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How to write a master’s thesis: A complete guide 

A master's thesis is a major milestone for master's students. Its main purpose is to prove that a student is competent in research, scholarship, and scientific communication.

The requirements don’t only vary among universities, they can also vary among departments in the same university. So, making sure you understand the requirements should be a priority.

To complete your master’s thesis on time requires being methodical and following a clear system. Of course, there is more than one way to achieve this. However, here is the outline of the logical process, which is presented and discussed in this article.

Steps to completing your master’s thesis:

  1. Select a topic

  2. Write a proposal

  3. Select a master’s thesis advisor

  4. Plan a roadmap and process

  5. Write the different parts of the thesis

An images of the fives steps to succesfully write a master's thesis
Figure 1. Steps to write a master's thesis.

Your thesis represents your first major academic milestone. So, planning and being methodical in your process is vital to ensure you accomplish such a big goal.

Table of Contents

Step 1. Select a topic for your master’s thesis

Step 2. Write a proposal

Proposal example: Identifying the research gap

Step 3. Select a master’s thesis advisor

Step 4. Plan a roadmap and system

Step 5. Write the different parts of your thesis

Write your introduction

Write your methods

Write your results

Write your discussion

Final thoughts on writing your master's thesis

Frequently asked questions

1. How long does it take to write a master's thesis?

2. What’s the difference between a dissertation and a thesis?

3. How do you write a thesis statement for a master's thesis?

4. Can I pay someone to write my master’s thesis?

Step 1. Select a topic for your master’s thesis

The first step of completing your master’s thesis is selecting a topic. Always make sure to choose a topic that you like or are interested in. Remember this is a commitment that will take at least two years of your life. So you better make sure that your topic is something that you’re passionate about. If not passionate, then at least something that won’t bore you to death or make you miserable.

So, how do you go about choosing a topic that you like? First, you have to find out what you like. This can be done by reading scholarly papers and books about a topic that you are broadly interested in.

The more you read, the more you are likely to come across something that ignites your interest and passion. You can also have discussions with professors and other scholars that you have access to. This can help generate ideas.

There are several advantages to doing this type of wide and deep reading in this way:

  • You get ready early

  • It shows initiative

  • It inspires confidence within you

  • It inspires confidence in your advisor

When you start with this extensive reading, you get an idea of what you’ll be getting into. You can take note of the things that you already know or understand and the things that you need a little more work in understanding. Also, it will get you ready for the next stage of writing your thesis: Writing your proposal.

Step 2. Write a proposal

Your proposal should be written even before you find an advisor. Most students think of writing a proposal only after meeting the advisor. But remember, it’s about showing that you are ready and willing to take the initiative.

A proposal at this stage should be one to five pages, minus the abstract, references, and title page. It will be more or less a mini-research paper giving some idea of how you plan to go about completing your thesis. This is what you should include in your proposal:

  • An abstract

  • An introduction

  • A list of objectives

  • The literature gap

  • Hypotheses or research statements

  • Proposed methodology

  • Expected results

Expected results give an idea of what you expect your results to be. This is why it’s important to do extensive and deep reading. A survey of the literature will give you an idea of what type of results to anticipate for this type of study, as well as the appropriate methodology to use.

When writing your proposal, you should know how to identify the background or context of the problem you wish to tackle. That could be how it relates to wider societal problems. You should also be able to identify the research gap in the literature. That is, something that other researchers have missed.

Proposal example on how to write a master's thesis

Here is an example of an abstract from a proposal:

Background: Agricultural bio-fortification programs promote the cultivation of

crop varieties that are naturally fortified with micronutrients, and they are widely

seen as a cost-effective method of solving the problem of micronutrient deficiency

or hidden hunger in developing countries. However, the sociological (political,

cultural, and economic) contexts of these programs are rarely examined.

Objectives: In this research, we propose to study the factors that affect the success

of agriculture-based bio-fortification programs in The Gambia in relation to bio-

fortified sweet potato varieties. We plan to achieve the following objectives: 1)

determine the characteristics of the farmers most likely to adopt bio-fortified crops;

2) determine the policy approaches most effective in determining adoption; and 3)

determine how farmers benefit economically, if at all, from these programs.

Methods: We plan to use a mixed methods approach to gather both qualitative

and quantitative data. Thirty extension officers and 200 Gambian extension

officers who participated in the study will be interviewed. Additionally, key

individuals responsible for formulating and overseeing the policy will also be


Expected results: We expect that the results of this research will provide useful

information on 1) the farmer attitudes and 2) farmer characteristics that increase

the likelihood of participating in bio-fortification programs in The Gambia. We

also plan to determine 3) how these programs can be improved in terms of

increased adoption rates and enhancing the economic benefits derived by farmers.

This proposal abstract describes a proposal to investigate the sociological implications of agriculture-based bio-fortification programs in The Gambia. You can view the full proposal example here. Bio-fortification programs refer to policies where farmers are encouraged to grow crop varieties rich in micro-nutrients like calcium, vitamin A, and so on.

This may help in reducing malnutrition among infants, children, and adults. For example, biofortified orange sweet potato reduces vitamin A deficiency in children and women of reproductive age.

However, most of these studies are written from a health perspective. They are studies published by students studying for master's in health or medicine. Or they are typically published in medical journals. What about the socio-economic consequences of these policies?

Thus, a research gap is born. If most medical-based studies simply focus on health outcomes. For example, maybe they observed a 20% reduction in vitamin A deficiency in the population after the program. This study however sought to answer other questions related to economics. For example:

  1. Do farmers benefit economically from switching to sweet potatoes?

  2. Do farmers stand to benefit more from crops that can be sold abroad for higher profits?

  3. Would it not be better to encourage high-income cash crops that can allow farming communities to purchase more nutritious meals?

Of course, a single study won't be able to answer all these questions. But it provides the basis for these questions to be properly explored.

Step 3. Select a master’s thesis advisor

Selecting your master’s thesis advisor can be an important decision to make. In fact, some people even see it as the most important. After all, without an advisor to teach you how to do sophisticated research you have never done before how can you finish on time? But we disagree.

Advisors, indeed, are important. However, what is even more crucial is your willingness to take responsibility for your research. This is why I recommended writing your proposal even before finding an advisor.

Nonetheless, a good advisor can be a valuable mentor who can answer questions on issues that you encounter in your reading. More importantly, a good advisor will teach and train you on how to practically conduct research and do complicated data analysis. When choosing an advisor, you should look for one with most of the following characteristics:

  1. An advisor who values collaboration

  2. An advisor with a reputation for being helpful to students

  3. An advisor with an impressive publication list

  4. An advisor who is actively doing research

  5. An advisor who has similar research interests to you

Too often, there is the idea that an advisor is supposed to be a hard taskmaster, who is obligated to be mean and tough to mentees. This is not the case. Do your research.

Ask fellow students and even fellow professors about the best advisor to work with, both in terms of scholarly ability and personality. That would go a long way in making your master’s thesis journey a rewarding and comfortable one.

Remember, writing a thesis is a learning or even trial-and-error process. In research, things change. And you have to go back and take account of these changes in your research plan. So be ready to go back and make changes to your proposal after consulting with your advisor.

Step 4. Plan a roadmap and system

Now, you have finished your proposal and found an advisor for your master’s thesis. What’s next? You need to develop a roadmap and a process or method to complete your master’s thesis on time. In a previous post, I wrote about hacks to increase your academic writing productivity, alot of which can apply to completing your thesis on time.

Let’s go over them quickly here:

1. Make and keep a schedule. Academic writing of the sort used for your master’s thesis can be difficult. However, taking an approach where you break down challenging tasks into manageable units can be quite effective.

Deciding to read a certain number of papers a day for your literature review or writing a certain number of paragraphs a day would be good examples of this. Making and keeping a schedule could begin with an overall plan or roadmap. This could be represented in the form of a Gannt chart. A Gannt chart shows what has to be done  and when it has to be done. You can create one using specialized software. The good thing about using a Gannt chart is that it’s not set in stone. You can make changes in the Gannt chart to reflect setbacks, delays, or unforeseen progress.

You could also 1) wake up early to write, 2) write down the details of your schedule, and 3) adopt an at-the-office mindset.  The last point — adopting an at-the-office mindset — means deciding to undertake scheduled tasks even when you don’t feel like it. It’s like waking up to go to your nine-to-five job even though you think it’s not that great.

2. Make an overall outline for your thesis. You should do this before you start writing. There is no obligation for you to write in a linear way. A master’s thesis follows the IMRAD format — that is — Introduction, Methods, Results, Analysis, and Discussion.

Such a format means that you can start anywhere. A proper outline allows that to happen more easily. For example, the literature review, which can be seen as part of the introduction, is the easiest section to start working on. You can fill out sections of the literature review as soon as you finish reading a new paper.

3. Make use of tools that increase efficiency and productivity. Besides these, taking advantage of academic writing tools and resources can also boost your productivity and efficiency as an academic writer. And the good thing is that many of these resources are free.  These include:

  1. Grammar and spelling checkers

  2. Proofreading software such as PerfectIt

  3. Automated citation and referencing tools

  4. Writing guides and manuals

  5. Writing centers and tutors

I talked about a range of such tools and resources in another article, which you can check out here: 7 Books and Free Online Resources to Boost Your Academic Writing.

The process of completing your master’s thesis is a gradual and cumulative one. It is supposed to represent a journey of learning and growth in terms of becoming a competent researcher and scientist. Of course, some can boast about waiting the last two months of their master’s course to complete their thesis.

There are even those who boast about hiring someone to write their thesis and saving themselves the stress of long nights of difficult study and challenging academic writing. But that would be missing the entire point of a master’s thesis. It’s about continually progressing, learning, and growing.

Having a system and a roadmap in place means that you can chop or break down a difficult challenge into manageable tasks. This prevents you from being overwhelmed or suffering burnout. Such negative outcomes are inevitable if you wait until the last minute to get busy.

During this process, you should have regular contact and discussions with your thesis advisor to make sure that the two of you are on the same page. Having a system in place means practicing and learning methodology and data analysis methods that are new to you, which your advisor can help you with. It also means finding solutions to unforeseen circumstances and setbacks to your original plan.

Step 5. Write the different parts of your thesis

You need to ensure that you understand what the format and outline of your thesis is and then you go about writing it. You don't have to write it in any specific order.

Quite often, the abstract is written last even if it comes first in a published paper. This is because your final results and analysis may mean that you have to go back and change your initial abstract. It is often best to write the literature review first. This will help you get a better grasp of the topic.

Also, for master's theses, the literature review section typically makes up the more substantial part of your paper. Your thesis committee would want to see you demonstrate your breadth and depth of knowledge of the topic being investigated.

The key to being successful in writing your master's thesis successfully is time management. Set aside time every day to work on specific portions of your thesis. Waiting for the last minute may result in disaster.

Write your introduction

In a previous post named How to Write Your Research Paper, I described the hourglass shape of the IMRAD format. The introduction is the funnel shape of that hourglass. It goes from broadly introducing the context of the problem and narrows down to specific objectives or hypotheses. There are five main components to the introduction, and we will discuss them in turn.

1. Introducing the scope of the problem. You need to make it clear what the scope and nature of the problem being investigated or studied. And this should be done clearly and concisely. Your reader should get a good grasp of the relevance and importance of the problem.

2. The introduction contains the literature review. You should be able to give a thorough analysis of the literature, and more importantly, identify the research gap(s) to justify the need for your study. There are several types of research gaps. While reading the literature, you should learn how to identify these research gaps. To learn more, take a look at this article by Lennart Nacke on the seven research gaps.

3. Clarify the objectives of the study. In the hard sciences, objectives are solidified as hypothesis statements. In the social sciences and the humanities, they can be research questions to be explored.

4. State the method of investigation. You should make clear the methodology you plan to use. This includes the type of data to be collected using what instruments. You also should state from who or what this data was collected and how it is to be analyzed. If necessary, also clarify the reason for selecting a specific methodology.

5. Lastly, state the principal results. This does not always have to be the case. But often, certain journals and disciplines encourage briefly providing a summary of your main results at the end of the introduction.

Write your methods

The method section has one main purpose — it makes it possible for other scientists to reproduce experiments and achieve the results presented in your research. In science, this principle is called “reproducibility.”

What does this mean? It means your methods should be written and properly planned and documented to meet specific scientific standards. Let’s take a look of what should be included in the methods section.

1. Basics to include in the methods. Here is a list of what your readers should expect from your methodology section:

  1. A clear and appropriate research design

  2. It should be written in the past tense

  3. It should follow a chronological order

  4. A clearly defined process for collecting data

  5. A justification of the method

  6. A clear definition of the instrument used to collect data

  7. A clear definition of variables as used in the context of the study

2. Take into account logistics. Great care should be taken when carrying out your thesis methodology. Be careful about the choices that you make in terms of logistics or feasibility. Do not choose a methodology that is beyond the budget available to you or one where you don’t have enough time to complete.

3. Pay attention to ethical standards for animal or human-based studies. Another aspect that you should consider is the ethical standards of your methodology. This is particularly important if animal or human subjects are included in the study. Special permission from the relevant certification bodies or authorities should be granted before proceeding with such studies.

Write your results

Your paper falls or stands based on the quality of your results. The focus should be on summarizing data concisely while being complete. The proper use of tables is an essential part of that process. Let’s look at the list of things to consider for results.

1. Summarize and include complete data. In the results section, the collected data should be summarized to prepare for the analysis and discussion sections. Again as mentioned earlier, all results should be included. This means results that run counter to your expected results and hypotheses. You should also avoid hiding uncomfortable results through omissions.

2. Include all relevant statistics and data analysis. Statistics and analysis are fundamental aspects of research. For this reason, data representation and analysis should be accurate, complete, and unbiased. Moreover, it should provide original and interesting insight.

3. Use tables wisely. Tables are the main devices by which you present your results. They should be made easy to look at and read. Also remember:

  • Table titles should be concise and descriptive. Don’t include periods, and they should be expressed as phrases, not sentences, with no period at the end.

  • One table per page. If a table is too large for a page, it should be split into two tables.

  • A table should be able to stand alone and be complete. Abbreviations and other necessary information such as the definitions of abbreviations should be included in notes at the bottom of the table.

Your results section provides you with the opportunity to practice what you have learned as an emerging scholar. It is during the process of data analysis that you get to apply to new ways of understanding and assessing data. Taking time to learn these processes and instruments beforehand would go a long way in making this part of your master’s thesis easier to deal with.

Write your discussion

In your discussion, you should explain the relevance of your results. Here are four tips to remember when writing your discussion.

1. Summarize and state your results clearly. Were your hypotheses statements supported? If not, what factors explain this?

2. Contextualize your results in terms of the wider literature. Do this by comparing your results to those of previous research.

3. State your study limitations. Acknowledge the limitations of your study. Limitations can mean that your sample population was not representative of the wider population, limiting the generalizability of your findings.

4. Explain the relevance of your findings. Explain how important your findings are without exaggeration. This means taking into account any limitations. Also, talk about the larger issues associated with your findings.

Final thoughts on how to write a master's thesis

Writing your master’s thesis represents a milestone in your career as a scholar and a professional. It is definitely a challenge. To own this challenge, you should as quickly as possible, establish a roadmap and system in place to help you on your journey to complete your master’s thesis.

Also, remember that writing your thesis is an opportunity to learn and grow in many ways. This growth does not simply include your competence as a scientist, but also how you deal or collaborate with others, such as making decisions on choosing your advisor.

The Italian novelist Umberto Eco once said, “Your thesis is like your first love. It will be difficult to forget. In the end, it will represent your first serious and rigorous academic work, and this is no small thing."

Creating a roadmap and system that you stick to ensures that your first serious academic project — your master’s thesis — is something to be proud of.

Frequently asked questions

1. How long does it take to write a master's thesis?

This depends. Ideally, a master’s thesis should take the whole two years of your time at university. However, some have written their theses in one, two, or three months. This is not recommended. Under this type of severe time pressure, many things can go wrong, and you may have to delay your graduation. Therefore, it's best to begin writing your thesis as early as the first semester.

2. What’s the difference between a dissertation and a thesis?

Both terms technically mean the same thing. However, “master’s thesis” is usually used to describe the requirement for a master’s degree, whereas “dissertation thesis” is typically used to describe a PhD degree.

A dissertation thesis is usually a longer document with a series of scientific experiments or research papers. Some of these papers may even be individually published in journals as part of obtaining a PhD. On the other hand, a master’s thesis usually focuses on a single experiment or study.

3. How do you write a thesis statement for a master's thesis?

For a master’s thesis in the sciences, a hypothesis would be more appropriate than a thesis statement. A hypothesis should be formulated after a thorough literature review.

However, for the humanities and social sciences, thesis statements may apply. To write a thesis statement, be concise and direct about stating your main idea. This should be done early in the first paragraph of the introduction.

4. Can I pay someone to write my master’s thesis?

You could, but should you? The point of writing a master’s thesis is to demonstrate your competence and maturity as a scholar. Reputable universities would expect that students write their own master’s thesis. Moreover, there are severe penalties to pay for hiring someone to write a thesis on your behalf, such as your degree being revoked. In short, you could, but shouldn't.

Ethical alternatives to hiring someone to write your thesis include 1) taking specific university courses on how to write your thesis, 2) starting early and planning, and 3) hiring a private coach for intensive lessons on how to write your thesis. 

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