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 How to Organize your Thesis

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مُساهمةموضوع: How to Organize your Thesis   الثلاثاء ديسمبر 06, 2011 10:02 pm

How to Organize your Thesis




This article is published with the permission of the
author, Prof. John W. Chinneck from Carleton University in Canada, and
remains the property of Prof. Chinneck all rights reserved. It has been
reproduced word for word from the original article which you can find here. You can download translations of this article here. We would like to thank Prof. Chinneck for allowing his resource to be published on BetterEdit.com.


Prof. John W. Chinneck
Dept. of Systems and Computer Engineering
Carleton University
Ottawa, Canada
email: chinneck at sce dot carleton dot ca



Latest Revision: September 29, 1999
(original document dates to 1988, and undergoes periodic minor revisions)

Introduction


This note describes how to organize the written thesis which is the
central element of your graduate degree. To know how to organize the
thesis document, you first have to understand what graduate-level
research is all about, so that is covered too. In other words, this note
should be helpful when you are just getting started in your graduate
program, as well as later when you start to write your thesis.

What Graduate Research is All About


The distinguishing mark of graduate research is an original contribution to knowledge.
The thesis is a formal document whose sole purpose is to prove that you
have made an original contribution to knowledge. Failure to prove that
you have made such a contribution generally leads to failure.

To this end, your thesis must show two important things:


  • you have identified a worthwhile problem or question which has not been previously answered,
  • you have solved the problem or answered the question.

Your contribution to knowledge generally lies in your solution or answer.

What the Graduate Thesis is All About


Because the purpose of the graduate thesis is to prove that you have
made an original and useful contribution to knowledge, the examiners
read your thesis to find the answers to the following questions:


  • what is this student's research question?
  • is it a good question? (has it been answered before? is it a useful question to work on?)
  • did the student convince me that the question was adequately answered?
  • has the student made an adequate contribution to knowledge?

A very clear statement of the question is essential to
proving that you have made an original and worthwhile contribution to
knowledge. To prove the originality and value of your contribution, you
must present a thorough review of the existing literature on the subject, and on closely related subjects. Then, by making direct reference to your literature review, you must demonstrate
that your question (a) has not been previously answered, and (b) is
worth answering. Describing how you answered the question is usually
easier to write about, since you have been intimately involved in the
details over the course of your graduate work.

If your thesis does not provide adequate answers to the few questions
listed above, you will likely be faced with a requirement for major
revisions or you may fail your thesis defence outright. For this reason,
the generic thesis skeleton given below is designed to highlight the
answers to those questions with appropriate thesis organization and
section titles. The generic thesis skeleton can be used for any thesis.
While some professors may prefer a different organization, the essential
elements in any thesis will be the same. Some further notes follow the
skeleton.

Always remember that a thesis is a formal document: every item must be in the appropriate place, and repetition of material in different places should be eliminated.

A Generic Thesis Skeleton


1. Introduction

This is a general introduction to what the thesis is all about -- it is not just a description of the contents of each section. Briefly summarize
the question (you will be stating the question in detail later), some
of the reasons why it is a worthwhile question, and perhaps give an
overview of your main results. This is a birds-eye view of the answers
to the main questions answered in the thesis (see above).

2. Background Information (optional)

A brief section giving background information may be necessary,
especially if your work spans two or more traditional fields. That means
that your readers may not have any experience with some of the material
needed to follow your thesis, so you need to give it to them. A
different title than that given above is usually better; e.g., "A Brief
Review of Frammis Algebra."

3. Review of the State of the Art

Here you review the state of the art relevant to your thesis. Again, a
different title is probably appropriate; e.g., "State of the Art in
Zylon Algorithms." The idea is to present (critical analysis
comes a little bit later) the major ideas in the state of the art right
up to, but not including, your own personal brilliant ideas.

You organize this section by idea, and not by author or by
publication. For example if there have been three important main
approaches to Zylon Algorithms to date, you might organize subsections
around these three approaches, if necessary:

3.1 Iterative Approximation of Zylons
3.2 Statistical Weighting of Zylons
3.3 Graph-Theoretic Approaches to Zylon Manipulation

4. Research Question or Problem Statement

Engineering theses tend to refer to a "problem" to be solved where
other disciplines talk in terms of a "question" to be answered. In
either case, this section has three main parts:

1. a concise statement of the question that your thesis tackles
2. justification, by direct reference to section 3, that your question is previously unanswered
3. discussion of why it is worthwhile to answer this question.

Item 2 above is where you analyze the information which you
presented in Section 3. For example, maybe your problem is to "develop a
Zylon algorithm capable of handling very large scale problems in
reasonable time" (you would further describe what you mean by "large
scale" and "reasonable time" in the problem statement). Now in your analysis
of the state of the art you would show how each class of current
approaches fails (i.e. can handle only small problems, or takes too much
time). In the last part of this section you would explain why having a
large-scale fast Zylon algorithm is useful; e.g., by describing
applications where it can be used.

Since this is one of the sections that the readers are definitely
looking for, highlight it by using the word "problem" or "question" in
the title: e.g. "Research Question" or "Problem Statement", or maybe
something more specific such as "The Large-Scale Zylon Algorithm
Problem."

5. Describing How You Solved the Problem or Answered the Question

This part of the thesis is much more free-form. It may have one or
several sections and subsections. But it all has only one purpose: to
convince the examiners that you answered the question or solved the
problem that you set for yourself in Section 4. So show what you did
that is relevant to answering the question or solving the problem: if there were blind alleys and dead ends, do not include these, unless specifically relevant to the demonstration that you answered the thesis question.

6. Conclusions

You generally cover three things in the Conclusions section, and each of these usually merits a separate subsection:

1. Conclusions
2. Summary of Contributions
3. Future Research

Conclusions are not a rambling summary of the thesis: they are short, concise
statements of the inferences that you have made because of your work.
It helps to organize these as short numbered paragraphs, ordered from
most to least important. All conclusions should be directly related to
the research question stated in Section 4. Examples:

1. The problem stated in Section 4 has been solved: as shown in
Sections ? to ??, an algorithm capable of handling large-scale Zylon
problems in reasonable time has been developed.

2. The principal mechanism needed in the improved Zylon algorithm is the Grooty mechanism.

3. Etc.

The Summary of Contributions will be much sought and carefully read by the examiners. Here you list the contributions of new
knowledge that your thesis makes. Of course, the thesis itself must
substantiate any claims made here. There is often some overlap with the
Conclusions, but that's okay. Concise numbered paragraphs are again
best. Organize from most to least important. Examples:

1. Developed a much quicker algorithm for large-scale Zylon problems.

2. Demonstrated the first use of the Grooty mechanism for Zylon calculations.

3. Etc.

The Future Research subsection is included so that researchers
picking up this work in future have the benefit of the ideas that you
generated while you were working on the project. Again, concise numbered
paragraphs are usually best.

7. References

The list of references is closely tied to the review of the state of
the art given in section 3. Most examiners scan your list of references
looking for the important works in the field, so make sure they are
listed and referred to in section 3. Truth be known, most examiners also
look for their own publications if they are in the topic area of the
thesis, so list these too. Besides, reading your examiner's papers
usually gives you a clue as to the type of questions they are likely to
ask.

All references given must be referred to in the main body of
the thesis. Note the difference from a Bibliography, which may include
works that are not directly referenced in the thesis. Organize the list
of references either alphabetically by author surname (preferred), or by
order of citation in the thesis.

8. Appendices

What goes in the appendices? Any material which impedes the smooth
development of your presentation, but which is important to justify the
results of a thesis. Generally it is material that is of too
nitty-gritty a level of detail for inclusion in the main body of the
thesis, but which should be available for perusal by the examiners to
convince them sufficiently. Examples include program listings, immense
tables of data, lengthy mathematical proofs or derivations, etc.

Comments on the Skeleton


Again, the thesis is a formal document designed to address the
examiner's two main questions. Sections 3 and 4 show that you have
chosen a good problem, and section 5 shows that you solved it. Sections 1
and 2 lead the reader into the problem, and section 6 highlights the
main knowledge generated by the whole exercise.

Note also that everything that others did is carefully separated from everything that you
did. Knowing who did what is important to the examiners. Section 4, the
problem statement, is the obvious dividing line. That's the main reason
for putting it in the middle in this formal document.

Getting Started


The best way to get started on your thesis is to prepare an extended
outline. You begin by making up the Table of Contents, listing each
section and subsection that you propose to include. For each section and
subsection, write a brief point-form description of the contents of
that section. The entire outline might be 2 to 5 pages long. Now you and
your thesis supervisor should carefully review this outline: is there
unnecessary material (i.e. not directly related to the problem
statement)? Then remove. Is there missing material? Then add. It is much
less painful and more time-efficient to make such decisions early,
during the outline phase, rather than after you've already done a lot of
writing which has to be thrown away.

How Long Does it Take to Write a Thesis?


Longer than you think. Even after the research itself is all done --
models built, calculations complete -- it is wise to allow at least one
complete term for writing the thesis. It's not the physical act of
typing that takes so long, it's the fact that writing the thesis
requires the complete organization of your arguments and results. It's
during this formalization of your results into a well-organized thesis
document capable of withstanding the scrutiny of expert examiners that
you discover weaknesses. It's fixing those weaknesses that takes time.

This is also probably the first time that your supervisor has seen
the formal expression of concepts that may have been approved previously
in an informal manner. Now is when you discover any misunderstandings
or shortcomings in the informal agreements. It takes time to fix these.
Students for whom english is not the mother tongue may have difficulty
in getting ideas across, so that numerous revisions are required. And,
truth be known, supervisors are sometimes not quick at reviewing and
returning drafts.

Bottom line: leave yourself enough time. A rush job has painful consequences at the defence.

Tips


Always keep the reader's backgrounds in mind. Who is your
audience? How much can you reasonably expect them to know about the
subject before picking up your thesis? Usually they are pretty
knowledgeable about the general problem, but they haven't been
intimately involved with the details over the last couple of years like
you have: spell difficult new concepts out clearly. It sometimes helps
to mentally picture a real person that you know who has the appropriate
background, and to imagine that you are explaining your ideas directly
to that person.

Don't make the readers work too hard! This is fundamentally
important. You know what few questions the examiners need answers for
(see above). Choose section titles and wordings to clearly give them
this information. The harder they have to work to ferret out your
problem, your defence of the problem, your answer to the problem, your
conclusions and contributions, the worse mood they will be in, and the
more likely that your thesis will need major revisions.

A corollary of the above: it's impossible to be too clear!
Spell things out carefully, highlight important parts by appropriate
titles etc. There's a huge amount of information in a thesis: make sure
you direct the readers to the answers to the important questions.

Remember that a thesis is not a story: it usually doesn't
follow the chronology of things that you tried. It's a formal document
designed to answer only a few major questions.

Avoid using phrases like "Clearly, this is the case..." or
"Obviously, it follows that ..."; these imply that, if the readers don't
understand, then they must be stupid. They might not have understood
because you explained it poorly.

Avoid red flags, claims (like "software is the most
important part of a computer system") that are really only your personal
opinion and not substantiated by the literature or the solution you
have presented. Examiners like to pick on sentences like that and ask
questions like, "Can you demonstrate that software is the most important
part of a computer system?"

A Note on Computer Programs and Other Prototypes


The purpose of your thesis is to clearly document an original contribution to knowledge. You may develop computer programs, prototypes, or other tools as a means of proving your points, but remember, the thesis is not
about the tool, it is about the contribution to knowledge. Tools such
as computer programs are fine and useful products, but you can't get an
advanced degree just for the tool. You must use the tool to demonstrate
that you have made an original contribution to knowledge; e.g., through
its use, or ideas it embodies.

Master's vs. PhD Thesis


There are different expectations for Master's theses and for Doctoral
theses. This difference is not in format but in the significance and
level of discovery as evidenced by the problem to be solved and the
summary of contributions; a Doctoral thesis necessarily requires a more
difficult problem to be solved, and consequently more substantial
contributions.

The contribution to knowledge of a Master's thesis can be in the
nature of an incremental improvement in an area of knowledge, or the
application of known techniques in a new area. The Ph.D. must be a
substantial and innovative contribution to knowledge.

_________________

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