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Steps in Writing a Science Thesis or Dissertation

val-gerard-scientific-editing-serviceVal Gerard, Ph.D. | Science and Medical Editor

You’ve completed your coursework, conducted your research, and you’re ready to write your master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation. Completing such a large writing project (anywhere from 30 to over 300 pages) is a daunting task, perhaps the highest hurdle of graduate education. The majority of graduate students who do not complete their degree fail at this step.

Not only have I personally been there/done that, but as a university professor, I advised and mentored many graduate students, most of whom survived the writing process and successfully earned their degrees. As a freelance academic editor, I have helped many more students prepare their theses or dissertations. Here are a few suggestions, based on my experiences, that I hope will help you succeed in writing your own.

Get feedback.

Be sure to get feedback from your advisor and committee members throughout the process of conducting your research and writing your thesis or dissertation. Do not wait until you have spent months or years collecting and analyzing your data, and writing chapters. Your success will ultimately depend on their approval.

Advance from proposal to final document.

Most departments require approval of a written proposal before you begin the actual research. It is almost inevitable that your work will deviate from that proposal to some extent. Do keep your advisor and committee members informed of new directions that your research takes.

Understand the degree requirements from the get-go.

Some universities want all of your research reported in a classic dissertation or thesis format, specified by the graduate school. Other universities will accept, or even require, a number of publications, which can be collated with overall introduction and summary chapters to form your dissertation. Find out these requirements early in your graduate education and keep them in mind as you progress.

Analyze your results as your research progresses.

Don’t take the chance of finding out that your data showed no significant results or that your design missed some important factor – after the research is done.

Write for your readers.

Remember that the goal of scientific writing is to clearly communicate what you did, what you found, and why it is important and interesting. The most brilliant science in the world is worthless if no one else knows about it or understands it.

Organize your writing process.

Don’t expect to sit down and write your thesis or dissertation starting at page 1 and ending with the final summary. It makes better sense to write in a different order. This order may apply to the entire thesis or dissertation, if there will be individual chapters for the introduction, literature review, methods, results, discussion, and conclusions. Alternatively, this order may apply to chapters on different aspects of your research, each with its own introduction, review, methods, and conclusions.

Start by analyzing, organizing (with figures and tables), and interpreting your Results. That will clarify the focus of your thesis or dissertation. Figures and tables should be as clear and simple as possible. It is usually better to create additional figures and tables than to present too much data in one figure or table. Then, write the text of the Results section. Do not repeat data in the text that are already presented in a figure or table. Do point out important features of the data that are illustrated in each figure and table.

At this point, it is helpful to write a preliminary Abstract. You can revise the abstract when your entire document is completed, but the preliminary abstract will help you focus on the most important results.

Some students prefer to warm up by writing the Methods section first. However, this section should include only methods used to obtain the reported results, and should follow the order that the results are presented in. Writing the Methods section after the Results section helps insure that you include all relevant methods. Methods that did not provide results included in the final document (e.g., methods of unsuccessful experiments) should not be included, even if you spent months using them. A thesis or dissertation that includes or focuses on development of new methods is an exception and usually does include unsuccessful methods.

If your thesis or dissertation includes a Literature Review, this can be written before or after the Methods section. Like the Methods section, topics covered in the Literature Review often follow the order that the related results are presented in. Many students simply revise the literature review from their research proposal. Be sure to update your references, add sections related to research that was not specified in your proposal, and omit sections that did not turn out to be relevant.

It is almost always a good idea to write the Discussion after writing the Results section and before writing the Introduction. The Discussion will interpret your results with detailed references to previous studies, and will point out the value of the new information stemming from your research. The results are usually discussed in the same order as they are presented in the Results section. You may also include sections on the strengths and weaknesses of your research, as well as promising future research suggested by your results. Keep in mind that the goal of the Discussion section is to discuss your results, not to summarize the literature. If you have problems focusing, try starting every paragraph with, “Results of the present study showed that…” This will quickly become boring, but it will keep you on track, and you can go back later and vary the opening sentences.

It may seem strange to write the Introduction after all of the other sections are complete, but this is the point at which you will know precisely what you are introducing. The goal of the Introduction is to provide a brief background for your own research, to put it in the perspective of previous work, and to state the goals and explain why they are important and interesting. Because the Introduction is usually separate from the Literature Review and does not need to discuss reference material in detail, it should be fairly short.

If your thesis or dissertation requires a Conclusions chapter, it can easily be written after the Introduction. Don’t just list the major results; explain how your results fulfilled the stated goals.

Now, go back and revise your Abstract. This is the most important part of your thesis or dissertation, because the majority of readers will never get past this section. Make sure it completely and accurately presents your goals and major findings. Include just enough details to answer the most likely questions your readers will ask, but don’t overwhelm them with details at this point. If you pique their interest, they will read further.

Many universities require an oral defense of doctoral dissertations, and some require a defense or oral presentation of master’s theses. Do not take this step too lightly, as some students actually fail at this point. If you have maintained contact with your advisor and committee members, you should not have any surprises at your defense. Nevertheless, it is advisable to have a few practice sections, preferably with other graduate students and faculty members, or with an expert consultant, such as those offered by this site. In cases where my clients are no longer in residence at their universities, I have conducted mock defenses over the phone. Practice almost always makes the real thing easier.

Depending on how well you communicated with your advisor and committee members, you may be asked to make small or substantial revisions to your thesis or dissertation after everyone has read it. Give yourself sufficient time to make the changes and get them approved before the submission deadline. Putting everything off until the last minute is a sure way to irritate your committee members.

Every university has specific formatting requirements for theses and dissertations. This is the final stage – you are almost over the hurdle. The hard work is done, so don’t let the drudgery of complying with these rules get you down. This site lists editors who specialize in academic editing and formatting. I recommend that you have a professional review your document to make sure it complies with your department’s format manual and your graduate school’s guidelines.

Good luck, although you should not need much luck if you follow these suggestions.

Copyright 2013

Val Gerard

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