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Skeleton / Blank Thesis

This document was designed to act as a skeleton or blank thesis (for doctorate or masters), but it could even be used as the seed for a book, project report, paper or scientific article. The idea is that a lot of the thesis can be sketched out from day-1 of the project, even though the deadline for writing up might be months or years away. In this way, the writing-up process is spread over the entire duration of the project, rather than concentrated in a painful moment of intense panic at the end. More importantly, it allows the author to spot weaknesses in the text early on, and to remedy them (either by rewrites, or by extra practical experiments, as appropriate) while there is still time.

By making a copy of this document (using the "Save-as" function on the "File" menu), and editing it, this effectively becomes Version-1 of the first draft of your thesis. The document is presently written using HTML, but this can be read into most text processing systems (including Word) to convert it to a more traditional format. Then, you just start editing it: changing a title here, adding a totally new section over there, moving a block of paragraphs from one place to another.

Some of the advice that is given here should not be taken too literally. In any case, advice will differ across each of the other documents and books on "How to write". Ultimately, each author has to use his/her discretion and/or skill and judgement.

Here, then, is the proposed document:


Title of My Thesis

by My Name

At some later date, towards the end of the project, the abstract will be written, and it will go in here. It will be a summary in 100 to 500 words of what my thesis is all about. (In fact, the title, abstract, introduction, and overall thesis can be thought of as part of a spectrum of descriptions on the chosen subject, with descriptions taking: 1 to 10 words, 100 to 1000 words, 1000 to 10000 words, and 10000 to 100000 words, respectively).

Acknowledgements

The acknowledgements go in here (in the case of a thesis), or at the end (in the case of a paper). In the case of a book, they go in here, but joined on to the end of the abstract, with the whole section then called the "Preface".

The author is extremely grateful to the XXX program, and the local education authority for the funding that made this work possible (under grant number 1234567).

The author is indebted to the endless help and encouragement that was provided by the project supervisor, Dr. John Smith. His depth of knowledge, his skills at explaining his subject clearly, his sympathetic manner, his boundless energy, his constant availability, were all of immense value. Without him, this project would not have been possible.

The author would also like to thank half a dozen colleagues, A B C D E and F, who provided a service, or a source of knowledge, or whatever.

I would like to express my thanks to the people who read the numerous rough drafts of this thesis, and who provided valuable suggestions for improvement, and who pinpointed errors and omissions. I am also grateful to Dr. Malcolm Shute for providing the "Skeleton/Blank Thesis" that helped get the writing of this thesis started.

Table of Contents

To be filled in later (or else generated automatically at each new draft).

1. Introduction

The introduction will say much the same as the abstract, but in 10 (or so) pages. It cannot be written in full yet, but can be nibbled away over the weeks and months, especially once each of the sections and sub-sections have been started. Eventually, its title will be changed to something less tautological than "Introduction".

When writing a text book, it is advisable to state what the intended audience of the book is, and what that audience is supposed to get out of the book (what they are expected to do with the wisdom they have gained by having read it). In the case of a thesis, though, the main audience is the examination panel, and what they are supposed to do is to decide to award a degree. This is not to be writen explicitly in the text, of course, but it is certainly worth keeping in mind constantly during the writing. There is, though, also an extremely important secondary audience for the thesis: other experts in the field wishing to learn from the results of my research. So, these people are worth mentioning explicitly in the introduction. And, given that no-one is in exactly the same area as me, it is worth mentioning the principle background texts on the subject that would be required background reading for anyone needing to get up to speed before reading this thesis.

Lastly, (or firstly, if appropriate) summarise any conventions (such as naming conventions) that are used in the thesis.

1.1. Need for the Project

In this section, the initial problem is introduced (the one that this work is attempting to solve). A summary is made of what is wrong with current methods. A description is given of why my supervisor was so eager for me to do this project.

1.2. Project Specification

This section is easy to write. It can be copied straight from the project specification that my supervisor gave me at the start of the project. However, the project specification could well change as the project proceeds, and, in any case, it needs to be paraphrased in my own words (perhaps explaining each technical term in turn, in a separate subsection).

2. Literature Survey

An overview is given of the work of previous researchers in this and related subjects, and in unrelated subjects that turn out to be surprisingly pertinent. I explain the basic workings of other people's techniques for solving my problem. I explain the basic workings of techniques that people have used in other fields, which I (or my supervisor) think can be adapted to solve my problem.

I might find it appropriate to have a subsection for each technique that I studied; or I might find a completely different arrangement would be appropriate. For each technique that I summarise, I will list the advantages, the disadvantages, where in the literature I found it described, and any other relevant comments.

This is all part of the idea of the self-writing document. Chapter one was relatively easy to write, or at least to get started, since it is a paraphrase of the specification of my project, and the description that I trot out to all my friends and relations when I explain to them what it is that I am doing. (If I end up with more than one way of summarising my project, perhaps one could serve in the Introduction, another in the Abstract, etc..)

In the context of the self-writing report, this chapter is a bit more difficult, but still merely involves summarising other people's work. If all goes well, it might even suggest new ideas and experiments, through a process called data-mining (such as identifying themes and ideas that are common to two other people's work, that neither has noticed or exploited).

3. My Own Work

This chapter describes my own work. In a sense, it is more difficult still than the previous chapters, but in another it starts just by describing what I did. Eventually, it might turn out to be several chapters, one for each major chunk of work that I tackled.

Each chapter could start by taking the same basic form: Introduction, Body, Conclusions. It might be appropriate, to arrange each chapter a bit like a write-up from my school science-experiments (the Aims go in to the Introduction, the list of Apparatus and the Method go in to the Body, and the Results and Conclusions go in to the Conclusions). Probably none of this will stay exactly like this by the time of the final draft, but at least it gives a good way of getting started.

As with all writing, I must remember to keep asking myself who the audience is (in the case of an academic examination, this amounts to constantly asking myself what will earn me marks, and what will not). For a doctoral thesis, I need to make sure that I maximise the evidence that shows that I have thought of lots of new ideas (or one really good one) that have never been proposed or investigated before. For a final-year engineering project-report, I need to make sure that I maximise the evidence that I made lots of engineering decisions. It does not matter that some ideas/decisions turned out to be wrong, if I can justify my reasons for starting out on them, and can explain my reasons for later recognising them as being wrong. (In the case of the doctoral thesis, I just need to show that I have pushed back the frontiers of human knowledge in some way).

In the context of the self-writing report, the act of writing up my own work, and articulating my ideas for an external audience, allows the weaknesses in the arguments to be spotted early on, and to be remedied (either by rewrites, or by extra practical experiments, as appropriate) while there is still time.

4. Reflections and Suggestions for Future Work

In this chapter, I give a summary of what I achieved. I should also give the conscientious reader (the one who has read the thesis from cover to cover) a summary of what he/she ought to have gained by having read it.

(There is an old joke about Ph.D. examiners. Being busy people, they do not read the entire thesis. They just read the first chapter, to see what the student set out to achieve, the last chapter, to see whether the student ended up achieving it, and the References section, to see whether their own name has been cited.)

4.1. Reflections

It might be appropriate for me to give a few reflections. I could comment on what I got out of the project. Did I enjoy it? Did I gain anything from doing it? In hindsight, do I regret anything that I did, or did not do, in the project? Would I set about it differently now, if I were starting again?

4.2. Suggestions for Future Work

What sort of things, if any, have I not had time to do that must be done before the findings of my project can be put to use?

What sorts of things could be done by the next student, who wishes to take my work further?

References

I need to keep this list up to date at all times (starting from Day-1 of the project), adding to it as I read each article, each paper, each book-chapter, each journal, each complete book, noting down the bibliographic details, and a single-sentence summary of what I learned from each, before I forget.

There are many bibliographic styles and annotations that people have used in the past. I need to find the one that best suits my needs – but probably an alphabetically sorted annotation (Shute 1983), rather than a lexigraphical one42, is less troublesome to maintain.

Appendices

I will only include this if it is really necessary. (If I can avoid it, I will not include one). It is only for material that I do not want to lose, but which does not belong in the thesis itself (such as lengthy program listings and circuit diagrams).

Check List

This chapter will be deleted from the thesis on the day before printing the final copy. In it, I maintain an up-to-date list of things that I want to do. These fall into two main categories: things to be done soon, and things to be done at the end.

Things to be Done Soon

This list will change frequently. It is a list of the things that I want to do before the next draft (or within a few draft's time). Indeed, at least one of the items on the list should be a reminder of what needs to be changed in the document before it is worthwhile printing off another draft.

  • Check something or other in the library
  • Perform the something-or-other experiment, and write up the results

Things to be Done at the End

For each item that occurs in the list of things to be done at the end, the implication is that it is not serious if infringements occur in the early drafts. It is more important to get thoughts on to paper quickly, before they are forgotten, than it is to put them into publishable quality from the outset. Thus, spelling errors, ungrammatical jottings, plagiarism, etc. are all tolerable, provided that they are cleared up before the final version (though it would be better to get into the habit of putting plagiarised sections in speech marks to remind me where they are, thus at the same time turning them into quotations, thereby solving the problem straight away, anyway).

  • Make sure that every illustration has a label, and is referenced in the text at least once.
  • Make sure that no block of text is longer than a page. (If it cannot be avoided, it ought to be broken up either with subsection titles, or by the insertion of an illustration or table).
  • Make sure that every chapter, every section, every subsection, every sub-subsection has a three-part form (Introduction, Body, Conclusion).
    • Tell the reader what I am going to say
    • Say it
    • Tell him what I have said
  • Make sure the reader is given markers and "signposts" just before (or just after) each title, subtitle, sub-subtitle. (These are phrases like, "In the next section, it is shown that...; and later sections show that..." or "So far, ... has been discussed; now we turn to...".
  • Make sure that no chapters, sections, subsections, etc. are called "Introduction" or "Conclusions" by the time the thesis is ready to print. Such titles are all right in the early drafts, but should be replaced by something more descriptive by the time I know what I have written in them.
  • Check that no plagiarism remains. Either it has to be rephrased in my own words, or placed in quotation marks and referenced in the References section.
  • Check that everything in the References section is referenced at least once in the text.
  • Check that every reference in the text occurs in the References section.
  • Run the spelling checker over the document.
  • Check the correctness of the grammar of the document, and also the consistency of the grammatical style (mainly third-person singular, in the past tense).
  • Check the university regulations about the format of the page, the margins, the type fonts, the page numbering, the diagram labelling, etc.
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