Most science students have to write a thesis or a dissertation at some point during their careers. The skill of thesis writing lies in the clear organization of ideas, data, and resources. Many students, unfortunately, acquire very little formal training in academic writing skill and scientific methods. However, writing a thesis or a dissertation can be a challenging process for many graduate students.
In this article, we provide the basic information and summarize how to organize and write a thesis or dissertation main sections and chapters.
Thesis vs. Dissertation
A thesis is a written piece of scholarly research work. it is a project that marks the end of a master's program. The purpose of a thesis is to allow students to showcase their knowledge and expertise within the subject matter they have been studying as part of the program.
A dissertation is a comparatively lengthier piece of scholarly writing that accounts your research work throughout the doctoral program. A researcher earns the PhD degree after submitting and defending his/her dissertation. It includes all information about the original research or expanded research on a new or existing topic conducted by the PhD candidate.
Structuring your Thesis
Most scientific disciplines follow almost similar thesis and dissertation structure and formatting, however each discipline has its own conventions for the structure of the theses and dissertations. The best way of finding out about the conventions in your field of research, after exploring the general structure of thesis, is to ask your supervisor to provide you with a good recent thesis to use it as a guide.
The structure of a thesis or dissertation has three main parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The basic thesis structure includes the following sections (Figure 1):
Figure 1: A thesis main sections and chapters
Probably, you may not have all these sections in your thesis or dissertation but this scheme provides a basic structure of your thesis writing plan. However, all theses consists of the following sections and chapters:
Methodology / Materials and Methods
Conclusions and/or Recommendations
References / Bibliography
1. Abstract Section
The Abstract is the the summary or the condensed version of your whole thesis, therefore it is recommended to write it last. Usually, the Abstract is very short (200 to 400 words) and placed at the at the beginning of a thesis to helps readers find what they’re looking for and understand the magnitude of what’s discussed briefly. This help readers decide whether or not to read the entire thesis. Keep in mind that Abstract section generally does not have citations.
The structure of the Abstract should mirror the structure of the whole thesis. and should include one or more sentences assigned to summarize each thesis chapter (introduction, methodology, results, and conclusions). For this reason, an Abstract should includes the following sections:
a. Introduction. This section is a brief background to the topic written in few (2 to 3) sentences. You need to reveal why your thesis subject is important, the purpose or the main objective of your research work, and what problem it attempts to solve and why the reader should be interested.
b. Methodology. This section covers the methodological approach of your research work; give the reader a quick insight into the research design and the overall experimental procedures you used to collect the data.
c. Results. This section of the Abstract outlines the key results and findings; what you found out or what you discovered, and include all results that are relevant to your thesis aims.
d. Conclusions. This section includes the broader implications of your thesis results and what the results mean. In this section, you can emphasize the most significant results and also make suggestions for further research work.
2. Introduction Chapter
There is no single way to write an introduction that will always work for every research topic. However, in your thesis introduction you have to lay out the background of your research and show the relationship of your work and the wider field - you can include the most important scientific articles and briefly explain them and how they are related to your research.
You should also give the reader a general knowledge of what the research is about and tell the reader why your research is important. At the end of the introduction, you can provide the reader with the questions that your thesis is answering or you thesis objectives.
In other words, you could visualize your thesis introduction as a "funnel" - start broad, end narrow. You should present the broad area of the research topic and then narrow down to your thesis specific interest and finally to pose your thesis questions or objectives (Figure 2).
Figure 2: You could visualize your thesis introduction as a "funnel"
3. Literature Review Chapter
A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research.
A good literature review does not just summarize sources – it analyzes and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge and to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to do the following:
Show your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
Position your work in relation to other researches and theories
Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.
4. Methodology Chapter
The aim of the methodology chapter in your thesis or dissertation is to produce a detailed recipe section for your experiments and how you designed your research and to justify your design choices.
In other words, you should discuss all the materials and methods you used to undertake your research to make your research replicable. By 'Materials' we mean the things you used for your experiments such as theories, equations, human or animals subjects, equipment, reagents, existing data you are analyzing, etc. By 'Methods' we mean the process you used to conduct the experiments.
Note that the methodology section should provide the readers with all necessary information that allowing them to evaluate the reliability and validity of your research.
The methodology chapter should generally be written in the past tense and it should include the following:
The type of research you did
How you collected and/or selected your data
How you analyzed the data
Tools and materials you used in the research
Your rationale for choosing these methods
Discussing any ethical or philosophical considerations
Keep in mind that the exact contents and structure of the methodology chapter can vary between universities, therefore be sure to check in with your institution or supervisor before you start writing to provide you with a good recent thesis in your field to use it as a guide.
5. Results Chapter
The result chapter (also known as the findings) is the core of your thesis and in this chapter you are giving a brief outline of each experimental strategy (not a detailed procedures), then telling the reading what exactly happened; describing what findings you discovered.
In this chapter, you should present the results using a clear text narrative, supported by visualizations such as tables, graphs and charts. You should also highlight any potential issues you have come across such as outliers or unusual findings.
If you are unsure whether to include certain results, go back to your research questions or objectives and decide whether the results are closely related to them. It doesn’t matter whether they are supportive or not, it’s about relevance. If they are relevant, you should include them.
Note that some universities prefer you to combine the results and discussion chapters. If you are unsure, ask your research supervisor to find out what their preference is.
6. Discussion Chapter
In contrast with the results chapter, where you only present and describe the findings, the discussion chapter is where you interpret and explain your results within your thesis or dissertation.
In this chapter, you should evaluate and justify your research findings, and discuss the significance and implications of your results in light of other related researches in the literature; tie them back to previous research works.
Keep in mind that the discussion chapter is a reflection of your results chapter, and don’t include any new findings unless you include these findings in the results chapter first.
7. Conclusions & Recommendations Chapter
In this chapter, you basically include the main research outcomes and how these outcomes addressed your research objectives or answered your research questions.
The conclusion chapter should be concise and engaging; provide the reader with a clear understanding of the key findings or argument that your research has advanced, why they are valuable, how they can be applied. In addition, you can discuss any limitations or weaknesses of the study.
Note that the conclusion and recommendations may be combined or presented in separate sections. Recommendations section is included after the conclusions. Your recommendation should logically support your conclusions and what further research can be done.
8. Bibliography Section
When writing a piece of work, such as thesis, dissertation, or research paper, you need to refer (cite) the original sources within your text, and these sources also should be properly referenced in the Bibliography (References) section. This procedure is necessary to enable readers to identify and locate the materials to which you have referred.
The citation and referencing process is governed by a strict rules (known as systems or styles). There are many different systems for the citation of references. The most common systems are Harvard, APA, Chicago, Vancouver, etc. Particular referencing systems are preferred by particular academic disciplines because they work better with the kind of texts that are most commonly used in that discipline.
The best strategy to follow when citing is adding citations to your text as you write. When you make a statement that needs referencing, put the citation in your text as you go along rather than writing your text and adding citations later. To do so, it is recommended to enter the references into a database (e.g. table form) as you come across them, in this way, you will be able to insert them into your text as you writing without having to type them every time you need to cite one.
In addition, you can use this database to search and download citation file for each reference on Google Scholar and then you can insert these files in a referencing management software such as EndNote. These programs make referencing more accurate and easier to do.
Holtom, D., & Fisher, E. (1999). Enjoy writing your science thesis or dissertation! London: Imperial College Press.
Murray, R. (2017). How to Write a Thesis (Third ed.). UK: McGraw-Hill Education.