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Thesis writing

Your thesis/dissertation is not the end of your study but your first piece of significant academic work. Completing it is both a contribution to new knowledge AND a learning process for you. What you learn about research and writing will outlive the relevance of the content. You can start by breaking the task of producing a thesis/dissertation into manageable “chunks”. This section addresses many of the challenges you will face along the way.

Getting started

Find out what you are expected to do by:

  • Attending department based orientation and technical programs
  • Read course handbooks
  • Read the Graduate Students Office guidelines
  • Books and websites on dissertation writing
  • Look for previous dissertations in the library

Managing your writing

Set up your dissertation files – a separate file for each section (See session on “Planning thesis production using MS Word”)

  • Cover page – see your handbook
  • Formalities – see Graduate Studies Office's guidelines
  • References/bibliography
  • Appendices
  • Key words
  • Abstract
  • List of Tables and Figures
  • Ethics statement
  • Statement of original authorship
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of contents

Chapters (set up one file for each chapter)

  • Chapter 1. Introduction and overview
  • Chapter 2. Literature review
  • Chapter 3. Research question
  • Chapter 4. Methodology
  • Chapter 5. Results
  • Chapter 6. Discussion
  • Chapter 7. Summary and conclusions

Free up headspace

  • Write down everything you can so that you do not need to keep it in short term memory
  • Do not write sequentially and be prepared to leave gaps
  • Recycle
  • Copy and paste into the appropriate chapter any material you have already written including preliminary reference sections or bibliographies (see sessions on EndNote)
  • Set up a “recycle” file. Do not delete any paragraph you write.  Save it because you may be able to reuse it somewhere else.

Structure each chapter

  • Tell ";em what you're goin to tell "em (8)
  • Tell "em (2)
  • Tell "em what you told "em (6)
  • - Mark Twain


    E.g. Chapter 1

    • Introduction
    • What the thesis is about (write now)
    • What the chapters say (write after they are written)
    • Summary and conclusion and
    • Why the research is important (write anytime you work this out)

Figuring out what your research is about

  • Free up headspace then focus specifically on your research question and write it down
  • Use research seminars, study groups, conferences and peers to get feedback on your idea
  • Make sure it is expressed in terms that your peers can understand
  • Discuss the refined statement with your supervisor and reach agreement as early in the process as possible

Managing your writing

  • Identify the tasks that need to be done to complete each chapter
  • Estimate how long each task will take
  • Use planning tools such as Gantt Charts to establish important sequences
  • Enter start dates, milestones and completion dates in your diary
  • Review and revise regularly
  • Hopelessly inaccurate estimates are much more efficient than no estimates at all

Planning and Management

Having short-term and long-term goals as well as a realistic plan will help you manage your progress and ensure you generate effective content.

  • Set task targets with your supervisor
  • Make maximum use of resources
  • Get your material reviewed by peers (seminars, conferences, publish)
  • Make contact with people doing similar research (network)

Managing content and process

  • Content

    • Set task targets with your supervisor
    • Make maximum use the library and resources (see library sessions)
    • Get your material reviewed by peers (seminars, conferences)
    • Make contact with people doing similar research (network)


    • Staying motivated
    • Rewards for progress
    • Graph your word-count (chapters and refs only)
    • Keep a journal of your progress recording how you solved problems and overcame difficulties
    • Manage social support
    • Keep your sense of humour

More resources

The SLD Blackboard module has
How to Write a Thesis (electronic version) by Murray 

How to Write a Thesis by Murray

How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors
by Philips & Pugh