A thesis (also known as a dissertation) is a clear, concise report based on academic research. It is usually required for earning your PhD, Master’s or undergraduate degree. A thesis should describe the purpose and outcome of the study. It also gives all the details that show how and why the research was successful. They include the literature review, methods, results and discussion. (Throughout this article, we will use the terms ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ interchangeably).
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How to approach your thesis
Dissertation writing can be overwhelming. The secret is to take it one step at a time. Tackle each section of the paper in sequence from start to finish to help you stay focused and on top of it. Writing your thesis sections in this way helps you feel confident to move forward after each section. This article shows you how to do precisely that, providing valuable tips and tricks for outlining and writing your thesis successfully.
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The final version of your thesis will be in this order: Abstract, Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, Results/Discussion, Conclusion. You will also need to list your references, and you might need to include supporting information such as interview transcripts or data sheets.
But which section do you write first?
To help yourself understand your research better and keep your project on track, you should write the sections in this order: Literature Review, Methodology, Results/Discussion, Introduction, Conclusion, Abstract. This way, you can start with writing about the critical background information, then share what methods you used. Then you can write about your main findings and discuss why they are essential. Next, you can tailor your Introduction to the central themes of your discussion. Finally, you can conclude with a summary of all the above, then write a short abstract to highlight the most exciting features of your research.
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Start with a research question, which asks: ‘What important issue am I trying to address?’ Keep in mind that your research question is likely to change. Don’t be afraid to go with a general research question at first, then read about the topic and adjust the question as you go. Read the literature and see–based on what other researchers are saying–if you can pick out what’s ‘missing’ in the knowledge about the issue. For example, you might find that some researchers have attempted to answer a similar research question as you have and have suggested that future projects could use different methods to get a better result. So your project could try to fill in the missing information by trying out one or more of those new methods to see if that approach works better.
Finding–and searching–relevant texts for your thesis
Writing a thesis successfully is primarily a question of momentum. You may find yourself getting bogged down in research or even feeling stressed by not knowing where to start.
A great place to begin your research and help you to maintain momentum is Google Scholar. Google Scholar is a freely accessible search engine that contains a vast array of scholarly texts (articles, theses, books, etc.) across numerous disciplines. Google Scholar’s many features will help you simplify your research. If, for example, your supervisor has specified that your thesis should only include texts for the previous 10 years, you can use Google Scholar’s filters only to include texts published during that timeframe. Save a link to each source that you think is helpful. You can use Endnote, Excel or other software to store and sort your sources. You may like to number each source so you can easily find it again later.
Here’s a handy tip on quickly summarising the most important points made in an academic text: first, start with the Abstract. An Abstract is a snapshot or summary of the content of a thesis (see more below). In your own words, summarise the Abstract. Then, read the Conclusion, fleshing out what you have already written based on the Abstract. Lastly, search for any keywords or themes that have featured prominently in the text. Let’s say the word ‘internet’ has featured as an important word/theme in the text. Use Control+F or Command+F on your keyboard to locate all the sentences and paragraphs in which the word appears. Repeat the process with other words if necessary. Using this method will help you get to the core of the content quickly and efficiently without becoming exhausted or overwhelmed.
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Identifying thesis themes from the Literature Review
Once you have collected a list of academic texts that you’d like to review further, you can begin to identify the valuable themes. You have already looked through many Abstracts and Conclusions. Now you can take a closer look at the findings to see what themes (if any) are relevant to your research question. Skip any studies that you think are just not relevant and move on. Looking for themes is the best way to help keep your research on track. You may discover that you need to look for more studies on a particular theme, or different studies that would give you better information.
Reread the Abstract and Conclusions, more slowly this time, and take some notes. Trust your instincts. What is the first thing that stands out in the study? If the study seems relevant, spend some time reading the Results/Discussions. Even if the findings themselves don’t seem relevant, is there anything else about the study that stands out? Don’t spend too long trying to understand all the details. Instead, jot down one or two simple, clear notes about the theme of each text.
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Once you have organised a list of relevant literature into important themes, you should have a pretty good idea of where to start with the Literature Review. It is a good idea to divide your Literature Review into three parts to help you express the information clearly. In part one, talk about what themes stood were most relevant to help answer your research question. What themes kept recurring in the various studies? In part two, explain what similar studies have found. Has anyone used the same methods as yours? Why, or why didn’t, they work? In part three, describe what is missing from the literature and discuss how your project fills the gap. Be clear about what your project contributes to your field of study that is new and exciting.
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Even if you use more than one method, you can write the Methodology section in three parts. In part one, name each method you have picked and explain why you chose it. In part two, list each step of the method in detail. Discuss the type of any equipment or approach you used. The idea is that someone else should be able to follow your list step-by-step and repeat what you did. In part three, discuss whether you changed the method somehow or just used one that researchers have used many times before. Try to be as clear and specific as possible about why your chosen method was the right one for your project.
Usually, we use one of two types of methods, or a ‘mixed method’ by combining them: quantitative, which measures the conditions of something, like colour, temperature, texture, weight, etc., or qualitative, which measures the impact of something, such as interviewing people about their opinions and/or experiences. Whichever type or combination of methods you choose, try to ensure that the information you get from it helps answer your research question.
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Do you need to conduct interviews for your research? Think carefully about what questions you need to ask and to whom you should ask them. You might tie the questions into the most important or frequently occurring themes from the literature review. You can also write questions that will help you show the information that is missing according to your literature review. The questions should be short, clear, and direct. In the case of questionnaires, you have several options to help you collect quantitative or qualitative information or a mix of the two. The answer choices may be multiple-choice, such as having someone choose an answer on a Likert scale of 1 to 5 (e.g., ‘not at all’ to ‘extremely likely’).
Another type of interview is semi-structured, where you compile a list of questions around a central theme that allows interview participants to give answers without being restricted by pre-selected choices. You can also steer them back to the central theme, where you think it necessary, and prompt their thinking along those lines. Or you may prefer ‘open-ended’ answers, i.e., questions where the participants are free to answer broader questions as they wish, regardless of any central theme. You can later review the answers and look for any recurring themes or words that arise.
You can interview people for your thesis simply by approaching them in public, arrange scheduled interviews with singles or groups, or send out electronic surveys. Try to be as thoughtful and polite as possible, as you may need special permission to talk to people, and some questions may be sensitive. If you need to build an electronic survey, many free and simple survey builders include Google Forms and Survey Monkey.
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Interview results for your thesis should be included in the Findings/Results section of your dissertation. Sometimes, however, interviews give you too much information. So how do you sift through all the detail?
You can use charts or graphics to show interview results if your interview participants have filled out quantitative information such as age—for example, you can use a bar graph to show the ages of the participants. Charts work well to show Likert-scale answers—for example, you can use a pie chart to show the percentages of each Likert choice 1 through 5. If you picked out information such as themed words or phrases from ‘open-ended’ answers, what do they show about the people you interviewed? You should also explain whether you think the interview results helped you answer your research question and whether the information you collected is reliable, that is, whether it is trustworthy.
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You can either combine the Results and Discussion or write them as separate sections. To combine them, list your results clearly and consistently. Then write a few sentences to discuss what you noticed or whether the information helps answer your research question. If it did, how exactly did it help? You should mention studies from your literature review if they support your ideas that something about your results is significant—for example, whether other studies had had similar findings to yours?
To write your Results and Discussion as separate sections, put all the results together into one section with lists, tables, charts, or images and briefly describe the findings. This approach works well if you have a lot of quantitative information to report. Then, write a discussion without repeating what the results were. Devote a few paragraphs to what the results show. Remember to refer to any studies from your literature review that confirm what the interview participants’ answers or quantitative results have shown.
It’s a good idea to mention whether your study was limited in some way—for example, if you find in the end that you could have asked different interview questions or changed one of your methods to get better results.
It would be best to suggest ideas for future research that you think make sense based on what you have learned, such as improving the method or moving on to the next steps in the project. How would you move the project forward, and what else could you hope to learn?
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At this point you already know your background well and have written about and discussed your results. Now you’re ready to write the Introduction to your thesis. You can write your Introduction in four parts. In part one, introduce your topic and mention why it is important. Part two should present the most important or frequently occurring themes you have covered in detail in your Literature Review. In part three, talk about other methods you could have used. Explain why the one you chose was the best choice. Finally, in part four, list your study objectives clearly and directly.
A thesis Conclusion should be a summary of all your previous sections. Don’t include any new information, ideas, or terms. Just summarise your topic and explain in one or two sentences why you did the research. Then, recall your methods and talk about how you achieved your objectives. Next, use bullet points or numbers to introduce a list of your main findings. You don’t need to give details; just mention what was most important about each result. A good Conclusion summarises the limitations of your research and reminds the reader about your suggested ideas for future research. You can close the section with a sentence about what your study contributes to the knowledge of your chosen field.
A thesis Abstract is the first section of your dissertation but the last section to write. Your Abstract should only highlight the best features of your research. It should explain what is exciting about your work and what someone would expect to learn from reading your thesis. A good Abstract explains in a few hundred (usually 250 to 350) words what the topic was; the problem you were trying to solve; the methods you used to solve the problem; what you found; what your findings add to what is known about your topic.