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How to Organize Your Thesis
This note describes how to organize the written thesis which is the central
element of your graduate degree. To know how to organize the thesis document,
you first have to understand what graduate-level research is all about, so that
is covered too. In other words, this note should be helpful when you are just
getting started in your graduate program, as well as later when you start to
write your thesis.
What Graduate Research is All About
The distinguishing mark of graduate research is an original contribution to
knowledge. The thesis is a formal document whose sole purpose is to prove that
you have made an original contribution to knowledge. Failure to prove that you
have made such a contribution generally leads to failure.
To this end, your thesis must show two important things:
you have identified a worthwhile problem or question which has not been
you have solved the problem or answered the question.
Your contribution to knowledge generally lies in your solution or answer.
What the Graduate Thesis is All About
Because the purpose of the graduate thesis is to prove that you have made an
original and useful contribution to knowledge, the examiners read your thesis to
find the answers to the following questions:
what is this student’s research question?
is it a good question? (has it been answered before? is it a useful question
to work on?)
did the student convince me that the question was adequately answered?
has the student made an adequate contribution to knowledge?
A very clear statement of the question is essential to proving that you have
made an original and worthwhile contribution to knowledge. To prove the
originality and value of your contribution, you must present a thorough review
of the existing literature on the subject, and on closely related subjects.
Then, by making direct reference to your literature review, you must demonstrate
that your question (a) has not been previously answered, and (b) is worth
answering. Describing how you answered the question is usually easier to write
about, since you have been intimately involved in the details over the course of
your graduate work.
If your thesis does not provide adequate answers to the few questions listed
above, you will likely be faced with a requirement for major revisions or you
may fail your thesis defence outright. For this reason, the generic thesis
skeleton given below is designed to highlight the answers to those questions
with appropriate thesis organization and section titles. The generic thesis
skeleton can be used for any thesis. While some professors may prefer a
different organization, the essential elements in any thesis will be the same.
Some further notes follow the skeleton.
Always remember that a thesis is a formal document: every item must be in the
appropriate place, and repetition of material in different places should be
A Generic Thesis Skeleton
This is a general introduction to what the thesis is all about — it is not just
a description of the contents of each section. Briefly summarize the question
(you will be stating the question in detail later), some of the reasons why it
is a worthwhile question, and perhaps give an overview of your main results.
This is a birds-eye view of the answers to the main questions answered in the
thesis (see above).
2. Background Information (optional)
A brief section giving background information may be necessary, especially if
your work spans two or more traditional fields. That means that your readers may
not have any experience with some of the material needed to follow your thesis,
so you need to give it to them. A different title than that given above is
usually better; e.g., “A Brief Review of Frammis Algebra.”
3. Review of the State of the Art
Here you review the state of the art relevant to your thesis. Again, a different
title is probably appropriate; e.g., “State of the Art in Zylon Algorithms.” The
idea is to present (critical analysis comes a little bit later) the major ideas
in the state of the art right up to, but not including, your own personal
You organize this section by idea, and not by author or by publication. For
example if there have been three important main approaches to Zylon Algorithms
to date, you might organize subsections around these three approaches, if
3.1 Iterative Approximation of Zylons
3.2 Statistical Weighting of Zylons
3.3 Graph-Theoretic Approaches to Zylon Manipulation
4. Research Question or Problem Statement
Engineering theses tend to refer to a “problem” to be solved where other
disciplines talk in terms of a “question” to be answered. In either case, this
section has three main parts:
1. a concise statement of the question that your thesis tackles
2. justification, by direct reference to section 3, that your question is
3. discussion of why it is worthwhile to answer this question.
Item 2 above is where you analyze the information which you presented in Section
3. For example, maybe your problem is to “develop a Zylon algorithm capable of
handling very large scale problems in reasonable time” (you would further
describe what you mean by “large scale” and “reasonable time” in the problem
statement). Now in your analysis of the state of the art you would show how each
class of current approaches fails (i.e. can handle only small problems, or takes
too much time). In the last part of this section you would explain why having a
large-scale fast Zylon algorithm is useful; e.g., by describing applications
where it can be used.
Since this is one of the sections that the readers are definitely looking for,
highlight it by using the word “problem” or “question” in the title: e.g.
“Research Question” or “Problem Statement”, or maybe something more specific
such as “The Large-Scale Zylon Algorithm Problem.”
5. Describing How You Solved the Problem or Answered the Question
This part of the thesis is much more free-form. It may have one or several
sections and subsections. But it all has only one purpose: to convince the
examiners that you answered the question or solved the problem that you set for
yourself in Section 4. So show what you did that is relevant to answering the
question or solving the problem: if there were blind alleys and dead ends, do
not include these, unless specifically relevant to the demonstration that you
answered the thesis question.
You generally cover three things in the Conclusions section, and each of these
usually merits a separate subsection:
2. Summary of Contributions
3. Future Research
Conclusions are not a rambling summary of the thesis: they are short, concise
statements of the inferences that you have made because of your work. It helps
to organize these as short numbered paragraphs, ordered from most to least
important. All conclusions should be directly related to the research question
stated in Section 4. Examples:
1. The problem stated in Section 4 has been solved: as shown in Sections ? to
??, an algorithm capable of handling large-scale Zylon problems in reasonable
time has been developed.
2. The principal mechanism needed in the improved Zylon algorithm is the
The Summary of Contributions will be much sought and carefully read by the
examiners. Here you list the contributions of new knowledge that your thesis
makes. Of course, the thesis itself must substantiate any claims made here.
There is often some overlap with the Conclusions, but that’s okay. Concise
numbered paragraphs are again best. Organize from most to least important.
1. Developed a much quicker algorithm for large-scale Zylon problems.
2. Demonstrated the first use of the Grooty mechanism for Zylon calculations.
The Future Research subsection is included so that researchers picking up this
work in future have the benefit of the ideas that you generated while you were
working on the project. Again, concise numbered paragraphs are usually best.
The list of references is closely tied to the review of the state of the art
given in section 3. Most examiners scan your list of references looking for the
important works in the field, so make sure they are listed and referred to in
section 3. Truth be known, most examiners also look for their own publications
if they are in the topic area of the thesis, so list these too. Besides, reading
your examiner’s papers usually gives you a clue as to the type of questions they
are likely to ask.
All references given must be referred to in the main body of the thesis. Note
the difference from a Bibliography, which may include works that are not
directly referenced in the thesis. Organize the list of references either
alphabetically by author surname (preferred), or by order of citation in the
What goes in the appendices? Any material which impedes the smooth development
of your presentation, but which is important to justify the results of a thesis.
Generally it is material that is of too nitty-gritty a level of detail for
inclusion in the main body of the thesis, but which should be available for
perusal by the examiners to convince them sufficiently. Examples include program
listings, immense tables of data, lengthy mathematical proofs or derivations,
Comments on the Skeleton
Again, the thesis is a formal document designed to address the examiner’s two
main questions. Sections 3 and 4 show that you have chosen a good problem, and
section 5 shows that you solved it. Sections 1 and 2 lead the reader into the
problem, and section 6 highlights the main knowledge generated by the whole
Note also that everything that others did is carefully separated from everything
that you did. Knowing who did what is important to the examiners. Section 4, the
problem statement, is the obvious dividing line. That’s the main reason for
putting it in the middle in this formal document.
The best way to get started on your thesis is to prepare an extended outline.
You begin by making up the Table of Contents, listing each section and
subsection that you propose to include. For each section and subsection, write a
brief point-form description of the contents of that section. The entire outline
might be 2 to 5 pages long. Now you and your thesis supervisor should carefully
review this outline: is there unnecessary material (i.e. not directly related to
the problem statement)? Then remove. Is there missing material? Then add. It is
much less painful and more time-efficient to make such decisions early, during
the outline phase, rather than after you’ve already done a lot of writing which
has to be thrown away.
How Long Does it Take to Write a Thesis?
Longer than you think. Even after the research itself is all done — models
built, calculations complete — it is wise to allow at least one complete term
for writing the thesis. It’s not the physical act of typing that takes so long,
it’s the fact that writing the thesis requires the complete organization of your
arguments and results. It’s during this formalization of your results into a
well-organized thesis document capable of withstanding the scrutiny of expert
examiners that you discover weaknesses. It’s fixing those weaknesses that takes
This is also probably the first time that your supervisor has seen the formal
expression of concepts that may have been approved previously in an informal
manner. Now is when you discover any misunderstandings or shortcomings in the
informal agreements. It takes time to fix these. Students for whom english is
not the mother tongue may have difficulty in getting ideas across, so that
numerous revisions are required. And, truth be known, supervisors are sometimes
not quick at reviewing and returning drafts.
Bottom line: leave yourself enough time. A rush job has painful consequences at
Always keep the reader’s backgrounds in mind. Who is your audience? How much can
you reasonably expect them to know about the subject before picking up your
thesis? Usually they are pretty knowledgeable about the general problem, but
they haven’t been intimately involved with the details over the last couple of
years like you have: spell difficult new concepts out clearly. It sometimes
helps to mentally picture a real person that you know who has the appropriate
background, and to imagine that you are explaining your ideas directly to that
Don’t make the readers work too hard! This is fundamentally important. You know
what few questions the examiners need answers for (see above). Choose section
titles and wordings to clearly give them this information. The harder they have
to work to ferret out your problem, your defence of the problem, your answer to
the problem, your conclusions and contributions, the worse mood they will be in,
and the more likely that your thesis will need major revisions.
A corollary of the above: it’s impossible to be too clear! Spell things out
carefully, highlight important parts by appropriate titles etc. There’s a huge
amount of information in a thesis: make sure you direct the readers to the
answers to the important questions.
Remember that a thesis is not a story: it usually doesn’t follow the chronology
of things that you tried. It’s a formal document designed to answer only a few
Avoid using phrases like “Clearly, this is the case…” or “Obviously, it
follows that …”; these imply that, if the readers don’t understand, then they
must be stupid. They might not have understood because you explained it poorly.
Avoid red flags, claims (like “software is the most important part of a computer
system”) that are really only your personal opinion and not substantiated by the
literature or the solution you have presented. Examiners like to pick on
sentences like that and ask questions like, “Can you demonstrate that software
is the most important part of a computer system?”
A Note on Computer Programs and Other Prototypes
The purpose of your thesis is to clearly document an original contribution to
knowledge. You may develop computer programs, prototypes, or other tools as a
means of proving your points, but remember, the thesis is not about the tool, it
is about the contribution to knowledge. Tools such as computer programs are fine
and useful products, but you can’t get an advanced degree just for the tool. You
must use the tool to demonstrate that you have made an original contribution to
knowledge; e.g., through its use, or ideas it embodies.
Master’s vs. PhD Thesis
There are different expectations for Master’s theses and for Doctoral theses.
This difference is not in format but in the significance and level of discovery
as evidenced by the problem to be solved and the summary of contributions; a
Doctoral thesis necessarily requires a more difficult problem to be solved, and
consequently more substantial contributions.
The contribution to knowledge of a Master’s thesis can be in the nature of an
incremental improvement in an area of knowledge, or the application of known
techniques in a new area. The Ph.D. must be a substantial and innovative
contribution to knowledge.
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