We are at the moment designing a document which we can hand out to Bachelor and Master students to give them a general idea on how to efficiently write a thesis. We also do this to make correcting easier for us. We are working in the field of cell biology. A thesis in our field is usually structured like this:

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Materals and Methods
  4. Results
  5. Discussion
  6. Acknowledgements

What we've come up so far is the following list of best practices. This is based on our experiences with previous students and our own theses.

  1. You can already start writing your materials and methods (M&M) section during your regular lab schedule. This will save you time later on.
  2. You will have discussions with your supervisors on your results, in which you will decide on what to include in your thesis.
  3. Start by making the figures for your results and a corresponding caption. Lay out bullet points of your results. Afterwards, start writing the text around these bullet points. After finishing, send this part to your supervisor for proofreading.
  4. Proceed with the discussion. Again, lay out bullet points, but this time, before writing, clarify each point with your supervisor. This will prevent you from having to rewrite large parts.
  5. Continue with the introduction and, if you haven’t written it yet, M&M. The introduction should contain everything the reader has to know in order to understand why you did what you did and what the results mean. Be brief and clear.
  6. Finalize by writing an abstract (“Zusammenfassung”). This has to be written and edited very carefully because it will be the part most people read. Your thesis also needs to include an english abstract which is an exact translation of the german one.
  7. Don’t forget the acknowledgements (“Danksagung”). This is the second part everyone will read, and it’s extremely unpolite if you don’t have one. It doesn’t have to be formal and can be personal.

My question: Is there something important missing and would you recommend things differently? Maybe you could elaborate how you handle this in your lab.

4 Answers 4


It is a very good set of advice. There are two very practical areas that seem unaddressed and that are, in my experience, somewhat… problematic with some students:

  1. Proof-reading. Find someone, other than yourself, who will do a final proofreading of the thesis for language and clarity. Not necessarily someone from your field, but checking typos, missing figures, acronyms that are never defined, that sort of stuff… That person should not be you, because when you've spent so much time writing the thesis, you won't even see these details any more when you read it.

    Also, check with your supervisor what are his expectations regarding proofreading/corrections. It depends on your university and the supervisor himself, but in many cases they will want to read it themselves, and possibly offer some remarks and corrections.

  2. Scheduling. You are aware of the submission deadline, but mind that the final stuff takes time. In particular, if your supervisor has to read it, make sure to give him enough time to do so. So, start with a clear set of intermediate deadlines, and if you start to miss them, take action! Nothing's as bad as procrastinating ’til the last day thinking “I can still write that in 24 hours if I get to it”.


I think your list looks great, but I would suggest adding a couple of "soft" recommendations; e.g.,

If you are struggling with a certain topic, idea, or way forward, ask for assistance as early as possible after you have exhausted your ideas. Do try to solve problems on your own, but don't let that take too much time that you fall behind.

I don't know much about the cell biology field, but do your papers normally have "Related Work" sections? I assume they must also have a References (or Bibliography) section?

  • +1 that piece of advice is often not stated nor understood properly.
    – user7130
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 10:23

For me, the difficulty was that the research part was too interesting, so I ended up writing papers, trying new techniques etc., but neglected the thesis writing. If you have students like me, make them to write some parts of their theses before they are allowed to do more research in the lab.

  • Of course there are departments where a thesis basically consists of those papers stacked together plus some minimal elaboration. And hey, why not, DRY after all Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 13:59

This is impressive, very impressive.

The only thing I can suggest adding is a point for students to continuously update their bibliography as they proceed with their research. Alongside this, they ought to continuously include the subsequent in-text references on each part they paraphrase.

Perhaps, and this is a bit of an 'out there' suggestion, but maybe suggest that the students upload drafts to a plagiarism checking program such as Turnitin.com on a regular basis.

Hope this helps.

  • The bibliography is indeed a very good point! As for the plagiarism, most students will write in german, I don't know if something like that exists for the german language.
    – Eekhoorn
    Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 13:52

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