Thesis Format

All students must produce a thesis, which describes in full detail the wider context of the research field including a literature review, the motivation for the research, the research which was carried out, an evaluation of the results, and a discussion of the contribution made to the field by the research and what should be done in the future. This needs to be submitted by three days before the end of the fourth year. For the relevant University policies, see ‘Policies’ Chapter.

There are two formats in which the thesis can be produced: traditional format and alternative format. Traditional format is probably what most people imagine a thesis is like, a very substantial report presented as a self-contained exposition. The alternative format thesis “... allows a postgraduate doctoral or MPhil student to incorporate sections that are in a format suitable for submission for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.” Presentation of Thesis Policy [2]. The alternative format thesis is often thought of as a collection of publications, with a short commentary associated with each one, tying the works into a unifying thread, or “thesis”.

Which you use is a decision you will need to make with your supervisor.

The advantages of the alternative format thesis are that if you already have several papers, you can more easily produce a thesis out of them. Also, if you have plans to write several papers, you can write your thesis in such a way that it will be easier to facilitate these plans, because writing the thesis will be build around writing papers. The papers can be submitted after the thesis.

The disadvantage of the alternative format is that it is less widely used in the UK, so many supervisors and examiners may be less comfortable with it.

A QandA on the Alternative Format Thesis [1] can be found here . Note that it says in Section 4,

“ may not be until year 2 or 3 that you feel you are in a position to use the alternative format.”

but it says in Section 5 that a request must be made in writing by the end of year 2. Thus, if you are considering using alternative format, apply for it by the end of year 2. You can revert to traditional format without asking permission formally.


All students should make sure they are familiar with what the university expects from its students. All students are also required to complete a plagiarism course.

In view of the serious consequences of plagiarism and academic malpractice, it is essential that all students familiarise themselves with the accepted format for referencing work in their discipline, and that they start using the accepted form as soon as possible.


Ignorance of the proper format, or ignorance of the definitions of plagiarism and academic malpractice used by the university, is not a valid defence against a possible claim of plagiarism or other instance of academic malpractice.

Writing Advice

Whichever format you choose, you must give yourself sufficient time to produce the thesis. You must know yourself, and how quickly you are able to write. Six months is a minimum time for most people. Some may need nine.

Do not feel that you need to write it in order; start with the easiest parts first. Usually the technical sections on the research done by you are the easiest, because you know them well. The literature review may be next easiest. The introduction is usually the hardest to write, and many advise that it be written last.

Thesis Writing Advice

Sage advice from Prof Bill Buchanan OBE, PhD, FBCS - Professor at Edinburgh Napier University:

Say up-front what the problem is, what other people have done, and how you have added to it. The Introduction chapter is the most important chapter of all, and you need to grab the reader, and tell them what the problem is, and how you have solved it. If the examiner understands the thesis after the Introduction, you are half way there. I’ve read a few thesis’ where I had no idea what the point was until I actually got to the end, and the contribution was revealed on the last page. This is a major gamble, as some readers may give up before that point, and not know the end contribution. Be fair on the reader and tell them the contribution, and keep telling them.

Get rid of those typos! You wouldn’t believe the number of PhD thesis’ I have read that have a typo in the very first line of the thesis. A reader becomes annoyed if they have to keep correcting typos, and the more annoyed the reader, the more time they are taking away from actually reading the content. Try and start off on a good footing, so that the Abstract and Introduction chapter have been read over several times - typically talking them out loud. If possible get someone else to read the Introduction, and see if they understand what the point of work is.

Bad grammar shows bad practice and a weak supervision. Part of doing a PhD is learning how to write and present ideas, and how to review and edit. One of the most important things that you learn in a PhD is how to write, so that others can understand your ideas. A good part of this is for supervisors to get involved reading the work, and in giving detailed feedback. It is often a good idea for supervisors to mark up early drafts with red pen, so that students get an idea on the amount of checking and editing that is often required.

Superlatives are not very good! A PhD is a scientific study, and the usage of superlatives should be avoided, along with weak words like “big” ... “the measure gives a very big number”. If a number is large, define what large actually means, as everything is relative.

Significance matters. I’ve read thesis’ that draw a graph, and then gives me values of 10 decimal places, and then to be told that there is an importance of one thing to another. But is it significant? If I move from 100.01254632 to 100.1263241, is that a massive change and why do we need so many decimal places? Every measurement has an accuracy, and this should always be included in the presentation of the values. Examiners want to know the significance of something, and if it isn’t significant, then just tell them.

One table tells much more than a whole lot of numbers. Again I’ve read so many thesis’, where the writer continually presents a whole series of numbers and graphs, and where they could all be moved into an appendix, and compiled into a single table (or graph). A good supervisor should be able to spot how to collapse lots series of tables into a single one, as they often have to do it for papers. Many students rely on drawing graphics for presenting trends whereas tables are often better, especially in defining changes within the figures presented. A great tip is to normalise values, and show how the values vary between each other. Relative values are often easier to understand than absolute ones - remember too that most values have units, and that units matter. I’ve quizzed many students on whether they are talking about Mbps or MBps - there’s a difference of eight in there!

Draw some pictures. There is no place for trivial graphics and clip art in a PhD thesis, but there is a place for the abstraction of complex ideas, especially in the introduction. There no real need to just copy the graphics from others, as they should come from the ideas inspired by the writer. I’ve read quite a few thesis, where the text just goes on and on. Break the text up every now and then, and give the reader something to ponder over.

Break up and but keep a narrative. There’s a careful balance here. If you keep your sections short, it becomes to “bitty”, and if you make them too long, they become long and unwieldy. I personally read whole sections in a single sitting, and try and take in the ideas, and I won’t move on until I understand it. A long section, especially where there are no sub-sections, often introduces too many concepts which can make it difficult to read. I normally recommend a maximum of a page and a half of text before there should be a break (such as a sub-section break). Long paragraphs are not a good thing as it becomes difficult to take in all the concepts introduced. Try, if possible, not to make them too short, but not too long. A paragraph that goes on for half a page is probably too long, and one that has only two sentences is probably too short. Along try and avoid too many sub-sub sections, as it becomes difficult for the reader to put it all into context.

Avoid using the words of others too much. A thesis is written by the writer, and it is their words. A long series of indented text items of quoted material becomes fairly generic, where you get little of the sense of the thoughts of the writer. If you must reference others, pull it out, and indent.

Be precise. A PhD thesis should be a scientific document which abides to certain standards for the articulation of ideas. It is always sloppy to see a candidate writing 9*6^3, where the “*” is a sloppy way of writing a multiply symbol (x) and ^ should be “to the power off”. If it’s an equation, it should be pulled out of the text, and a proper equation editor should be used, with a proper numbering system for the equation.

Every diagram and table should be referenced in the text. I have read many thesis’ (typically drafts) where the writer just assumes that the reader knows how a diagram or table should integrate with the narrative. Every figure and table should thus be referenced in the text, so that the reader knows when to look at it. If possible don’t break up your narrative with a diagram, and move it a little later on, as long as it is after then text which is referring to it. Don’t ever put a diagram in the text before it is actually referred to, as the reader is left confused as to why the diagram is there.

Be critical of yourself and others. One of the key things within a PhD is the ability to critically appraise the work of others, both for the strengths and weaknesses of their work, and also of the candidate’s work. I often circle the first signs of critical thought in a thesis. If it happens on Page 50, there’s a problem in not being able to critically appraise work. Along with this some candidates can think that everything is perfect with their work, and that it addresses every single problem in their field. Try to always define both the strengths and weaknesses your own work, and identify how these could be improved. The scope of the impact should never be overestimated, but also not underestimated. If you’ve developed something that completely changed something, be up-front and tell the reader. Most of the times, be honest to say that you are just enhancing something a little bit.

A thesis is not a diary! I have read so many thesis’ which are basically just a chronological flow of their research. You can often spot this as the literature review runs out of references which are up-to-date. I have read several thesis’ where the latest reference in the literature review is two years ago, and it points to the fact that it has not been updated since it was initially written. A literature review should be written for the thesis, and many parts of the original literature can be dumped, and replaced with newer references which fit in with the contribution.

Focus the literature review on the contribution. One literature review of PhD thesis I read was almost 200 pages long, and my head was spinning at the end of it. It covered so many points, and few of them actually went anywhere in the following chapters. Try and focus the literature review on covering the 4 or 5 key concepts involved in the thesis, and not in the research project. A good supervisor can often spot redundant sections, and advise for them to be cut. If the thesis is still the same by taking something out, there’s no need for it to be there, as every paragraph and every word should count, and be carefully crafted as part of the whole story.

Make sure the aim is “of the thesis, and not “of the initial research project”. Many thesis’ start with “The aim of this research project is ...” which often is a sign that the original project aim has not changed in the writing of the thesis. Overall the aim is the aim of the thesis, as the research project has finished. Every should be written from a point-of-view that the work has finished, and this is the write-up.

Get the flow right. A strong flow of literature, method, build and evaluation helps the flow of the thesis, and where you often see references to literature tailing off as the thesis develops. I’ve seen some thesis’ where there are whole chapters that lack any form of reference to other work. This is poor practice as a PhD thesis should show how every aspect of the work fits in with the work of others. I like to see a reference to other work in the introduction of a chapter, as it shows some key influences for the work. I personally don’t like an introduction that says “Section 1 says this, and Section 2 says that, and Section 3 says something else”, as I can see from the table of contents what the contents are. If possible the reader should tell the reader what is likely to be revealed and what the significance is. A reinforcement of the main drive of the work also helps to bring the focus onto the main contribution of the work.

If you don’t know it ... don’t say it! This one seems so obvious, but you won’t believe the number of times that you ask in a Viva about the detail of a paper, and the method used, and for the answer to be that they don’t actually know what it does. You always increase your exposure to probing if you include things you don’t quite understand, so dump them (if they are not a core topic).

Explain it simply. There’s nothing nicer for an examiner when the candidate takes a complex idea and gives their own viewpoint on it, in a simple way, using new material. It shows that they can articulate complex ideas in a simple way. The standard test for any thesis is that a 14-year old child should, at least, be able to read it, and understand some of the key concepts in it.

Show that you love the subject and that it is relevant. Three years is a long time, but the sustainment of interest is a key part of the work, so try and show that this is an important topic and that your thesis is exactly what is required, and in the impact that it could have. Again the Introduction chapter is a great place to grab the reader, and show how important the work is. If possible try and find something that has just happened in the news in the introduction that shows how important your work is. The Introduction chapter, at least, should be readable by all, and where, at the end of it, most readers would want to read on, as it sounds so interesting.

Make your thesis a sandwich. With a good thesis, we open with the Introduction and close on the Conclusions. The bit in-between justifies what you have opened with and the conclusions should show what you have uncovered to justify your argument. The same goes for each chapter, where the introduction (half a page, typically) shows what you’re going to tell them, and the conclusion confirms it. Do not make conclusion into a summary, as the reader has no time to read summaries, and just wants you to conclude the most important things that go forward (and so they can dump all the other things that you covered). If possible say why you are not taking some things forward in the conclusions (and justify using the work of others, if possible).

Don’t just pick without reviewing and justifying. There is no justification in a thesis for picking something just because it is easy to get. If possible all the things that are selected have at least been reviewed, and a sensible solution is selected (and justified). Try always to select a few competing methods and tools and put them against each other.

Validate before Evaluate. You won’t believe the number of Vivas that I’ve done where I’ve asked if they validated their system or software before they went onto evaluating it. So “How do you it takes 5 milliseconds to get from here to there?, the wrong answer is ”... because the package said it was 5 milliseconds”. Good experimenters will do “fag packet” calculations, to estimate things and know the limits of what they expect. I always like to see validation tests within the test data, so that the researcher knows that their system is working correctly. There’s nothing work in finding there is a bug in your results, after you have published them ... so always have a sanity check.

Get that scientific method. There are so many occasions in a thesis where you have no idea what a graph is telling you, as the axis’ are not numbered properly, or where they are poorly scaled. If the variation is between 990 and 1000, don’t draw a graph which goes from 0 to 1000. Work out what the graph is trying to say, and pick the graph type (eg pie chart to show significant of one method against another) to show this.

Must be based on a method and be repeatable. There must be a method in the processes used, and designed in a scientific way. Along with this the thesis should outline the procedure in a repeatable way, so that someone else can perform the same evaluation and get the same results. So candidates should always say to themselves... “Is there enough information for someone to build the artefact?”, “Is there enough information to repeat the experiment?”, and “Do I have the data that the examiner can look at, in order to verify the evaluation?”

Evaluate your method against others. The standard method to show a contribution is to take your method and evaluate it against other competing methods. The best approach is to use the best competing method and show an improvement. This can sometimes be difficult, so, at least, there is an evaluation against other methods. Showing an improvement is obviously a good thing, but there is often nothing wrong with an evaluation which shows a negative impact, especially if it is backed-up with a strong critical appraisal.

Be fair and honest with your experiments. Often an experimental procedure is selected to benefit your own method. If possible be fair on all the methods and do not bias your approach to your one. It does no harm to show weaknesses and downsides to your own contribution, as it gives you a chance to critically appraise and show how future work could improve things. Your experimental procedure and the associated data collection should be repeatable and verifiable, so don’t delete that data you have gathered.

If possible, know your examination team. While the thesis should stand-alone you should also know your examination team before the Viva, so avoid patronising them with background theory which they know inside-out, or provide some background which might help the examiners to understand the area. Often an examiner, as part of the Viva, will give advice on moving things between the core material and appendices, in order to address the target audience for the thesis.

Show that you are now an expert in your area. People expect those with a PhD to be an expert in the area of study, so make sure you know your core principles in the subject area. If you are doing a cryptography PhD read around the subject, and know the core principles of the most important methods. For me, anyone doing a PhD in electrical engineering, for example, should know Ohms Law, and the same should go for other subjects.

Use appendices. Many PhD thesis’ are full of material that is irrelevant to many of the key arguments, and writers are often too sensitive about removing material. If you can, put unrelated material in an appendix, and just refer to it. As a measure, if any material doesn’t help your core arguments, then remove it, as you are wasting the reader’s time.

Quality is better than quantity. Some of the best thesis’ I read have been relatively short and sharp, but where the quality is high. A good eye for moving material in appendices is important and helps the examiner. For some reason, candidates like to produce a thick thesis, and they think that the more pages there, the better the material. This is often the opposite, and a thesis written with self-contained papers for chapters - which link together - are often the best in their presentation.

Define published work. A key part of PhD study is the dissemination of the work, especially with peer reviewed. The examiner often needs to know what has been published.

Watch those unreliable references. In a PhD thesis, the references should be credible and verifiable references, and references to industry-focused white papers or general Web pages cannot be trusted providing credible viewpoints.

Look for small-scale to large-scale experiments. A good researcher will often start small scale and prove the principle, and then look for a large-scale experiment. The sign of small experiments, along with a large-scale experiment which properly evaluates the methods presented, is a good sign of a strong research ethos.

Few abstracts are actually any good in first draft. For some reason most PhD students struggle to write an abstract, and often it is written more as an introduction rather than a distilled version of the thesis. Remember that the abstract is the first thing that the reader reads, so if it is not focused on presenting the whole of the thesis, you have missed an opportunity to get the reader on your side. If possible an abstract should be a page in length, and outline the problem, the contribution, the most significant methods, the thing that has been designed/modelled, what has been evaluated, and what the most significant result is.

Conclusions should conclude the whole thesis. Often the thesis just verifies aims and shows the significance of the results, but it should also recap the key parts of the literature and the other chapters.

Mind those commas. Commas seem to be a dying breed, but are there to help speak directly to the reader. Try and read out loud, and if there’s a slight pause, add a comma.

End on a high! Don’t spoil your thesis, by adding another chapter after the main contribution. Leave the reader on a high, and get them into the Conclusions, and leave the stage. I’ve read a few thesis’ where the last chapter is a real let-down, and contributes very little to the overall focus of the work. If you want, put your lovely new models in an appendix, and refer them in the main chapters, but try and finish the main chapters with the answer to the question posed at the start. The last dot of the last main chapter cements the argument, so don’t run on into something else that you just happens to be which you are currently looking at, as just feel your thesis isn’t thick enough yet!

Sign post your work. Remember the thicker the thesis, the longer it takes to read, and if it doesn’t get to the point, the more annoyed the reader becomes in actually showing how you have addressed the problem and your main contribution. The more focused the thesis, the shorter time it will take to understand it, and the happier the examiner will be when they are reading it. Add pointers to “wake up” the reader and tell them that they really should read this bit ... as I’m telling you something important.

Guide but stay on the academic track. Guide them through difficult areas, and allow them to learn from your love of the topic and your new insights, but stick to well-defined academic principles for writing a thesis ... such as not adding your own opinions in literature review parts. Leave your thoughts for the conclusion section with a chapter. Try not to hint that you’ve solved every problem in the area, and rely on showing your contribution on the back of others, including within the main conclusions.

Be humble. Show that you are humble in your writing and respect (and know) the most important people in your area (including your external examiner), and that you want to be an active part of your community, and help them. The PhD is not an end-stop, but shows how you will work in the future ... either in academia or industry. So just because you are off to a job in industry, doesn’t mean that your research career ends at the graduation ... you have standards and methods to set for others to follow.