3 Essentials for a Great Thesis or Dissertation

by Melissa MacAulay

Published at 2015-09-09

As one of our Academic Editors here at TEC, I've recently been working on a lot of graduate theses and dissertations, helping students to shape what they've written into something they're proud to defend. Having just defended by own PhD dissertation earlier this year, I have a good idea of what graduate supervisors and committees are looking for in a finished dissertation (in the humanities and social sciences, at least).


No doubt, many of you are embarking on (or continuing on with) graduate programs this fall. If so, keep these three essentials in mind when it comes time to write up!

1. A Thesis Statement (That Says Something New)

Ever since high school, your English teacher has been asking, “What is your thesis statement?”


A thesis statement is as essential now as it ever was. It should appear time and time again in your dissertation: in your introduction, your conclusion, and strategically placed throughout your chapters (re-phrased if necessary). It is the bigger picture that you want your readers to keep in mind, and you should get very good at expressing it succinctly. Find some fun examples (both good and bad) here!

Not only should your thesis statement be very visible, but it should also bring something new to the table. Perhaps you’ve come up with an alternate interpretation of something familiar, or some novel reasons to reject an old interpretation. Maybe you’ve uncovered a hidden assumption in a well-known debate or theory. Whatever it is, it should be something that, if not completely ground-breaking, at the very least makes your committee members say, “Hmm ... Let me think about that.”

2. A Roadmap

All good dissertations feature one key paragraph (or two) that very plainly spell out the structure of the entire dissertation. This is what I like to call a “roadmap.” 


A good roadmap is straightforward and simple to write; in fact, it should be the most boring part of your whole dissertation. All you need to do is string a few sentences together: “In chapter 1, I explain ...,” “In chapter 2, I argue …,” and so on. Writing a good roadmap for your dissertation is usually very easy, and will help to ensure that your readers know where they are and where they are going, so to speak. In general, the less confused your readers are, the better you look.

3. A Sense of Humility

Don’t try to trick your readers into thinking that you’ve made an earth-shattering, irrefutable breakthrough in your field; you probably haven’t, and your committee members will know this. For example, avoid making sweeping statements, as they are almost always false. Use qualifiers such as “plausibly” or “generally,” where appropriate. Remember: It’s better to make a minor point that is true, than a major one that is almost definitely false.


Furthermore, be clear and upfront about the limitations of your research. This won’t make you look bad—to the contrary, you will come across as a well-informed and serious researcher.  


Lastly, don’t be quick to put down other researchers or the positions they hold. If you think something someone said in another paper is downright silly, it may be because you didn’t quite understand, which makes you look bad. Regardless, always play it safe and be as charitable as possible.


With these three guidelines in mind, enjoy your journey and write well!






A Post-Script: Also remember to archive your online materials when doing your research. Too often online documents disappear, taking with them the proof of your work. For some easy tips on how to archive your sources, download our free eBook.