* Based on my personal experience in successfully writing a bachelor’s thesis in biology and a master’s thesis in neurosciences in Germany. My view might be biased, but a lot of things probably apply across different fields and borders.
First of all, congrats! You made it! You are currently taking your first step into the direction of independent research. The only thing that is still separating you from your degree is your bachelor’s or master’s thesis work (and maybe some assignments and the last exam). You already heard from other people that stressful times are coming ahead and you are worried that everything will go wrong? It will not! To help you not loose your mind during the process, I put together some tips for you. I was lost in the beginning, too, and as a firstgen I thought I would never be able to find through the jungle and graduate. But here I am, holding a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and currently starting the most scary one so far: the PhD.
The Research Process
The research process of a bachelor’s or master’s thesis itself typically starts with an idea and is followed by a literature research identifying the status quo in the research field, resulting in refinement of the idea and the formation of a research question. Then, adequate methods to answer the question are decided, followed by data collection and analysis. The whole work is then finished off by writing the ‘thesis’.
As a bachelor’s or master’s student, you can technically jump in at any point of this process. Some labs have already decided on a question and the methodology you are going to use because it belongs to an ongoing project. This was for example the case in my bachelor’s thesis. As the bachelor’s thesis at my university needed to be conducted in a time frame of 12 weeks, I was working together with a PhD student collecting data (I was mainly staining brain sections, imaged them, and counted cells!). In my master’s thesis work (duration: 6 months), however, I was allowed to design my own project from beginning to the end and worked independently.
“Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen”
German for: A master has never come falling from heaven.
Lab work can be scary, you can feel like you are not good enough. I still remember how insecure I was on my first day in the lab as a bachelor’s student. I was shaking while pipetting under supervision because I was so nervous and didn’t want to do anything wrong. I thought my supervisor would think I was not made for the lab. But oh boy, was I wrong! No one, and I say NO ONE, expects you to be a perfect scientist already! You are in the process of learning the scientific method and getting trained! It is ok to make mistakes and ask for help, it is part of the learning process and will help you when conducting research in the future! Back then, thanks to great supervision, I gained confidence over time and was rewarded with beautiful immunofluorescence-stained brain sections!
How Do I Start?
1. Choose a Project You Find Interesting and a Supervisor You Feel Comfortable With
BOTH are important. You should choose a project you find interesting, in which you would enjoy working towards answering the research question and reading up on the literature. This will make it way easier to stay motivated. However, you should also be comfortable in your research environment. You will probably spend a lot of time with your supervisor and your supervisor might be the one grading you.
2. Ask for Important Literature and Example Theses
In order to gain a good overview of the field you will conduct your research in it is helpful to read up on literature straight ahead. A good way to do so and not miss the key concepts is to ask your supervisor. They are the expert in the field and can give you the most important papers. From there on you can guide your literature research looking through the names and references and checking related topics. Also, ask which data base (PubMed, WebOfScience, etc.) is commonly used in your field.
Since every university, even every faculty, and every professor has different guidelines and expectations for the thesis, try to get hold of theses from prior bachelor or master students. Often your supervisor or university library can provide them.
3. Create an Outline of Your Thesis
Maybe start out with a mind map. Write down EVERYTHING that comes to your mind when thinking about your topic. Write down what you already know. Write down your questions, which methods you are using. And then, connect the dots. Try to find a ‘red thread’ (=Roten Faden) that you can weave through your text. Find the story you want to tell and arrange it in an order.
Then, open a word document and create the skeleton of your thesis. Put all headings and subheadings in an order. Start with the most obvious things: Create a space for your cover, the table of contents. Add the title ‘abstract’, introduction, material and methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. Then add subheadings and a few bullet points about what you would like to write about in this section. This way you will already have a document that you can slowly feed with more information. And you will see your pages filling faster, which will give you a boost in motivation.
You don’t need to finish this all in one day. This can be a growing document meanwhile you are working in the lab.
4. Create a Schedule
If you are like me, you will probably still end up working up until the last minute, even if you scheduled everything perfectly and worked accordingly. However, it is definitely important to make a schedule of the whole time-frame of your research project. Schedule your experiments and when you are writing which chapter. Schedule how long the data analysis will probably take. Schedule the proof-reading, corrections, and formatting. Schedule the printing. Leave one- to two weeks extra for emergencies. Also, because it WILL take longer than you initially think. Especially, because you WILL probably be procrastinating at some points. But keep in mind: In case you get sick or something doesn’t work, most universities offer an extension of the deadline.
Also, try to schedule normal workdays for your thesis, include regular breaks, and enjoy time off (Feierabend!) of your thesis, too! This will keep you sane.
Tip: Check out how long copy shops take for printing BEFORE it is time for printing. Also make sure to put away some money, as it can sadly be quite expensive.
5. Invest Time in Learning a Citation Manager
It might take a moment, but will definitely pay off. When working on my bachelor’s thesis I made the mistake to not use one. I had more than 10 pages of references and sorting and formatting them took several days. Days that I could have used for proof-reading, or, finally relaxing for a bit 😉 Some examples are EndNote, Mendeley, Zotero.
Actually, I don’t understand why they don’t teach this in uni…
What to Think About When Writing the Different Parts of Your Thesis
Some general things on writing: don’t try to show off too much. Yes, it is important to use the adequate vocabulary when writing, but don’t make your sentences unnecessarily complicated. On a side note: not everyone is a native English speaker. I’m not. I actually wrote my bachelor’s thesis in German and only my master’s thesis in English. Looking back at it, I would choose to write the bachelor’s thesis in English, too, as it is easier to stick to the specific terms of the field, because most findings are reported in English. Besides, try to write every other day, even if it is just one sentence. Just write down what comes to your mind and directly put the reference next to it. It does not have to be a beautiful sentence. Beautiful sentences get born in the editing process. The flow of your text comes with time. Since we got that sorted now, let’s get to the different parts of your thesis!
In this part you want to give an overview of the field of your research. Why is this research important (why important for scientists? why for the general public?)? Is it about a disease? How many people suffer from it? Why should people care? What has been done in this field already? Where are the gaps? Maybe there are controversial results? Typically the introduction ends with the aim/research question that is based on the literature review. How does the aim relate to findings of previous studies? What is the main question? What are the subquestions? With which methods are you going to tackle them?
Tip: As you do your literature research for the introduction, summarize the main findings of the paper already with the reference in form of bullet points and put them in the corresponding chapter of the introduction. This way you will already have a skeleton that you can use for writing. The introduction should have the ‘shape’ of an inverted cone in the end, meaning that you should go from the broader topic to the specific question.
Material and Methods
Here you want to describe the material and methods you have used and why you have used them. Don’t only write down the steps of the protocol you applied, but also write down how the method works and why you used the substances (for example: To remove DNA, an additional DNAse treatment was performed applying DNAsI solved in RDD buffer directly on the column and incubating it for 15 minutes at room temperature).
Don’t forget to explain your analysis
Your results depend on the analysis/statistics you applied, therefore it is crucial to describe the program and the statistical tests you used and WHY they fit your data. What kind of data do you have? What results to you consider as significant (p-value below 0.05?)?
Tip: Write the methods as you apply them in the lab. Since you are basically writing down a protocol, it is a fast way to fill your pages and feel like you already made progress. Also your memory is still fresh. Make sure to write down from which company your substances and programs are.
Describe your results, but don’t interpret them yet. Put the description of a table ABOVE the table and the description of a figure BELOW the figure. The description should be written in a way that one can understand the table/figure without reading the main text. You don’t need to arrange the results in a chronological order, you can also put them in an order that helps you tell your story. This order should be consistent over sections (use the same order in the discussion!). Besides, don’t put too many figures. Put the most important ones that help you tell your story. Any additional figures can be put into the appendix.
This section can naturally feel like it is the most important part of your thesis. A lot of people were stressing out about not having good results or not having the results they wanted. I can assure you: IT DOESN’T MATTER. Experiments do not always work how we wanted it and in such a limited time frame it is totally normal that you might not get ‘good’ results. No one will give you a bad grade for that. The point of your thesis is to show that you understood how scientific research is conducted and how to wrap it up. YOU DON’T NEED TO WIN THE NOBEL PRIZE (if you do tho, congrats!). If you don’t have good results, put more effort into a great discussion and the introduction and you will be fine.
Tip: It can help to arrange your results figures in a PowerPoint first to create your story. Put the numbers to the figures last. Make sure you refer to the correct figures.
Discuss your results based on previous literature/similar studies and your aims. Did you answer your question? Are your data analysed correctly? Were there any problems while running the experiments? Did the problems influence the results? How could one eliminate the problems? How can you apply your results on further research? Write a good conclusion of your findings after the discussion.
Usually the first thing after the table of contents, but often written last. THIS IS PROBABLY THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR THESIS. It is the part, that everyone will read first. It is there to quickly give an overview of your work and should include a few words about the background, the question, the methods, and the main findings. Try to not exceed one page.
You can put these in the beginning (before the table of contents) or the end (before or after literature) of your thesis. They are not only a way of showing your gratitude towards your supervisors, but also a way to state the resources you used for your thesis, such as intellectual input! So maybe also consider including the technical assistant or fellow student that helped you or teached you a new technique.
Make Your Supervisor Your Best Friend
Maybe not literally, but definitely stay in contact, send them the chapters of your thesis for feedback, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your supervisor might be the one grading your thesis or writing a recommendation letter for you.
I had weekly meetings with the direct supervisor of my master’s thesis. These were extremely helpful to stay on track, give updates, and receive valuable input. If you are stuck somewhere (e.g. data analysis), your supervisor can help you. Asking for help it is not a sign of weakness. In fact, your supervisor might even get suspicious if you don’t ask for help at all.
But please, also keep in your mind that your supervisors are busy people (they are first of all people!). Don’t expect them to tell you each and every step and plan all the meetings. Do your work and initiate meetings. They will happy to meet with you. Don’t send them your thesis one week before handing in and give them enough time to get back to you.
General Tips for Motivation
Find the right workplace for you. Some people work best in the library, some at home in pajamas (but keep the work out of your bedroom!). Try to incorporate rituals to condition yourself into a working mood. I was for example always lighting a scented candle when working and drinking coffee. I liked to have music or even Netflix in the background. Others prefer it quiet. Try what works for you.
Also, finding yourself a group of other students working on their theses, too, can be very helpful for motivation, but also for helping each other proof reading. Try to update each other regularly.
Accept That You Will Find Typos After Submission
Despite having it proof-read by supervisor and friends, I still had an extra word in the abstract of both my bachelor’s and my master’s thesis. After submission, I noticed several typos. THIS IS NORMAL. After having worked on your thesis for so long, it is hard to notice mistakes. As long as you don’t get stuck in every paragraph, no one will care.
Last but not Least: Make it Pretty!
You shouldn’t underestimate the importance of good formatting. If your thesis looks good to begin with, your examiners will be more pleased to read it (even if it might be subconscious) and vice versa. Try to deep dive a bit into the formatting functions of Word/your writing program (but of course stay also within the guidelines of your university).
Here are some of my suggestions:
- Use ‘styles’ for your headers and sub-headers. This way they will be already assembled in a hierarchy in the table of contents you are going to add in the end. Additionally, when converting your document into a PDF, you can just click the chapter titles and it will automatically jump to the corresponding section. Keep in mind that your examiner might read your thesis as a PDF 🙂
- Justify your text.
- Put conceptual paragraphs within chapters for easier reading.
- Turn on the non-printable signs to check for double-spaces and returns.
- Make sure you wrote out each term before you make it an abbreviation. If you created an abbreviation, use it throughout the whole text. If you have a lot of abbreviations, create a table of them.
- Use margins big enough for binding your printed thesis. The margins in my bachelor’s and master’s thesis were 3cm on both sides.
- Add a page number and automatically add the name of the chapter in header or footer. This helps orientation when reading the printed version of your thesis. For adding the name of the chapter, create a header. Go to the design tab and choose quick parts > field… A dialog box should pop up. Select Link and references from the drop down list, in field names you choose ‘StyleRef’. Then choose ‘Heading 1’ so you always get the heading of the first level displayed. Click ok. The name of the chapter can only be added automatically if a header style is applied.
- Use page breaks to arrange your text and figures so they don’t break off in weird places. I for example prefer to have the beginning/heading of the introduction/material and methods/results/discussion always at the top of the page. Also I don’t like it when the figure description is cut off.
- Use the same color scheme for figures throughout the whole thesis. Be consistent, for example the control group is always blue and the treatment group orange. You can find inspiration for well-fitting colors googling color palettes.
- Create your own figures. If you have that extra time, definitely invest it in creating ‘your own’ scientific illustration. A great website that makes it very easy in a consistent style is biorender.com.
Take Home Message
Remember, the first version will never be the final one. The beautiful sentences get born in the editing process. You will be stressed, but you will be able to handle it. You are not alone! Ask for help when you need it. I wish you all the best in your process, and hope that your labs find a way to still operate during these difficult times. If you have any further questions, leave a comment.
Remember: YOU CAN DO IT. YOU HAVE COME THIS FAR.
Stay safe. Stina. ❤