Monday, 19 December 2016

How to Organize Your Thesis


How to Organize your Thesis

Prof. John W. Chinneck

Dept. of Systems and Computer Engineering

Carleton University

Ottawa, Canada
email: chinneck at sce dot carleton dot

Latest Revision: September 29, 1999

(original document dates to 1988, and undergoes periodic minor revisions)

Home for this document is:


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 previously answered,
  • 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 eliminated.

A Generic Thesis Skeleton

1. Introduction

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 brilliant ideas.

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 necessary:

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 previously unanswered

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.

6. Conclusions

You generally cover three things in the Conclusions section, and each of
these usually merits a separate subsection:

1. Conclusions

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 Grooty mechanism.
3. Etc.
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. Examples:

1. Developed a much quicker algorithm for
large-scale Zylon problems.
2. Demonstrated the first use of the Grooty
mechanism for Zylon calculations.
3. Etc.
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.

7. References

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 thesis.

8. Appendices

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, etc.

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.

Getting Started

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 the defence.


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 person.

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 major questions.

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

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

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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How to Organize Your Thesis

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