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What makes a good thesis or dissertation

Almost irrespective of what students on research projects actually do, they are judged on the quality of their thesis or dissertation. It is therefore crucial to be able to round it off within the time available and make it of a standard that shows the work in the best possible light.

This page is the first of a group of pages which aim to help you to do just that. It explains in broad terms how to recognise a good thesis or dissertation and consequently how to develop one. The other pages in the section go into more detail.

What a thesis or dissertation should and should not be

A thesis or dissertation should not merely be a catalogue of what you have done during your time as a research student. Try to think of it as a well-rounded and self-contained report which makes the case for answers to research questions. There are of course entirely valid ways of expressing 'research questions' which use different terminology, but that is fully explained on the research questions page. The emphasis here is that a thesis or dissertation must be smoothly integrated into a streamlined and self-contained whole, taking the reader from what the research sets out to do through to its completion. More will be said later on the form of the 'completion', but the emphasis here is to keep focussed on making the thesis or dissertation read as a self-contained whole.

How chapters should fit into the storyline

To achieve a self-contained whole, each chapter should have an obvious purpose. Then the chapters should link together to show one or more storylines that lead inexorably to make the case or cases for which the thesis or dissertation is arguing - just one more example of where imagining that one is a barrister making a case in a court of law is a good orientation. Evidence and data alone are not enough without meaning being applied to them.

The number of chapters is irrelevant within the constraints of keeping within the institution's maximum allowed word count. Some surprisingly thin theses and dissertations succeed in showing quality appropriate to the award concerned.

'Storylines' and contents lists

An up-to-date contents list is an extremely valuable way of checking on how a thesis or dissertation is developing as you write, because it shows storylines in summary and at a glance. So try to keep an up-to-date contents list throughout the writing process Contents lists are straightforward to produce - see the reports page.

General information

To add more meaning to the contents list, it is worth wording the headings of chapters and sections so that they convey as comprehensively as possible what is in them. This also helps to orientate a future reader.

An up-to-date contents list can save hours of writing that later has to be discarded because it is in the contents list that any lack of coherence is likely to show up first.

A well-expressed contents list is also useful as a framework for writing the abstract - but more of this later.

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.