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I'm writing my master thesis at the moment in the area of cyber/computer security. However, I'm having real trouble in keeping a good structure in the thesis.

What I mean with structure is that my supervisor has commented on several occasions that the order of subjects should be changed and that some parts should be switched or explained in less/more detail.

Although my supervisor has been incredibly helpful and has provided good pointers, I was wondering if the community here could give some ideas on:

How to keep the structure of a thesis in line and what mistakes to look out for?

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  • One addition to the lists below that was advised to me during my Masters and now, in my PhD. Just before the appendices, perhaps include a glossary of key terms.
    – user7130
    Jul 1, 2013 at 14:07
  • I think that this question is not specifically asking about something special. You can find your thesis report format in almost ever university website. Moreover, it is obvious by looking at the answers given till now; that most of them are answering about the sections particularly. Nothing more. So, I suggest you to be more specific in your question.
    – enthu
    Jul 8, 2014 at 18:05

4 Answers 4

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Other answers have suggested outlines, but even with such an outline it's not always clear what is the best order to discuss everything (whether it's the choice of section or ordering within a section).

One approach I have seen used is to print out the whole document, cut out each paragraph, and pin them on a pinboard. Then it's easy to adjust the order of the whole document until the whole thing is coherent. You'll probably want to have a pencil on hand while doing this, because you'll need to adjust the text a bit to fit the order.

cut and paste

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  • 4
    Holy wow. That is hard core.
    – Matthew G.
    Mar 13, 2014 at 2:07
  • 4
    My favourite is "DONE (almost)"!
    – OJFord
    Jun 24, 2014 at 0:46
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Folk might have their own opinions on their favourite wording of the following sections, but here is a basic outline of the structure of a significant technical work, such as a thesis.

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction / Literature review
  3. Aims and Objectives
  4. Methodology
  5. Results and Data analysis
  6. Discussion
  7. Further work
  8. Conclusion
  9. Appendicies
  10. References

I'm not going to express what the content of each section should be, because that will extend this answer too far.

My guidance for you is as follows: try to tell the story of your research. Lead the reader through your thought process. You could try posing your research as the solution to a problem, for example. Let's see how this works in practice.

You do some background reading - your literature review. You discover that there is an existing problem that no-one has answered, or their answer is lacking in some way. You express this in your introduction or literature review. You refine what you intend to do as a set of aims and objectives. You set out how you are going to achieve your aims and objectives in your methodology. You execute your method and report the results. You discuss your results and consider how you could improve your work. Then you draw your conclusions.

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    I would separate out the introduction and literature review and remove the aims and objectives. If the latter is necessary, they can go in an introductory or preface section. My point of view is very US centric though and restricted to information science/HCI.
    – Shion
    Jul 1, 2013 at 17:36
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Have a look at good masters theses and good PhD theses in your area to get an indication of the structure. Borrow a book from the library on structuring a thesis. In any case, the structure will look something like the following (with variation possible):

  • title page
  • abstract
  • acknowledgements
  • contents page(s)
  • introduction
  • literature review
  • materials/sources and methods (or this can be part of every chapter if these are different per chapter)
  • themed topic chapters
  • results
  • discussion or findings
  • conclusions
  • references
  • appendices.

Source

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As you've discovered, everyone has a slightly different suggestion. I found this really confusing when I did my MSc thesis. As I wrote more of my thesis, my supervisors kept tweaking the structure. The changes they made were definitely for the better, and I was satisfied with the end result. But I felt like I should have (somehow) known the right structure to use.

So...when I started working on my PhD, I did a bit of research into thesis structure. I really wanted to understand "the rules" -- not so I would follow them slavishly -- but so that when I did deviate from them, I would do so knowingly and for good reasons. I started by reading the guidelines from lots of major universities. I found some suggested outlines, but they were all just different enough (in the terminology they used and the order they recommended) to be really confusing.

Finally I found this article, which discusses different ways of structuring a thesis: Thesis and dissertation writing: an examination of published advice and actual practice Brian Paltridge. English for Specific Purposes 21(2):125 - 143 (2002).

From that article, and from other sources, I finally realised that there isn't "one thesis structure to rule them all". (It's not like the 5-paragraph essay that we learned to write in school!) Not only does it depend on your discipline, but it depends on your particular research project. Until all the bits are written, it won't be obvious what order they should go in. Even if you were an expert thesis-writer, you would probably need someone else's help to organise it so that it tells a coherent story. You're just too close to the project. (That's one reason why book authors have editors.)

So my advice is: Focus on writing, not on structure for now. You have a pretty good idea what you need to write, even if you're not sure where the bits you write will actually go. When your supervisor suggests a different order, realise that it's not because you "made a mistake". Expect that the structure of the thesis will evolve over time, as you write more of it.

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