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What is a thesis?

In tertiary education, a thesis is an academic paper which a student is required to write before he or she successfully completes the program. It often takes months [sometimes years] to finish a thesis.  The major objective of thesis writing is for the student to demonstrate their ability to conduct research and hence:

  • the capacity to identify pertinent educational/societal problems
  • critically analyze the literature
  • communicate the procedures for and results of the research
  • present a detailed methodology and accurate results
  • verify knowledge claims and sources meticulously
  • contribute to the existing stock of knowledge in the field

The terms thesis and dissertation are often used interchangeably but while they are similar in many ways, some differences exist between them. For instance, a thesis is usually associated with master’s degree level while dissertations are meant for doctorate level students. This is especially the case in the US and some other countries, unlike Europe where the distinction is less clear.

In a nutshell, a thesis must clearly indicate that the student knows the background and principal works in the research area and that he or she can independently create scholarly work. It should contain some original contribution whenever possible. Doctoral theses must contain a substantial contribution of new knowledge to the field of study. It aims to present the results and an analysis of original research which should be significant enough to be published.

The following tips will help students to organize their thesis. We discuss similar points in our article on how to conduct research.

Plan your thesis

Planning is a hugely important aspect of life hence the saying that he who fails to plan plans to fail. Writing a strong thesis can be time and energy-consuming. It can also be expensive. Therefore, to make the most of your time, energy, and resources, you need to take out some time to carefully plan every aspect of your thesis. Efficient planning will help you to avoid the unpleasant consequences of failing and repeating your thesis.

Formulate a research problem

Identifying a researchable problem or topic of concern is one of the most difficult challenge when trying to write a thesis. The problem you eventually identify has to be significant enough to deserve investigation. It must also be a problem that lends itself to scientific scrutiny as noted above. Though it may not always be easy, strive as hard as possible to identify a unique problem whose solution(s) is not already available. According to Chris Andrew and Peter Hildebrand, for a problem statement to be effective in the planning of applied research, it should have the following characteristics:

  • The problem reflects felt needs
  • The problem is non-hypothetical, i.e., it must be based on factual evidence
  • It should suggest meaningful and testable hypotheses – to avoid answers that are of little or no use to the alleviation of the problem
  • The problems should be relevant and manageable

Review literature

The literature review is an important part of a thesis because it adds substantial credibility to the study and provides context to the topic at hand. It helps to ascertain what has been done in the field so far so that you can determine what needs to be done. Reviewing literature can help the student to identify a knowledge gap that he or she will then try to fill. Moreover, literature reviews provide the researcher with relevant theories that help to generate greater insight into the topic of the thesis. It also helps the student to learn and define important terms and concepts relevant to the study.

Sources of literature include journals, textbooks, magazines, the internet, theses, and others. Make sure you avoid wasting your time by studying only materials that border on the problem. Apart from helping to identify gaps in knowledge, the literature review will also enable you to:

  • gather sufficient background information about the research problem
  • guard against unnecessary repetition of earlier research
  • construct apt research hypotheses and questions
  • have enhanced focus on your study as well as help you decide on the research whether the problem/topic is researchable or not
  • have a picture of the sort of problems you may face in the process and how to confront them.

Develop a hypothesis and/or research questions

Hypotheses [and research questions] are logical expressions of some aspects of the problem aimed at providing a direction about a probable solution. Formulating a hypothesis entails that the researcher assumes a relationship [or no relationship] between the problem’s key variables or concepts. The logical principles of inductive and deductive reasoning can be useful when formulating hypotheses. The hypothesis basically serves as a speculative answer to the problem. It can be in two forms – the null and alternative hypotheses.

Some have described the research questions as the research objectives converted to questions. Good research questions should be constructed to focus completely on the problem. Hence, answering them should be equal to addressing the problem.  

Construct a research methodology

The research methodology encompasses the research design which is a combination of the scientific techniques through which data for the research will be collected, measured, analyzed and subsequently interpreted. More specifically, the research method states the mechanisms for testing the hypothesis, selecting the data collection instrument, adopting a sampling technique, and deciding on data analysis techniques. It is a very important and technical aspect of every thesis and should, therefore, be constructed with utmost care.

State your data collection techniques

As noted above, your data collection technique is a consequence of your research design. Data collection is all about gathering numeric or non-numeric information/data about the variables you intend to measure or describe. Primary data can be collected through observation, interviews, questionnaires, documentary sources, etc. Secondary data can come from government and private sector databases and publications, journals, the internet, etc. Be sure to implement all necessary procedures that will ensure the validity and reliability of your data and data collection instrument.

How did you analyze and interpret the data?

Upon the successful collection of valid and reliable data, you have to deploy certain techniques to help you process, analyze and interpret the data. It is at this stage that the research questions are answered and the hypothesis resolved. It is also here that the research findings emerge. The findings are important because conclusions, generalizations, and recommendations are based on them. Computer software [such as SPSS] and calculators can help in measuring, analyzing, and interpreting data.

Discuss your findings

This is where the researcher explains or discusses the results or findings from the analysis of data. The discussion should mainly relate the findings to the hypothesis, that is, the nature of the relationship between the variables or concepts surrounding the research problem or topic and the extent to which the problem has been solved. Be sure to compare and contrast the findings of your study with those of other similar studies, especially those identified in the empirical review of literature. You should also discuss the theoretical and practical implications of your findings in the context of the research problem.

Summarize, conclude, and recommend

This is the last chapter of the thesis. The summary section briefly captures the key findings of the study. It is not always included in all theses. The conclusion is a short rehash of what the research is all about. It mostly dwells on the study’s key findings within the overall context of the study’s objectives and research problem. Based on the conclusion, the researcher then makes generalizations as well as some recommendations that can help improve the field of knowledge. 

After the recommendations, the researcher is expected to state what their study has contributed to knowledge as well as offer suggestions for future research.

Compile your bibliography and appendices

The bibliography or references section is an alphabetically arranged listing of all the cited sources in the body of the thesis while the appendix is a visual depiction of all materials that can help to further clarify information in the thesis, thus offering more insight. These include computer printouts of graphs, charts, tables, etc.  

Write a research report

In some cases, the student is mandated to write and present a research report indicating all the procedures he or she utilized in the thesis. The report should be logically organized, clearly written, and formatted according to formal rules.

Other resources

This post was produced as part of a research guide series by Avidnote which is a free web-based app that helps you to write and organize your academic writing online. Click here to find out more.

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