Theses and Dissertations

Thesis Links:
Sample Title Page
Sample Abstract
Sample Contents
Sample Excerpt
Sample Thesis

Thesis Templates:
Chapter Template (doc)
Chapter Template (pdf)

Site Links:
Writing Guidelines
Writing Exercises

In engineering and science, a thesis or dissertation is the culmination of a master's or Ph.D. degree. A thesis or dissertation presents the research that the student performed for that degree. From the student's perspective, the primary purpose of a thesis or dissertation is to persuade the student's committee that he or she has performed and communicated research worthy of the degree. In other words, the main purpose of the thesis or dissertation is to help the student secure the degree. From the perspective of the engineering and scientific community, the primary purpose is to document the student's research. Although much research from theses and dissertations is also communicated in journal articles, theses and dissertations stand as detailed documents that allow others to see what the work was and how it was performed. For that reason, theses and dissertations are often read by other graduate students, especially those working in the research group of the authoring student.

This web page presents some format and stylistic suggestions for writing theses and dissertations. For reference, this discussion includes a sample thesis written at Virginia Tech [Pang, 2002]. In viewing this sample thesis and all thesis excerpts on this page, please be aware that different universities have different format guidelines.


The format of a thesis or dissertation encompasses the layout and typography of the document. For instance, questions of format would include how much line spacing to have (single, space and a half, or double), where to place page numbers (bottom centered, bottom right, or top right), and how to format chapter titles, main headings, and subheadings. For these questions, there is no universal format in engineering and science. For that reason, each student should check the guidelines given at his or her institution. To look at a sample set of guidelines, see the following example, which is for electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) at Virginia Tech.

With a thesis or dissertation, the format also encompasses the names of the sections that are expected: Abstract, Acknowledgments, List of Figures, List of Tables, Nomenclature, Glossary, and References. Given in the following link is a sample table of contents that shows where these sections typically occur in the document.


In a thesis or dissertation, the style is the way in which the author communicates the research. Most important for style is that the writing be both precise and clear. Clarity calls for avoiding needless complexity and ambiguities (see Chapter 5 in The Craft of Scientific Writing). In the words of Albert Einstein, you should be "as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Being clear does not mean that the writing is informal. In other words, you should avoid colloquial language such as using an ampersand when the word and is appropriate (in other words, write research and development, not research & development.) Also, many committees frown upon the use of contractions, such as don't or can't, that would be readily accepted in a less formal document such as an e-mail. Another word that many committees frown upon, because of its informality, is the word you. While this word is appropriate for instructions and correspondence, it is seldom, if ever, appropriate in theses or dissertations (note that the implied you is certainly acceptable in clauses such as see Figure 1). In regard to the first person pronouns I or we, judicious use is widely accepted, especially to make the writing more active (see Chapter 6 of The Craft of Scientific Writing) or to assume responsibility for assumptions or actions. Be forewarned, though, that despite its acceptance by most committees (and journals), an occasional committee remains opposed to use of the first person, even when that use is judicious.

Another stylistic question concerns how wide an audience the document should target. Given the main purpose of a thesis or dissertation, the primary audience for the document is the thesis or dissertation committee. For that reason, while an author might include appendices and a glossary to reach a wider audience, the text portion of the document is usually aimed for the committee. For that reason, a thesis or dissertation written to a multi-disciplinary committee is broader in style than a thesis or dissertation written to a committee within a single discipline.
Yet another consideration for theses and dissertations concerns how much depth the author should go into. Certainly, the author should go into enough depth to allow someone to repeat the work. Moreover, the author should provide enough depth that the committee can follow the author's argument. Along those same lines, the author has to provide enough detail to persuade the committee that the work warrants the degree. Some authors, however, go too far in this direction by including details of almost every bolt that they turned. A balance has to be reached, and a good way to determine that balance is to submit a title page, table-of-contents, and sample chapter early in the writing process (see pages 70-73 in The Craft of Editing).

Last updated 07/04