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Thesis Writing

A PhD thesis should be presented within four years after the start of full-time research. The following notes and guidelines are intended to help students to do that.

A thesis submitted for the PhD degree in Physics will:

  • report on an original investigation, which will normally be a single piece of work or at most three pieces of work on a related theme
  • make a significant contribution to knowledge, normally including work that could be (or has been) published with the student as principal author
  • contain a substantial introduction that sets the work in context
  • be characterised by rigorous methodology
  • contain a full bibliography.

Use of papers published during the PhD studies

(This guideline refers to use of papers written while studying for a PhD. There are separate University regulations covering a PhD based entirely on published work.)

Where a candidate has produced a large body of published work, these published papers may constitute a part of the thesis provided that:

  • the papers are substantial, self-contained, and published in reputable peer reviewed journals
  • the candidate was the principal author of the papers
  • the work was performed during the period of PhD registration
  • the thesis includes a substantial introduction to the methodology employed that puts the papers in context and, in the case of multiple authors, established the candidate’s contribution to the published work. Typically this introduction would be around 50 pages.

A thesis submitted for the MSc degree by Research in Physics will:

  • demonstrate research training at the forefront of knowledge
  • have evidence of originality in method and/or interpretation
  • contain a substantial introduction that sets the work in context
  • be clearly and concisely presented
  • contain a full bibliography.


The time required to write a thesis is longer than is often supposed. A respectable timetable, allowing for the possibility arising of the need for further experimental observations or calculations and for the checking the literature, might be:

Writing Introduction 4 weeks
Experimental Techniques 2 weeks
Treatment of Results 5 weeks
Discussion 5 weeks
Conclusions 2 weeks
Consultations and Revision 2 weeks
Preparation of Diagrams/Figures 4 weeks
Allowance for Problems 2 weeks


26 weeks

This means that writing should normally begin 2 years and 6 months after beginning the course, that is, Easter of the third year for an October start. In any case, the Department requires that an outline of the thesis shall be presented at this time at an interview with the Head of Department and the Director of Studies.

Thesis Length

The thesis should be no longer than necessary to provide a succinct introduction to the field of study for the non-specialist, to present your results and to discuss what conclusions can be drawn from the results in the context of current knowledge of the field. These conclusions should be backed up with adequate references from the published literature. Omit unessential information - it has been said that “ the art of writing consists largely of knowing what to leave in the inkwell”. (or the word processor these days!). Examiners are just as critical of theses that are too long as those that are too short. Don't think that just because your thesis is longer than the others in the Library that you are bound to pass, rewriting is a very painful business.

Remember, quality not quantity is the most important thing.

The Physics Department guidelines for the presentation of theses for the degrees of PhD, MPhil and MSc are as follows:-

  1. All theses must conform in style content and presentation to the University Regulations, which include the following statements:
    1. The [PhD] thesis shall not exceed 70,000 words excluding appendices, footnotes, tables and bibliography. For appendices there is a 5000 word limit.
    2. A thesis submitted for the degree of PhD should be an original investigation characterised by rigorous methodology and capable of making a significant contribution to knowledge commensurate with the normal period of registration for a full or part time student.
    3. You should not feel that your thesis must necessarily be as long as the maximum word limit allowed…Theses which exceed the word limit may not be accepted for examination.
  2. The appropriate lengths for Physics theses are as follows:-
    Ph.D. - 90 to 110 pages of text
    M.Phil. - 70 to 90 pages of text
    M.Sc. - 50 to 70 pages of text
    plus essential diagrams, tables etc.
  3. Students are advised not to include unessential data as appendices in the bound thesis.

The guidelines in 1(a) and (2) above at first sight appear different, because the University regulations do not mention figures and diagrams. Counting the equivalent number of words that would fit in the space of a figure, with on average 350 words to a double spaced side of A4, the University regulations effectively limit the final bound thesis to 200 pages including everything. In practice this is far longer than necessary.

In practice a suitable target would be a PhD thesis of ~100 pages of text with ~50 diagrams. Within this length, the original contribution should exceed any background material that can be found in a text book or thesis submitted previously from the same group.

Note especially the last paragraph from the University Regulations - it is only necessary to write sufficient to demonstrate the aims of a PhD have been satisfied, and no more. All the work done during three years does not have to appear in the final thesis. It is always possible to finish early and write papers afterwards, while awaiting the viva.

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. It is a good idea to make extra prints of photographic illustrations such as micrographs at the time you are dealing with them rather than wait until you are preparing the thesis. Avoid duplication of results in tables and figures unless there is specific justification. Consign material that would disturb the smooth flow of an argument to an Appendix. Bulky material such as computer programmes should normally be omitted; if appropriate, copies should be left with the supervisor.

Some excellent tips are contained in a short article Writing your thesis by J.M. Pratt (Chemistry in Britain, 20 (December 1998. 1114-5) which you would do well to read. (But note that he allows 250 page theses - we most certainly do not!); and in Communicating in Science: Writing and Speaking by V Booth, CUP 1985.


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 and contorted sentences, but do not achieve brevity by becoming telegraphic - do not omit a’s and the’s. Remember that it is an invariable rule that every sentence begins with a capital letter, contains at least one verb and ends with a full stop. 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, the signal duration was very small is almost meaningless - the signal was very small compared with the recovery time is much better. Whenever possible quantitative, rather than qualitative, comparisons should be used: z increased by 25% more than y for the same change in 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. A suitable style is that adopted for Institute of Physics journals, as described in Notes for Authors. An alternative style guide can be found from Review of Modern Physics, although you will need to change some peculiarities of US English. In particular, SI units should be used, figures and tables should have captions in words, standard notation for physical quantities and units should be used. This notation is to be found in the pamphlet ‘Quantities, Units and Symbols’ 2nd Edn (London: the Royal Society, 1975), which is among a number of useful publications listed in ‘Notes for Authors’. Number all pages including diagrams, illustrations and tables. Collect all references and put them either at the end of the thesis or at the end of individual chapters.

A set of LaTeX stlye files that produce a Warwick thesis has been produced by Mark Hadley, which you can use and modify. You can equally well prepare the thesis in any other word processing package.

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. Adequate marginal annotation of your manuscript will help the typist and minimise the number of corrections to the typescript.

Proof read the typescript 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!


The University provides three relevant documents which should be read earlier rather than later:

  1. The Postgraduate Student Guide
  2. Guide to Examinations for Higher Degrees by Research
  3. University Calendar, Regulation 38 Governing Research Degrees

You should note that, among other requirements, the University insists that the thesis have an abstract, a declaration regarding joint work, and a specification in the bibliography of the set of guidelines used - in your case this document.

Further information on the examinations process can be found on the Graduate School website - click here