A number of typical difficulties and potential pitfalls come along with writing a thesis. The following article was written to support you when writing a thesis by answering the most frequent asked questions and by highlighting common mistakes.
The expectations and requirements of Bachelor’s and Master’s theses vary widely; from domain to domain as well as among the professors of the same subject area. The comments and recommendations, which are presented in this document, just apply to theses, which are written at the Department of Media and Computer Science and Entertainment Computing; they only pertain partly (if at all) for other institutions. For students it is always advisable to familiarize yourself with the expectations of your supervisor.
1. What is a thesis?
Theses bear close relation to the addressed topic and refer to the reached results. They are not pure experience reports (“first I did… and then…; then the supervisor said and therefore I did…”). Bachelor’s theses are academic papers, even if they solve an engineering problem; in other words, one deals with a topic, searches for literature, compares and evaluates similar approaches.
As a consequence theses have got a list of literature, which should not only contain websites and manuals, but also scientific original literature such as journal articles (e.g. IEEE or ACM-journals) and conference papers. Partially one does a placement in research departments of companies; in this case the topic of the internship is usually chosen so that this scientific analysis is already part of the placement. If the topic of the internship is more to expand an existing tool XYZ by some features A, B, C, you should discuss and search on at least one partial aspect of the practical work in detail.
The university supervisor of a thesis is there to help you; feel free to speak to him/her and allow him/her to be your mentor! Experience has shown that most of the worst theses are the ones, which were submitted without any consultation of the supervisor. For most of the students the Bachelor’s thesis is the first academic work – which means that the necessity of substantial help is the normal case rather than the exception. Admittedly scientific natural talents do exist – but they are extremely rare. Letting yourself be mentored also means arranging enough time for iterations – because three days before the end date even the best supervision contributes nothing much.
2. How many pages should I write?
As often as this question is asked, as difficult is its answer. Depending on the margin and the font, one page contains 300 to 600 words. In this respect a number of pages is not expressive. Most of the examination regulations of the respective university courses state a number of characters, which give an approximated information about the scope of the thesis. On looking through drafts it becomes obvious that on the one hand some paragraphs are unnecessarily long and on the other hand some paragraphs come off too short. What you read in teaching books should be cited, but not reflected at great length, let alone copied. For trainees the corporate or product history is for sure very interesting; in the thesis this topic – if at all – should be covered very short, unless it bears relation to the task. You should focus on a detailed description of your own work. It takes not only the implementation, but above all conceptual preliminary considerations, design decisions etc. Ask yourself what has been digested? Which alternatives have been discussed? Why have they been discarded? Retrospectively - how has the choice to be measured?
3. What should be included in the thesis?
Theses always contain structured text, pictures and references. The text should be written precisely scientific; sloppy colloquial phrases are misplaced. Furthermore, a Bachelor’s thesis can gain from the following components: formal notations, which describe a scheme of data structures (UML-charts, Entity-Relationship-Models, formal descriptions of the syntax of a self-developed language), pseudo code descriptions of algorithms (these are better than language-dependent extracts of source code). Tables, which summarize comparing valuations and enumerations, e.g. of requirements, give more structure to the text. Especially for theses in the field of Entertainment Computing, expressive graphics are very important; they do not only illustrate some aspects, but also serve the structure of the text. Examples of source code can be used as well; but they should be short, informative and representative. If you want to present examples of source code of some length, you should place them in the appendix.
3.1. A typical first structure
The first step with writing a seminar paper or thesis is the creation of a structure, which helps to collect your thoughts and to get an overview on content and setup of the work. The first structure often serves the base of a conversation with the supervisor.
First structures often are built as fullows:
- Introduction (2 pages)
- Fundamentals (15 pages)
- More fundamentals
- Still more fundamentals
- Own contribution (12 pages)
- Introduction Algorithm
- Many details
- More details
- Still more details
- Implementation (20 pages)
- More details
- Still more details
- Details on details
- Details on details
- Details on details
- Experiments (5 pages)
- Summary (2 pages)
The differences of the intended scope and the level of detail of the single chapters and paragraphs reveal the varying importance of those for the supervisors. This importance comes off inconvenient in this example. Thus introduction and summary take up little space (each only two pages) and do not have subsections, while the technical chapters three and four have got a high depth of breakdown and take up much more place (12 resp. 20 pages).
This asymmetry concerning the depth of structure is not only unattractive; a balanced structure would be desirable, e.g. two stages in all chapters, with an argumentative common thread, which runs through all chapters. The absence of a partition of the chapters 1, 5 and 6 leads to assume that these were not considered sufficiently. Especially the missing structure of chapter 5 suggests the assumption that the writer has no concrete idea which exceptions he/she has got and which goals should be achieved.
The allocation of the planned number of pages reveals a common problem with seminar papers and theses: Too much focus on technical details than on explanation and comments. Introduction and summary only get a few pages, while chapter 4 overflows, although details are virtually the most unimportant part of it all. They only get important when it comes to presenting your own specific performance or innovations. As compared to other chapters, they are written much easier and therefore they do not need that much planning.
3.2 A better structure
A more favorable structure could look as fullows:
- Introduction (8 pages)
- Determining factors
- Relevant fundamentals (10 pages)
- Necessary fundamentals/reference to own work
- Own formalisms
- Task & demand analysis (6-8 pages)
- Goal setting
- Execution of the project/implementation (4 pages + 6 pages if chapter 5 is not necessary)
- Assumptions and decisions
- Details of implementation
- Experimental verification, results, examples for sulutions (6 pages)
- Cconclusions (8 pages)
- Summary – what is done?
- Critical reflection – Are the set goals achieved and how is the way there evaluated?
- Conclusion – How should the whule work be evaluated?
- Personal statements
- A list of literature
- B examples of source code
- C more relevant material: questionnaire, statistics, pictures etc.
- Declaration of Originality
4. What distinguishes a Bachelor’s from a Master’s or diploma thesis?
Bachelor’s theses refer to a topic, whereby usually the point is not to make a novel scientific contribution. Therefore, originality in a Bachelor’s thesis has to be scored notably positive; missing originality should not be criticized. This is the essential difference from a Master’s thesis. Apart from that a Bachelor’s thesis roughly speaking is “a little Master’s thesis”; it also serves as preparation for the Master’s thesis. Usually it has got less scope and the research of similar work does not have to be as detailed. Often a Bachelor’s thesis has got less theoretical fundamentals. To take the Bachelor’s thesis as a final rehearsal for the Master’s thesis, is a great idea.
5. How is a thesis scored?
Quality and the level of difficulty are essential criteria. To quality belongs the obviousness, if the author uses methods of computer science and other disciplines (such as the mentioned formal notations) successfully. A thesis, which only consist of prose text, is not “very good” most of the time. Usually a consultation with the supervisor is made to include the practical performance during the implementation. But primary the paper is scored and even an outstanding practical performance does not lead to a “very good” or “good” result, if the written part is bad.
Criteria of excellence:
- English language – of course only with good quality
- Very good implementation
- Accurate performances, impeccable use of German or English language
- Statements are referenced, not only allegations
- Clear structure, appropriate language, argumentative common thread
- Autonomous work – do not be unteachable but even do not only tell what the supervisor wants to hear
- Good, expressive graphics
- Stick to the timetable, slack times, appropriate communication of the process state during writing
- Associated website with results and enclosed CD with source code, pdf of the work and all pictures and videos
- Scientific work: verifiable statements, consistent quotations of credible sources, extensive and correct list of literature
- Not thinking through to the end: “…is impossible” is bad, because it is an unfounded statement – better argue “…is impossible, because… a theoretical solution would integrate…, but…” - (mis)using your supervisor for proofreading
- Orthographic mistakes, missing references, missing literature reference, pictures without reference to the text
- Resistance to advice and feedback
- Start too late, bad time management
- Generic titles of chapters
- Unscientific quotations: As a general rule all scientific publications, especially monographs and journal articles, are quotable. In some cases the “grey literature” is also possible. Unscientific sources of information (for example popular media, tabloids, private web sites) and reference work (Brockhaus, Wikipedia) do normally not count as quotable literature. Definitions of fundamental terms as a first step in the base chapter, are the only exception for the last point.
Academic Code of Honor
It should be obvious, but always has to be repeated and emphasized: A thesis marks an individual work, which was made autonomously and is totally based on the sources of the list of literature.
Copy-and-Paste, duplication of other work or “purchase of services” concerning implementation not only insults the intelligence of the supervisor, but also represents an abuse of confidence, which cannot be tolerated in the least. Such plagiarism violates the intellectual property rights of others and leads to failing the topic. The case will also be reported to the examination board and could bring outreaching consequences.