This section describes the main elements of a written thesis at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Although the specific structure described here is most relevant for empirical theses, much of the advice is also relevant for theoretical work. Please note that the formal requirements vary between different disciplines, and make sure to confer the guidelines that apply in your field.
For the contents in the various sections you may also confer Organising your writing.
Abstract and foreword
Most readers will turn first to the abstract. Use it as an opportunity to spur the reader’s interest. The abstract should summarise the main contents of your thesis, especially the thesis statement, but does not need to cover every aspect of the main text. The main objective is to give the reader a good idea of what the thesis is about.
In general the abstract should be the last thing that you write, when you know what you have actually written. It is nevertheless a good idea to work on a draft continuously. Writing a good abstract is difficult, since it should only include the most important points of your work. But this is also why working on your abstract can be useful – it forces you to identify exactly what it is you are writing about.
There are usually no formal requirements for forewords, but it is common practice to thank your supervisors, informants, and others who have helped and supported you. If you have received any grants or research residencies, you should also acknowledge these.
Note: Shorter assignments do not require abstracts and forewords.
Your introduction has two main purposes: 1) to give an overview of the main points of your thesis; and 2) awaken the reader’s interest. It’s not a bad idea to go through the introduction one last time when the writing is done, to ensure that it connects well with your conclusion.
Tip: For a nice, stylistic twist you can reuse a theme from the introduction in your conclusion. For example, you might present a particular scenario in one way in your introduction, and then return to it in your conclusion from a different – richer or contrasting – perspective.
Your introduction should include:
- The background for your choice of theme
- A discussion of your research question or thesis statement
- A schematic outline of the remainder of your thesis
The sections below discuss each of these elements in turn.
The background sets the general tone for your thesis. It should make a good impression and convince the reader why the theme is important and your approach relevant. Even so, it should be no longer than necessary.
What is considered a relevant background depends on your field and its traditions. Background information might be historical in nature, or it might refer to previous research or practical considerations. You can also focus on a specific text, thinker or problem.
Academic writing often means having a discussion with yourself (or some imagined opponent). To open your discussion, there are several options available. You may, for example:
- refer to a contemporary event
- outline a specific problem; a case study or an example
- review the relevant research/literature to demonstrate the need for this particular type of research
If it is common in your discipline to reflect upon your experiences as a practitioner, this is the place to present them. In the remainder of your thesis, this kind of information should be avoided, particularly if it has not been collected systematically.
Tip: Do not spend too much time on your background and opening remarks before you have gotten started with the main text.
Write three different opening paragraphs for your thesis using different literary devices
a) “set the scene” with a (short) narrative
b) adopt a historical approach to the phenomenon you intend to discuss
c) take an example from the media to give your topic current relevance.
Observe to what extent these different openings inspire you, and choose the approach most appropriate to your topic. For example, do you want to spur emotions, or remain as neutral as possible? How important is the historical background? The exercise can be done in small groups or pairs. Discuss what makes an opening paragraph successful (or not). How does your opening paragraph shed light on what is to follow? What will the reader’s expectations be?
1.2 Defining the scope of your thesis
One of the first tasks of a researcher is defining the scope of a study, i.e., its area (theme, field) and the amount of information to be included. Narrowing the scope of your thesis can be time-consuming. Paradoxically, the more you limit the scope, the more interesting it becomes. This is because a narrower scope lets you clarify the problem and study it at greater depth, whereas very broad research questions only allow a superficial treatment.
The research question can be formulated as one main question with (a few) more specific sub-questions or in the form of a hypothesis that will be tested.
Your research question will be your guide as your writing proceeds. If you are working independently, you are also free to modify it as you go along.
How do you know that you have drafted a research question? Most importantly, a research question is something that can be answered. If not, you have probably come up with a theme or field, not a question.
- Use interrogative words: how, why, which (factors/situations) etc.
- Some questions are closed and only invoke concrete/limited answers. Others will open up for discussions and different interpretations.
Asking “What …?” is a more closed question than asking “How?” or “In what way?”
Asking “Why” means you are investigating what causes of a phenomenon. Studying causality is methodologically demanding.
- Feel free to pose partially open questions that allow discussions of the overall theme, e.g., “In what way …?”; “How can we understand [a particular phenomenon]?”
- Try to condense your research question into one general question – and perhaps a few more specific sub-questions (two or three will usually suffice).
The outline gives an overview of the main points of your thesis. It clarifies the structure of your thesis and helps you find the correct focus for your work. The outline can also be used in supervision sessions, especially in the beginning. You might find that you need to restructure your thesis. Working on your outline can then be a good way of making sense of the necessary changes. A good outline shows how the different parts relate to each other, and is a useful guide for the reader.
It often makes sense to put the outline at the end of the introduction, but this rule is not set in stone. Use discretion: What is most helpful for the reader? The information should come at the right point – not too early and not too late.
2. Theory section
The theory used in an empirical study is meant to shed light on the data in a scholarly or scientific manner. It should give insights not achievable by ordinary, everyday reflections. The main purpose of using theory is to analyse and interpret your data. Therefore, you should not present theoretical perspectives that are not being put to use. Doing so will create false expectations, and suggests that your work is incomplete.
Not all theses have a separate theory section. In the IMRaD format the theory section is included in the introduction, and the second chapter covers the methods used.
What kind of theory should you choose? Since the theory is the foundation for your data analysis it can be useful to select a theory that lets you distinguish between, and categorise different phenomena. Other theories let you develop the various nuances of a phenomenon. In other words, you have a choice of either reducing the complexity of your data or expanding upon something that initially looks simple.
How much time and space should you devote to the theory chapter? This is a difficult question. Some theses dwell too long on theory and never get to the main point: the analysis and discussion. But it is also important to have read enough theory to know what to look for when collecting data. The nature of your research should decide: Some studies do not require much theory, but put more emphasis on the method, while other studies need a rich theory section to enable an interesting discussion.
3. Method section
In a scholarly research article, the section dealing with method is very important. The same applies to an empirical thesis. For students, this can be a difficult section to write, especially since its purpose may not always be clear.
The method chapter should not iterate the contents of methodology handbooks. For example, if you have carried out interviews, you do not need to list all the different types of research interview. You also do not need to describe the differences between quantitative and qualitative methods, or list all different kinds of validity and reliability.
What you must do is to show how your choice of design and research method is suited to answering your research question(s). Demonstrate that you have given due consideration to the validity and reliability of your chosen method. By “showing” instead of “telling”, you demonstrate that you have understood the practical meaning of these concepts. This way, the method section is not only able to tie the different parts of your thesis together, it also becomes interesting to read!
- Show the reader what you have done in your study, and explain why. How did you collect the data? Which options became available through your chosen approach?
- What were your working conditions? What considerations did you have to balance?
- Tell the reader what you did to increase the validity of your research. E.g., what can you say about the reliability in data collection? How do you know that you have actually investigated what you intended to investigate? What conclusions can be drawn on this basis? Which conclusions are certain and which are more tentative? Can your results be applied in other areas? Can you generalise? If so, why? If not, why not?
- You should aim to describe weaknesses as well as strengths. An excellent thesis distinguishes itself by defending – and at the same time criticising – the choices made.
Your analysis, along with your discussion, will form the high light of your thesis. In the IMRaD format, this section is titled “Results”. This is where you report your findings and present them in a systematic manner. The expectations of the reader have been built up through the other chapters, make sure you fulfill these expectations.
To analyse means to distinguish between different types of phenomena – similar from different. Importantly, by distinguishing between different phenomena, your theory is put to work. Precisely how your analysis should appear, however, is a methodological question. Finding out how best to organise and present your findings may take some time. A good place to look for examples and inspiration is repositories for master’s theses.
If you are analysing human actions, you may want to engage the reader’s emotions. In this case it will be important to choose analytical categories that correlate to your chosen theory. Engaging emotions is not the main point, but a way to elucidate the phenomenon so that the reader understands it in a new and better way.
Note: Not all theses include a separate chapter for analysis.
In many thesis the discussion is the most important section. Make sure that you allocate enough time and space for a good discussion. This is your opportunity to show that you have understood the significance of your findings and that you are capable of applying theory in an independent manner.
The discussion will consist of argumentation. In other words, you investigate a phenomenon from several different perspectives. To discuss means to question your findings, and to consider different interpretations. Here are a few examples of formulations that signal argumentation:
- On the one hand … and on the other
- But is it really true that…
- … on can it also be supposed…?
- … another possible explanation may be …
6. Conclusion – or summing up?
The final section of your thesis may take one of several different forms. Some theses need a conclusion, while for others a summing up will be appropriate. The decisive factor will be the nature of your thesis statement and research question.
Open research questions cannot always be answered, but if a definite answer is possible, you must provide a conclusion. The conclusion should answer your research question(s). Remember that a negative conclusion is also valid.
A summing up should repeat the most important issues raised in your thesis (particularly in the discussion), although preferably stated in a (slightly) different way. For example, you could frame the issues within a wider context.
Placing your thesis in perspective
In the final section you should place your work in a wider, academic perspective and determine any unresolved questions. During the work, you may have encountered new research questions and interesting literature which could have been followed up. At this point, you may point out these possible developments, while making it clear for the reader that they were beyond the framework of your current project.
- Briefly discuss your results through a different perspective. This will allow you to see aspects that were not apparent to you at the project preparation stage
- Highlight alternative research questions that you have found in the source materials used in the project
- Show how others have placed the subject area in a wider context
- If others have drawn different conclusions from yours, this will provide you with ideas of new ways to view the research question
- Describe any unanswered aspects of your project
- Specify potential follow up and new projects
A thesis should “bite itself in the tail”
There should be a strong connection between your conclusion and your introduction. All the themes and issues that you raised in your introduction must be referred to again in one way or another. If you find out at this stage that your thesis has not tackled an issue that you raised in the introduction, you should go back to the introduction and delete the reference to that issue. An elegant way to structure the text is to use the same textual figure or case in the beginning as well as in the end. When the figure returns in the final section, it will have taken on a new and richer meaning through the insights you have encountered, created in the process of writing.
J. Schimel, 2012 Writing Science. How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. New York: Oxford University Press
Last updated: December 16, 2013
Writing a Thesis Sentence: An Introduction
Few sentences in your paper will vex you as much as the thesis sentence. And with good reason: the thesis sentence is typically that one sentence in the paper with the potential to assert, control, and structure the entire argument. Without a strong, thoughtful thesis or claim, a paper might seem unfocused.
Complicating the matter further is that different disciplines have different notions of what constitutes a good thesis sentence. Sometimes you'll encounter differences not only from discipline to discipline, but also from course to course. One of your professors might frown on a thesis sentence that announces your process: "This paper will argue X by asserting A, B, and C." Another professor might prefer this approach.
So what makes a good thesis sentence?
Despite the differences from discipline to discipline and from course to course, a good thesis will generally have the following characteristics:
A good thesis sentence will make a claim.
A good thesis rarely turns an intellectual problem into a black & white, "either/or" proposition that the writer will then defend. Rather, a good thesis offers a nuanced and interesting perspective that the writer can develop via careful analysis. This perspective must be more than an observation. For example, "America is violent" is an observation. "Americans are violent because they are fearful" (the position that Michael Moore takes in Bowling for Columbine) is an argument. Why? Because it posits a perspective. It makes a claim.
Put another way, a good thesis sentence will inspire (rather than quiet) other points of view. One might argue that America is violent because of its violent entertainment industry. Or because of the proliferation of guns. Or because of the disintegration of the family. In short, if your thesis is positing something that no one can (or would wish to) argue with, then it's not a good thesis.
A good thesis sentence will define the scope of your argument.
Your thesis sentence determines what you will discuss in your paper. It also determines what you won't discuss. Every paragraph in your paper exists in order to support your thesis and its claim. Accordingly, if one of your paragraphs seems irrelevant, you have two choices: get rid of the paragraph, or rewrite your thesis so that it is complex enough to embrace the whole of your argument.
A good thesis will shape your argument.
A good thesis not only signals to the reader what claim you're making, but also suggests how your argument will be presented. In other words, your thesis sentence should suggest the structure or shape of your argument to your reader.
Say, for example, that you are going to argue that "American fearfulness expresses itself in two curious ways: A and B." In this case, the reader understands that you are going to have two important points to cover, and that these points will appear in a certain order. If you suggest a particular ordering principle in your thesis and then abandon it, the reader could become confused.
Developing A Thesis: Sample Methods
Professors employ a variety of methods to teach students how to compose good thesis sentences. Your professor has likely demonstrated several methods to you. Here we offer sample methods employed by three instructors from the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric: John Donaghy, Sara Biggs Chaney, and Karen Gocsik. Please note that these methods do not represent a program-wide sense of the thesis and how it should be taught or practiced. In fact, no such program-wide method exists. Instructors in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric believe that there are many approaches which can help students compose a good thesis. We offer you these examples with the hope that you will think about their underlying principles and consider how these principles might transfer to the work that you're doing in your classrooms.
JOHN DONAGHY: FINDING PATTERNS, SOLVING PROBLEMS
Professor John Donaghy's method is founded on the understanding that a good thesis comes from good analysis. In his view, analysis is a complicated process that requires readers to break down a text (event, object, or phenomenon) into parts, discovering patterns among the parts, and coming up with a theory for why these patterns exist. Professor Donaghy believes that students are initially afraid of analysis. He's puzzled by this fear. In fact, Professor Donaghy argues, we are analyzing all the time: life presents us with data that we are continually sorting by finding patterns, creating categories, and making meaning. Analysis is necessary for something as simple as crossing the street. Students can be encouraged to see that they already possess analytical skills that can be transferred to writing papers.
To illustrate how analysis brings us to the development of a thesis, Professor Donaghy suggests three steps regarding a simple reading of the following Gary Snyder poem, "Pine tree tops:"
In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
The creak of boots. Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
First, when analyzing, students need to be conscious of examining parts of a text, looking for patterns (or repeating elements). In a short poem, students can make a number of simple observations, including:
- Number of words (34)
- Number of syllables in words (mostly single syllable)
- Parts of speech: mostly nouns; adjectives are scarce; surprisingly few verbs
Second, students need to try to determine how these parts and patterns are speaking to each other. Do these parts and patterns illustrate a similarity? Draw a contrast? Create an emphasis? Together form a new observation or idea? In terms of the poem:
- Nouns: so many nouns emphasizes the "thing-ness" of the poem
- Adjectives: very few; one (blue) is attached to a noun
- Verbs: the verbs (glows, bend, fade) are gentle, yielding verbs
Finally, students can put forward a proposition. For instance: Snyder builds his poem on nouns to give power to the "things" in his scene. Or Snyder chooses verbs that seem to yield to the nouns in order to tell us how to behave in the presence of nature. This proposition, with some tweaking, can become a working thesis.
SARA BIGGS CHANEY: EVOLVING THE THESIS BY UNPACKING THE ASSUMPTIONS & MAKING COUNTER-CLAIMS
Professor Sara Chaney uses various methods to help her students arrive at a thesis. One that has proven successful is requiring students to examine their assumptions. Professor Chaney begins this instruction by introducing the student to the enthymeme. Like the syllogism (All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal), the enthymeme has three parts: the major premise, the minor premise, and the conclusion. The difference is that in the case of the syllogism, the major premise is based on fact (All men are mortal), while in the enthymeme it's based on a commonly held belief (cheating is unethical, smoking around children is a danger to their health, etc.). As Professor Chaney notes, in many cases the enthymeme is presented with the major premise left unstated: She smokes around her daughter; she endangers her daughter's health. Professor Chaney illustrates the importance in finding the "missing" major premise, arguing that unpacking an argument's unstated assumptions can help students to better analyze the texts they're writing about, and to create better texts of their own.
The key question to ask is: What must be true about the world in order for this statement to be true? Students are asked to put forth all hidden assumptions, large and small. This forces the students to dig beneath the surface of the text, to explore the structure and the nuance of the argument. In the process, ideas for a thesis will present themselves.
Once the students have drafted a thesis, Professor Chaney has a strategy (borrowed from David Rossenwasser and Jill Stephen's Writing Analytically) for evolving the thesis by putting forward counter-claims. Students sometimes make the mistake of forcing evidence to fit an overly rigid claim, or of presenting their claim in the form of a list, with few connections between the points. To evolve the thesis, Professor Chaney asks students to begin with their basic claim and then to methodically increase the complexity of that claim through the introduction of complicating evidence. This new evidence forces students to redefine their initial claims and to determine how the counter-claim might or might not be accommodated by their thesis.
For instance, a student may have written the following thesis: "Reported cases of autism in children have increased by almost 200% in the last twenty years because autism has been redefined to include less severe forms of the disorder." Professor Chaney presents students with this complicating evidence: "Some research also suggests that autism may be linked to mercury exposure in childhood vaccines." Students may weigh the evidence to see which has more merit; they might expand their thesis to point to two reasons for rising autism; they might acknowledge the truth in both statements but want to subordinate one argument to the other; they might point out a causal relationship between the two sentences (i.e., has the frequent levels of mercury exposures led to a new definition of autism in the DSM-IV, which in turn has increased the numbers of reported cases of autism?). Using any of these methods, students will have improved their thesis sentences.
KAREN GOCSIK: FINDING THE UMBRELLA IDEA
Professor Karen Gocsik advises that developing a good thesis is often the result of finding the "umbrella idea." Finding this idea requires that students move back and forth between a text's particularities and its big ideas in order to find a suitable "fit" between the two that the students can write about. This fit is then summed up in the "umbrella idea," or the big idea that all of their observations can stand under.
For instance, in an exploration of the Gospels as rhetoric, a student makes the specific observation that, in three of the four gospels, Jesus is reported as saying dramatically different things during his crucifixion. This observation by itself won't produce a paper - it's simply a statement of fact, with which no one will disagree. Nevertheless, this observation provokes a broader question: do these differences constitute a contradiction in the text? And if so, how do we understand this contradiction? What are the conditions of religious truth? Is there room for a contradiction as important as this?
Of course, these questions are too big to be addressed in an academic paper. And so the student returns to the text, still with these too-big questions haunting him. Reviewing the specific contradictions of the text, he crafts another set of questions: How should we understand the differences we see across the four gospels? What might have inspired these writers to craft this important crucifixion scene differently - particularly when, as is true of the authors of Matthew and Luke, they were using the same sources? The student posits that these differences arise from a difference in audience, historical moment, and rhetorical purpose. He turns to scholarship and finds his interpretation confirmed.
But the bigger questions persist. If the gospels are constructed to serve the earthly purposes of converting or supporting the beliefs of specific audiences, how can they also be considered as true? After doing a great deal of sketching, the student posits that perhaps the differences and contradictions are precisely what communicates the texts' truth to its audience of believers. After all, if the truth of a supreme being is beyond human grasp, then perhaps it requires a many-voiced or polyglossic narrative. With this idea in mind, the student produces a paper that not only details the variances across the texts, but offers a claim about why an audience of believers are not deterred by the differences. It is this claim that serves as the umbrella idea, synthesizing the student writer's various observations and ideas.
To sum up, successful employment of the umbrella method depends on four steps:
- Students must move fluidly back and forth between the text and their abstractions/generalizations, ready to adjust their ideas to the new evidence and new abstractions that they encounter.
- Students must sketch their ideas. Drawing their ideas helps students pull their thinking out of linear, two-dimensional modes, enabling them to see multiple possibilities for their essays.
- Students must seek an umbrella idea, under which their ideas can stand. To get to this umbrella idea, they need not only to analyze but to synthesize: they need to bring disparate ideas together, to see if they fit.
- They further need to create this synthesis by playing with language, creating an umbrella sentence that can embrace their ideas. This requires that students write and revise their thesis sentence several times as they write their paper. It also requires that students have a basic understanding of the principles of style, so that they can understand how to place their ideas in appropriate clauses, create the proper emphasis, and so on.
Alternatives to the Thesis Sentence
Sometimes, the purpose of a piece of writing is not to make a claim but to raise questions. Other times, a writer wants to leave a matter unresolved, inspiring the reader to create his or her own position. In these cases, the thesis sentence might take other forms: the thesis question or the implied thesis.
The Thesis Question
As we've said, not every piece of writing sets out to make a claim. If your purpose as a writer is to explore, for instance, the reasons for the 9/11 attacks (a topic for which you are not prepared to make a claim), your thesis might read: "What forces conspired to bring these men to crash four jetliners into American soil?"
You'll note that this question, while provocative, does not offer a sense of the argument's structure. It permits the writer to pursue all ideas, without committing to any. While this freedom might seem appealing, in fact you will find that the lack of a declarative thesis statement requires more work: you need to tighten your internal structure and your transitions from paragraph to paragraph so that the essay is clear and the reader can easily follow your line of inquiry.
The Implied Thesis
One of the most fascinating things about a thesis sentence is that it is the most important sentence in a paper - even when it's not there.
Some of our best writers never explicitly declare their theses. In some essays, you'll find it difficult to point to a single sentence that declares the argument. Still, the essay is coherent and makes a point. In these cases, the writers have used an implied thesis.
Writers use an implied thesis when they want to maintain a light hand. However, just because the writer doesn't delcare the thesis doesn't mean that she was working without one. Good writers will have their thesis clearly stated - either in their own minds, or in their notes for the paper. They may elect not to put the thesis in the paper, but every paragraph, every sentence that they write is controlled by the thesis all the same.
If you decide to write a paper with an implied thesis, be sure that you have a strong grasp of your argument and its structure. Also be sure that you supply adequate transitions, so that the reader can follow your argument with ease.
Will This Thesis Sentence Make the Grade? (A Check List)
In the end, you may have spent a good deal of time writing your thesis and still not know if it's a good one. Here are some questions to ask yourself.
- Does my thesis sentence attempt to answer (or at least to explore) a challenging intellectual question?
- Is the point I'm making one that would generate discussion and argument, or is it one that would leave people asking, "So what?"
- Is my thesis too vague? Too general? Should I focus on some more specific aspect of my topic?
- Does my thesis deal directly with the topic at hand, or is it a declaration of my personal feelings?
- Does my thesis indicate the direction of my argument? Does it suggest a structure for my paper?
- Does my introductory paragraph define terms important to my thesis? If I am writing a research paper, does my introduction "place" my thesis within the larger, ongoing scholarly discussion about my topic?
- Is the language in my thesis vivid and clear? Have I structured my sentence so that the important information is in the main clause? Have I used subordinate clauses to house less important information? Have I used parallelism to show the relationship between parts of my thesis? In short, is this thesis the very best sentence that it can be?
What else do you need to know about thesis sentences?
A good thesis usually relies on a strong introduction, sharing the work.
As your writing becomes more sophisticated, you will find that a one-sentence thesis statement cannot bear the burden of your entire argument. Therefore, you will find yourself relying increasingly on your introduction to lay the groundwork. Use your introduction to explain some of your argument's points and/or to define its terms. Save the "punch" for your thesis. For more information about creating good introductions that can support your thesis sentences, see Introductions and Conclusions elsewhere in this website.
The structure of your thesis, along with its introduction, should in some way reflect the logic that brought you to your argument.
It's helpful when structuring your thesis sentence to consider for a moment how it was that you came to your argument in the first place. No matter what discipline you are working in, you came to your idea by way of certain observations. For example, perhaps you have noticed in a History of Education course that female college students around the turn of the century seem very often to write about the idea of service to the community. How did you come to that observation? What did you observe first? And, more importantly, how did you go about exploring the significance of this observation? Did you investigate other college documents to see if the value of service was explicitly stated there? Or was this value implied in course descriptions, extra curricular possibilities, and so forth? Reconstruct for yourself how you came to your observations, and use this to help you to create a coherent introduction and thesis.
A good working thesis is your best friend.
Those writers who understand the concept of "working thesis" are way ahead of the game. A "working thesis" is a thesis that works for you, helping you to see where your ideas are going. Many students keep their working thesis in front of them at all times to help them to control the direction of their argument. But what happens when you stumble onto an idea that your thesis isn't prepared for? Or, more important, what happens when you think everything is going well in your paper and suddenly you arrive at a block? Always return to your working thesis, and give it a critical once-over. You may find that the block in your writing process is related to some limitation in your thesis. Or you may find that hidden somewhere in that working thesis is the germ of an even better idea. Stay in conversation with your thesis throughout the writing process. You'll be surprised at what you can learn from it.