Format for a Dissertation, Thesis or Practicum


Whether you are writing a dissertation, thesis, practicum report, or journal article, the following format can be followed.  This writeup applies specifically to a project that is based on hypothesis-driven research, but it can be adapted to design-based work with minor changes.


Please see the graduate school web page for specifics about cover page format, signature pages, margins, and other formatting issues.  This writeup is more concerned with the content of your report.


I.                Page Numbers: Before you hand in your work, be sure that the pages are numbered.  Page numbering is valuable to the people who review your work since it allows them to refer to “the figure on page 17” or “the third paragraph on page 349” in their general comments.

II.              Checklist: Before you hand in your work, use the checklist of common mistakes (Download MS Word File) to catch any problems.

III.            Cover page (Title, Name, Date, Mentor’s Name):  Please print the date (Month, day and year) that the work was printed, not your expected graduation date or just the month and year.  This information helps the reader keep track of different drafts to ensure that he/she is working on the most recent copy.

IV.            Table of contents (Section title and page number).

V.              List of figures (Figure number, title and page number).

VI.            List of tables (Table number, title and page number).

VII.          Abstract: This will summarize the entire thesis in less than 350 words.  It will consist of one to four lines each for introduction, methods, results, discussion, conclusion.

VIII.        Introduction:  Start with a general statement of the general problem itself, making sure that the reader understands its importance.  It is best to work from general to specific.   Next, discuss what is lacking in our understanding of the problem and what new information needs to be obtained.  Finally, make a statement as to what you plan to do in your work.  What hypotheses are to be tested, and how they will be tested.  Describe any information required for the reader to understand the methods that you use.  A research paper will generally be brief in accomplishing these goals (e.g. 1 to 2 pages).  A dissertation will be more detailed (e.g. tens of pages).

Example: If you are working on targeting coated nanoparticles to treat tumors, your introduction might discuss: 1. the prevalence and consequences of cancer, 2. a description of the specific type of cancer you are concerned with, 3. current treatment modalities for this cancer, 4. previous work on targeting nanoparticles, 5. previous applications of nanoparticle targeting to this type of cancer (possibly including laboratory research and clinical testing), 6. what question(s) remain unanswered in these previous studies (as illustrated by the previously discussed laboratory and clinical tests, 7. which of these questions you intend to address, 8. a statement of your hypotheses, 9. a brief description of the experiments you intend to perform to test these hypotheses.

Note: You can write your introduction before you complete your research.  However, after you have completed a complete analysis of your data, you will inevitably find that something you had previously thought of as irrelevant to your work will become highly relevant.  As a result, you will need to go back to your introduction section and revise it after you have completed the results, discussion and conclusions sections.

IX.            Literature Review:  I personally do not like the term “literature review” because it implies that you are providing this section merely to review the literature.  In reality you are attempting to provide a clear and well-formed argument to convince someone that you are addressing an important problem with a rational approach.  A journal article will not have a section labeled “literature review.”  If a section with this title must be part of your dissertation, thesis or practicum, then you should make the Introduction section brief and provide details in this section.  Be sure that each part of this section relates to issues that were raised in the introduction.  For example, if you state in the introduction that the paper by Wilson et al. was the first to describe nanoparticle targeting, then you can logical discuss this work and related work in more detail in a Literature Review section.

X.              Methods: This section will explain how you designed your experimental setup and performed the experiment, and how you analyzed the data.  Subsections will include:

1.     Experimental design.   Describe all information, both structural and functional, about 1) The equipment you have used, 2) How the equipment was assembled together, 3) protocols for any reagents that need to be generated, 4) protocol for the experiment itself.  Be as detailed as possible.  Include dimensions, materials, make and model numbers of equipment, any computer algorithms or software used.  Use the following subsections for this part of your report.

(a)  Functional description: Include neat and fully labeled engineering drawings of the experimental apparatus and of its major components.  It is best to start with a global drawing of your setup before you provide details of individual components.

(b)  Subsystems: Describe any subsystems in the setup, how they operate and what their purpose is.  Some systems may have many subsystems.  Some may have none.

(c)  Construction:  How is the experiment put together (if it is not obvious from the previous sections). 

(d)  Theoretical Analysis: Explain any theoretical analysis that you will use to compare to your data.  For example, if you have measurements of concentration near a microparticle and you compare this to a theoretical model based on the mass species equations, then the theoretical development of the equations should appear in this section.   Also explain in this section the quantitative theory you have used to analyze your data.  You can be terse about any theory that has to do with off-the-shelf components of your system.  For example, with the quartz crystal microbalance, you may not need to do more than provide the Saurebrey equation and state how you used it.  That is, you do not need to derive the equations for a vibrating quartz crystal.

(e)  Testing: Describe what tests you performed on the apparatus to ensure that it works properly.  Results of your testing will be stated later in the “Results” section.  Note:  The testing that appears in this section falls in the category of “positive controls.”  These appear in theoretical modeling, physical measurements, and computer models.  For example, if you have a computer model for a glucose-insulin feedback control system, and you are interested in what happens when the pancreatic beta cells are impaired, you will first need to ensure that the model provides correct results under normal circumstances (or that you can obtain the same results as the person who originally wrote the algorithm).

(f)    Experimental Protocols: Describe the procedures that you used to take the data.

2.     Statistical Analysis: Describe any statistical analysis that will be performed on the data.  Think in terms of hypothesis testing, which might include T-tests, F-tests, Pearson’s correlation coefficient, ANOVA, or others.

VIII.        Results: Present your data in an orderly manner.  Where appropriate, compare measured data to theoretical curves.  Group similar data sets together on the same graph.  Depict your measured data as individual data points and your theoretical curves as lines on your graphs.  Remember that pictures are more readily understood than words, but words are needed to orient the reader to the pictures.  Graphs are preferred over tables.  Be sure to have descriptive figure captions for all of your graphs.  Include enough information in the figure caption that the reader can understand the overall point of the graph without referring to the text.

IX.            Discussion: Discuss the question, the results and the experimental process in general.

1.     What did you set out to do, and why?

2.     What problems are inherent in your experimental methods, including sources of error and the degree to which it matches in vivo conditions?

3.     To what extent do your experimental results agree with your theoretical analysis?

4.     How could you modify your theoretical analysis to more accurately match your experiment?

5.     What can be done to clarify any discrepancies in the data?

6.     How do your experiments compare with related results from other researchers?

7.     What additional experiments could you do with this apparatus or with another apparatus that would be relevant to the questions proposed in your introduction?

8.     What new information have you obtained in your experiment (other than proving/disproving your hypothesis).

X.              Conclusions: Draw conclusions about the original hypothesis.

XI.            Future work: Where do you go from here with the project?

XII.          Acknowledgements: You should have a good number of people to acknowledge in your project.  Do not acknowledge co-authors.  They are already acknowledged by being listed on the title page.

XIII.        References  Use (Author, Date) citation format.

XIV.        Appendices: Appendices as appropriate to your project (e.g.detailed theoretical derivations, additional data that is important but not necessary to the overall thrust of your paper, etc.).