masterdegree

Writing a Master Degree Thesis

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Your First Scientific Paper Ought to be good!

Structure and Contents of a Master Degree Thesis

This guide was written some years ago as a guideline for students at the Physics Master level at the University of Oslo. I had at that time been the final censor for about 30 student, and I was getting very frustrated of struggling with the thesis trying to find the main points in it. Somebody have already observed that it is Scandinavian-centric – of course it is!

A Master Degree Thesis is a Project

Before starting a Master Degree Thesis, you need to consider several things. The most important being:

  • A Master Degree is very similar to a research project. What you learn when writing your thesis you will find useful when you join a research project and have to write project reports.
  • You are the one that states the premises for the thesis. You are the one that solves all problems related to the thesis. At the outset, nobody else knows what you expected to do.
  • You are judged by your thesis, not by the amount of work you may have done during your Master Degree. You cannot expect the censor to judge you from what your supervisor tells him about your efforts.

This means that you have to do a great deal of effort in structuring the thesis if your goal is to get a good result. This is not wasted effort; the writing process can be an important aid to help you realise what you should do and in what sequence the individual parts should be done.

A thesis should have a rigorous structure

A thesis is in a way the complete documentation of a project. This means that a certain amount of information has to be included and preferably in a certain sequence. If you feel that such a structure is a hindering you in designing your thesis in the way you want to present it, it is up to you to use a different structure. Just try to include all the necessary information and make it easy to find.

Chapter 1: What I want to do and why

This chapter is the most important chapter in the thesis, and in my experience the chapter students spend the least amount of time writing. The purpose of this chapter is to

  • Polish the problem statement and present it to the reader
  • Create a believable reason for this problem to be the subject for a master thesis

This chapter is not supposed to be long and boring – 2 pages may be enough, 4 pages is probably too much – but it normally needs to be rewritten about 5 times before it is good enough. What you really do in this chapter is to create a requirement specification for your own master degree project. This also helps clarify to yourself what you really want to do. If your arguments are clear enough, it also tells the censor what you were trying to do.

Remember:

  • Do not mix problem statement and solution proposals
  • Create verifiable requirements. That way it is possible to see whether you have solved the problem or not.
  • Other may have worked with similar problems – have you checked available publications?

This is what is known as the “selling phase” of the thesis. Spend some efforts in presenting convincing arguments as to the importance of taking a close look at the problem you intend to work on.

Pitfalls

  • Treating a proposal for a solution as if it were a problem statement (this is a very common mistake).
  • Thinking that the problem proposed by your supervisor is known to everybody including the censor (also a very common mistake).
  • Starting out with a proposal for a solution and trying to derive a fitting problem statement.

Chapter 2: How I intend to attack the problem

This chapter is a transitional chapter, where you are supposed to present a solution to the problem statement in chapter 1. It is solution time! But do not be satisfied with just one – with some brainstorming and a bit of fantasy I am sure that you can come up with at least five. Some of the solutions may look promising, some may look hopeless – analyze! Can you combine two or more solutions?

Remember:

  • Other may have worked with similar problems – have you checked available publications?

Pitfalls

  • Presenting only one solution

Chapter 3: Technical details pertaining to the chosen solution

This chapter is always easy to find, it is present in every thesis. The important task is to set limits and only include what is necessary in order to follow the progress of the project. Thus a brutal editing process is usually necessary. Do you think it is too hard to cut interesting stuff? Put it in an appendix!

Remember:

  • What is interesting to you may very well be peripheral (and even boring) to others.
  • Known technology does not belong in this chapter. Use references or write a short summary (which should be put in an appendix and referred to).

Pitfalls

  • Leaving out reasoning or references because “they are obvious”. The thesis is not written for you, but for others that do not have your background.

Chapter 4: What was the result of the project?

This chapter is a concentrate of what you have discovered during the project. This is where you write down what experiences you have gained that can be of use for others, interesting side tracks that you did not have time to explore, in short: Everything that can be useful for others to know. Try to structure the information in a way that makes it possible to navigate.

Remember:

  • A part of this chapter should be reserved for evaluation. Have you realized your own requirements from chapter 1? If not, what do you think is the reason?

Pitfalls

  • Copying the lab journal into this chapter (you have created a lab journal, I hope). The lab journal is written for you by you, this chapter is written for others by

Chapter 5: The conclusion

Now it is time to take a breath and think about what you are doing. The conclusion should not be an extract of the lab journal, but a message to the reader. Imagine that a busy reader is supposed to find the essence of your thesis in 5 minutes. What is he going to read?

  • The problem statement (chapter 1)
  • The conclusion (this chapter)

This means that you have to extract the essence of what you want to say in this chapter. How well would you say the project went? Was the requirement specification realized? Are there any promising possibilities for further work? Include it, while doing the best you can in order to “sell” the results to the reader. This is your Grand Finale, your result depends a lot on how you are able to collect loose threads and finish in style.

Remember:

  • To compare your results with the requirement specification. If you do not, the censor will. You can explain deviations better that he can (or will).

Pitfalls

  • Making too long a conclusion. Do it in one page (or less).

Written last and inserted first: The concentrate

Having produced an acceptable conclusion, there is only one small detail left. The essence of the complete thesis must be shrunk down to about half a page. This means that you have to squeeze in the requirement specification and the conclusion in an even smaller space than you did before – and (very important) it must tempt the reader into reading the rest of the thesis!

When you have finally squeezed in everything you want to say in half a page, put this page in front of the rest. This means: After the cover, but before the table of contents. This is your big “sell”, so make it look good!

Details you must remember

  • Table of contents
  • List of figures

Put some efforts in the language

  • Do not use overlong sentences. A full stop gives the reader room to breathe.
  • Remove empty sentences and ditto expressions.
  • Do not write too impersonally. It will only put the reader to sleep

Create correct reference lists

Creating an acceptable reference list is an important part of every report, and therefore also an important part of your thesis. You have several possibilities for placing references:

  • As part of the text
  • At the bottom of the page (as a foot note)
  • At the end of the thesis (as a reference list)

A reference list at the end of the thesis is probably less disturbing than references on each page.

A reference shall contain:

The surname of the author, the given name (or initials), the title, the ISBN (if possible), the edition, the place of publication, the publisher and the publishing date.

ISO has two recommendations, R 77[i] and R 690[ii] that specifies what a reference list should contain.

An example of a reference list

[i].          International Organization for Standardization. Bibliographical References; essential elements. Geneve 1958. (ISO recommendation R 77)

[ii].        International Organization for Standardization. Bibliographical References; essential and supplementary elements. Geneve 1968. (ISO recommendation R 690)

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