Sektion Biologie

Advice for writing your Master thesis

General notes

Your thesis shall give a precise summary of your experiments/studies. Thus, it shall be easy to read, while containing sufficient detail that permit a complete reconstruction of the experiments/studies performed. Note that the thesis must be your own work - both regarding the data and the concepts. Any copy-pasting of entire sentences or even paragraphs from the literature or webpages is plagiarism - equivalent to theft - and absolutely not acceptable!

Structure

Scientific reports should have a consistent structure that allow the reader to understand the purpose of the study, the results obtained, and how these results advance our current knowledge. The following structure should be used:

  • Title page, including title, names of author, and affiliations. The title should be concise, easily understandable, and still precise. It should raise the reader's interest into the topic.

  • The Abstract provides a short summary of your study, including background and goal (1 - 3 sentences), main findings (1 - 5 sentences), and main conclusions (1 - 3 sentences).

  • Introduction: Conceptual background ("Why is this interesting?"). 3 - 10 pages for a Master thesis.

  • Objectives: What is your main research objective? What is your hypothesis? The formulated hypothesis must be precise! The objectives may be an integral part of the introducion (presented at the end of the introduction) or be a separate section of your thesis. 0.5 page.

  • Materials and Methods: The description of the methods should be sufficiently precise to allow complete reconstruction of the experiments/studies performed. At the same time, it is important that they are not "flooded" with unimportant details, which then may make it impossible to read and understand the approaches used. In case of complicated experiments, use graphical illustrations. The experimental design of the study must be suited to address the main research question or hypothesis! Up to 20 pages.

  • Results: The results should be sufficiently long and present all results obtained in an objective format. Results are ideally shown in graphs and tables. The accompanying text should be short and focused on the main patterns found, and then refer to the tables and figures  (and not repeat all the tiny little details shown in the tables and graphs). The results should be evaluated with the help of statistical methods. Avoid any interpretation and discussion of the results. Up to 20 pages.

  • Discussion: The discussion should critically evaluate the results obtained in consideration of the main research question/hypothesis (e.g., "Were the expecations met?"). It should critically and objectively discuss alternative explanations for the results. Do not be misled by your expectations! Moreover, it should take into account the current literature on the topic and explain in how far the results advanced our understanding of the topic. Up to 20 pages for your Master thesis.

  • Acknowledgments: Point out who provided support for your study. 0.5 page.

  • References: List all references which were quoted in the report. Usually 1 - 3 pages.

  • Appendix: Include extra information on methods and results that are not essential for the main report but that may still be useful for understanding of results or future studies (may be long).

Length

The main parts (Introduction, Objectives, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion) should not exceed 40 - 60 pages for a Master thesis! The quality of your thesis is not equivalent with its length. An excellent paper should be concise!

Format

Use a standard font and a font size of 11 (e.g. Arial) or 12 (e.g. Times New Roman). Headers may be larger or in bold. Additionally, use a line spacer of 1.5 or more (at least 1.15) and leave sufficient space at the page margins (at least 2 cm; ideally 2.5 cm).

Clarity

In order to reach your audience, clarity of arguments and findings is essential. Many important findings were overseen because the articles were written in an incomprehensible format. Here are some tips on how a clear thesis can be managed:

  • Use short sentences. Build up arguments step-by-step. Use graphics to illustrate complex relationships.

  • Use graphics and tables to present your findings. Think about how the reader may best understand your results. Use symbols and colours to emphasize different treatment groups. It is helpful if you use the same X-axis, Y-axis, symbols, colours for related graphs. Graphs should be large enough. Include a legend to explain the details (axes, symbols, etc.) of the graphs.

  • Avoid unimportant details that do not directly relate to your main study question/hypothesis.

  • Avoid unjustified speculations in your discussion of the results.

  • You may use headers for subsections in methods, results, and perhaps discussion.

  • To ensure clarity of arguments, especially in the introduction and discussion, it is usually a good idea to start formulating internal headers for each single paragraph (i.e. headers that you do not use in the final version of the manuscript), and then add more and more details. It may then be useful to start each paragraph with a clearly formulated statement that is subsequently evaluated/discussed in more detail in the following part of the paragraph. If you have several related points that you would like to introduce or discuss, then it is useful to present them as a numbered list of points. (An example for the discussion: "I can draw three main conclusions from my results: 1) xxx, 2) xxx, 3) xxx"; each listed point should start on a new line.)

  • Use a format that is appealing to the eye. For example, larger font size or bold font for headers, etc.

Tables

Always use a concise and clear title for a table. The title should be given above the table itself. Include a legend (usually below the table) to explain further details or abbreviations. Use an open and simple format, too. Only show horizontal lines of your table, no vertical lines. Headers may be given in bold.

Figures

Use a concise and clear title for figures. The figure title and subsequentlegend are presented below the figure.  Include a legend to explain further details, abbreviations, symbols or colours. This should be understandable as stand alone - without any further information from the text. You may also include a symbol legend within the figure. Always use the same standard pattern and colour for the same subgroups throughout the text.

Organize the axes in a meaningful way: The explanatory variable should be given on the X-axis, whereas the response variable should appear on the Y-axis. The chosen axis titles should be brief but sufficiently precise. Include information on the error margin, either standard error, standard deviation, or confidence intervals. Select axis-ranges in such a way that not too much empty space is left. Log transform where useful.

Statistics

Provide statistics either as part of a figure, table or in text. For statistical tests, always include the following information: Name of the test (e.g. ANOVA), value of the test statistic, sample size or degrees of freedom, probability (p value). The abbreviations of the calculated variables (test statistic and probability) are always given in italics. The methods must include sufficient detail on how the statistical analysis was done.

References

Use a consistent format for the references in the reference list. The references can be most easily added and formatted with the help of the programmes such as Zotero, Endnote or Reference Manager. Please only cite papers that you actually read!