Why do many universities require strict format on theses, when the most important thing in them is the content? A beautiful design will make a good thesis better, and a bad one worse. The work can be creative and practical at the same time, and as long as the latter is guaranteed, why restrict the former? If academia is a place for creativity and logicality, then where are the creativity and logicality in strict designs?

Note, it is practical to have a nice design.

Related: Is beautifying a dissertation looked upon unfavourably by the examiners?

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    Uniformity, perhaps. I say this as someone that works at my school's thesis office. Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 19:25
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    So that you focus on content and not on presentation? Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 19:31
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    Creativity loves constraints.
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 19:46
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    Re "A beautiful design will make a good thesis better...", remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For instance, I've visited - briefly! - all too many web sites whose designers doubtless though beautiful, but which I found ugly and/or unusable. Thesis formats are intended to be easy to read, and that includes having a conventional format.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 3:52
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    If you really hate the standard format, you're perfectly free to make a different version with your own preferred formatting, and use that version to post on your personal website, preprint server, etc. You can even have it professionally bound by a self-publishing service, possibly cheaper than your university would charge for extra copies. Very few people are going to get the official university archived version if other alternatives are available. Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 6:02

6 Answers 6


Why do many universities require strict format on theses,

Actually, sometimes the requirement is not as strict as you would think, and they do accept some variety. Also, if they provide a template for you to use, that's not the same as not accepting anything that diverges from it.

when the most important thing in them is the content?

That's the most important thing to you, or to academics interested in the content. It's not the most important thing for, say, the librarians, or the secretaries who have to process the theses.

A beautiful design will make a good thesis better, and a bad one worse. As long as the content is guaranteed by the writer, why restrict their desire to make their work, at the very least, clearer?

Your question comes off as being rather self-centered. The university is (or may be) trying to make a collection of theses beautiful, not a single one. Don't publishers have series of books or journals with uniform design? Don't streets have rows of buildings with uniform or uniformly-changing design? ... and those streets in which every person built their own house, according to their own means, with different architects who have no sense of context and are wrapped up in their own ego (or with no architect and just some construction company just putting up whatever is currently cheap and fashionable) - are these the beautiful streets? Rarely.

If academia is a place for creativity and logicality

Logicality? Ok, my friend, you are clearly not ready to graduate if that's your view of academia. You need to "bake" in there for a while longer and lose some of this naivete of yours...

where are the creativity and logicality in strict designs?

I think I've suggested a reasonable argument as to why a university might want a uniform design. Well, it's either that or some administrator deciding on that arbitrarily, the same way the government has a bunch of standard forms. Which is it? Who knows.

  • Isn't that the most important people we should please is the readers who will actually dwell into it, rather than whose job is to preserve it? (I don't mean to underestimate anyone). As for the uniformity of streets, I agree that there should have a design from administrators, but at least it shouldn't be ugly. And why shouldn't academia be a place for creativity and logically? (I'm not working in academia thought).
    – Ooker
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 5:55
  • @Ooker: This isn't my position, it's the university's position - ask them. Also, I didn't say academia shouldn't be a place for creativity, just that in many senses, it isn't actually.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 7:19
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    The comment about the different perceptions of creativity in academia sounds really patronising to me. Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 9:18
  • @DmitrySavostyanov: I was trying to go for dramatic flair. Edited the beginning of it - do you think that's better? If not - I wouldn't mind a prospective edit.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 9:21
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    @ooker You seem to think that the authors do the best work creating the thesis to make it "beautiful" that, especially for graduate students, is very rarely the case. One reason most universities require a standard form is that without it 90% of the thesis would be utterly awful.
    – DRF
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 9:25

Indeed, the most important thing in a thesis is the content. But not everybody who has to write a thesis is skilled in graphic design, formatting or typesetting and therefore, if given free rein, the final formatting might well be pretty awful.

Furthermore, uniformity in theses undoubtedly helps those marking them, by ensuring all the content is in the same place in every thesis (for example, there is a title page with all the student's information, an abstract, table of contents etc). This is particularly important for things like bachelor's theses where one person will probably be marking more than one submission.

Finally, what constitutes a beautiful design may well be interpreted as ugly by someone else, so by having uniform formatting, the chance of unconscious (or conscious) bias against the work due to its appearance is reduced.

In short: we shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

  • So in summary, because we don't want to judge the book by its cover, we remove it?
    – Ooker
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 5:36
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    @Ooker Makes sense, doesn't it? Remove any possible bias :)
    – Ant
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 8:28
  • @Ant but then the next page will be its cover. Likewise, a non designing design is a design itself. In that case, how about using a design that has a statistically significant of beauty?
    – Ooker
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 8:33
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    @Ooker Well don't get lost on metaphors :) The point is that if all thesis look the same (no matter how ugly or beautiful) no one will be judged on the basis of how their thesis look, since that is a fixed parameter. No one will think "look how sloppy he was with the thesis design" or "look how much work he put in it" if the thesis all look the same. So there is one less thing you need to worry about, and can concentrate on the actual content. You say academia is a place of creativity: it is, but in the content, not on the uninfluential cover :)
    – Ant
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 8:37
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    @Ooker: You can also typeset your thesis differently after it's been successfully defended and distribute beautiful copies to whoever it is that you like. In fact, in the humanities it is not uncommon to convert your Ph.D. thesis into a book (which is typeset differently of course), with some adaptation of the content.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 9:43

When part of your job is to be a reading a lot of some particular media (which could be books, journal articles, web sites, or theses), it really helps to have a fixed format that you can depend on. If I know where the summary, conclusions, methods, contacts, etc. are, it saves a lot of time that would otherwise be spent trying to decode the format for each individual paper. I can prioritize, determine what parts to focus on, where to start, what to skim, where to flip if I have questions midstream, etc. Trying to read an article in a wildly nonstandard format may take twice as long or longer.

  • But a lot of books with different style designs are also easy to read. What you say is the structure of books, which has been optimized by design rules, and I don't think someone will want to break it.
    – Ooker
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 6:00
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    This is, in my opinion, the "real" answer. Imagine the huge amount of working memory required to read just 5 papers with completely different layouts! It would be exhausting to read "the literature". The standardization of form is a great time - and working memory - saving device. Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 21:50
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    This explanation makes sense, however it doesn't justify why most university templates are so ugly and unreadable. For instance, in Italy most universities require a 1.5em line height which is extremely hard to read, ugly, and it drives anyone insane. They also ask for 2cm margins, which make for a extremely wide line-width (which, again, makes it harder to read the text). It looks like people writing those guidelines have never opened a book about typography or design. Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 13:28
  • But nobody reads theses anyway (it is known) so this seems to optimise for the entirely wrong use-case. Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 13:43

My university in Australia is strict about exactly one thing when it comes the thesis format and the reason for that one thing is well known.

The only thing they require are the margins to follow their rules. If the margins do not follow the rule, in particular the inner-margin being too small, then it may not be possible to have it bound at the facilities the university uses for printing.

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    I suspect that historically, the ability to image the document for microfilm was also a consideration. Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 5:59

I will quote from my answer in the linked question:

When I had to write my first thesis, the dean made a gathering and told everyone something like "please understand that the university standard is written so they could reject terribly formatted theses, take those guidelines with a grain of salt". He told us that the default LaTeX style will be better than the guidelines and we can surely ignore the Times New Roman requirement.

Our university has guidelines that I think is bad. They seem to be written with zero thought put into. Like the default settings from MS Word typed down as guidelines. I later went to another faculty to learn more stuff. On this faculty it was known that the rules are loved and everything is strict, every thesis has to adhere to every rule. I ignored the rules about margins, fonts, figures and other stuff that I found to be wrong. I just handed it in with the thought "if they reject it, I already have another MSc anyways". It went through without a single comment on formatting.

Your mileage may vary.

The secretary who receives the theses has limited time to check the formatting in all the theses. The examiner is asked to read the thesis because they are an expert in the field. I don't think they are burdened with even knowing the guidelines.

I've seen a handful of different commissions evaluating theses. There was only a two cases where the reviewer commented on the formatting.

The first case had the following formatting flaws outlined by the reviewer:

  • There was large amount of unnumbered pictures in the appendix.
  • There were empty tables in the appendix.
  • There were directions to "see the results in the appendix" but the appendix consists of 40 pages of tables and images without numbering and it was nearly impossible to understand what should be looked at in the appendix.
  • It had plenty of grammar errors.
  • References contained unopenable URLs and wrong page numbers in the books.

I don't have exact recording of the other case but I recall that the reviewer went something sarcasstic like

This work is really thick, it has more than a hundred pages. It includes whole three title pages, two of those thrown somewhere in the middle. It also contains two tables of contents, yet none of them is at the start where they should be.

I saw this work myself and it was atrocious. The chosen font had characters missing and those were replaced by a fallback font that made those characters visibly bigger and thinner. There were endless sequences of uncommented figures (tables, images, formulas) that had their purpose hidden from the reader. I'd probably throw it in the bin if it was given to me for a review. This is a work that should've been refused simply because of formatting...


We didn't have strict format requirements at my university... in fact, we didn't have any format requirements, so I ended up downloading a LaTeX template I personally liked from some famous place (Harvard/Stanford/Princeton/Something like that).

And then every f-k on the pre-screening committee suddenly had their very important opinion on some font sizing or line spacing.

enter image description here

And then some bureaucrats at the office started requiring this and that all of a sudden (yes, only then, even though I had tried getting the formatting requirements out of them before, to no avail). Change the first page according to this... completely replace the second page according to that... the table of content should be like whatever... etc. etc. "Why didn't you tell me there are such requirements if there are such requirements?? - Well, they are not requirements, just common sense and logic, of course you have to do this and that!"

Some changes (like font changes) were trivial to make, others not so much - in any case, had to abandon whatever I was doing and spend time hacking at the LaTeX template. Occasionally after the changes were made I had to print out several copies of that 100+ pages monstrosity of mine and distribute among the committee (yes, again, yes, for the n-th time, yes, for stylistic reasons only).

Does the above really look more appealing than having strict requirements in advance?

  • Have you told them about the origin of the template? What's their logic of those requirements?
    – Ooker
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 5:20
  • I don't really remember (it was a while ago), but I think I did tell something like "you didn't give me any template, so I used one from Stanford, they use it there for the similar field, so it was a reasonable choice", and they were like "yeah... yeah... change everything the way we just told you". What's their logic, I don't know. Bureaucrats live in their own special world of, well, bureaucracy. With the professors, I guess it was just a matter of personal taste.
    – Headcrab
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 6:23
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    I understand your frustration. However, Academia.SE is not a good place to vent it, and much as I feel your pain, you are not answering the question. -1. Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 11:09
  • @Stephan Kolassa No, I didn't mean to "vent my frustration", what I meant to say is that absence of strict format requirements may bring more problems than benefits. But okay, meaning is in the eye of the reader, it seems I failed to deliver that message.
    – Headcrab
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 0:58

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