Subtitles in the Second Language Classroom. An …

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Sections of a thesis

Note that the following provides general guidelines and suggestions only, as there is considerable variation in the ways theses are organised. Some of the suggestions may need to be adapted to meet the needs of your particular thesis.

The Abstract

The abstract is a short version of the entire thesis which should answer the following five questions (not necessarily in this order or separately):

  • What was done?
  • Why was it done?
  • How was it done?
  • What were the key findings or results?
  • What is the significance or implications of the results?
    This differs from the rationale – that there is a problem which needs to be solved for example – by discussing why your solution, for example, is one that others should pay attention to (is it more energy efficient, more effective, less expensive, etc than other solutions?).

Example abstract

Abstract_example.gif

The most common mistake with abstracts is to write them as though they are just another form of introduction, or perhaps as “advanced advertising” where the writer doesn’t want to give too much away.

e.g. “To address the question of …, such and such data was collected and analysed using the such and such methodological framework. Implications for practice are discussed.”

But think about why you read abstracts and what you hope to get out of them, and ask if you’re happy just getting “promotional material” or whether you’d rather get the whole story, including key results, in a nutshell.

Note also that abstracts play a critical role in determining whether someone reads on, and so deserve to be well written. In fact, some journals try to “force” authors to write them well by requiring that they put responses against a series of prompts, typically something like:

  • Background/motivation:
  • Aims/Problem statement:
  • Methods/Approach:
  • Results:
  • Conclusions/Significance:

It has to be acknowledged, though, that the word limit that some journals put on abstracts means that it is not possible to answer all five of the above questions in your abstract, but in such cases key findings should not be something that gets sacrificed.

Finally, as a summary of the entire thesis, the abstract is the often the last thing to get finalised, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the last thing to get written. If you’re drowning in data or literature and feel you’re not sure where you’re going anymore, writing a “working abstract” might help you to get a “big-picture” view of what you’re trying to do and, therefore, help you to get focussed again.

The Introduction and Literature Review

All theses require introductions and literature reviews, but the structure and location of these vary considerably. Options that are used include:

  • A brief introductory chapter with a lengthy separate literature review chapter.
  • A lengthy introductory chapter which includes a brief “Introduction” section followed by literature review sections.
  • A lengthy introduction which includes a literature review.
  • A brief introductory chapter with detailed literature reviews relevant to the topic of each chapter provided separately in each chapter (this is typical when each chapter is basically or literally a paper for publication).
  • More than one literature review chapter. For example, one chapter might review what’s known in an area and identify gaps or problems to address, while another might review the methodological approaches taken to investigating questions in this area and identify the strengths and weaknesses of each of these, thus providing a justification for the approach taken in this thesis (this may also occur in the first sections of a Methodology chapter).

Regardless of the approach taken, the Introduction to a thesis answers the three questions:

What was done?

May be stated in terms of both general aims (e.g. that you intend to contribute to the understanding of some phenomenon), and in terms of specific objectives (e.g. what aspects in particular of the phenomenon will you be investigating?).

Why was it done?

If the introduction is brief, then provide only the broad motivation (e.g. Why is there interest in this area? Why is it important? Why is this an interesting topic?), with more detailed motivation for precise goals coming out of a literature review (Why look at the particular aspects you do? Why pursue the specific line of investigation you do?).

One way of thinking about a brief introduction, is to think about providing the level of motivation or justification that would satisfy a well-educated friend of yours curious about what you are doing and why, with the literature review providing the level of motivation and justification that would satisfy an expert in the field.

Longer introductions might occur when a significant amount of background material needs to be reviewed in order for the reader to appreciate the context and significance of your research question. But if this is the case, then it is important to make it clear to the reader what the point of a long review is! (e.g. “In order to appreciate the significance of …, it is first important to consider …”).

How do the pieces of the thesis fit together? (This is the “outline” or “overview”.)

Provides the rationale for proceeding in the way you did and perhaps for why you have organised things the way you have (e.g. explaining why the literature review is scattered throughout the “papers for publication” chapters rather than being in a separate chapter as is common. The Introduction in Lewis Wolpert’s book, The Unnatural Nature of Science (Biol Sc and Ipswich: Q175 .W737), gives a good example of what a useful outline looks like.)

These three questions can be used to broadly analyse the structure of other people’s writing so that you can get an overview of what they have done and how they have organised things. Another way of analysing your writing and the writing of others is to consider which of the following three “moves” are being made in each paragraph or section of a paragraph (see Paltridge and Starfield, 2007, Ch. 6 for more):

  • “Establishing a research territory” (i.e. that you’re interested in the development of commerce in mediaeval Europe as opposed to the life cycle of flat worms for example). This involves showing or explaining why the area is of interest or important.
  • “Establishing a niche”
    By identifying gaps, problems or deficiencies in previous literature.
  • “Occupying the niche”
    By stating your particular aims or goals. Some writers also state their main findings at this point (sort of like stating your thesis in the opening paragraph of an essay).

A common structure is to start with the broadest possible motivation and then gradually narrow the scope until the particular focus of the thesis or article is reached (e.g. Example 4). However, some writers prefer to start with a statement of the aim of the research, then proceed to give the arguments for pursuing that aim. (Because of these reasons or observations, I’m going to do this, as opposed to: I am going to do this because of these reasons.)

In many instances, researchers don’t know exactly where they will end up until they get there, so introductions and abstracts are often the last sections of a paper or thesis which are written. However, writing “working” abstracts and introductions as you go along can be useful to force you to think about the overview of, and motivation for, what you are doing. And while they will have to be revised and fine-tuned, having a general sense of where you are going and why is very useful when making the journey.

Common problems 

Providing unnecessary or uncontextualised background

Background is necessary to orientate the reader to what you are doing, but it is possible to give too much detail so that the reader starts to wonder why they need to know all of what they are being told.

Not explaining things enough

To simply say that your research will look at ways to deal with power grid instabilities indicates to the reader that you’re working on solving a problem, but not why that problem is significant enough to work on. To indicate the significance of the problem, it would be necessary to briefly explain:

What are power grid instabilities?

What causes them?

How often do they occur?

What are the economic consequences of power grid instabilities? (Some indicative statistics would be enough to make your point, you wouldn’t need masses of statistics.)

Working out what should go in the Introduction and what in the Literature Review

It might help here to think of your Introduction as being what you would tell an educated friend who wanted to know what your research is all about and why you are doing it, while the Literature Review is for other researchers in the field. It needs to be noted, however, that in some disciplines or areas the Introduction includes the Literature Review, and so can be quite lengthy.

Writing an outline that reads like the table of contents in paragraph form

(See Example 6 and Dr Leslie Sage’s comments on this at the end of her article.

See the literature review section for more detailed information.

Methods

The methods section should explain:

  • How you went about collecting and analysing your data
    Only in enough detail that another expert in the field could repeat what you have done. For example, since the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) is a standard technique for determining the frequency spectrum of digital signals, in an electrical engineering thesis it would be enough to simply say, “The spectrum of the signal output from … was analysed using an FFT and the results are shown in Figure 1.” That is, in this case there would be no need to explain in detail what a FFT is and how it calculates spectra.
  • why you collected the data that you did (e.g. why bother collecting demographic data in a questionnaire?)
    This is done by explaining how certain types of data will help you to answer your research questions. (The thesis assessors want to be assured that you didn’t simply collect as much data as you possibly could that might have been useful and then hoped for the best. Doing this also maintains a “connected story” for your thesis).
  • why you thought the approach you chose was the best of all the approaches that were available to you (e.g. why conduct semi-structured interviews rather than surveys? Why use Inventory X rather than Inventory Y?)

Indicative Examples

  • In order to account for any learning or fatigue effects amongst participants, a counter-balanced design was used.
  • Semi-structured interviews rather than surveys were used to … because it was believed that participants might have important unique as well as common experiences regarding … which wouldn’t be picked up in a standardised survey.
  • In order to determine the effectiveness of speed cameras in reducing the road toll in …, a longitudinal rather than a before-and-after design was used to take into account the significant fluctuations in an area’s annual road toll, making it difficult to determine whether a single variation is due to an intervention or just a random fluctuation.

One possible structure is an introductory section that provides a justification and explanation of the methodological approach(es) chosen, followed by relevant elements of the classical sub-sections:

  • Design
  • Participants
  • Materials
  • Procedure

However, there is a lot of disciplinary variation in the way these things are done, so use the ideas from here to analyse what you see in your discipline.

Common problems include (see Paltridge and Starfield (2002), Ch. 8 for more):

  • Insufficient justification of the proposed approach as being the best way to achieve the research objectives.
  • Insufficient appreciation of the limitations of particular methods for achieving the desired research objectives.
  • Inadequate statistical treatments.

Results

If you present your results separately from your discussion, then the Results section for quantitative research is where you:

  • Specify what the data were and how they were prepared for analysis.
  • Present a summary and descriptive statistics in a suitable graphical or tabular form.
  • Provide a verbal summary of the most important features of the above.
  • Describe the data analysis (e.g., what sort of statistical test was applied to the data) and the outcome of the analysis.

DON’T

  • Interpret or offer any explanations for the results although you can say whether the data support or contradict any of your hypotheses.
  • Include calculations.

For guidance on how to effectively incorporate quantitative data in the forms of tables and figures in your writing, see this Info Sheet (PDF, 38 KB).

Discussion

Typically in a Discussion section, one would:

  • Summarise, appraise, interpret and explain the results, relating them to your aims!
  • Consider the significance or implications of the results.
  • Compare, contrast and integrate your results with the findings of other studies.
  • Point out and offer solutions for any methodological weaknesses or limitations.
    • This is to help both you and your readers decide on the strength of your findings and to determine where any gaps or deficiencies might lie.
    • It also indicates to thesis assessors a capacity to learn from experience.
  • Make suggestions for future research (these often come out of identified methodological weaknesses, but it could be that your research has revealed yet more complexity and unanswered questions that need investigating).
  • End with a concluding paragraph summarising the main findings and the lessons to be drawn from the study. 

Postgraduate research

  • Conceptualising a research degree
  • General writing tips
  • Confirmation document
  • Literature review
  • Thesis
  • Journal article
  • Getting finished
  • Research policies

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