Getting started on writing your thesis

Looking at a blank page and imagining your completed thesis can be daunting. However, you are unlikely to write in order from beginning to end as hopefully you have been writing as you go and have some material written already to form a starting point.

In some countries, a thesis is expected to consist of a series of published journal articles, linked together by an overall introduction, so you will need to have published sufficient journal articles to be able to write your thesis.

Start by reviewing other theses in your research area, including theses by previous researchers and theses in your institution's library and online repositories. Analyse these to gain an overview of the style, format and structure used in your discipline.

Typically, you may already have some of the following material to start with, including:

  • published or submitted journal articles, including reviewers’ comments
  • annual reports
  • early chapter drafts
  • posters and conference presentations
  • notes on articles that you have read
  • summaries of data collection and analysis
  • research diaries or records of your progress.

Once you have reviewed this material, develop a structure and a draft outline of the thesis. Then check your plan with your main supervisor.

Now you are ready to start writing. You don't need to write in order. Start with work that has been published or with a set of results that is straightforward and can be easily explained. Get as much down as possible without worrying too much about the detail and tackle any problems when you review the first draft.

Analysing a thesis

Your examiners will be expecting your work to ‘fit in' with work that has already been produced in your field. Gaining an insight into the format and style used in successful theses in the field is thus a very critical exercise. Look at some recently published doctorates in your discipline and ask yourself the following questions.

1. How long is it? (number of pages)

2. What is the title? Is it narrower or broader than yours?

3. Use the abstract to gain an overview of the research:

  • What data is it based on?
  • How has it been collected/analysed?
  • What conclusions have been drawn?
  • How does the research link into practice?
  • How is it structured?

4. What does the table of contents tell you?

  • How many chapters?
  • How long is each chapter?
  • How have key sections like the introduction, literature review, methodology and conclusion been dealt with?

5. Are any tables or figures used?

  • What types?
  • How many?
  • For what reason?
  • How much information is contained in the captions?
  • How have they been referenced and numbered?

6. How have the references and bibliography been presented?

  • What referencing style has been used?
  • How long is the bibliography?
  • What format is the bibliography in?

7. Are any appendices included?

  • If so, what are they for?