So You’re Writing a Thesis (or Dissertation)…

Writing a thesis or dissertation is a massive undertaking. Obviously, a single page can’t tell you everything you need to know about the process. With that said, this page collects some of the most useful materials I have on the topic.

Some caveats:

  • Below, I will often use the word “thesis” for simplicity. But almost all of my advice will apply equally to both theses and dissertations. If there’s some specific advice that applies to one or the other only, I’ll point that fact out. Otherwise, assume that I’m talking about both theses and dissertations.
  • This page focuses on the CSULB experience, so if you’re not a CSULB student, some of what I say will be less useful to you.
  • I try to offer advice that will be relevant to all disciplines. But, while I have helped students complete theses in a wide range of disciplines (including engineering, physics, biology, philosophy, fine arts, English literature, speech-language pathology, geography, education, and psychology), most of the students I’ve worked with have been in the social sciences and humanities. So, some of my advice might be slightly skewed in favor of those areas.
  • Anything I say should be taken less seriously than whatever your thesis advisor (i.e., chair) says. In other words, if my advice conflicts with that of your advisor, I recommend listening to your advisor. They’re grading you and hopefully writing you recommendation letters in the future. I’m not.

The Most Important Things: Key Items for People in a Hurry

Below are some resources that should be helpful to any CSULB grad student writing a thesis. They are categorized into two groups: (1) Thesis Formatting (2) Thesis Writing.

Thesis Formatting

The two most important documents for constructing a thesis that meets CSULB guidelines are: (1) The Format Manual, and (2) The Mini Manuscript. If you’re working on a thesis for CSULB, and you don’t know where to begin, I suggest starting with those two links above (both of which are posted on The Thesis & Dissertation Office page). In fact, that page has nearly everything you need to structure and format your thesis in a way that satisfies university requirements, including:

And this one is not from the Thesis Office, but it’s still useful: The Microsoft tutorial on formatting Tables of Contents in Word. You can download it below:

You also might find the following pages on this site useful:

APA format & citations

Other citation styles

Also keep in mind that you can schedule a pre-submission consultation with the Thesis & Dissertation Office if you have questions or concerns.

Finally, scroll down to the final section of this page–Submitting to the Thesis & Dissertation Office: A “Rough and Tumble” Guide–for more info on formatting your thesis and submitting it to the Thesis & Dissertation Office.

Thesis Writing: An FAQ

The questions and answers below address the writing topics that students most frequently ask me about when they’re writing a thesis:

How do I write a good introduction and/or problem statement? My page on Introductions & Problem Statements covers this topic in detail.

How do I make clear, convincing arguments? See my page on Arguments. See also the “Writing to Your Audience” section of my 3 Things All Students Should Know About page, along with the first part of the video on that page (which focuses on writing to your audience). Finally, see the section called “Writing to Your Audience: Professional and Research writing (e.g. thesis, dissertation, journal article)” on my Writing to Your Audience page.

How do I write a literature view? My Literature Reviews page covers this topic in detail.

How do I synthesize and/or integrate the literature in my literature review? See the section called “Synthesizing and Integrating Sources” on my Literature Reviews page.

How do I properly summarize or paraphrase sources? See the section called “Summarizing and Paraphrasing Sources” on my Literature Reviews page. See also my Avoiding Plagiarism page.

How do I write a thesis proposal? See this excellent handout from the University of Melbourne (posted on the Thesis Whisperer site):

See also this informative handout from the Learning Center at the University of Sydney:

See also this excellent handout from the Penn State Graduate Writing Center: Writing Conference, Thesis, and Dissertation Proposals.

Finally, see the links to various thesis proposal examples on the Burnett Honors College page at the University of Central Florida. These are undergraduate examples (seniors honors theses proposals), but they still give the overall “flavor” of what a thesis proposal looks like.

How do I write an abstract? See this excellent handout (excerpted from Academic Writing for Graduate Students 3rd. ed., by Swales & Feak):

Note that in the Swales and Feak handout above, the term “RP” stands for “research paper,” a term that covers documents like theses and journal articles. See also this sample thesis abstract by Judy Diep:

How do I come up with a good thesis topic? There’s no single answer to this question, but you can find some helpful suggestions in the sections called “Coming Up with Questions and Problems” and “Putting it All Together” on my Introductions & Problem Statements page. The answer to the next question below might also be helpful.

How do I write good research questions? See the sections called “Coming Up with Questions and Problems” and “Putting it All Together” on my Intros & Problem Statements page. See also the section called “”Developing a Research Question” on my Lit Reviews page along with 5:33 to about 10:47 of my Lit Review workshop video.

How do I “sound smart” in my thesis? First, read the section called “How can I improve my vocabulary so that I ‘sound smart’?” on this page (that page is focused on admissions essays, but the section about sounding smart is relevant to all academic writing). Second, see my page on Style & Clarity and my Writing to Your Audience page.

How do I write clearly and concisely? See the answer to the previous question.

How do I get proof-reading or editing help for my thesis? Proof-reading is demanding and time-consuming work, and generally can’t be secured for free, unless your thesis advisor is willing to proof-read your entire thesis (they usually won’t be) or unless you have a very kind friend with excellent knowledge of academic writing who is willing to do it for you. If you’re a CSULB graduate student, you can meet with me to improve your writing skills, and some of our session might involve proof-reading of parts of your thesis. But I don’t usually have the time or willingness to proof-read your entire document. One option is to hire someone from a site like Upwork or Fiverr. Another option is to hire someone from the following lists of editors/typists:

Disclaimer: I am not able to personally vouch for the editors/typists on that list. As with any purchasing decision, make sure to exercise critical thinking and caution when hiring an editor/typist.

Finally, if you are planning to hire an editor, I strongly recommend reading Wendy Belcher’s sage advice on How to Hire & Work With an Academic Copyeditor.

How do I improve my grammar/usage? Grammar and usage skills take time to develop, and there’s no single magic bullet. However, I have useful links and resources on my Grammar & Usage page. See also the section called “Grammar, usage, & style” on my Writing Help page.

What parts or sections should my thesis have? How do I outline a thesis? Scroll down to the section called “The Parts of a Thesis” further down on this page.

How do I develop a writing schedule? How do I get writing done? How do I overcome “writer’s block”? The answers to all these questions are addressed on my Overcoming Writing Anxiety page. The section on the “Old (non-CBT) version of the presentation” focuses more on things like scheduling writing time. The new CBT-based presentation focuses more on overcoming negative thoughts and feelings associated with writing. I also strongly recommend the section of that page called “Another Helpful Resource: Succeeding at the Beach.” Wendy Belcher, PhD, also has some great tips here: Solutions to common academic writing obstacles. Finally, I address some of these issues on my 3 Things All Students Should Know About page.

How do I prepare for a thesis defense? This presentation by Dr. Valerie Balester of Texas A&M University entitled “The Perfect Defense: The Oral Defense of a Dissertation” offers some very helpful advice. You can also search on YouTube for recorded examples of thesis defenses, but of course make sure to check with your department and advisor(s) regarding the specific expectations of your department. If you’re struggling with anxiety and other negative thoughts, see the CBT-related materials on my Overcoming Writing Anxiety page and these pages from Succeeding at the Beach: Maintaining Mental Health and Dealing with Imposter Syndrome.

Should I Write a Thesis?

In some departments, you simply HAVE TO write a thesis to graduate. In other departments, you may have a choice between a thesis and a comprehensive exam (or other culminating activity). Students who have a choice will often ask me which one they should do. The short answer is, I can’t tell you–only you, in consultation with your advisors, mentors, and so on, can decide whether a thesis is right for you. For a longer answer, I’ve put together the following two lists: (1) Good reasons to do a thesis, and (2) Bad reasons to do a thesis.

Good reasons to do a thesis:

  • Your department requires you to (see my point above about students in some disciplines not having a choice).
  • You want to. It’s a passion project for you. That’s as good a reason as any (as long as you also think about the other issues included in this list).
  • (Related to the previous) Writing a thesis fits with your strengths. You love intense academic work. You love reading and writing. You love conducting research in your discipline. You want to work on the same topic or problem for months or even a couple years on end.
  • You want to do research in the future, and the thesis will help you learn about research, give you practice, and/or jumpstart your research career.
  • You’re in a master’s program, you’re planning to do a PhD later, and your advisors, mentors, and so on have told you that a thesis is a good idea (because it will help you get into a PhD program or it will prepare you for future research).
  • The project or problem that you want to tackle in your thesis will help you with your career (e.g., you’re doing an applied research project related to the field that you currently work in or want to work in).

If any of the above applies to you, then a thesis might be a good idea. Now, for the bad reasons.

Bad reasons to do a thesis:

  • You think it’ll be easier than a comprehensive exam. Reality check: It won’t. The thesis is always harder. First, it’s longer. For almost everyone, writing a thesis takes AT MINIMUM 2 semesters to complete. It often takes longer. I’ve known students whose thesis took them 4 years or more to complete (that’s AFTER finishing their coursework). Second, writing a thesis requires you to be much more independent than homework, class work, or even an undergrad honors thesis. In grad school in general, you’re expected to be able to work independently, and that expectation is especially true of the thesis-writing process. Some advisors are more helpful than others, but almost none of them are willing to spoon-feed you or hold your hand through the entire process. Bottom line: you’ll be on your own for most of the work. Third, the standards for a thesis are much higher than for a comp exam or class paper (see the quote from the CSULB catalog in the next bullet point below). You’ll be expected to create a product that is publishable and adds something new (however narrow, unremarkable, or minor) to the academic discussion on your topic. All things being equal, a comprehensive exam is much easier than that. If you’re not passionate about your thesis topic, and you’re not motivated by at least 2 of the good reasons in the previous list, I would recommend taking the comp exam if that option is available.
  • You think it’s just like writing a long research paper. It’s not. Here’s what the CSULB catalog says about completing a thesis: “A thesis is a written product of the systematic study of a significant problem. It clearly identifies the problem, states the major assumptions, explains the significance of the undertaking, sets forth the sources for and methods of gathering information, analyzes the data, and offers a conclusion or recommendation. The finished product evidences originality, critical and independent thinking, appropriate organization and format, and thorough documentation. Normally, an oral defense of the thesis will be required.” Most papers you write for class have significantly lower standards than that.
  • You don’t really want to do a thesis, but you’re a bad test taker so you figure that the thesis will be a better option than a comprehensive exam. Keep in mind what I said about comprehensive exams having lower standards. First, comp exams are not one-and-done. To my knowledge, every department on campus has a policy for re-taking the comps if you fail the first time. Second, the comps don’t require you to conduct original research. Rather, they test your ability to think critically about your subject, demonstrate graduate-level knowledge of your subject, and synthesize information about your subject in a clear, convincing, organized manner. Obviously, comps are difficult, and you should take seriously the process of preparing for them. But, all things being equal, they are less time-consuming, less rigorous, and less demanding than a thesis. Furthermore, whatever weaknesses you have with test-taking (e.g., writing on the spot, working well under pressure) will also make it hard to complete a thesis. Consider that, for most students, the thesis-writing process will require completing sections of the thesis on a schedule. For example, your advisor will likely have deadlines for completing key benchmarks like your literature review, IRB application (if appropriate), introduction and problem statement, and so on–so it’s not as if writing a thesis is a leisurely, stress-free process anyway (see the next bullet point for more).
  • You’re not confident in your writing abilities, but you think a thesis will be good because you’ll have plenty of time to revise it. Consider some of the things I mentioned already: (1) Thesis writing in most cases will require a pretty demanding schedule. Just because it isn’t completed in one weekend or one several-hour-long session like a comp exam does not mean that you’ll have plenty of time for your thesis. I should know–as the “Writing Guy,” I work all the time with students who are working on their thesis and feeling stressed-out, over-worked, and worried about meeting deadlines. So don’t count on having endless time for revisions. (2) You’ll be expected to do much of the work with minimal supervision–you’ll have to be self-directed and motivated, and you’ll have to force yourself to produce even when you don’t feel inspired (see the next section about Squashing Negative Thoughts). Of course, writing is hard, and everyone struggles with it sometimes. But if you know that writing is especially difficult for you to do well, then a thesis might not be a good idea. (3) For the thesis, you’ll be held to much higher standards than for other work. I’ve seen this myself many times: students who’ve earned As on every class paper are startled to realize that their usual level of writing quality isn’t considered acceptable for the thesis. So, the claim above gets it backwards. If writing is a painful struggle for you, then you should choose the much-more-manageable comp exam over the more demanding thesis option.
  • You think you should do a thesis because “that’s what smart people do” or because it’ll confer status on you in some way. This one is just completely wrong-headed. Make your educational decisions based on your strengths, desires, and goals–not on what (you imagine) people will think of you.

Another useful technique for deciding whether to do something like writing a thesis is to use the psychologist David Burns’s “cost-benefit analysis” technique (you can view a sample template for a cost-benefit analysis here). Draw a vertical line down a piece of paper. On one side, list all the reasons, good or bad, to write a thesis (that is, all the benefits or “pros”); on the other side, write all the reasons, good or bad, not to write one (that is, all the disadvantages or “cons”). At the end, tally it up: which side, pro or con, has more entries?

Squashing Negative Thoughts

Now, let’s assume that you are going to write a thesis. It’s either a requirement of your department or you’ve decided that writing a thesis is the best thing for you (based on considerations like those discussed above). OK, great! This page has some useful resources that can help.

But even if you’ve made this decision, you might find yourself plagued by negative thoughts. I address how to handle such thoughts on the following pages: (1) Overcoming writing anxiety, (2) 3 things all students should know about, and (3) Maintaining mental health, so I recommend checking out the resources on those pages (you might also find the brief videos here and here useful in giving you an overview of the CBT-based strategies discussed on those pages). But below I want to briefly address one specific category of negative thoughts that students often share with me regarding the thesis: imposter syndrome.

“Imposter syndrome” sounds complex and foreboding, but it simply refers to the emotionally painful experience of having thoughts that you don’t belong in an academic or professional setting (i.e., thoughts that you’re an “imposter”) and/or aren’t capable of success in your program. Examples of imposter-syndrome-inspired thoughts that are relevant to the thesis are:

  • I’m not smart enough to succeed at writing a thesis.
  • I can’t write well. I’m going to fail at this.
  • Everyone else finds this easy or is good at this. I’m the only one who is struggling.
  • My family background didn’t prepare me for this. All of the other students have family members who went to college or earned an advanced degree. I’m all alone. I have no one to help and no relevant background or preparation. I can’t do this.
  • I don’t have the motivation or drive to complete this. I want to do it, but every time I try to work, I feel tired, overwhelmed, and exhausted…

…and so on. There are other ways to formulate these kind of thoughts, but you probably get the idea.

As it discusses on the pages linked above, such thoughts include numerous “cognitive distortions” (irrational, untrue, or illogical beliefs) that cause pain, doubt, and anxiety. Those pages also describe some ways of recognizing such distortions and talking back to them. You can refer to those pages for more info, but here I just want to list some helpful–and true–positive thoughts that might be useful in talking back to your negative thoughts:

  • As stated on this helpful page on Imposter Syndrome, “Trust the admissions process. The admissions committee is made up of professionals who admitted you because they were confident in your ability to succeed. You should be too.”
  • As David Burns discusses in his book Feeling Good, motivation generally follows action, not the other way around. In other words, if you wait until you feel some magical sense of inspiration that will motivate you to to get your work done, it’s possible that you’ll never get your work done (what if that magical moment of inspiration never comes?). Professionals know this. They don’t wait to feel motivated. Instead, they force themselves to take action, even when they don’t feel motivated. And here is where the “magic” comes in. When you force yourself to work, you often find that you start to feel motivated as you begin to make progress. Exercise is often like this. You might feel lazy and unmotivated, making it hard to trek to the gym or go on a run. But if you force yourself to do either of those things, you’re likely to feel pretty good, and think “I’m glad I did this! I should do it again.” Writing and other academic work is no different. The more you force yourself to do it, the better you get at it and the better you feel about it (see the discussion of Steven Pressfield and David Burns on my Overcoming Writing Anxiety page for more info on these points) .
  • You don’t need to be a genius to complete a thesis. In fact, as James Watson said about scientists in his book The Double Helix (but could just as easily have said about people in any field), “in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.” Watson is being mean-spirited here, and he has famously made other offensive comments which I do not endorse. But I think a broader version of his point about intelligence is correct: many academics who successfully complete advanced degrees are not geniuses by any stretch of the imagination. But they completed their degrees through hard work and sustained effort–and so can you.
  • Intelligence is not simply innate. In fact, cultivating and acting on a “growth mindset” toward your abilities–the idea that your ability can be improved through effort–is a much more important contributor to success than your innate intelligence (whatever that means, anyway). As research by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.” (Source for the quote).
  • It is true that your thesis won’t be perfect. But true perfection is unattainable, and being perfectionistic–pursuing perfection at the expense of high, but realistically attainable, achievement–is counter-productive. Everyone makes mistakes, and no one is perfect, so it’s often more helpful to aim for average achievement or just being “good enough” for your purposes. Paradoxically, these lowered expectations are more likely to produce excellence than setting impossibly high standards (see David Burns on perfectionism for more info). Finally, remember that having high (but attainable) standards is perfectly OK. But expecting perfection of yourself or others is simply unrealistic.

The Parts of a Thesis

Empirical studies and IMRAD

Each department is different, but many theses–particularly those that involve empirical research–follow some version of the IMRAD (or IMRD) format, which stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. The IMRAD format is discussed in the section called “Essentials of Grad Writing 3: Constructing Research Papers” on my Essentials of Graduate Writing page. And this interesting paper (which is posted on that page) models how to use the IMRAD format to construct research papers, including theses. That is, it’s an IMRAD paper about IMRAD papers, so the “introduction” section is about how to write introductions, and so on. Also, Richard D Branson’s article Anatomy of a Research Paper gives a nice overview of the IMRAD format. Finally, the CSULB College of Education has a nice “Suggested Format of the Master’s Thesis” which is organized along more-or-less IMRAD lines:

The IMRAD format can be summarized (crudely) as follows:

INTRODUCTION – What you studied, and why it’s important. (Beginning)
METHODS – How you studied it. (Middle)
RESULTS – What you found. (Middle)
DISCUSSION – Your interpretation of what you found. (End)

The IMRAD format comes from the sciences, so–as I mentioned above and will return to again later–this format works well for empirical studies, in which you collect data from “out there in the world” and analyze it. However, it does not work so well for non-empirical studies in which, for example, you simply analyze theories, reason about “a priori” knowledge, or critique, interpret, or analyze literary, philosophical, or historical texts (see the section called “Non-Empirical Studies” below for more info on these types of studies).

Obviously, you should follow the conventions of your department and discipline, and you should look at examples of recently-published theses in your field (see the section below called “Using Other Students’ Theses As Models”). But, for many disciplines, the IMRAD format works well for the thesis–with the caveat that the “I” in “IMRAD” covers not not only the introduction & problem statement (Chapter 1), but also the literature review (Chapter 2).

For theses that follow the IMRAD format, the chapter-by-chapter breakdown is likely to be as follows:

Ch 1 – Introduction & Problem Statement. As I keep saying, the details will vary by discipline, department, advisor, and other factors. But usually, this chapter presents background on your topic, states the problem (whether it’s a practical one, an intellectual one, or both) that your thesis will tackle, states the research questions, briefly outlines the methods that you’ll use to answer the question, and states what will be included in the rest of the thesis (for example, “Chapter 2 discusses… Next, Chapter 3 outlines…).

Ch 2 – Literature Review. As Dr. Inger Mewburn states on her Thesis Whisperer site, a good literature review is: “a simple, but competent run through of the major authors with a thread of an argument running through the whole. The argument should be connected to why you are bothering to do the study.” In addition to the linked page above, see this helpful handout from the Penn State Graduate Writing Center for more info on lit reviews. I should also point out that students sometimes face challenges reading papers for the literature review. They may ask themselves: do I have to read every word of every paper? Do I have to read every single paper published on my topic? When can I stop reading and start writing? These questions are addressed on my Lit Reviews page. You might also find the following resources helpful:

Ch 3 – Methods (or “Methodology”–although these terms are sometimes used differently; see this video for an example). The methods section explains how you conducted your research. This explanation can include: what data sources you used; why you selected those sources (i.e., why these data sources are a good choice for answering your research questions); what site you chose and why (if applicable); whether you used quantitative or qualitative methods and why (again, if applicable); any limitations and delimitations of your method; and how you analyzed your data and why. Richard Kallet has a useful article on writing methods sections for science papers. The USC libraries also have a useful page on writing methods sections for social science papers. Regarding qualitative research, Dr. Jonathan O’Brien has an excellent presentation on “coding” that might be helpful in explaining your methods in qualitative research (I include this handout here because students often ask me questions about coding, especially in the early stages of their qualitative research process when they are often required to write draft proposals). You can download O’Brien’s handout here:

In addition, the University Writing Center at James Madison University has a nice annotated sample Methods section posted here.

Ch 4 – Results. The results section presents your findings. It summarizes what you found out after analyzing your data, and may (if appropriate) include tables, graphs, and charts. It presents your findings simply and clearly, makes your data (i.e., facts, figures, numbers) easy to identify. It also reports representative data and/or the most important findings, as opposed to listing endlessly repetitive data (see the slides for “Constructing Research Papers” on my Essentials of Graduate Writing page for more info). The University of Vermont Graduate Writing Center has a useful handout on distinguishing the results section from the discussion section. In addition, the University Writing Center at James Madison University has a helpful handout that gives an overview of results sections and an annotated sample results section. This article from the Singapore Medical Journal might also be helpful. Finally, the section on “Writing about Data” on my Essentials of Graduate Writing page might also be helpful for writing the results section.

Ch 5 – Discussion. The discussion section allows you to interpret your results, putting the findings from your results section in “conversation” with the literature review. It allows you to answer questions like: Did your results agree or disagree with any of the major studies on your topic? Did your results help fill in any of the research gaps identified in the literature review? In other words, the discussion is where you interpret your results against a background of existing knowledge, explaining what is new in your work, and why it matters. It also allows you to discuss both the limitations and the implications of your results. Dr. Dean R. Hess has a helpful paper on How to Write an Effective Discussion. The University Writing Center at James Madison University also has a useful overview of discussions and conclusions, along with an annotated discussion section.

Ch 6 – Conclusion. As hinted at in the Ch5 section above, not all research papers or theses have a separate conclusion section; often, the conclusion is incorporated into the discussion. The following excerpt from Joseph Williams et al., The Craft of Research, offers some of the best advice I’ve seen on writing conclusions to research papers:

Finally, don’t forget that the activities packet and workshop slides for the “Constructing Research Papers” section of my Essentials of Graduate Writing offers numerous helpful models of IMRAD format.

There are lots of questions you might still have about this chapter-by-chapter layout. For example: How long should each chapter be? How should each chapter be structured? How many subsections should it have? How many sources should be cited throughout? Should only the literature review include cited sources, while the other chapters are made up of my own data, results, observation, and/or analysis? And finally, what if my department or discipline doesn’t use the IMRAD format (which comes primarily from the natural sciences, although it’s been adopted by many social sciences and humanities disciplines as well), and/or I’m not doing empirical research?

There short answer is that there is no short answer to these questions. As I’ve said ad nauseum, most of the details depend on the specifics of (1) your discipline, (2) your department, and (3) your committee members (your advisor and the others). One of the best strategies you can follow is to look at how other people in your field write. One way to do this is to look at other students’ completed theses (see the section called “Using Other Students’ Theses As Models”). Another way is to read research papers in your discipline “with a writer’s eye,” meaning that you read these papers for ideas on how to write (for more on this process of “reading like a writer,” see “Essentials of Grad Writing 2: Reading Like An Academic Writer” on my Essentials of Graduate Writing page).

Non-Empirical Studies

Keep in mind that if your thesis is a non-empirical study, it will almost certainly NOT follow the IMRAD format discussed above. What are non-empirical studies? As briefly previewed above, non-empirical studies involve methods other than collection and analysis of experimental/empirical data. These studies might involve:

  • A literature review study, which summarizes the state of research or knowledge in a field.
  • Literary (or textual or artistic or cultural) interpretation, criticism, or analysis.
  • Historical analysis (although such research also may involve empirical data collection).
  • Personal observations or reflections on a field of study, particularly when used to make some sort of ethnographic or sociological claim (although such work often involves empirical data collection as well).
  • Theoretical work (e.g., comparing and contrasting particular theories, arguing that one theory is better suited to tackling a particular problem than another theory).
  • Making reasoned arguments, or proving theorems or other claims, about abstract or “a priori” areas of knowledge like philosophy, logic, some areas of theoretical physics, and some areas of mathematics.

Obviously, these are just some examples and don’t exhaust all the possibilities.

While a non-empirical study will still include an introduction and problem statement (of some sort), and often a literature review, the remaining chapters provide much more room for flexibility and creativity. Usually, a non-empirical thesis will be organized around some major argument that the entire thesis is making. You will preview or outline this argument in the introduction chapter, and then each of the next several chapters will develop some key piece of that argument.

The best way to see what this “argument-driven” approach might look like is to consider some examples:

First, here are some excerpts from the introductory sections of Timothy Williamson’s book Vagueness (1994), a classic work in philosophical logic (I added the bolding for emphasis):

The thesis of this book is that vagueness is an epistemic phenomenon. As such, it constitutes no objection to classical logic or semantics…. The first part of the book is historical…. The Greeks introduced the problem of vagueness into philosophy, in the guise of the original sorites paradox: if the removal of one grain from a heap always leaves a heap, then the successive removal of every grain still leaves a heap. Chapter 1 sketches the history of this paradox and its variants from their invention to the nineteenth century… Chapter 2 discusses three stages in the emergence of the philosophical concept of vagueness, in the work of Frege, Peirce and Russell…. As philosophical attention turned to ordinary language, vagueness acquired a more positive image. It was seen no longer as a deviation from an ideal norm, but as the real norm itself. As such, it was described by Black, Wittgenstein and Waismann. Their work is discussed in Chapter 3. Formal treatments of vagueness have become common only in the last few decades. One main approach relies on many-valued logic… Chapter 4 follows the development of its application to the problem of vagueness, from the use of three-valued logic to the growth of ‘fuzzy logic’ and other logics based on infinitely many values… A technically subtler approach to vagueness is supervaluationism, with which Chapter 5 is concerned…. On a more pessimistic view, vagueness is a form of incoherence. If this view is taken globally, Chapter 6 suggests, all rational discourse is subverted, for vagueness is ubiquitous…. Chapter 7 defends the epistemic view of vagueness… Chapter 8 develops the epistemological background to the epistemic view… Chapter 9… argues that the epistemic view permits objects to be vague in a modest sense…

Obviously, this is an excerpt from a book, so it has more chapters than most theses or dissertations would. But notice how Williamson neatly lays out what each chapter will explain. Also, notice that the whole thing is organized by its over-arching argument: Chapter 1 is basically the intro and problem statement that explains the background and what’s at stake. Chapters 2-6 are essentially a giant literature review–they provide background on what other scholars have argued on the topic, and they point out weaknesses or gaps in these other scholars’ work. Chapters 7-9 present the author’s new contribution: Chapter 7 outlines the view and defends it, Chapter 8 expands the epistemological background of the view, and Chapter 9 explains an interesting, and novel, consequence of the view.

Here’s another example, this time from Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), which is considered a classic of literary and cultural criticism (again, the bolding is mine):

The three long chapters… into which this book is divided are intended to facilitate exposition as much as possible. Chapter One, "The Scope of Orientalism," draws a large circle around all the dimensions of the subject, both in terms of historical time and experiences and in terms of philosophical and political themes. Chapter Two, "Orientalist Structures and Restructures," attempts to trace the development of modern Orientalism by a broadly chronological description, and also by the description of a set of devices common to the work of important poets, artists, and scholars. Chapter Three, "Orientalism Now," begins where its predecessor left off, at around 1870. This is the period of great colonial expansion into the Orient, and it culminates in World War II. The very last section of Chapter Three characterizes the shift from British and French to American hegemony; I attempt there finally to sketch the present intellectual and social realities of Orientalism in the United States.

Notice again how this is argument-driven. Each chapter explains a key piece of the argument so that, when all are taken together, a larger point is made. Just as a 5-paragraph essay (see here and here) has body paragraphs that each explain one piece of a larger argument, a thesis or book has chapters that each explain one piece of the larger argument outlined in the introduction chapter (this analogy is a bit oversimplified, of course, but it might help you understand the big picture).

Finally, this last example is from the art history MA thesis, You are what you read: Participation and emancipation problematized in Habacuc’s Exposicion #1, written by CSULB alum Marielos C. Kluck, which won the CSULB Outstanding Thesis Award in 2018 (once again, the bolding is mine):

Conceptualized by Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas Jiménez (known as Habacuc), Exposición #1…  operates as a multifarious transgressive work of art…. This thesis analyzes Habacuc’s proposition within contemporaneous debates around participatory practices and Internet art… Within the following chapters I examine Exposición #1 within two contemporaneous and theoretically similar discourses, participatory practices and Internet art…. Chapter 1 will begin with an introduction to Habacuc’s oeuvre as well as elements and metaphors included within Exposición #1… The primary function of chapter 1 is to function as a state of the literature, which exposes absent discourses in which to examine the artwork’s tactics, namely, the artist’s relationship to his online participants. I contend that the artist’s strategies are overlooked, including his intent to enrage his audience, often drawing on the participant’s prejudices... In chapters 2 and 3, I set aside the brick and mortar exhibition… and instead propose that the primary site of Exposición #1 exists not in the embrace or vernacular of sensory or even material experience but rather in the simulacra offered on the Internet… In chapter 2 I discuss Exposición #1 within the contemporaneous debates surrounding participatory practices… I argue that Habacuc can be contextualized as a practitioner of participatory work seeking to activate his audience through his antagonistic approach... In chapter 3 I examine the artwork’s primary site, the Internet as global village turned virtual battlefield… Throughout this chapter Iargue that by strategically using a contentious archive of images, Habacuc engages two types of participants within his work…

Hopefully, these examples are helping you envision how non-empirical research papers (including theses and dissertations) can be structured.

Consider also the following helpful advice from Melissa H., a “recent history grad” blogging at Unite Students:

How do I structure the main body of my dissertation?

Figuring out the structure of your argument can be tricky, but as long as the argument flows from one chapter to the next, you’re in a good place.

Chapter lengths and numbers can vary; they don’t have to all be the same length if you’re finding that you have more content for one chapter than another. Three is a good number of chapters to aim for, but you can expand to five chapters long if you need to. For example, if you’re basing your dissertation on a study then you might need to have different chapters for the methodology, the results and the discussion of your data.

If your research is more literature-based, have a play around with your chapters and see what works best. Does the content flow better when organised in the order you researched it or in themes? It might seem like the most logical thing to go for the former, but you may have a more even distribution of content if you structure it by theme.

Of course it’s impossible for me to cover every question that might arise about non-empirical research and writing, but the following resources might be useful for getting a taste of what such writing entails. First, the University of Birmingham has a nice handout that briefly touches on some of the differences between empirical and non-empirical research:

And below are some other potentially-helpful resources:

See also the advice and tips in the next section below.

Miscellaneous Writing Advice that is Helpful to All Disciplines

Since writing any work of scholarship (thesis, dissertation, journal article, book) is such a BIG task, you are bound to hit obstacles. The resources below offer general purpose advice that will probably be helpful to any academic writer in any discipline.

  • Solutions to Common Academic Writing Obstacles by Wendy Belcher.
  • Time Management Tips for Dissertation Writing by Elizabeth Gritter.
  • Completing Your Dissertation Without Tears by the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
  • How to Draft a Dissertation in a Year by Alexandra Gold.
  • Writing a Philosophy Paper by Jim Pryor. This page is mostly geared toward philosophy students, but it includes one of my favorite pieces of academic writing advice, which I think is relevant to almost all academic writing: “pretend that your reader is lazy, stupid, and mean. He’s lazy in that he doesn’t want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn’t want to figure out what your argument is, if it’s not already obvious. He’s stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces. And he’s mean, so he’s not going to read your paper charitably. (For example, if something you say admits of more than one interpretation, he’s going to assume you meant the less plausible thing.) If you understand the material you’re writing about, and if you aim your paper at such a reader, you’ll probably get an A.”
  • How to Read for Graduate School by Miriam Sweeney.

Using Other Students’ Theses As Models

One of the best ways to get ideas for your thesis or dissertation is to look at what other students in similar circumstances have done. For example, you can use recently-published theses from students in your department to answer questions like:

  • What’s a good length for my chapters?
  • About how many sources should I have?
  • How should I organize my discussion?

And, really, anything else you’re curious about. Remember that if a thesis was published, then its author graduated. So, at minimum their thesis was “good enough.” Remember to practice the skill of “reading like a writer” to get as much as possible from your review of others’ work. Also keep in mind that there are always exceptions and “outliers.” So, you’ll want to look at several examples in case one of the examples is atypical.

As it states on the Thesis & Dissertation Office website, if you’re a current CSULB student, you can look up published theses through the ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database online. The video below gives a quick tutorial on how to do that. Click on the image to launch the video in a new browser window.

Video: Finding A Published Thesis or Dissertation at CSULB (6 min)

If you want to “shoot for the stars,” so to speak, you can also look up recent Outstanding Thesis Award Winners from your discipline and search for the winning theses on the ProQuest database. Keep in mind my earlier advice about outliers–some of these winning theses may be atypical. Also, keep in mind that even an outstanding thesis is not perfect, and your thesis does not have to be perfect either (and remember the dangers of perfectionism, as discussed here and here).

Copyright Issues

Although copyright often seems like a minor issue in educational settings (because of fair use rules), it can be important if your thesis is going to include excerpts (e.g., pictures, graphics, reproductions of art work, song lyrics) of items that are not in the public domain. Fortunately, ProQuest has made the following excellent resource available free online: Copyright and Your Dissertation or Thesis: Ownership, Fair Use, and Your Rights and Responsibilities by Kenneth D. Crews, JD, PhD.

Timeline and Process

In the sections below, I discuss the timeline and process of completing a thesis. But, as always, your experience may vary depending on your particular department, committee, and advisor.

The Role of Your Committee

Your committee will be usually made up of 3 professors—your advisor (or “chair”–more on this in a moment) and 2 others from your department. Note that, so far, I’ve made mention of your “advisor” or “thesis advisor,” since these terms are often used in academia, and they’re the terms I usually use when speaking casually with students. But at CSULB, the more correct term is “committee chair.” The committee chair is the professor who works most closely with you in completing your thesis. There’s a lot to say about the committee, so instead of “re-inventing the wheel,” I’ll just quote from the CSULB catalog at length:

Thesis Committees
A student’s thesis committee shall consist of at least three members qualified in the areas relating to the thesis. At least two shall be full‑time faculty members at CSULB, one of whom must be tenured or tenure‑track. The chair of the thesis committee must be a tenured or tenure‑track faculty member from a department authorized to offer a graduate degree. The thesis committee must be approved by the department chair and the graduate or thesis advisor. Normally the chair of the committee also serves as thesis director, but this is not necessarily so. The thesis director must be a person qualified in the specific area of the thesis, but need not be a tenured or tenure‑track faculty member. The committee shall be responsible for the guidance of the student throughout the thesis effort. Any change in the composition of the committee requires justification and must be approved by the appropriate department graduate advisor and College Associate Dean or Director of Graduate Studies.

Thesis committee members will advise and direct students in their thesis work and ensure that the thesis meets the standards and definition of a thesis specified above.

Thesis committee members will determine the grade to be awarded for completion of the thesis; and by signing the thesis signature page, thesis committee members certify that they have determined that the thesis meets the required standards of scholarship, format, and style of the discipline. When the thesis committee includes a thesis director who is not the chair of the committee, this person may be identified on the thesis approval page as ‘Thesis Director.’

Thesis Committee Chairs
Thesis committee chairs will determine that the student has the proper preparation in terms of course work and research skills to pursue the proposed thesis. In departments where this function is not carried out by graduate advisors, thesis committee chairs will advise the student in the selection of other members for the thesis committee, ensuring that the other members are appropriate to the proposed thesis effort.

Thesis committee chairs will be the major contact point with the student and will oversee the other committee members’ work with the student.

Thesis committee chairs will assure that the editorial and format standards appropriate to the mechanical preparation of a thesis are followed.

Thesis committee chairs will establish guidelines for the student and timetables to be followed to ensure completion of the thesis in a reasonable time.

Thesis committee chairs will arrange for the oral defense of the thesis when required.

The thesis committee chair is responsible for canvassing the committee and reporting the grade agreed upon by its members. After the completed thesis has been reviewed by the University Thesis and Dissertation Office for conformance with prescribed format criteria and the approval page has been signed by the committee and by the dean or department chair, as appropriate, the final grade will be submitted.” (end quote)

That massive quote from the catalog should explain most of what you need to know about the thesis committee, but as always, check with your department for specifics.

In many cases, you may be expected to approach professors to ask them if they would like to serve on your committee. If that’s true for you, it might be helpful to review the advice on emailing faculty on my Emails and recommendation letters page. Also keep in mind the rules about committee composition quoted above (e.g., “At least two shall be full‑time faculty members at CSULB, one of whom must be tenured or tenure‑track”).

Thesis Writing Timeline

As I say in multiple places on this page, every department, advisor and committee member is different, so my comments may not be 100% applicable to your case. With that proviso in mind, below is an outline of how the thesis writing process could go. It’s adapted from a syllabus used in a 2017 “Thesis and Project Seminar” class taught by Dr. Lindsay Perez-Huber in the Department of Education at CSULB. Note that not all departments teach a “Thesis/Project Seminar” course. Note also that institutional review board (IRB) applications, which are mentioned below, apply only to studies that conduct research on human subjects. Finally, note that what follows is called the “optimal timeline.” That is, even if you’re in the Education department, these are only ideal guidelines. The reality is often different and usually far messier.

Optimal Timeline for Thesis/Project

Students should begin preparing for thesis in the fall prior to their final year in the master’s degree program. The timeline below reflects this start point and assumes a May graduation date.

First Year of Thesis Work (second-to-last year of your program)
SeptemberTalk with your faculty advisor about the possibility of pursuing the thesis option.
October – DecemberExplore possible topics.
JanuaryCommit to doing a thesis!
FebruaryFinalize problem statement.
Begin searching, reading.
February – MarchDraft research questions.
Finalize research questions (RQs).
Continue searching for literature and complete preliminary literature search.
Refine problem statement.
Start drafting reference List (60+ entries).
MarchMarch 1, “apply” for fall Thesis/Project course.
Continue searching and reading.
Register for Thesis/Project course.
AprilJoin the Thesis/Project Seminar course.
April – MaySift through the literature.
ABR – Always Be Reading!!
Complete outline of Chapter 2: The Literature Review.
Begin writing literature review.
JuneFinish first draft of literature review.
Begin to construct method.
Draft instruments.
JulyWrite Chapter 3: Methodology.
Finalize and pilot instruments.
Revise Chapter 2.
Continually revisit problem statement and RQs.
Begin Chapter 1: The Introduction.
AugustWrite Chapter 1.
Revise thesis proposal.
Download IRB application.
Final Year of Thesis Work (last year of program)
SeptemberProposal Draft (typically chapters 1-3) due to chair.
Prepare for Thesis Proposal to Committee.
Write and submit IRB application.
Gather permissions for accessing study participants.
While waiting for IRB approval, complete final draft of literature review/introduction.
October – NovemberOctober 1- turn in “application” for spring Thesis/Project course.
Collect Data.
DecemberManage Data: transcribe interviews, field notes, input, etc.
Begin data analysis.
Revise Chapter 3.
JanuaryComplete data analysis.
Write Chapter 4: The Findings.
Late January – early FebruaryRevise Chapter 4.
Revise Chapter 1,3.
Write Chapter 5.
Mid-FebruaryFinalize thesis/project draft.
Draft due to thesis chair.
Set-up defense date for early March.
Early March Thesis/project due to committee.
Mid-MarchOral Defense.
Make Revisions.
Thesis due to Dean’s office.
AprilThesis Filing Deadline.

Submitting to the Thesis & Dissertation Office: A “Rough and Tumble” Guide

Submission Process

Students are often confused about the final stages of the thesis process. Suppose you’ve collected and analyzed your data, written drafts of all your chapters, and are in the process of revising your final thesis draft in consultation with your advisor/chair (and possibly other members of the committee). What’s next? What does the “end-game” look like?

As always, your exact experience may vary. But two things are pretty much the same in all departments: (1) first, your committee has to “accept” or “clear” your thesis for content, quality, professional standards, and whatever else your department values, and (2) next, the Thesis and Dissertation Office (or “Thesis Office” for short) has to clear your thesis for formatting issues–that is, they make sure that your thesis is suitable for publication. That’s the super short version of the process.

The slightly longer version usually goes something like the 12 steps below (but see also this page and this page from the Thesis Office for an even more detailed version):

  1. Two to three months (8-12 weeks) before the final thesis submission deadline, you submit the draft of your completed thesis to your committee.
  2. The committee takes 2-3 weeks to review this draft and write comments. Then they and send it back to you (now it’s somewhere between 5 and 10 weeks before the final deadline).
  3. You take 1-2 weeks to make revisions based on the comments and send it back to the committee (3-9 weeks to final deadline).
  4. Your committee says, “Great! We like this draft. Just make these final tiny changes and send it to the Dean that presides over your department” (this last part is optional–some departments have a Dean review the thesis, some don’t. If yours doesn’t, skip to step 7).
  5. You complete final edits right away and send it to the Dean.
  6. The Dean takes a week or two to review it (1-8 weeks to final deadline). The Dean says, “Great! You can submit this to the Thesis & Dissertation Office.”
  7. (On or before the final submission deadline) Now that everyone is OK with the draft, you send the Committee members the “Signature Page” to sign on DocuSign (the Thesis Office explains how to do that here). I recommend doing this at least 1 week before the final deadline just to avoid any last-minute problems.
  8. After submitting the signature page, the Thesis Office sends you a confirmation and instructions for uploading the PDF of your thesis. You have 1 week from the day you receive that confirmation email to upload the PDF of the thesis.
  9. Now the Thesis Office reviews your thesis. They are mainly looking for formatting issues as described in the Format Manual, although they might make some minor grammar/usage suggestions too (although this is not really their main role–your committee should have already made sure that your grammar/usage is at least minimally acceptable. The role of the Thesis Office is to ensure proper style and formatting for publication).
  10. Usually within 4 weeks after they receive your thesis, the Thesis Office sends it back to you with comments and required changes. Some students think “If I work hard enough, I won’t receive any such comments from the Thesis Office.” I’m here to tell you: That’s just false. They always give comments. Often, there are over a hundred comments (in some cases, even 400 or more!). A hundred comments isn’t unusual and it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad student or something is wrong with you. This is just a routine part of the publishing process.
  11. Now, you make the revisions (ideally within 2 weeks of receiving the comments from the Thesis Office, but they’re usually pretty flexible at this stage of the process–contact them if you have questions) and upload it again for the Thesis Office to review (they will have sent you instructions for how to do this).
  12. Steps 10 and 11 will repeat until all revisions are complete and the Thesis Office clears you for publication.

Some Key Things to Keep In Mind

  • At the revisions stage, it’s all up to you. It’s your job to follow Thesis Office instructions EXACTLY and upload the document in a timely manner. Often, the Thesis Office will leave a comment like “This note will not be repeated. Please revise wherever needed.” That means it’s your job to go through the whole thesis and fix that issue wherever it shows up. Is that tedious and laborious? Absolutely! But again, it’s a routine part of publishing. Professors and other professional authors have to respond to this kind of editorial feedback all the time. If you don’t go through and fix all instances of the issue, the Thesis Office will almost certainly send your thesis back to you with the same comment. Again, this is no different from professional publishing (in fact, professional publishing is worse–if you ignore the editor, the journal or publishing house will probably just not publish your work).
  • Based on the previous points above, responding to these editorial comments is a learning experience. In any university, there’s some measure of bureaucracy and “rules for the sake of rules.” But graduate education is supposed to prepare you for research and publication to some extent, even if those are not your ultimate goals. So, responding to the comments is a learning experience because it gives you a taste of what revising a paper for publishing is like.
  • If you have trouble interpreting Thesis Office feedback, you can contact them with questions or make an appointment with me, the Writing Guy.
  • You’re not being asked to do anything unprecedented. Some students have told me that they feel it’s unfair that they should have to re-read their thesis or pore over it carefully line-by-line. But remember: Your committee has to do that. If you work with me, I often have to do that. The Thesis Office has to do that. It’s your work. Why shouldn’t you also have to do your part?
  • If the process seems overly stressful or overwhelming, take a deep breath and look at some of my resources on anxiety and stress in grad school: here and here. And it’s OK to ask for help–see my earlier bullet point about interpreting feedback.

Revision Process: What are the main things the Thesis Office is looking for?

You’ve accepted that, no matter what, you’re going to get some comments from the Thesis Office, meaning that you’ll have to make revisions (and if you haven’t accepted this, you should: it’s inevitable). But how do you avoid getting a huge number of comments (e.g., 400)? How can you minimize the amount of work you’ll have to do later by avoiding the “pet peeves” of the Thesis Office staff now?

To help you, I’ve asked the Thesis Office staff what their main vexations are and used their comments to assemble the following list. Full disclosure: In the past, I’ve even helped the Thesis Office with completing some overflow work, so I have inside knowledge!

If you follow the recommendations in the list below BEFORE submitting, your thesis will be cleared as quickly and painlessly as possible.

List: The Top things you can do to Make the thesis office happy (and clear your thesis faster!)

–Make sure that any resource (book, journal article, and so on) cited in the body of your thesis is included in the reference list at the end. One easy way to do this for theses that use parenthetical (author-date) citations is to:

  1. Print out a paper copy of your reference list.
  2. Open an electronic copy of your thesis.
  3. In the electronic copy, use “CTRL + F” (or “CMD +F”) to search for an opening parenthesis: “( ” That’ll allow you to scroll through all the parenthetical citations by continually pushing “Next” or “Enter”.
  4. For each parenthetical citation, check your printout to see if that source is listed. If it is, great! If not, add it.

For theses that use footnotes, you can skip the CTRL+F process and just look at each footnote. I still recommend printing out the reference list, however (it just makes the process easier).

–Conversely, make sure that anything included in the reference list is cited somewhere in the body of the thesis. If it’s not, remove that reference list entry. See the previous point for tips. BUT, keep in mind the following caveat: APA recommends having a “reference list,” which ONLY includes sources that you’ve cited/mentioned in the text (this is also true of MLA’s “works cited” list). However, some style guides allow you to include a “bibliography,” which can include BOTH sources that you directly cited/mentioned in the text AND sources that you simply consulted or read for background information but never actually mentioned in the text (Chicago/Turabian is a style guide that permits bibliographies; another example might be any style that allows a “works cited and consulted” list). So, if a bibliography is allowed by your style guide, and your thesis has one, you can ignore this tip and skip to the next one below.

Make sure your thesis has correct margins and spacing as specified by the Format Manual. As the manual states, “All margins—top, left, right, and bottom—should be set to 1.0 inch throughout the manuscript,” and “Text in a manuscript must be 12-pt. font size and Times New Roman. The text of the
manuscript must be formatted in one size and one style of type font throughout, including the page numbers.”

–Figure out which of the Departmental Style Guides (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian) you’re following (make sure to confirm with your advisor/chair), and then follow that style guide to cite sources properly (both in-text and in the reference list or bibliography). When using the style guide, pay attention to the little things, like which letters are capitalized, which words are italicized, and where punctuation goes (don’t confuse commas and periods/full stops, for example). My APA Format & citations page and Other citation styles page might be helpful with this. But keep in mind the next point…

–Also consult the Format Manual for miscellaneous formatting issues, including how to format headers/headings and how to name and caption Tables and Figures. Remember that when the Format Manual conflicts with the departmental style guide, you should always follow the Format Manual. And you can use “CTRL+F” to search the electronic copy of the format manual for whatever key/term or phrase you’re looking for (e.g., “Margin,” “Font,” “Table,” “Figure,” “Heading,” and “Page number”).

–Try to make sure that your grammar and usage are not too atrocious. If you know that you have trouble in these areas, make an appointment with me early in your thesis-writing process. In an appointment, we can look at some sample of your writing to identify problem areas for improvement. See also my Grammar & Usage page and the section called “Grammar, usage, & style” on my Writing Help page.

–If you’re not using Microsoft Word to compose your thesis (for example, you’re using LaTeX), consider making an appointment for a pre-submission consultation so that you can learn to avoid any potential pitfalls early.

–Attend a Thesis & Dissertation Formatting workshop. These are usually offered on Zoom. You can look up and register for upcoming workshops here.

–Pro-Tip: You can use gridlines and rulers in both MS Word and Adobe to make sure that your margins are done correctly. The following pages might be helpful:

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