These are the most important components of your thesis or report. Put your biggest effort into getting them perfect. Most professors read the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusions chapters of a thesis first, then they dive into the main body text afterwards. This means that you have to be particularly careful in wording these sections, since there is some content overlap. If you just copy and paste text between them, people will notice and it won’t leave them with a very favourable impression. Many people read technical reports in the same order – in fact, some people actually never read anything but the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusions!
There are some fairly specific rules related to these thesis (or technical report) components that you must know about. There are also some common sense guidelines that are useful to know – the main one being the advice above not to cut and paste text. Another is that you write these three thesis/report components last. Yes, that’s right – you write the Introduction and Abstract last – after you have written the entire report or thesis contents. (You can be stubborn and write them first if you like; just be prepared to do them twice, because you’ll find they have to be completely rewritten in the end anyway.)
The fact that these are written last generally means they are often the most poorly written – since most people naturally start to burn out as they approach the end of such a large writing project. However, keep in mind that these are the sections that will get the most attention and scrutiny – so you absolutely have to make them your best content in the document. Here’s a general overview of how to write these important sections, presented in the typical order in which they are written.
What goes in your ‘Introduction’?
A good technical report/thesis Introduction does four things:
1. It introduces the problem and motivation for the study.
- Tell the reader what the topic of the report is.
- Explain why this topic is important or relevant.
2. It provides a brief summary of previous engineering and/or scientific work on the topic.
- Here you present an overview what is known about the problem. You would typically cite earlier studies conducted on the same topic and/or at this same site, and in doing so, you should reveal the yawning void in the knowledge that your brilliant research will fill.
- If you are writing a thesis, you’re going to need a full-blown literature review with very specific details of all of the scientific or engineering work done on the topic to date. This literature review is usually contained in its own chapter, particularly for PhD theses. In the introduction, just present a brief overview, sufficient to establish the need for your research.
3. It outlines the purpose and specific objectives of the project.
- These are linked to solving the problem or filling the knowledge gap identified above.
- Often, the specific objectives are listed in point form. Sometimes a numbered list is used.
4. It provides a ‘road map’ for the rest of the report.
- This is so that the reader knows what’s coming and sees the logic of your organization.
- Describe (in approximately one sentence each) the contents of each of the report/thesis chapters.
What doesn’t go in your Introduction?
- Never put any results or decisions in the Introduction. Just because you are writing it last doesn’t mean you should give away the story. After all – it’s called the “Introduction” for a reason. 😉
What goes in your ‘Conclusions’ chapter?
The purpose of this chapter is to provide a summary of the whole thesis or report. In this context, it is similar to the Abstract, except that the Abstract puts roughly equal weight on all thesis/report chapters, whereas the Conclusions chapter focuses primarily on the findings, conclusions and/or recommendations of the project.
There are a couple of rules – one rigid, one common sense, for this chapter:
- All material presented in this chapter must have appeared already in the report; no new material can be introduced in this chapter. (rigid rule of technical writing)
- Usually, you would not present any new figures or tables in this chapter. (rule of thumb)
Generally, for most technical reports and Masters theses, the Conclusions chapter would be~3 to 5 pages long (double spaced). It would generally be longer in a large PhD thesis. Typically you would have a paragraph or two for each chapter or major subsection. Aim to include the following (typical) content.
- Re-introduce the project and the need for the work – though more briefly than in the intro;
- Re-iterate the purpose and specific objectives of your project.
- Re-cap the approach taken – similar to the road map in the intro; however, in this case, you are re-capping the data, methodology and results as you go.
- Summarize the major findings and recommendations of your work.
- Make recommendations for future research.
What goes in your ‘Abstract’?
(generally called the Executive Summary in technical reports)
In short, everything goes in the Abstract. Its purpose is to provide a summary of the whole report or thesis. In this context, it is similar to the Conclusions chapter, except that the Abstract gives the individual chapters more even weighting and is typically much shorter overall.
There are also a few rules for the Abstract.
- All material presented in the Abstract must appear in the report body as well; no new material is allowed. (rigid rule of technical writing)
- Do not present any figures or tables in the Abstract. (rigid rule of technical writing)
- Do not cite references the Executive Summary. (if you need to, then you are getting too detailed)
Generally, the Abstract would fit on one page (single spaced) with approximately one paragraph for each chapter. Here is the typical content.
- Present the project topic and the need for the work.
- State the specific objectives of the project.
- Re-cap the approach taken, major decisions and results.
- Summarize the major conclusions and recommendations of your work.
It’s important to keep in mind that some universities put very stringent length restriction on theses Abstracts, which makes them even harder to write. If you are faced with this challenge, don’t deal with it by leaving out your results and conclusions. Everything above must still be covered; but you will have to be extremely brief and articulate. Generally, you will not be able to get into any details on the methodologies and decisions.
In my next post, I will give some advice on that most dreaded of all chapters – the Literature Review.