How to get started with research writing
14 Aug '21
All of my CS project students produce a report or thesis for their assessment. This will be the most important part of the assessment for your project and you’ll probably put a lot of effort into writing it.
In this post I’ll set down some of the most important advice I give students when getting stated.
Is there a default structure for a thesis or report or should everybody write whatever they want? Although there usually aren’t rules about structuring a thesis, it’s usually a good idea to follow the usual conventions for academic writing which is often summed up as ILMRaD:
- Literature Review
- (and) Discussion
- (and conclusion)
The idea is that you have these words as the titles for the five-six chapters in your thesis. Pat Thomson writes about it more here.
There are some field-specific chapter titles that you might also use. For instance, in computing where we build a new system and experiment with it, we often use a “System Design” chapter instead of “Methods” and you might discuss your experimental method at the start of the results section. The Conclusion is often it’s own chapter at the end. It’s often a good idea to combine the “discussion” content with Results, or with Conclusion so that the document ends up with five chapters instead of six.
I suggest that most students use this convention. Why? Because it helps examiners to find the information they need quickly and helps you to make sure you provide the information that they typically look for.
Most computer science and music tech papers and theses are formatted using LaTeX (not Microsoft Word). With LaTeX you edit a plain text document with markup to indicate formatting rather than what-you-see-is-what-you-get environments like Word. LaTeX is particularly good at displaying maths and handling references (with Bibtex). Overall many academic folks prefer the quality of the output document which seems a lot more polished than Word.
You can get a TeX environment for your system which will include the software to compile e.g., MacTex for macOS, TeXLive for Linux, MiKTeX for windows. TeX environments tend to be big (~3GB) and include lots of software and resources.
You can also use cloud-based editors like Overleaf.
I have two LaTeX templates that you might find useful:
- LaTeX Short Report Template (link) - this might be good for a 6-12 unit report
- LaTeX Thesis Template (link) - the template I used for my PhD thesis, works better for a longer (>50 pages) document.
You can see an example of the thesis template here in my PhD thesis :-)
Length for a thesis or report can vary, but here are some guidelines for the maximum length of a LaTeX-generated PDF file for project courses of different sizes (in ANU course units where 48 units is 1-year full time).
- 30 pages for 6-unit projects,
- 50 pages for 12 units,
- 70 pages for 18 units,
- 90 pages for 24 units
(BTW these are borrowed from our Engineering project courses! thx folks!)
LaTeX generated theses tend to be a bit longer than a Word document because they add a bit more white space etc. Computing and engineering works often have lots of figures and images so the length can look extremely long for some people. In fact, many students end up blowing these page budgets and have to reduce the size of their work afterwards.
The page limit here is counting the significant content of a thesis, that is the numbered pages starting from the first page of the introduction to the last page of the conclusion. Tables of contents, appendices and references aren’t counted.
The minimum requirements could vary, but I would say that I expect a document of two-thirds the given length here (so ~60 pages for a 24-unit honours course).
Another way to think about the minimum requirements is this: a “chapter” in an honours thesis is typically about 10 pages minimum, so to have a thesis with 5 chapters, you will end up with about 50-60 pages. Of course, some chapters may be shorter (e.g., conclusions) but some might be longer (methods/system design) to make up for it. An honours thesis consisting of chapters of only 2-3 pages each is not likely to be acceptable.
For a thesis I suggest following APA Style for citations and references. In particular I think author-date format (e.g., Martin, 2014) is more useful for a thesis rather than numbered references [e.g., 16]. Why? Well when reading a big document, after a while I’m likely to remember what “Martin, 2014” is, but I’ll never remember what “16” refers to.
Introduction and Conclusion
Here’s some specific advice for your intro and conclusion.
Your introduction needs to explain:
- What is your problem?
- Why is it interesting?
- What have you done to solve it? (What are your aims/research questions?)
- What were the results?
Basically a mini version of the whole thesis!
Need to focus on the problem, and the “why” of your project.
Important to set up the aims and research questions of the project clearly and to briefly state the main results so the reader knows what to expect and so that you can address them in more detail in the conclusion.
Discussion versus Results
It’s sometimes hard to figure out why a thesis template has a “results” section and a “discussion” section. After all, don’t we use the “results” chapter to discuss the results? One way to understand this is that the results section is typically used for a fairly strict exposition of the results of different experiments or measurements. Each kind of experiment might have some specific findings or interpretation which are explained right after the results. The discussion section is where the researcher takes all the findings from different experiments together and distills broad contributions or outcomes from their work. They might find ways that the outcome of one finding explains another or make links with other research or a broader social context for their work.
Similar to your introduction!
This time, focus on what you accomplished, addressing the aims/RQs with the findings.
Also need to put your thesis into context a bit — this is where “future work” fits, but also writing about how your work could be applied and what it MEANS in the world outside of this project.
- Both intro and conclusion need to have the basic information of your thesis
- Intro is more focussed on setting up the problem, the why, and you aims
- Conclusion more focussed on address the aims using evidence from your findings.
- Conclusion also puts work into context.