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Preparing Your Thesis

For further detail and information on this topic, current students and staff may use the >> Handbook <<Link opens in a new window

This section includes brief comments and hints on the preparation of the thesis. Your supervisor should however be the main source of advice given his/her knowledge of your work and the subject area.

The Centre for Lifelong Learning and the Graduate School also run a series of one day courses [Research Student Skills Programme] over the year designed specifically for PhD students. They cover various subjects ranging from how to get started in research to writing up a thesis and preparing for a viva. They are free to attend.

Here, we focus on writing the thesis. The Doctoral College provides information on the Submission ProcessLink opens in a new window and has a page with FAQsLink opens in a new window.

Writing the Thesis - When to Start

The time required to write a thesis is often under-estimated. Those who have less experience of writing mathematical material will invariably take longer than those with more experience, or those who have a natural talent for writing. Starting to write your thesis at a sufficiently early stage is therefore essential if you are going to complete the thesis in the required timescale as it will also help you to plan ahead. You do not need to have completed all the research for your thesis before you start writing it!

Thesis Length

The thesis should be no longer than necessary to provide a succinct introduction to your research topic, to present your findings and to discuss what conclusions can be drawn from them in the context of the current knowledge of the field. These conclusions should be backed up with adequate references from the published literature. Examiners are just as critical of thesis that are too long as those that are too short. Quality is more important than quantity.

The University Regulations state that a PhD thesis shall not exceed 70,000 words excluding appendices, footnotes, tables and bibliography. This is only an upper limit and you should not feel that your thesis should be as long as this maximum.

Before Writing

Adequate preparation before beginning to write can help greatly to obtain a logically arranged, readable thesis and to shorten both the thesis and the writing time. First analyse the problem by answering the following questions.

What information do I want to present?
What background can I assume?
What is the most sensible sequence in which to present the information?

Make a detailed outline. Identify as many subdivisions as possible. It is easier to combine subheadings, or eliminate them, than to insert new ones later. Plan tables and figures and avoid duplication of results unless there is specific justification. Consign material that would disturb the smooth flow of an argument to an Appendix.


Scientific writing is not exempt from the rules of good grammar, spelling and punctuation. Keep a dictionary handy and use a good spell checker, but don't rely on it!

Avoid long, meandering sentences. Good punctuation is an aid to clarity; if someone familiar with the subject has to re-read a sentence to understand it, the sentence probably needs more punctuation, or reconstruction. Go through paragraphs when you have written them, trying to put yourself in the place of the reader rather than the writer.

Avoid vague and inexact terms: for instance, y increases as x increases is preferable (if appropriate) to y changes with x. Define all non-standard terms, symbols and abbreviations where first used, and stick to them. Try to develop your arguments in a logical manner, this may be quite different from the chronological order in which you performed the research.

Copying (Plagiarism)

Any material copied word for word MUST be placed in quotation marks and the original source fully referenced. This principle applies to diagrams as well as text. Students are reminded that plagiarism - reproducing another person’s work as your own - is considered a very serious offence. Your attention is drawn to the following paragraph in the University booklet Guide to Examinations for Higher Degrees by Research

‘The Thesis must be entirely the candidate's own work, and all sources used should be fully referenced and acknowledged in the thesis. There is no distinction to be made between plagiarism of reviews or summaries of existing knowledge on a subject and original research work. The University's regulations on plagiarism appear in the University Calendar’



The general style of presentation should conform to that required for scientific papers in reputable journals. The thesis will be longer than typical research papers. It will therefore require a list of contents. Number all pages including diagrams, illustrations and tables. References should be placed at the end.

LaTeX should be used to produce the thesis.

After writing

When you have completed the first draft (of a chapter, for example) put it aside for a day or two. Then, coming to it afresh, read it carefully for a final revision, making sure notation and symbols are uniform throughout and consistent with what you have used in other chapters. Look out for obscurities, duplication or omissions.

Proof read the document for typographical errors and accidental omissions. This requires the utmost care if the thesis is not to be spoiled by residual minor errors. Allow yourself enough time for this essential final stage; it cannot be hurried. You can expect your supervisor to read and comment on your first or second drafts in general terms, but not rewrite it for you. Remember, it is YOUR thesis.