Better Thesis Statements
What is a thesis statement?
A thesis statement is the central claim that the author promises to defend in his or her paper.
Why do I need a thesis statement?
A thesis statement tells the reader where the paper is headed and why s/he should bother going there. It serves to engage the reader’s interest and motivate her or him to read on. From the writer’s perspective, a thesis statement brings her central claim into focus so that it becomes obvious how to build the rest of the paper. A thesis statement, if it is a good one, helps the writer decide what arguments and evidence are necessary to make her point. In a sense, the thesis statement functions as the conscience of a paper; it helps the writer recognize what belongs in the paper and what does not, depending upon the specific promise it makes to the reader.
How do I come up with a thesis statement?
All formal papers and essays have a point. You can have some ideas on a topic, or about an issue, but until you distill what you have drawn a conclusion from your research and reflection and captured in it your thesis statement, your formal writing will lack direction and focus. To arrive at a working thesis statement, try to state out loud or write in a single sentence the most important conclusion you have come to from your research. Here are some examples of simple claims you could make after reading and reflecting in preparation for writing your paper:
- Politicians should use language responsibly if they wish to govern after the campaign.
- The face plays an important role in human communication.
- Migrating Atlantic seabirds need more protection along their migration paths.
Sentences like these, each of which makes a claim, are adequate as “working thesis statements”. As you write, research, arrange, and think through other supporting ideas in your paper, you should be moved to refine your working thesis statement to 1) narrow it, 2) make it more consequential or controversial, or 3) put it in a specific context. With more research and thought, we might revise A.-C. above as follows:
- The speed, reach, and permanence of mass media today can threaten a candidate’s ability to govern once elected.
- Although poets have always noted the role of the face in human communication, facial expression has lately become the subject of intense scientific scrutiny, with the potential for profound social consequences.
- Offshore wind farms, chemical pollution from industrialized livestock facilities, new coastal housing developments pose a triple threat to millions of migrating seabirds who have made their way along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. for millennia.
These revised thesis statements make specific promises to the reader. Can you predict what kinds of evidence or support a writer might include in his or her essay based on one of these thesis statements?
A good thesis statement gives you room to develop your ideas as you wish, but within the boundaries imposed by your knowledge, time, and page limits. We use the word “narrow” to describe a good thesis statement but we don’t mean “narrow-minded” or “stingy”. Instead, a narrow thesis statement is focused and fits the size and scope of your paper. When everything in your paper is selected to support or explore your thesis statement, then you are enjoying the benefits of a good thesis statement.
Here is a worksheet to help you come up with and refine a good thesis statement.
Thesis Statement Worksheet
What is your topic (the area of study for this paper)?
What background information does the reader need to know before you state your thesis?
What is your working thesis statement?
Test your thesis statement. Does your thesis statement:
- Make a claim that a reader can agree or disagree with?
- Reflect knowledge of the source material?
- Pick out an idea that can be defended in the space allowed?
- Limit the kinds of evidence you can use to defend it?
What evidence, examples, or arguments will you use to support the working thesis?
Now that you have thought ahead about your evidence, can you refine your thesis statement to focus on a particular problem and context? (This is where the originality of your claim comes in.)
Strong and Weak Thesis Statements Illustrated
Shakespeare was the world’s greatest playwright.
trite, not defensible
The last scene in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” showcases Shakespeare’s ability to manipulate subtle linguistic differences among his characters for comic effect.
intriguing, has an edge
This essay will show that the North American Free Trade agreement was a disaster.
Neither neo-protectionism nor post-industrial theory explains the downswing of the Canadian furniture industry in 1988-1994. Data on productivity and profits, however, can be closely correlated with provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement that took effect in the same period.
gives context, reflects research, shows intent
In the Netherlands, euthanasia is legal. This paper will describe the history of euthanasia and give case studies.
doesn’t reveal a central claim or focus
Recent cases show that Dutch law on euthanasia has encountered difficulty with issues involving technological interventions and unconscious patients.
focused, promisesfacts and analysis
The occurrence of measles in medical settings is higher than nosocomial infections, rubella, pertussis, influenza, and nosocomial hepatitis B according to a survey of hospital records.
distracting detail, hard to follow, no context
In recent years, transmission of measles in hospitals has been described only rarely. New data suggest that the spread of measles in hospitals is more frequent than previously recognized.
shows purpose andcontext, promises new information of consequence
Myths about thesis statements
- A thesis statement is the topic of a paper or what the paper is ‘about.’
If a reader knows that your paper is about migrating birds, she still doesn’t know what your point is. Only a thesis statement can tell the reader that. A topic merely names the field or subject area of your paper; it doesn’t propose anything. Topics are identified in other sentences that give background information that usually lead up to the thesis statement. Compare the topic sentence below with the thesis statement that follows it:
Topic sentence: There are few people totally unfamiliar with bingo—that game of chance in which numbers, called at random, are plotted on cards to form patterns and to win prizes.
Thesis statement: In order to understand bingo as a cultural phenomenon it should be studied not as a cultural ‘thing’ but as behavior compatible with a patterned way of life.
- Some writers put their thesis statement at the end of their paper.
This myth confuses the concluding section of a paper with the intellectual conclusion a writer must reach in order to begin writing a paper in earnest. Since a good thesis statement is the result of research, reflection, and, sometimes, a draft or two of the entire paper, it might seem that it ought to come at the end of one’s essay. But, in academic writing, what is the outcome of thinking and writing for the writer is best presented as the starting point for the reader. Many writers restate their thesis statement/hypothesis in the concluding section of their papers but few choose to delay revealing their central claim until after they have argued in favor of it
- There are strict rules about the form of a thesis statement.
You can learn to write better thesis statements by practicing with specific forms, e.g. one where a premise (“If term limits were adopted in today…”) precedes a conclusion (“we would lose valuable legislative experience.”). Yet if you grasp the function of a thesis statement, many forms are possible. It may take the form of a supported assertion as in “I agree with the author because…” or it can direct the reader’s attention to a scientific or philosophical issue as in “Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences has applications in the kindergarten classroom for..” or “The relationship between body and soul remains a central issue in…” Short pithy thesis statements are also possible as in “Television kills”—a claim, to be sure, but one which needs elaboration in nearby sentences to correctly direct the reader’s focus.
- A thesis statement is just your opinion.
While a thesis statement does present the reader with a claim, it should go well beyond a simple assertion that anyone can make without detailed information about the topic. Statements such as People are too lazy to solve the environmental crisis we face or Today’s educators need to know how to deal with students who don’t speak English don’t convey that the writer has researched his topic and come away with something new or non-obvious to say. A thesis statement offers an informed opinion that the writer is prepared to support with facts, arguments, analysis, and research-based evidence. It might be helpful to remember that a thesis statement takes a ‘point of view’ which the paper develops so that the reader can decide for himself on the issue.
Resources for Learning
This section describes the main elements of a written thesis at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Although the specific structure described here is most relevant for empirical theses, much of the advice is also relevant for theoretical work. Please note that the formal requirements vary between different disciplines, and make sure to confer the guidelines that apply in your field.
For the contents in the various sections you may also confer Organising your writing.
Abstract and foreword
Most readers will turn first to the abstract. Use it as an opportunity to spur the reader’s interest. The abstract should summarise the main contents of your thesis, especially the thesis statement, but does not need to cover every aspect of the main text. The main objective is to give the reader a good idea of what the thesis is about.
In general the abstract should be the last thing that you write, when you know what you have actually written. It is nevertheless a good idea to work on a draft continuously. Writing a good abstract is difficult, since it should only include the most important points of your work. But this is also why working on your abstract can be useful – it forces you to identify exactly what it is you are writing about.
There are usually no formal requirements for forewords, but it is common practice to thank your supervisors, informants, and others who have helped and supported you. If you have received any grants or research residencies, you should also acknowledge these.
Note: Shorter assignments do not require abstracts and forewords.
Your introduction has two main purposes: 1) to give an overview of the main points of your thesis; and 2) awaken the reader’s interest. It’s not a bad idea to go through the introduction one last time when the writing is done, to ensure that it connects well with your conclusion.
Tip: For a nice, stylistic twist you can reuse a theme from the introduction in your conclusion. For example, you might present a particular scenario in one way in your introduction, and then return to it in your conclusion from a different – richer or contrasting – perspective.
Your introduction should include:
- The background for your choice of theme
- A discussion of your research question or thesis statement
- A schematic outline of the remainder of your thesis
The sections below discuss each of these elements in turn.
The background sets the general tone for your thesis. It should make a good impression and convince the reader why the theme is important and your approach relevant. Even so, it should be no longer than necessary.
What is considered a relevant background depends on your field and its traditions. Background information might be historical in nature, or it might refer to previous research or practical considerations. You can also focus on a specific text, thinker or problem.
Academic writing often means having a discussion with yourself (or some imagined opponent). To open your discussion, there are several options available. You may, for example:
- refer to a contemporary event
- outline a specific problem; a case study or an example
- review the relevant research/literature to demonstrate the need for this particular type of research
If it is common in your discipline to reflect upon your experiences as a practitioner, this is the place to present them. In the remainder of your thesis, this kind of information should be avoided, particularly if it has not been collected systematically.
Tip: Do not spend too much time on your background and opening remarks before you have gotten started with the main text.
Write three different opening paragraphs for your thesis using different literary devices
a) “set the scene” with a (short) narrative
b) adopt a historical approach to the phenomenon you intend to discuss
c) take an example from the media to give your topic current relevance.
Observe to what extent these different openings inspire you, and choose the approach most appropriate to your topic. For example, do you want to spur emotions, or remain as neutral as possible? How important is the historical background? The exercise can be done in small groups or pairs. Discuss what makes an opening paragraph successful (or not). How does your opening paragraph shed light on what is to follow? What will the reader’s expectations be?
1.2 Defining the scope of your thesis
One of the first tasks of a researcher is defining the scope of a study, i.e., its area (theme, field) and the amount of information to be included. Narrowing the scope of your thesis can be time-consuming. Paradoxically, the more you limit the scope, the more interesting it becomes. This is because a narrower scope lets you clarify the problem and study it at greater depth, whereas very broad research questions only allow a superficial treatment.
The research question can be formulated as one main question with (a few) more specific sub-questions or in the form of a hypothesis that will be tested.
Your research question will be your guide as your writing proceeds. If you are working independently, you are also free to modify it as you go along.
How do you know that you have drafted a research question? Most importantly, a research question is something that can be answered. If not, you have probably come up with a theme or field, not a question.
- Use interrogative words: how, why, which (factors/situations) etc.
- Some questions are closed and only invoke concrete/limited answers. Others will open up for discussions and different interpretations.
Asking “What …?” is a more closed question than asking “How?” or “In what way?”
Asking “Why” means you are investigating what causes of a phenomenon. Studying causality is methodologically demanding.
- Feel free to pose partially open questions that allow discussions of the overall theme, e.g., “In what way …?”; “How can we understand [a particular phenomenon]?”
- Try to condense your research question into one general question – and perhaps a few more specific sub-questions (two or three will usually suffice).
The outline gives an overview of the main points of your thesis. It clarifies the structure of your thesis and helps you find the correct focus for your work. The outline can also be used in supervision sessions, especially in the beginning. You might find that you need to restructure your thesis. Working on your outline can then be a good way of making sense of the necessary changes. A good outline shows how the different parts relate to each other, and is a useful guide for the reader.
It often makes sense to put the outline at the end of the introduction, but this rule is not set in stone. Use discretion: What is most helpful for the reader? The information should come at the right point – not too early and not too late.
2. Theory section
The theory used in an empirical study is meant to shed light on the data in a scholarly or scientific manner. It should give insights not achievable by ordinary, everyday reflections. The main purpose of using theory is to analyse and interpret your data. Therefore, you should not present theoretical perspectives that are not being put to use. Doing so will create false expectations, and suggests that your work is incomplete.
Not all theses have a separate theory section. In the IMRaD format the theory section is included in the introduction, and the second chapter covers the methods used.
What kind of theory should you choose? Since the theory is the foundation for your data analysis it can be useful to select a theory that lets you distinguish between, and categorise different phenomena. Other theories let you develop the various nuances of a phenomenon. In other words, you have a choice of either reducing the complexity of your data or expanding upon something that initially looks simple.
How much time and space should you devote to the theory chapter? This is a difficult question. Some theses dwell too long on theory and never get to the main point: the analysis and discussion. But it is also important to have read enough theory to know what to look for when collecting data. The nature of your research should decide: Some studies do not require much theory, but put more emphasis on the method, while other studies need a rich theory section to enable an interesting discussion.
3. Method section
In a scholarly research article, the section dealing with method is very important. The same applies to an empirical thesis. For students, this can be a difficult section to write, especially since its purpose may not always be clear.
The method chapter should not iterate the contents of methodology handbooks. For example, if you have carried out interviews, you do not need to list all the different types of research interview. You also do not need to describe the differences between quantitative and qualitative methods, or list all different kinds of validity and reliability.
What you must do is to show how your choice of design and research method is suited to answering your research question(s). Demonstrate that you have given due consideration to the validity and reliability of your chosen method. By “showing” instead of “telling”, you demonstrate that you have understood the practical meaning of these concepts. This way, the method section is not only able to tie the different parts of your thesis together, it also becomes interesting to read!
- Show the reader what you have done in your study, and explain why. How did you collect the data? Which options became available through your chosen approach?
- What were your working conditions? What considerations did you have to balance?
- Tell the reader what you did to increase the validity of your research. E.g., what can you say about the reliability in data collection? How do you know that you have actually investigated what you intended to investigate? What conclusions can be drawn on this basis? Which conclusions are certain and which are more tentative? Can your results be applied in other areas? Can you generalise? If so, why? If not, why not?
- You should aim to describe weaknesses as well as strengths. An excellent thesis distinguishes itself by defending – and at the same time criticising – the choices made.
Your analysis, along with your discussion, will form the high light of your thesis. In the IMRaD format, this section is titled “Results”. This is where you report your findings and present them in a systematic manner. The expectations of the reader have been built up through the other chapters, make sure you fulfill these expectations.
To analyse means to distinguish between different types of phenomena – similar from different. Importantly, by distinguishing between different phenomena, your theory is put to work. Precisely how your analysis should appear, however, is a methodological question. Finding out how best to organise and present your findings may take some time. A good place to look for examples and inspiration is repositories for master’s theses.
If you are analysing human actions, you may want to engage the reader’s emotions. In this case it will be important to choose analytical categories that correlate to your chosen theory. Engaging emotions is not the main point, but a way to elucidate the phenomenon so that the reader understands it in a new and better way.
Note: Not all theses include a separate chapter for analysis.
In many thesis the discussion is the most important section. Make sure that you allocate enough time and space for a good discussion. This is your opportunity to show that you have understood the significance of your findings and that you are capable of applying theory in an independent manner.
The discussion will consist of argumentation. In other words, you investigate a phenomenon from several different perspectives. To discuss means to question your findings, and to consider different interpretations. Here are a few examples of formulations that signal argumentation:
- On the one hand … and on the other
- But is it really true that…
- … on can it also be supposed…?
- … another possible explanation may be …
6. Conclusion – or summing up?
The final section of your thesis may take one of several different forms. Some theses need a conclusion, while for others a summing up will be appropriate. The decisive factor will be the nature of your thesis statement and research question.
Open research questions cannot always be answered, but if a definite answer is possible, you must provide a conclusion. The conclusion should answer your research question(s). Remember that a negative conclusion is also valid.
A summing up should repeat the most important issues raised in your thesis (particularly in the discussion), although preferably stated in a (slightly) different way. For example, you could frame the issues within a wider context.
Placing your thesis in perspective
In the final section you should place your work in a wider, academic perspective and determine any unresolved questions. During the work, you may have encountered new research questions and interesting literature which could have been followed up. At this point, you may point out these possible developments, while making it clear for the reader that they were beyond the framework of your current project.
- Briefly discuss your results through a different perspective. This will allow you to see aspects that were not apparent to you at the project preparation stage
- Highlight alternative research questions that you have found in the source materials used in the project
- Show how others have placed the subject area in a wider context
- If others have drawn different conclusions from yours, this will provide you with ideas of new ways to view the research question
- Describe any unanswered aspects of your project
- Specify potential follow up and new projects
A thesis should “bite itself in the tail”
There should be a strong connection between your conclusion and your introduction. All the themes and issues that you raised in your introduction must be referred to again in one way or another. If you find out at this stage that your thesis has not tackled an issue that you raised in the introduction, you should go back to the introduction and delete the reference to that issue. An elegant way to structure the text is to use the same textual figure or case in the beginning as well as in the end. When the figure returns in the final section, it will have taken on a new and richer meaning through the insights you have encountered, created in the process of writing.
J. Schimel, 2012 Writing Science. How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. New York: Oxford University Press
Last updated: December 16, 2013