Thesis Layout Bleg

So, I’ve been slogging along with my thesis, trying to get everything wrapped up on time. I have a month from yesterday to get the experiments, models, and paper wrapped up to the point that my advisers are willing to sign off on me being ready to defend. I’ve gone back through my thesis, trying to add in all the stuff I’ve done since I last stopped writing (back in 2004 or so). I originally had about 70 pages worth of stuff written, and I’m almost through bringing the first 50 pages or so (Chapters 1 and 2) up to snuff. However I’m now running into a challenge in the layout of the paper, and I was wondering if I could get some suggestions (seeing as how my whole thesis committee is out of town).

As I understand it, the general format recommended goes something like this:

  • Chapter One: Introduction–Here you give a basic introduction to what the problem is you’re trying to solve, what benefits it would provide, what specific question you are trying to answer (the thesis statement), what other applications there might be for the topic, and what delimitations you’re putting in to prevent the thesis from getting too nasty.
  • Chapter Two: Literature Review–Here you discuss all the papers and books that you’ve found on the topic that are relevant, and give a basic introduction to the specific areas of specialized knowledge you’re going to be using in your thesis.
  • Chapter Three: Methodology–Here you lay out the experimental and analytical methodology you’re going to use in your thesis, including discussions of your models, and what tests you will perform (and how).
  • Chapter Four: Results–Here you discuss the results that you get from carrying out your methodology. You discuss the experiments and the data, you discuss the models and what they predict, etc.
  • Chapter Five: Conclusions–Here you basically try to tie everything together and determine if you were able to answer the question, and if so what was the answer
  • Chapter Six: Future Work–Here you lay out areas that you either delimited in chapter one or that came up during research that might be interesting to investigate in the future. You can also discuss what other steps need to be taken before your technology can be applied in the real world.

Or something to that effect.

However, I have a bit of a problem. For me, I didn’t know much about the problem at hand when I started (nor did any of my advisers), so I had to take a much more iterative approach. I made several prototypes, trying to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t. Some of that fed back into the modeling. I also ended up iterating several times on the models as data came in showing I needed to add complexities like damping, or was able to determine that the amplitude of the displacements was small enough that I could drop some terms in some of the models.

My original plan was to just add an additional two chapters: preliminary methodology, and preliminary results before the model refinement and final results chapters. However that seems really kind of kludgy. Not to mention the fact that after Chapter 2, I already have about 50 pages of text and graphics (not counting the 12 pages worth of stuff from the title page till Chapter 1 starts or the several pages worth of bibliography, or any of the apendices). I’m worried that at the rate I’m going, my thesis may end up being a whopping 150-200 pages thick by the time I’m done with it (if I manage to finish it at all).

So does anyone have any thoughts or suggestions? Anyone else been down this road? Any examples of a good thesis that I could look at for ideas?

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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15 Responses to Thesis Layout Bleg

  1. Karl says:

    That sounds a little scawny for a dissertation involving computer modeling or programs. They get thick especially once you include the program in question. For a Master’s thesis, it sounds big. OTOH, a redesign of the thesis at this point might take longer than just going through the motions and putting what you have together in the order you describe. I assume you’ve looked at other theses in your department? They should have a record of them going back quite a ways, unless the department is new.

  2. peter says:

    In what discipline is your thesis? The format of the diss. will depend largely on that. It rather surprises me that you are on the cusp of finishing and your advisor(s) or committee have not weighed in on specifications. That’s what the whole game is about! and it is a bit of a game, make no mistake about it. Best of luck.–peter

  3. Thomas Matula says:


    First the advice to review earlier thesis in your field and department is very good, especially ones your advisors have signed off on. This will not only help you with questions like the general structure but also formatting issues like cites for references.

    Second, the First Chapter of a thesis is usually the last one finished. I know it was for mine. That is because after your Lit review and actual research you usually find that you really didn’t understand the problem enough to describe it properly and so you must now rewrite the first chapter to reflect your new understanding of it. Not a massive rewrite, just one sufficient to bring in line with what you actually did.

  4. Stephen Langford says:

    Your advisors make the call, but my rule is “no history.” That shortens things a lot.

  5. Rand Simberg says:

    Or if you do provide history, do it in an appendix (like Tolkien did).

  6. Jon Goff says:

    Karl, Tom,
    I ended up doing exactly what you suggested right after blogging this. My big challenge is that since I’ve been away from the university now for almost 3 years, I haven’t had as easy access to things like old theses…until I found the link to the ones published online.

    I think I found a format that should allow me to keep almost all of the stuff I’ve written already (just rearrange it a bit), while making a lot better sense overall.

    Basically I’m looking at:
    Ch1:Intro and Background (with half of the former Ch2 mixed in here).
    Ch2:Piezoelectric Nozzle Modulation (here I move all the intro to piezoelectric stuff from Ch2, and then fill in all the stuff about my piezo/nozzle models)
    Ch3: Pulsating Tube Flow and Jet Breakup Models (I move the remainder of the Ch2 introductory stuff here, then show how those apply in this specific example–ie simplification, the boundary conditions, etc).
    Ch4: Coupled Model (here I show how the two tie together, what the models predict, weird observations, and then the validation experiment I’m about to run)
    Ch5: Conclusions and Future Work (here I go over the key takeaways, and figure out how to make life miserable for some future grad student.

    Sound better?


  7. Jon Goff says:

    I’m working on a Mechanical Engineering masters degree. The reason my advisers haven’t weighed in more is that I left the university three years ago to join Masten Space Systems, and only in the past half a year have gotten serious about finishing this before the deadline. Trying to finish your thesis from two states away is a bit of a challenge.


  8. Jon Goff says:

    Stephen, Rand,
    What do you guys mean by your “no history” comment? I’m not sure I understand.


  9. Karl Hallowell says:

    I don’t know, but maybe they mean skimp on the exposition? The outline sounds good to me. And I agree with Thomas, your introduction will probably change. Still rewriting the introduction should be low effort compared to the rest of your thesis.

  10. Jon Goff says:

    Most of what I’m doing with Chapter 1 at this point is just quickly merging in the Ch2 stuff. One thing to remember is that I’m almost done with my research at this point, so I’m a lot closer to being able to do my final rewrite of Chapter 1.


  11. Rand Simberg says:

    I can’t speak for Stephen, but what I mean is don’t tell the whole story of how you got to where you are, with all the twists and turns, and back tracks. The main paper should simply describe the thesis and results, as though you’d known what you were doing when you started.

  12. Thomas Mattison says:

    I’m a physics professor, not in engineering, but I read a lot of theses. I strongly endorse two things that have been mentioned in the comments, although I’ll change the phrasing:

    1. You don’t have to organize chronologically, and you don’t have to cover everything that you did. Focus on the clearest possible presentation of what finally worked best, rather than how you got there.

    2. Appendices are your friends. They are good for discussions that should be included somehow, but distract from the main point. Examples are things that were tried but didn’t end up being useful for the main result, and long derivations where most readers only need the final result, but some may want to see the details.

    To me, it’s quite interesting to read about approaches that seemed at first glance to be promising, but didn’t work for some non-obvious reason. You can save others lots of time and effort by recording the non-obvious reasons, and people don’t “publish” that kind of thing often enough (because no one likes to look less than omniscient). A thesis appendix is a great place to do things like that.

    Remember “thesis” literally means a statement to be proven. Pick your statement carefully, and construct your proof of it. Remember that when you prove or derive something, you typically try several approaches that don’t work, then hit on one that does. Your written proof would leave out the blind alleys and inefficient derivations. Your thesis should be the same way.

    But feel free to include appendices with interesting things that happened along the way.

  13. Michel Santos says:


    I think that Thomas makes some very good points about making the presentation clear yet also including the dead ends (time permitting) because of what can be learned from them.

    I also agree with what you’ve done regarding arranging the layout of the paper in whatever way makes most sense to present the material. To my taste, there’s little point to a sacred outline format.

    I hope that you’ll post a link to your thesis when you’re done. Good luck,


  14. Jon Goff says:

    If I get enough time, I want to submit it electronically, but that’s iffy. If I can’t manage that, then at least I’ll make a pdf and send it to whoever is interested.

    Rand, Thomas,
    I get what you’re saying now. That’s a good idea. So if I ended up doing lots of experiments trying to find a good nozzle, but it isn’t the main focus of my thesis, I could just explain the nozzle design I settled on, and some of the reasons why, and then maybe put an appendix in at the back that shows the different designs I tried and some of the issues I ran into with each of them?


  15. adiffer says:

    My adviser taught me that the abstract is the last thing your write as it is the only thing most will read. Just before that you write the summary chapter at the end as that is the only thing most will read if the abstract doesn’t scare them off. Just before that is your final re-write of the first chapter which should lay out what they need to make sense of later chapters. If readers go past that point, you probably already know them and they know your material, so internal chapters are flexible.

    I’d add one thing about blind alleys. If you learned something useful while following one it might be worthy of an appendix

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