Your Thesis Plan - A Roadmap to Completing Your Research Degree

Student Writing  

Writing your thesis may well be the biggest challenge of your academic career so far. 

A project of this scale requires careful management and in this section you will find advice on how to actively plan and control its direction to ensure that you deliver a thesis that is of a sufficiently high standard by your expected submission date. You should aim to have your plan ready by the time you start your final year - if not earlier.

The Graduate School's Top Tips for Planning Your Thesis
  1. Know the University's Requirements for Research Degree Theses
  2. Have a Clear Plan for What Each Section Will Say
  3. Make Sure that Your Plan will Clearly Communicate Your Original Contribution to Knowledge
  4. Set Dates for Completing Each Section so You Can Submit the Whole on Time
  5. Get Feedback on Your Plan and Use It

No one ever said writing a thesis was easy, but there are things that you can do to make the process less painful. In particular, having a clear plan that tells you what to do and when to do it will help you take control of your work instead of allowing it to control you.

Regularly reviewing your progress against your plan will allow you to see any problems before it becomes too late to do anything about them and will help you stay motivated as you see your thesis taking shape and can mark parts of your plan as completed.

Setting Objectives

A plan is a scheme for achieving an objective - but you need to know what the objective is before you can put together your plan for achieving it.

Of course your objective here can be stated quite simply - completion of your thesis. But that does not give you enough information on which to develop a plan; so you need to break this down into more specific objectives.

We would suggest that you are likely to have the following specific objectives - to write:

  • a thesis of an appropriate standard
  • a thesis that is submitted on time
  • a thesis that meets the University's rules on word counts
  • a thesis that meets the University's rules on formatting

Having these more specific objectives allows you to define them in a way that will allow you later to know whether you have achieved them or not.

Thesis Standard

The Regulations Governing Research Degree Programmes set out the requirements that your thesis must meet if you are to be awarded a research degree. To be awarded a PhD, the thesis must:

  • make a distinct and original contribution to knowledge
  • contain work which is considered to be worthy of publication
  • demonstrate a broad knowledge and understanding of your discipline and associated research techniques
  • show the successful application in your work of your knowledge of your discipline and associated research techniques

Keeping these requirements in mind will give you a clearer idea of the standard of work your thesis is expected to demonstrate.

Thesis Submission Date

Your thesis must be submitted for examination by the time you complete the maximum registration period for your research degree programme. In the case of a full-time PhD, the maximum registration period is four years from your initial date of registration. You can find the maximum registration period for other research degree programmes in the Regulations Governing Research Degree Programmes.

Extensions beyond this date are approved only in specific circumstances and the maximum extension period is six months, so it is important that you take your expected thesis submission date into account as you put together your thesis plan.

Thesis Format and Word Limits

The rules for formatting research degree theses are quite straightforward, but it is important that you get them right.

You can read more about the University's rules for thesis formatting and word limits.

Extensions to the word limit are approved only in specific circumstances, so it is important that you take the maximum word limit into account as you put together your thesis plan.

Develop a Thesis Plan

These specific objectives can now be turned into a plan that shows what you need to do and when in order to achieve them. Here your plan will be in two parts - a thesis plan and a work plan.

Your thesis plan should show the individual sections/chapters that will make up your thesis and say a bit about what each one will contain.

This does not have to be too detailed and probably one side of paper will be enough for this, but it should show:

  • the order of the sections/chapters that will make up your thesis
  • the title of each section/chapter
  • a note of what each section/chapter will cover
  • an indicative word count for each section/chapter (making sure that the total does not exceed the maximum word limit allowed)

Thesis Structure

As you do this remember that the University has rules for the way in which the content of your thesis must be ordered. Theses must be structured as follows:

  • title page
  • abstract
  • acknowledgements page
  • table of contents
  • main body of the thesis
  • appendices (if needed)

You need to take these rules into account in your thesis plan. It is also a good idea to get some feedback on your thesis plan from your supervisory team to make sure that the planned structure of your thesis is consistent with normal practice for your discipline.

You may find it useful to look at some recent theses in your Department to get a better feel for how a thesis should be structured and the sort of tone it should have.

Your Original Contribution to Knowledge

As you develop your thesis plan, try to remember as well that the purpose of your thesis is to explain what original contribution to knowledge your research has made.

Try to think about how your thesis will tell this story - where will you set out what your contribution to knowledge has been? how will each section/chapter develop that story? will your structure help to present that story in a logical and clear manner?

Develop a Work Plan

The next step is to take your thesis plan and develop a work plan for completing each section/chapter.

Your indicative word count for each section will give you some idea as to which sections/chapters may take longer to write than others and there will be some sections (like your acknowledgements) which should not take very long to write. You should also take account of sections/chapters where you will be able to re-use something you have already written - like a conference paper or progress report.

The important thing in developing your work plan is to be realistic - clearly you cannot spend all day every day writing, but you should be writing regularly and giving sufficient time to your writing to allow you to submit your thesis before you complete your maximum period of registration.

Most research students find that in their final year they need to spend at least some time each day writing their thesis in order to complete it on time. Many find that keeping "office hours" for their thesis is a good way of making sure they focus on their writing - that is, having fixed hours each day that are set aside for writing their thesis.

We would suggest that in your work plan you will need to allow sufficient time for a process similar to the one outlines below and have specific dates for completion of each stage:

  • drafting and re-drafting each draft section/chapter
  • seeking comments from your supervisors on each draft section/chapter
  • revising each draft section/chapter in light of your supervisor’s comments
  • preparing a complete final draft
  • seeking comments from your supervisors on your complete final draft
  • revising your complete final draft in light of your supervisor’s comments

As with your thesis plan, we would suggest that you get some feedback from your supervisory team to make sure that your work plan is realistic and that they know when you expect to submit draft work to them for comment on.

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