchers and in practice, and provide some suggestions for further work.
You may also wish to make some recommendations for practice. As before, this may be a separate section, or included in your discussion.
The results and discussion, including conclusion and recommendations, are probably the most substantial sections of your thesis. Once completed, you can begin to relax slightly as you are on to the last stages of writing!
Conclusions and Extra Sections
Once you have completed the main body of your thesis, you then need to worry about drawing your conclusions, and the additional pages, such as whether to include a table of contents.
Your university may have guidelines but, otherwise, you will have to use your own judgement.
Writing your Conclusion
You may have been permitted, and have chosen, to include your conclusions in the discussion section, see our page on Results and Discussion for some ideas about why you might choose to do this.
However, it is normal practice to include a short section at the end of your thesis that draws out your conclusions.
This section will need to have several elements, including:
Your conclusion does not need to be very long; no more than five pages is usually sufficient, although detailed recommendations for practice may require more space.
Other Elements for Inclusion
Your university will almost certainly have formal guidelines on the format for the title page, which may need to be submitted separately for blind marking purposes.
As a general rule, the title page should contain the title of the thesis, your name, your course, your supervisor and the date of submission or completion.
This is a one page summary of your thesis, effectively an executive summary.
Not every university requires a formal abstract, especially for undergraduate or master’s theses, so check carefully. If one is required, it may be either structured or unstructured.
A structured abstract has subheadings, which should follow the same format as your thesis itself (usually Literature, Methods, Results and Discussion). There will probably also be a word limit for the abstract.
If an abstract is required, it may be published separately from your thesis, as a way of indexing it. It will therefore be assessed both as a part of your thesis, and as a stand-alone document that will tell other researchers whether your thesis will be useful in their studies. It is generally best to write the abstract last, when you are sure of the thread of your argument, and the most important areas to highlight.
Table of Contents
You should include a table of contents, which should include all headings and subheadings.
Table of Figures: You only really need to include this if you have a lot of figures. As with your table of contents, it’s best to use the tools available in the software to create this, so that it will update automatically even if you move a table or figure later.
This section is used to ensure that you do not inadvertently fall foul of any ‘taking help’ guidance.
Use it to thank:
You should not use appendices as a general ‘dumping ground’ for stuff you found interesting, but couldn’t manage to shoehorn in anywhere else, or which you wanted to include but couldn’t within the word count.
Appendices should be used for relevant information only, such as copies of your questionnaires or interview outlines, letters asking people to participate or additional proofs.
You can be reasonably confident that nobody will read them in any detail, so don’t bother to use an appendix to explain why your argument is correct.
Anything that you want to be read should be included in the main body of your text.
Check, Check and Check Again
Every university’s requirements are slightly different in terms of format, what sections need to be included and so on.
Make sure that you check what you have done against your university’s guidelines and that it conforms exactly.
If in doubt, check with the administrative staff dealing with submissions or with your supervisor. You really do not want to be penalised for an error of formatting.
Make sure that you put your thesis together in a single document, and read and re-read it over as a whole before submitting it.
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