My advice for anyone writing a thesis is to identify what the examiners are looking for, and then give them what they want. While this is good guidance, to be really helpful it needs to be elaborated on, so I did some research. First, I carried out a systematic review of the literature on thesis examinations to confirm what examiners look for as they consider a thesis. Then, I studied different literature and identified advice for writing a thesis. Here is a summary of what I found.
Make your thesis a good read for your field
First, identify the field that you are contributing to. Are you writing for biochemists in general or for a subfield? Are you writing for art historians, even though you draw on theories in psychology? To find out what is expected, read well-written articles and theses in your field, and use these as a model for your own writing.
If your thesis is unusual (perhaps your research is cross-disciplinary or using a unique method or approach), you can improve it by justifying why you have deviated from the typical pattern.
Re-write to make your thesis reader-friendly
First, write down what you want to say. This may not be clear, so after you have done this, attempt a re-write to make sure that it is reader-friendly. It helps to ask for feedback. Find out where a reader is confused or engaged, interested or struggling and use this knowledge to improve your work.
Before you submit your thesis, you should also revise the writing that your examiners will see first – probably the abstract, introduction, literature review and the conclusion. You most likely wrote your literature review early in your candidature, when your writing was at its worst, so re-write it once your writing has improved. Always do a thorough proofread to remove any errors in grammar, spelling, formatting and references.
Make the thesis easy to follow
Examiners need to follow your ideas, so you need a clear flow both within and between chapters. Remember that your examiners will likely read your thesis in chunks over several weeks and may have forgotten what you said in the first chapter by the time they get to the sixth, so they could do with some help to follow your train of thought.
Some useful tools for this are:
- Summaries and reviews at the start or end of a section or chapter (In this chapter I will first…then…);
- Referring backwards and forwards in your thesis (I will expand on this point in chapter six…; As I said in chapter two…);
- Paragraphs with clear topic sentences that state the main point that you want to make;
- Repeating terms from one paragraph to the next to demonstrate the linking of ideas (if one paragraph was about “energy”, then the next should mention “energy” to show the connection);
- Linking phrases to show the reader how one paragraph is related to others (start one paragraph with “A first method is…” and the next paragraph with “A second method is…”).
To check whether your thesis is coherent, ask someone if they can follow what you have written. If they get lost and you have to explain what you mean, then add your explanation to your writing.
Make your thesis convincing
Above all, your thesis should convince the examiners. Make important claims and conclusions in each chapter and provide convincing evidence and citations to back up such claims. For example, it is not enough to conclude that: “Increasing C02 threatens human nutrition”. You also have to supply data, citations and reasons why the reader should agree. If in doubt, ask someone to read your claims and check whether they are convinced.
Engage with the literature in a convincing manner
You have to justify that your research is original and necessary, and you can demonstrate this by offering evidence from the literature about what has already been achieved and about the controversies, ambiguities and gaps.
Convince your examiners that your research will contribute to your field by providing evidence from the literature about what has already been done and what still needs to be done. In your literature review, present your conclusions about the main ideas, themes and claims and use the literature to back up each of your conclusions. Don’t merely list who said what. Instead, state the main conclusion that the reader needs to know and then use the references to back it up: “The crops that produce our needed source of zinc and iron have lower concentrations of these essential elements when grown under conditions of higher C02 (Thomas, 2012; Ying, 2013; Adelhardt 2016)”.
Choose the right approach
You must also show that you have an appropriate method for tackling your topic. Use the literature to justify your approach – is it based on an established approach that works well for your research topic, or does your topic demand a new approach?
Convince your examiners that your thesis is publishable
State your findings, but also explicitly discuss their implications for the literature in your field. Show how you have confirmed or complicated, elaborated or rejected, vindicated or discredited what has already been said (“I found x, which is consistent with the previous research, but I also found y, which gives a new perspective on the long-term effects”). Be explicit about how and where you have made a contribution and convince the examiner that this is a worthy addition.
The advice outlined here applies what we know about theses examiners to offer reassurance and guidance. Although some of this advice is not new, my aim was to frame it in a useful way.
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