Organising a thesis

This describes the main elements of a written thesis for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Norway. Although the organising principles described here are most clearly relevant for empirical theses, much of the advice is also relevant for theoretical work. Please note that the formal requirements vary between different disciplines; check the guidelines that apply in your field.

Summary and foreword

Most readers will turn first to the summary (or abstract). Use it as an opportunity to spur the reader’s interest. The summary should highlight the main points from your work, especially the thesis statement, methods (if applicable), findings and conclusion. However, the summary does not need to cover every aspect of the work. The main objective is to give the reader a good idea of what the thesis is about.

The summary should be completed towards the end, when you are able to obtain an overview of the whole project. It is nevertheless a good idea to work on a draft continuously. Writing a good summary can be difficult, since it should only include the most important points of the work. But this is also why working on the summary can be so useful – it forces you to identify the key elements of the writing project.

There are usually no formal requirements for forewords, but it is common practice to thank your supervisors, informants/participants, and others who have helped and supported you. If you have received any grants or research residencies, you should acknowledge these.

Note: Short assignments do not require abstracts and forewords.

1. Introduction

The introduction has two main purposes: 1) to give an overview of the main points of your thesis, and 2) to awaken the reader’s interest. It is recommended you rewrite the introduction one last time when the writing is done, to ensure that it connects well with your conclusion.


For a nice, stylistic twist, you can reuse a theme from the introduction in your conclusion. For example, you might present a particular scenario in one way in your introduction, and then return to it in your conclusion from a different – richer or contrasting – perspective.

The introduction should include:

  • The background for your choice of topic.
  • A discussion of the research question (or thesis statement).
  • A schematic outline of the remainder of the thesis.

The sections below discuss each of these elements in turn.

1.1 Background

The background sets the general tone for the thesis. It should make a good impression and convince the reader why the theme is important and why your approach is relevant. Even so, it should be no longer than necessary.

What is considered relevant background depends on your field and its traditions. Background information might be historical in nature, or it might refer to previous research or practical considerations. You can also focus on a specific text, thinker or problem.

Academic writing often means having a discussion with yourself (or some imagined opponent). To open your discussion, there are several options available. You may, for example:

  • refer to a contemporary event
  • outline a specific problem; a case study or an example
  • review the relevant research/literature to demonstrate the need for this particular type of research

If it is common in your discipline to reflect upon your experiences as a practitioner, this is the place to present them. In the remainder of your thesis, this kind of information should be avoided, particularly if it has not been collected systematically.


Do not spend too much time on your background and opening remarks before you have commenced writing the main text.

1.2 Defining the scope of your thesis

One of the first tasks of a researcher is defining the scope of a study, that is, its area (theme, field), and the amount of information to be included. Narrowing the scope of your thesis can be time-consuming. Paradoxically, the more you limit the scope, the more interesting it becomes. This is because a narrower scope lets you clarify the problem and study it at greater depth, whereas very broad research questions allow only a superficial treatment.

The research question can be formulated as one main question with (a few) more specific sub-questions (or you could have a hypothesis that will be tested).

Your research question will be your guide as your writing proceeds. If you are working independently, you are also free to modify it as you go along.

How do you know that you have drafted a research question? A research question is something that can be answered. If not, you have probably come up with a theme or field, not a question.

Some tips:

  • Use interrogative words: how, why, which (factors/situations), in which ways, and so on.
  • Some questions are closed and only invoke concrete/limited answers. Others will open up for discussions and different interpretations.
    Asking “What …?” is a more closed question than asking “How?” or “In what way?”
    Asking “Why” means you are investigating the causes of a phenomenon. Studying causality is methodologically demanding.
  • Feel free to pose partially open questions that allow discussions of the overall theme, for example, “In what way …?”; “How can we understand [a particular phenomenon]?”
  • Try to condense your research question into one general question – and perhaps a few more specific sub-questions (two or three will usually suffice).

1.3 Outline

An outline gives an overview of the main parts of your thesis. It clarifies the structure of your thesis and helps you find the correct focus for your work. The outline can also be used in supervision sessions, especially in the beginning. You might find that you need to restructure your thesis. Working on your outline can then be a good way of making sense of the necessary changes. A good outline shows how the different parts relate to each other, and is a useful guide for the reader.

It often makes sense to put the outline at the end of the introduction, but this rule is not set in stone. Use discretion: What is most helpful for the reader? The information should come at the right point – not too early and not too late.

2. Theory

The theory used in an empirical study is meant to shed light on the data in a scholarly or scientific manner. It should give insights not achievable by ordinary, everyday reflections. The main purpose of using theory is to analyse and interpret your data. Therefore, you should not present theoretical perspectives that are not being put to use. Doing so will create false expectations, and would suggest that your work is incomplete.

Not all theses have a separate theory section. In the IMRaD format, the theory section is included in the introduction, and the second chapter covers the methods used.

What kind of theory should you choose? Since the theory is the foundation for your data analysis, it can be useful to select a theory that lets you distinguish between, and categorise different phenomena. Other theories let you develop the various nuances of a phenomenon. In other words, you have a choice of either reducing the complexity of your data, or expanding upon something that initially looks simple.

How much time and space should you devote to the theory chapter? This is a difficult question. Some students make the mistake of writing theses that dwell too long on theory, and never get to the main point: the analysis and discussion. At the same time, it is important to have read enough theory to know what to look for when collecting data. The nature of your research should decide. Some studies do not require much theory, but put more emphasis on the method, while other studies need a rich theory section to enable an interesting discussion.

3. Methods

In a scholarly research article, the section dealing with materials and methods is of central importance. The same applies to a thesis based on empirical research. To write a good methods section, it is important to know what its purpose is, that is, what it is supposed to do.

Importantly, the methods chapter should not reiterate the contents of methodology handbooks. For example, if you have carried out interviews, you do not need to list all the different types of research interview. You also do not need to describe the differences between quantitative and qualitative methods, or list all different kinds of validity and reliability.

What you must do is to show how your choice of design and research method(s) is suited to answering your research question(s). Through the description of your chosen approach, it should become clear that you have given due consideration to questions of validity (the degree to which research measures what it is intended to measure) and reliability (the degree to which research method gives the same results if it is used in the same situation on repeated occasions). By showing instead of telling, you demonstrate that you have understood the practical meaning of these concepts. This way, the methods section is not only able to tie the different parts of your thesis together, it becomes interesting to read.

  • Show the reader what you have done in your study, and explain why. How did you collect the data? Which options became available through your chosen approach?
  • What were your working conditions? Which considerations did you have to balance?
  • Tell the reader what you did to increase the validity of your research. For example, what can you say about the reliability of the process of collecting data? How do you know that you have actually investigated what you intended to investigate? Which conclusions can be drawn on this basis? Which conclusions are certain, and which are more tentative? Can your results be applied in other areas? Can you generalise? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • You should aim to describe weaknesses as well as strengths. An excellent thesis distinguishes itself by defending – and at the same time criticising – the choices made.

4. Analysis (results)

The analysis, along with the discussion, will form the highlight of your thesis. In the IMRaD format, this section is Results. This is where you report your findings and present them in a systematic manner. The expectations of the reader have been built up through the other chapters, so ensure you fulfill these expectations.

To analyse means to distinguish between different types of phenomena – similar from different. By distinguishing between different phenomena, your theory is put to work. Precisely how the analysis should appear, however, is a methodological question. Finding out how best to organise and present your findings may take some time. A good place to look for examples and inspiration is repositories for master’s theses.

If you are analysing human actions, you may want to engage the reader’s emotions. In this case, it will be important to choose analytical categories that correlate to your chosen theory. Engaging emotions is not the main point, but a way to elucidate the phenomenon, so that the reader understands it in a new and better way.

Note: Not all theses include a separate chapter for analysis.

5. Discussion

The discussion is often the most important section. Make sure that you allocate enough time and space for a good discussion. This is your opportunity to show that you have understood the significance of your findings, and that you can apply theory in an independent manner.

The discussion will consist of argumentation. In other words, you elucidate a phenomenon from several different perspectives. To discuss means to question your findings, and to consider different interpretations. Here are a few examples of formulations that signal argumentation:

  • On the one hand … and on the other …
  • However …
  • … it could also be argued that …
  • … another possible explanation may be …

Consult a phrasebank

The University of Manchester offers a compilation of phrases that can be used for different purposes, including discussion. See Manchester University Phrasebankopen in new window

6. Conclusion – or summary?

The final section of the thesis may take one of several different forms. Some theses need a conclusion, while for others a summary will be appropriate. This depends on the nature of the research question(s) (or thesis statement).

Open research questions cannot always be answered, but if a definite answer is possible, you must provide a conclusion. The conclusion should answer the research question(s). Remember that a negative conclusion is also valid.

A summary should repeat the most important issues raised in the thesis, especially the discussion, although preferably stated in a (slightly) different way. For example, you could frame the issues within a wider context.

Tips for putting the thesis in perspective

During the work, tangential questions may have emerged, and you may have encountered interesting literature that could have been followed up on, but all of this fell beyond the framework of your current project. Here are a few suggestions for pointing to issues that you have not been able to address:

  • Highlight alternative research questions that emerged during your work.
  • Show how others have placed the subject area in a different context.
  • If others have drawn different conclusions from yours, this could provide ideas of new ways to view the research question.
  • Describe any unanswered aspects of your project, and suggest potential follow-up and new projects.

A thesis that bites its own tail

There should be a strong connection between your conclusion and your introduction. All the themes and issues that you raised in your introduction must be referred to again in one way or another. If you find at this stage that your thesis has not tackled an issue that you raised in the introduction, go back to the introduction and delete the reference to that issue. An elegant way to structure the text is to use the same textual figure or case in the beginning as well as in the end. When the figure returns in the final section, it will have taken on a new and richer meaning through the insights you have encountered, created in the process of writing.

Recommended reading:

J. Schimel, 2012 Writing Science. How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. New York: Oxford University Press in new window in new window in new window

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