Advice for an undergrad thesis (in the sciences)

Writing a thesis is a fundamental component of many undergraduate degrees, and for many it can be one of the most useful and enjoyable things about your time at university. The experience of successfully designing a research project and managing it to completion is extremely beneficial, and develops a whole host of skills. For most undergraduates, this will be your first foray into the world of independent research. It can seem daunting, or it can initially seem overly straightforward, and both of these would be a misconception. Many often underestimate what it takes; writing a thesis will ALWAYS take longer than you imagine. I often hear “if I had managed things better and had more time…”

Having now supervised over twelve undergraduate theses to completion, below are a few thoughts on aspects of the thesis process from initial concept stages to collecting data, analysis and writing…and all the while managing yourself and your supervisor along the way!

A thesis is so much more than words on a page

A first misconception is often around what a thesis is. A thesis by definition is the product at the end, and the term “writing a thesis” implies that it is just about writing a long document. However, in the sciences the process as a whole involves a huge amount more than just writing words on a page – a thesis is essentially an entire research project. This is why many universities refer to “final year projects” rather than “theses”. Generally, the process begins with an idea, followed by some kind of literature review or background reading to establish what is already known and what direction the research should go in. Then the question is refined, and methods to answer the question are decided on. Depending on the type of project some of these initial steps may already be in place for an undergraduate thesis, in particular if they are joining an existing project or working closely with a PhD student etc. For other projects these initial steps will need to be carried out first.

The next step is data collection, and for many theses this is one of the most important steps and also the part where many lab or field skills are developed. This is also the step that many students are most familiar with having participated in labs and practicals throughout their degree.

Once data has been collected, it may seem like time for writing. But a fundamental step that many students seem to forget about is the analysis of data. Data analysis and interpretation is a whole process that many undergrads will not have done on this scale before outside of a basic stats course. This is arguably the most critical step of the whole thesis as it this allows the student to summarise findings and establish any trends or relationships. Good data analysis, presentation and interpretation can also be the difference between an ok and a really good thesis. Data analysis is not something that you can do in a day; it can take weeks to properly learn the methods and implement them correctly. This step must NOT be forgotten about, or more importantly NOT left to the last minute!

Why engage with your supervisor?

A supervisor is really three things; firstly, they are the person who knows how to run and manage a research project and so they will be able to help and steer you in the right direction. But crucially you need to ask for that help where needed, or to meet with them to get this guidance. Secondly, as an undergraduate your supervisor will probably mark your thesis, and in many institutions there is also a mark for student engagement with the thesis (for us it is about 10%). If you have engaged with your supervisor and asked questions when needed, you are more likely to do well. Thirdly, your undergraduate thesis supervisor is probably the most likely person you will ask for a reference when you apply for your first job or postgraduate course when finishing your degree. If you have engaged with them, and worked well with them, the reference they can write is likely to be significantly better!!

Stay in touch with your supervisor

Your supervisor is there to be a guide through the thesis process, and many supervisors approach their undergraduate project students in different ways. Some supervisors will contact students and follow up on them all the time, whereas others will wait for the students to contact them. My model is that I might initially contact the student, but over the course of the project I would expect the student to take responsibility for their project and for contacting me when they need help or advice. In many situations it can be up to the undergrad to request the meetings; your supervisor is a busy person, and sometimes it will be up to you to manage them to make sure you get the support you need for your thesis. Sometimes it can be useful to set up regular meeting with a supervisor. With my own students I try at the end of a meeting to plan a date for the next, even if it is in a few weeks time. This can give the student something to work towards, and means the supervisor is also aware of what is going on and what the plan is!

You should use your supervisor, and make sure you ask for help when you need it. And this is the key thing; no-one expects an undergraduate to know exactly what they are doing. It’s your first time doing research! A student should NEVER be scared to seek out a supervisor and ask a question, or to request a meeting for a catch up on where things are at. For me, I am always hugely suspicious of any students that don’t have any questions during a thesis…asking questions about what they are doing shows me that a student is engaging with their research. I also particularly value students who request meetings and ask for help when it is needed. Of course you can’t ask everything and need to figure out plenty of stuff on your own and it’s a fine balance to getting this right; but if someone else already knows they answer, or if asking can majorly save time and prevent hours of searching for something yourself, then it is definitely best to ask! And when in meetings make sure you have a pen and paper and take notes….you will not remember everything when you leave otherwise!

Start writing early, and plan how your thesis will look in advance

Of course a large part of any thesis is the writing part, and it is this written document in most universities that receives the bulk of the grade.

Research has shown that people write scientific papers and theses in very different ways, and part of the experience of writing a thesis is finding out what works for you. Writing a thesis is like writing a scientific “story”, and it is important that it flows well. Often sections are written in isolation, but they should relate to each other. It can be helpful to map out your thesis at the start including what it might look like, and what might go into each section – which can be more challenging that you might think! The discussion in particular poses problems, and perhaps this is because it is often left to the very last minute. The discussion is about putting what you have found in a wider context and in the context of previous work. It is also a place to be able to discuss any issues around interpretation or results, and suggest what further research might look at.

It is advisable to begin writing as early as you can; leaving all writing to the end can be stressful and does not give a lot of time for feedback (see later sections). I personally often start with the methods section as it can be one of the most straightforward to write and can be a good way to get started on writing even before you have finished collecting data. However, in some ways it makes most sense to start with the results. What you find in your results and how they are presented can really determine the structure and flow of the whole thesis. It can be easy to have one idea of the thesis in your head, but what you find in results may be better presented in another way so you need to be flexible! This may mean presenting data not in the order you collected it, but in the order that makes most sense to the reader. This can feel weird as you’ve always thought about it another way… The order of the way things are presented should be the same across sections; for example different experiments or parts of data collection in the methods and results sections should be in the same order, and the intro should possibly try to follow this order also (if it makes sense).

Scientific writing should be clear and succinct

A thesis is also not just about writing as much as you can to get words on a page about what you did. In some ways word counts are not useful at all in writing a thesis, and in fact less words written more clearly is so much better than more words not so well written! There is often also a misconception that you need to use long words and complicated sentences to sound “clever” or intellectual. A very useful starting place is to look at scientific papers and think about how they are written – your thesis is essentially aiming for the same style. There can often be strict word limits in scientific journals, and so a real skill in scientific writing is to get your point across in as simple and concise a way as possible

In my experience, many people starting off tend to write too much, or take a long time to get to the point they are going to make. It is often necessary to write a section, and then edit and/or re-write it a number of times. I find students will often have done a lot of research on a particular topic and so that will feature heavily in detail in the introduction or discussion. It can be hard to let go of a lot of work you have done, but if it’s not directly relevant or in too much detail for the overall thesis story, then it is much better to condense it or let it go completely. This can be hard! There is also the possibility to put this extra detail in the appendix…and therefore still get credit for what you have done.

Getting feedback is crucial

For many undergraduates, the majority of writing they have done until the thesis has been various assignments (e.g. essays, lab reports etc) throughout their degree. What is interesting here is that most of these assignments are submitted as a final version, where there is no process of receiving feedback, implementing it and producing improved versions. In the real world, there are very few examples of any documents where the first version is the final one, and learning how writing can evolve with input from others over multiple versions is a really important skill. For most undergrads, the thesis provides the first opportunity to submit at least one draft version to a supervisor to get feedback which can then be implemented to improve the thesis. It depends on institution how many drafts can be commented on by the supervisor (if at all – although I think it is not helpful learning for the student if they cannot receive any feedback), but most allow at least one. This is a fantastic opportunity to improve your thesis, build your writing skills, and perhaps most importantly get feedback from the person who will probably be correcting your thesis! I can’t stress how important it is to avail of this!!!! I have seen time and time again that students who do well in their thesis receive and implement feedback, and those who don’t do not.

If getting feedback, it is essential that it is done in good time. There is no point in submitting a draft thesis to a supervisor a week before the thesis is due in. Remember your supervisor is human too and has lots of other things apart from your thesis on their plate, and so it is important to ensure they have a few days to read it (if you discuss this with them in advance they should be able to advise you on how long they need). But more importantly what you need is TIME to implement the feedback. This can be done most successfully with a few weeks. If you only get feedback a few days before your thesis is due in you won’t have time to implement it properly, and your supervisor will have wasted time giving it to you. So make sure you submit a thesis draft to receive feedback as early as you can.

Include figures, tables and images – if useful

I often get asked is it ok to include photos of your work in a thesis. Yes, of course! Photos can be a really useful way of illustrating parts of methods or results. Of course the photos need to be relevant. Figures (such as graphs or diagrams etc) are also hugely important. Again, it’s is important to use enough figures to illustrate the important points, but not too many. Sometimes from students I get theses with 20+ figures in them, and usually this is far too many. If you look at a scientific paper, there are only ever a small number of figures. Not all data need to be presented in figures; all analyses carried out should be included, but can also be included in the text or in tables. Again, it is a skill to decide what data are represented where and how, and this needs some planning and thought when you have competed your data analysis. It also comes back to telling a story – what are the main messages, and how best can you get them across

When you have carefully chosen what images, figures and tables to include, make sure that you have proper captions on them and that you refer to them within the text. I spend a lot of time correcting figure and table legend formatting and it can become tiresome; figure legends go below the figure and table legends go above the table. All figures and tables must be referred to in the text somewhere, and legends should include enough information about what is being presented so that they can be understood out of the context of the thesis.

Do your own research on thesis writing, and work with others

There are a lot of resources out there available to help you with writing a thesis. For example, many undergrads find referencing hard as it can be the first time they have done it on this scale. Your university probably has resources on how to reference properly, and how to use programmes such as EndNote to help with referencing. There are many things you can do with Microsoft Word in terms of defining headings and automatically creating a table of contents which can save a lot of hassle later on (while also helping you develop new skills), and your university (or the internet) probably has guidance on how to do this too. It is worth taking the time to find out what resources are available, and what might be useful for you. Talking to others can also be a great way to get tips and advice! And why not exchange your thesis with friends/classmates to get another form of extra feedback?

You will get out of your thesis what you put in; if you invest the time in learning how to do something new it will always stand to you.  Completing a thesis gives you skills from word processing to project management, writing, analysis, time management, team work etc that will be beneficial no matter what career path you follow when you leave university. And most importantly enjoy the process – it is a real achievement to write a thesis! Good luck!

Dara Stanley
About Dara Stanley 1 Article
Dara is an ecologist interested in biodiversity, conservation, and ecological interactions involving insects and plants. She has worked extensively in Ireland, UK, South Africa and East Africa. She has previously been Lecturer in Plant Ecology, in Botany & Plant Science at the Ryan Institute, at the National University of Ireland Galway. She is now based in University College Dublin as Lecturer/Assistant Professor in Applied Entomology.
Contact: Website

1 Comment on Advice for an undergrad thesis (in the sciences)

  1. Something I forgot to mention above is around prioritisation. Many final year projects also run at the same time as other modules and courses. Many of these have imminent deadlines, and so it can be harder to find time to work on a “long burning” thesis. It can be important to think about weightings, and in the end of the day how much different exercises are worth. In many cases your thesis is weighted much more heavily (often 15-20 ECTS) than a single assignment that’s only a small part of a course worth 5 credits. So ensure you get your priorities right and give your thesis the time its worth! Good luck!

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