Month: July 2022

What’s the difference between thesis and paper?

We talked about how to structure an academic article, but now you want to finally (finally!) write up your thesis. Is it the same thing, just longer?

Well, no. But also, yes. Kinda. Also, it depends.

Generally, the structure of a thesis is indeed similar to the structure of an academic article. Abstract, Inroduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion can be used to outline your thesis structure.

But beware: Your school has their own requirements (and, ideally, template) that your thesis has to follow before it will be accepted. Look it up!

Let's recall what we said about the purpose of a paper:

The main purpose of a paper is to convey a new idea, and show that it has merit.

At this point, we have to distinguish between a Masters thesis and a doctoral dissertation. Indeed, the purpose of an M.Sc. thesis is quite different:

The main purpose of an M.Sc. thesis is to demonstrate that you are a problem solver with domain knowledge.

Do you see the difference to the article? In your thesis, you can (and, I think, should) also write about things that did not work out. Your M.Sc. thesis is the story of how you tackled a problem, and overcame challenges. Your idea A did not work out? What did you do then? Your experiment was stuck in stage B, how did you find an alternative approach? Etc. It is an account of your path.

Most importantly, it is not strictly necessary that everything worked out. Would it be desireable? Sure. Would it be more satisfactory? Of course. But for me, it is not necessary for an M.Sc. thesis to come out with a positive result, as long as you could demonstrate without doubt that you are an independent problem solver with domain knowledge.

That's different for a Ph.D. dissertation, which is more closely related to an academic paper:

The purpose of a Ph.D. dissertation is to demonstrate domain knowledge and to use it to advance the art.

You have to do something new, something no one has ever done. And something must work. It does not have to be revolutionary, it does not have to be better than previous methods/ideas/models/techniques, but you have to show that you did something that no-one has ever done.

Happy writing!


Things you should never ever write in a paper (or thesis)

I've seen all of these before. Maybe it's because some schools encourage filling pages, or because of simple lack of practice, or because it is honestly meant.

"Obviously", "It is common knowledge", "Trivially", etc. -> condescending, or you're too lazy to look up references. Easy to fix: just delete!

"We obtain the value by using the formula from the book" -> sounds like you don't know what you're doing. Call the equation or principle by its name instead! Also, in case you really don't know what you're doing -- read up on it!

"The function xyz of the software package we did not program returns us a value, called 'enthalpy', which we can use to" -> again, sounds like you don't know what you're doing. Talk about your tools once, in the Methods section, and never again after. But do make sure you do know what you're doing.

"However, [17] failed to do xyz" -> never talk bad about a fellow researcher, it makes you look like an ass. Talk about what they did instead, then identify a knowledge gap that you address. Whatever wasn't addressed before is your playing field!

"I call this the 'John Smith' effect, after myself"'. Just don't.

Happy writing!