How to Write a Thesis

Writing a thesis, be it bachelor or master level, can be a daunting project. In this short guide, I explain how you structure the whole process and what to look out for.

What you need to know

During my own studies I was often asked for help and advice on writing a thesis – I was probably involved in more than two dozen projects. I saw great variation, but also many of the same mistakes over and over again. Considering how important the final thesis actually is, it’s a tragedy to see students fall into well known pitfalls.

What does a thesis consist of? It vastly depends on the scientific area, and conventions will of course vary within faculties. But even so, theses are scientific documents and have many things in common. Basically, you need to know:

  1. What to do – how to manage the project, what to include, and how to structure it.
  2. What not to do – know which mistakes and common pitfalls to avoid.

What is a thesis?

The thesis is the peak of your entire study, and not something you should take lightly. Realize, that writing a thesis is your chance to apply all the knowledge you have acquired so far – it’s your golden opportunity to show your merit.

Try to view your thesis as a work of art – something that represents your unique form of expression. I can tell you with certainty, that no artist ever created a masterpiece in one “stroke”. The thesis is YOUR masterpiece, treat it as one and you will be rewarded for your hard work.

How to structure the work process

Writing a thesis is no small task, and it’s easy to lose control – use the following list to manage the whole process:

  1. Idea hunting. Think, talk with others, do some brainstorm sessions.
  2. Write your problem statement. This defines your direction early on and ensures that you know what to do and why you are doing it. Read my guide on How to write a problem statement, if you need help.
  3. Perform a quick literature review and consider which methods to use.
  4. Create a time schedule for the whole project. Remember to include daily/weekly deadlines and/or milestones.
  5. Meet with your supervisor for an extended talk.
  6. Roughly define your theoretical framework. Read relevant literature and take notes of the 1-3 main points from every source. Finally, write a concise theory section.
  7. Roughly define your methodological framework. Read relevant literature and take notes of the 1-3 main points from every source. Finally, write a concise methods section.
  8. Revise and refine all you have written and planned so far.
  9. Revisit your problem statement and make any necessary adjustments.
  10. Collect empirical materials, if needed.
  11. Write analysis, discussion, and conclusion.
  12. Revise and refine all you have written and planned so far.
  13. Proof read!
  14. Hand in and celebrate.

Mistakes you want to avoid

There are a number of mistakes and pitfalls you want to avoid. Staying away from any of these errors will greatly improve your thesis:

  • Making your topic too broad
    This can end up not only destroying your focus, but also generating a lot of stress. Your problem statement is your fundamental building block – your mission, so to speak. In my guide How to write a problem statement I provide an easy go-to approach.
  • Underestimating the amount of time it takes to collect empirical materials
    This is especially true with qualitative methods, but it applies to all types of data. Collecting data takes time, sometimes many months, so start sooner rather than later! A thesis with a questionable empirical foundation is doomed to fail.
  • Failing to communicate and align with your supervisor
    It’s important to keep in mind, that getting credit for your paper also depends on your supervisor. If your thesis concludes with a defense, it can easily turn into a very unsatisfactory experience if you and your supervisor share fundamentally different views on what exactly you handed it. In addition, an examiner (censor) can easily come to misjudge key elements in your thesis, missing out important details or misinterpreting critical arguments – in such situations, its absolutely vital that your supervisor is accurately equipped to defend your work. Make sure that your communicate, share, and align your expectations and perceptions.
  • Not having time for last revisions and proof reading
    This is essentially what distinguishes the well planned project from the poor one. The difference in quality is noteworthy, and it’s heart-wrenching to see an essentially good thesis with a myriad of spelling errors, missing references, or sentences that make no sense. Remember, excellent papers are more than just good ideas.
  • Not beginning the writing process until “everything is in place”
    This is a grave mistake. You will never be fully ready to just write everything down – reading huge amounts of theory will not help you come closer to a good thesis. You should read, research, and write at the same time. Don’t delay! Start writing as soon as possible and don’t worry if it’s just notes. Writing is thinking, so delaying with writing slows your productivity.
  • Underestimating complexity
    Do you feel you perfectly understood the last article you read? Don’t be fooled by the sense of understanding a piece of complex literature. You can easily test how well you understood a strain of thought by attempting to explain it to others. It’s easier said than done. Read carefully and take notes – remember, it takes time to fully grasp an idea.
  • Being afraid to ask for help
    Everyone struggles – you cannot do everything on your own, and you are not supposed to, either. Talk things over with co-students and friends. Talk with your supervisor.
  • Not having a friend read your work
    Without feedback you will have no way of evaluating your work, and you will miss out on important suggestions or ideas that might significantly improve your final product.
  • Poor formatting
    There are standards for a reason, but mainly because they improve readability. Don’t use fancy fonts, as they can be hard to read, and don’t adjust your margins to fit your work because you have too few or too many pages. I strongly suggest following a formatting standard like ‘Harvard’ or ‘APA’. Remember, your thesis is a text, not a movie.
  • Poor structure
    Forgetting to include important parts in your thesis, like a discussion section, can severely cripple your final product. Following conventions on structure ensures that other readers can relate to your work, raising both readability and understanding. Read my guide on How to structure a paper, if you need help.
  • Forgetting to add references
    This might get you kicked out and cost you your graduation – forgetting to list sources is plagiarism, deliberate or not.
  • Writing “useless” stuff
    Being forced to discard a lot of pages and even whole sections down the line is a huge waste of work and time. Make sure you know why you are spending resources on a specific topic. Focus on writing concise sections in the beginning – try not to include stuff that you are not sure about. Later, when you have acquired a better overview, you can add what’s missing and strengthen your work.

I wish you good luck with your thesis!