10 crucial aspects to writing an amazing thesis… For when “good enough” isn’t enough!
1. Make it beautiful
What’s the first thing you do when you pick up a new book? You probably open it at a random page and then flick through quickly to see if anything catches your attention.
What do you think the examiner will do when your thesis lands on their desk? Open it at a random page and then flick through quickly to see if anything catches your attention.
The first impression, formed in those few seconds before they’re really paying attention, is crucial. The first impression determines whether they look forward to or dread reading your thesis. And that in turn determines how they view the quality of your work. Superficial? Maybe, but it’s only natural.
Besides, you want to take pride in every aspect of your thesis, so the fact that examiners will judge your work more favorably is just an added benefit.
Figures and images:
- Take time over your figures
- Design them so they look just as good if printed in black and white as in colour
- Use vector graphics for graphs and anything where you want sharp lines. Never jpeg!
- Check how your figures look like when printed, it’s often not the same as on the screen
- If you have a large figure, give it a full page. Avoid having just two or three lines from the main text squeezed under a figure taking up most of the page
- Use wide margins and double line-spacing: this makes the text easier to read
- Avoid long, dense paragraphs of text. Break them into shorter paragraphs where you can
2. Know your niche
Become an expert in something. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know everything (who does?), but you can learn a huge amount about a highly specialised niche.
There may be 10s of thousands of papers on your general area of research, but if you narrow your focus to a smaller and smaller area, then you can quickly become a relative expert in a small sub-topic. Knowing one topic well will help you when you then look at the broader literature
- Get to know the names of the authors and research groups publishing in your direct niche, and get to know their work
- Pick 5 important papers and really get to know them
- If you fully understand just one paper, that’s far more useful than skim-reading 100
- Learn the key principles that underlie what you do
3. Focus on what you are good at
I worried for years about my maths not being very good (for a physicist). I bought textbooks to try to improve, but they sat unopened on my shelf because I simply wasn’t using the maths in my daily work.
In the end, I just accepted that I was an experimentalist, not a theorist, and focused on what I was good at.
I had spent nearly three years taking apart and rebuilding a scanning tunneling microscope, so literally knew the system inside-out. So when I was preparing to write the thesis, I focused my reading around things closely related to things I already knew quite well, making the strengths in my knowledge even stronger
I only ever cited papers I had read and understood, and stuck to topics I would be comfortable answering questions about.
Where I did need to read about a new sub-topic, I searched for the most cited articles and focused on those, trying to extract a key principle relevant to my work.
4. Don’t neglect your introduction
Many people leave the introduction till last, but I’ve never heard a good justification for why.
The introduction is the first thing the examiner will read, so after flicking through the thesis and noticing the presentation, the intro is your next chance to set a good impression.
If you leave the intro till last, you are treating it as less important than the rest of the thesis. If it’s done as an afterthought, it’s not likely to be very good. And if it’s not very good, then the examiner is likely to start skipping over pages (not good).
- The introduction should establish why your research matters, in the context of your wider field.
- Start general, set the scene, then get specific
- Introduce concepts relevant to the whole thesis, but don’t get lost in too much detail
- Hold some information back, but give hints as to where the ideas will be explored further in the thesis
I wrote my introduction first. The examiner said it was the best general introduction to the field he had read, including those in the open literature.
I think this is partly because I treated it as being as important as any other chapter, but also because the introduction was leading me into the thesis as much as the examiner. So we were starting from the same position. If you are finishing the thesis with your introduction, and the examiner is just getting started, then there’s a disconnect between you and your audience!
5. Cite the best work in your field
Whenever you talk about the your wider field, in your introduction or literature review for example, highlight the absolute best work in your field: the ground-breaking papers that made everything possible. The Nobel-Prize winners, the pioneers and the visionaries.
Explain why these papers are important, and you naturally help justify your own work. You might not be researching exactly the same thing, but you can make the link if your work is helping move knowledge forward in the same general direction.
By highlighting the best, you also associate your thesis with quality in the mind of the examiner. You can then explain the open questions and gaps in the knowledge (which your research helps to fill).
6. Use the right literature (for you), and know why you’re citing it
The literature is a great resource if you use it well, but all too often it becomes a burden.
It’s impossible to read or cite everything, so, to be blunt, it’s stupid to try. Most papers you find, you don’t need to cite.
- Is this relevant to what you want to discuss?
- Is it important?
- Is it high-quality research?
- Do you understand it?
If not, feel free to discard it. Also consider why you are citing each paper:
- To support one of your arguments (or prove that you didn’t make something up)
- To provide extra information
- As sources of reliable data
- To provide context or comparison for your work
Build the references around how you want to present your work, rather than mangling your chapter to include a reference just because you think it should fit somewhere.
(For more on lit reviews, get the tutorial videos here)
7. Have opinions, be confident
At some point, you will have to make a clear, confident statement about what you think your research means.
Many students worry far too much about what the examiner will think. The tendency is to be defensive, to waffle and to write 1000s of words without actually saying anything… But this has the opposite effect and makes it much more likely that the examiner will pick you apart.
Be confident, say what you think, then stop.
8. Immerse yourself
A thesis is made up of a huge number of inter-related ideas, all taking time and effort to fully understand.
Likewise, they take time and effort to clearly explain. So the only way to do it is to immerse yourself in one idea at a time
- Give yourself uninterrupted time. I know that can be hard, but find a way
- Really think about what you’re trying to say, and how it relates to your work
- Edit it immediately to make sure you’ve expressed yourself clearly
The final point is vital. If you leave it to come back to later then you’re saving up a whole world of pain when you edit. Express the idea clearly first time round, then any later editing will be minor.
Yes, I know this goes against the advice to just get something down on paper, but they are wrong.
9. Do good research
So what makes good research?
It’s taking a critical view of your own research and results… learning from mistakes, and adapting and improving your methodology as you go.
Every result raises at least one question, so you need to show that you’ve addressed at least some of those questions in your thesis.
- Present a result: what does it show, what questions does it raise?
- Present another result that addresses some questions: what questions then remain?
- Repeat, until you’ve covered as much as you can, then sate the open questions and how you could possibly address them given the resources and the time
There’s always a temptation to do more, to include more references, write more papers…
But there comes a point where adding more just dilutes the best content.
It takes confidence to do, but once you’ve said everything you feel you have to say… just stop.
Thesis Writing Tutorial Videos
For detailed video tutorials on thesis writing, click here
- Writing your literature review: how to cope with 10,000 papers you haven’t read
- How to stay focused and get things done
- How to manage your thesis supervisor
- How to structure your thesis: making it easy for the examiner to pass you
The painless PhD (video course)
The painless PhD is a video course designed to show you exactly what is required at every stage of your PhD.