How to write a Dissertation or Thesis
A very detailed guide on how I wrote my dissertation
I have always enjoyed writing and in both degrees I did well in my final projects. Writing in science although technical at its core, it is telling a story and ensuring your reader understands the main points. In this post I outline my thought process while writing my MSc thesis. I have included a link to shared doc that you are free to use as a checklist for your writing. If you do use it, let me know what you think and feel free to dm/ email me to discuss your writing goals/ struggles.
TCIM RESOURCES: download guide on writing your thesis/ dissertation
A long piece of work can be very intimidating. My BSc dissertation was 6000 words and MSc thesis 10,000 words. For context I have only written work that involves direct experimental analysis so this blog post will be most useful for students in a similar place, although the structure can be applied across fields.
BSc dissertation title: The soluble erythropoietin receptor (sEpoR) is expressed in mouse models of obesity
MSc dissertation title: Speckle tracking echocardiography: A retrospective study using pre-capillary pulmonary hypertensive patients
Before I start any piece of work, the word count is extremely important for me. I am a very concise writer so it keeps me in check of getting to the word count.
With the word count in mind, I begin to roughly allocate numbers to each section.
250 words for my abstract
1500 for my Introduction/Background and literature review this can be extended to 2000
1500 for my discussion of results and a conclusion paragraph
The rest is split between my methods and results.
250 words for abstract
2500 -3000 for Introduction and background
2500 for discussion and conclusion
The rest is split between methods and results
What is included in the word count and what style of referencing ( figure legends are usually not included,citations are included)
Note any deadlines: Project report, project update, project presentation, draft deadline and full deadline: As you write, think of sections that will make sense for posters/ presentations.
Create a timeline for the work I have to do with dates. I tend to set a personal deadline at least a week before the official deadline for big pieces of work.
What is the assessment criteria and what do I want to achieve?
What are the sections I need ? ( check your university criteria).
Use other thesis as examples to get and idea of a structure you want to follow
The general sections needed: Title, Abbreviations, Acknowledgements, Abstract, Intro/Background or literature review, Aims and Objectives, Methods, Results, Discussion and Conclusion .
Lets break it down further
I usually write my sections independent of one another when it is in the very early stages and put it all together at the end of my writing process. Now let’s break down the sections
Background/ Intro/ Literature review
When writing your background. You start very broad and then slowly narrow this down into the specific focus and finally the importance of the topic you are writing. These are just a few questions you can ask yourself and start to answer
What are the main topics of my title?
What is essential and needs to explained ?
What is the main focus of my project ( what has been done in this area) ?
What additional benefit does my project add to the current field ?
Additional notes:How can you visualise the information in this section. Can you make a figure for these sections. Can you add a table or flow chart for your literature review?.
Your literature review can be tweaked as you read more papers so don’t hold on too tightly to the first full draft that you write. You won’t cover everything in a few weeks. You have till your submission deadline to perfect this section.
Write the methods as you go along with either conducting the experiment or research. Sometimes you have to think of your method before writing it. Use other papers as a gauge for what method is best and keep notes of any alterations you made and which papers you specifically followed
These are just a few things to think about when writing your methods:
How was the data collected ?
What is your plan for analysing the data ?
Is there an industry standard method that you need to reference ?
What specific equipment did you use ?
Before you write your results, you need to analyse your data but to analyse data you need to have an understanding of the outputs you want from the data.
So have a structure in mind when looking at your data.
What information can I get from my data?
How do I want to present my data: Images, can this be quantified? - graphs what is the best type of graph?
Statistical analysis-> Do I understand the statistical test? Is it the appropriate test and what software will I be using to get my results?
If you are doing an experimental project in person. Two important questions: What do I expect from my results vs what did I actually get and the final column of what does my result mean.
Were there any problems during data collection that may affect your results? -> how are you going to explain this: missing data, sample size and more
Now the actual results
Using your table from before: What results do you actually have
How are you going to explain your results. I try to stick to the same format to explain results. The structure you present your results will depend on what you actually did.
Heading of results: Statement of result:more detailed explanation of results. Is there a figure for these results? Making sure the figures and results section matches.
My results follow a simple structure: What did I do, what did I find, did anything go wrong or look strange that needs a simple explanation. Some can be kept in the results and deeper results mishaps or explanations can be kept for the discussion. You are meant to STATE your results and not really explain them. ( I say this with a pinch of salt as it is the writing style I prefer)
How is the data presented ( table / graph). What does the table describe? What does the graph mean? What is the overall finding from the results. How can you describe this in further detail?
Two examples from my dissertation
This is the hardest bit to write. I usually think of any discussion points as I write up my results. As a rule of thumb anything that I don't understand how to explain becomes a point in my discussion.
Your discussion can also be split
Make it a story. Spilt the main findings of your results into different headings ( Limitations and conclusion). I did this for my MSc. Your opinion and view based on the literature ( this is where you analyse each point).
State the result -> where does it stand ( is it with the general consensus, does it stray away?).You can have a whole section for limitations or sprinkle them as you go through.
If your results are all quite different, don’t be scared to add extra heading to make buts flow better and read well !
Thinking points in my discussion
Is it common and follows what is in the field ?
Is it not common but has been stated in another paper?
Is it not found in any paper ( this is where I throw the novelty statement where it looks like something good) ?
Is it a big anomaly that can be explained due to data collection or machine error ?
Is there work that already builds on this point and offers an alternative reason?
Cant find anything to explain your results -> is it wrong or novel ?
Examples of discussion headings