Higher Degree by Research students

What your thesis has to do

To write a successful thesis, you will have to come to grips with the question of what qualifies as 'an original contribution to knowledge.'

The answer is not easy, as scholarly opinion differs. Basically, a topic must have the potential to do at least one of the following:

  • uncover new facts or principles
  • suggest relationships that were previously unrecognised
  • challenge existing truths or assumptions
  • afford new insights into little-understood phenomena
  • suggest new interpretations of known facts that can alter one's perception of the world around them.

(Source: D. Madsen (1983). Successful dissertations and theses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 25)

You can find good resources at Monash University's website.

To find out more about what examiners look for when they examine a Masters or Doctoral thesis, check out:

Identifying the central question of your thesis

In the early stages of refining your thesis topic, you may find that you cannot easily bring together all the ideas and details in your mind to come up with a question. This exercise from the book The Craft of Research can be very useful in forcing you to boil your ideas down to a few sentences:

  1. I am studying _________________________________________
  2. Because I want to find out (who/ how/ why/ whether)____________
  3. In order to understand (how/why/what) ______________________

(Adapted from p. 44 and p. 162 in W. Booth, G. Colomb, and J. Williams, The Craft of Research, Uof C Press, Chicago, 1995)

Writing your literature review

A literature review sets the context of what is already known, thought, and written, about your area of interest. This is the context within which your problem or question is identified. Your literature review shows how your thesis relates to what other scholars have said and done in your area ('area' = topic &/or theory).

To get started, consider your information, your study method, and your perspective, and ask yourself:

  • What should I do, because other scholars have?
  • What should I do, because other scholars haven't?

Elements of a literature review

  • Intellectual: establishes what kind of contribution your thesis will make to the area of study.
  • Structural: takes you from 'what I wanted to find out' through 'why I wanted to find this out' to 'why I chose this way of finding it out', forming a bridge into your method chapter in a traditionally structured thesis.
  • Social: identifies who else is writing in your area and in what capacity.
  • Organisational: organise your text by theme, not by reference. Try to cluster your references – for example, you may find several people who share a theoretical framework which led them to focus on related topics, using a common method. You may find others who have chosen a different approach. Your review might proceed theoretically, through schools of thought; chronologically, through a development of an approach; or use a combination of these approaches.

QUT offers a useful guide to writing a literature review.

Where to get more help

External sites

  • The thesis whisperer: A blog dedicated to informing research students.
  • The Academic Phrasebank: from Manchester University, this great language resource provides terms to make your thesis sound appropriately academic.