Thesis management

As a thesis student, you can expect:

  • Your thesis journey to be exciting, stimulating and challenging.
  • To develop independence and produce work of high standard.
  • New and different challenges associated with undertaking research.
  • To spend time negotiating what it means to be a postgraduate research student.
  • To learn how the University and your department/ school works, and which staff are available to advise you.

Managing your thesis journey

Make use of academic guidance, advice and support

  • Stay in regular contact with other thesis students to maintain perspective.
  • Form a study group.
  • Attend Libraries and Learning Services workshops.


  • Establish your supervision early.
  • Maintain an effective working relationship with your supervisor(s), and resolve any problems as soon as possible.
  • Although your supervisor(s) will have important input, most of your work will be carried out independently.

Develop good research habits and organisational skills

  • Pay attention to detail, keep accurate records, and extend your critical thinking skills.
  • Hone your organisational and time management skills.
  • Successfully managing a research project requires motivation, self-discipline, and cooperation with others.
  • Research will not always run smoothly, so be prepared for the unexpected.

Write regularly and receive feedback

  • Submit written drafts to your supervisor on a regular basis.
  • Expect drafts to be returned with extensive and constructive feedback. Feedback is intended to encourage your own thinking and writing abilities.
  • The end result should be a clear and coherent thesis of a high standard. See Elements of a thesis.

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How to decide on a topic

A good thesis contributes to the field or subject area

  • Determine a gap in the existing scholarship, e.g., a question not yet addressed, or a new application of established methodologies.
  • Look at recently published journal articles and books, and recently completed theses in your department, as authors often suggest areas for further research.
  • A topic can also emerge out of previous university assignments or career-related issues.

Pick a topic that you feel passionate about, or at least genuinely interested in

  • You may be given a topic by your department/ school, or be part of a larger research project.
  • Your supervisor may make suggestions or assist in focusing your ideas, but will expect you to show some independent thought.

Will a topic work?

Your thesis should pose questions that are not only answerable, but worth answering.

If in doubt, seek advice or feedback from other more experienced scholars.

Consider the following factors when deciding on a topic:

  • Is the topic possible?
    Will you be able to find subjects to interview, samples to study? Can it be done within the time available? Are there expenses involved? How will you gain funding for these?
  • Is your research ethical?
    If you are planning to conduct research with human subjects, ethics approval must be completed before research commences.
  • Is the research within your range of competence?
    Can you actually do it? Graduate research projects should be challenging, but if the project is too ambitious you may be setting yourself up to fail.
  • Is there an existing field of literature in which you can work?
    A good thesis topic is firmly located in current literature, asks useful questions, and addresses these through original research.
  • Is there enough literature available?
    Does your topic allow you to show knowledge of the field? Search the literature to answer these questions.
  • Is your research original?
    Does it make a contribution to the field? Even if you discover that someone else has published on your exact topic, your focus may pose different questions or use an alternative methodology.

Manalo, E. & Trafford, J. (2004). Thinking to thesis: A guide to graduate success at all levels. Auckland: Pearson Education.
White, B. (2011). Mapping your thesis: The comprehensive manual of theory and techniques for Masters and Doctoral research. doi:AN 384475.

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Generating ideas

Develop a research proposal

  • This will help you to determine the scope of your research, and outline clear, unambiguous objectives, definitions and research questions.

Generate questions

  • Identify one main question and several related sub-questions your thesis will address.
  • As you research these questions, organise your notes into the relevant sections, and construct an outline for each section.


  • Use techniques such as brainstorming to generate ideas, and construct mind maps, concept maps, issue trees, matrices, or flow charts to help structure and organise your ideas.

Talk with others

  • Clarify your ideas by talking to your supervisor, friends or colleagues.

Organising your ideas

  • Organise your ideas at different structural levels, from the entire project through to individual paragraphs.
  • At each level, ensure your ideas are presented in a logical order by constructing a series of linear plans or outlines.
  • Be prepared to modify them as your work progresses.

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Recording ideas

Start a research journal

  • Try recording your thoughts and inspirations in a research journal.

Write early and often

  • Start writing your thesis early and write something each day.
  • You don't have to start at the beginning.
  • Start with something easy or concrete such as a definition, the methods or the results.

Abstract drafting

  • Write an abstract for your thesis every couple of weeks. This will maintain an overview of your project and allow you to spot changes in your thinking as ideas develop.

Connecting your ideas

Determine relationships and linkages between different sections and ideas and express these clearly.

Ways of organising ideas within your thesis include:

  • Empirical or experimental
  • Chronological
  • Relationships, or cause and effect
  • Process or methodology
  • Theories or themes
  • Varying spatial scales (e.g., from local to regional to national to global)
  • Varying temporal scales (e.g., from short-run to long-run, from hourly to annual)
  • As a narrative.

Refer to existing work for structural guidance

  • Read other theses and research papers related to your field of study.
  • Model your work on how other papers have been structured.

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Research proposals:

  • Provide a clear statement of the topic and an indication of the scope of the project similar research that has already been undertaken.
  • Outline how data will be collected and analysed, and other methodological or practical considerations.
  • Help researchers to clarify their ideas about the project and elicit feedback.
  • Are often used as supporting documentation for departmental and ethics approval of projects, and for applications for scholarships or research grants.


The components of a research proposal depend on the topic and the discipline, and the purposes for which the research is intended.

They could include:

  • Title of the study
  • Purpose of the research, aims and objectives
  • Abstract or summary
  • Research questions or hypotheses to be tested
  • A literature review to put your research topic into context
  • Theoretical framework
  • Definitions of key terms
  • Research methodology - how the research will be conducted and why
  • Expected results
  • Plan for interpreting and analysing results
  • Significance of the research
  • Ethical considerations
  • Treaty of Waitangi considerations
  • Anticipated problems or limitations
  • Resources required and how these might be obtained and funded
  • Research timetable
  • References or bibliography
  • Appendices of materials (e.g., questionnaires) that could be used or adapted for your study.

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A good literature review does not just describe previous research but is analytical and evaluative. It should:

  • Demonstrate your understanding of current thinking and research, and any recent developments in your field of study.
  • Identify key authors and important theoretical, technical and/or methodological issues.
  • Show any relationships among previous studies and/or theories.
  • Identify gaps or limitations in previous research.
  • Show how previous research is related to your own topic and provide a justification for your work.

Steps for writing a literature review

Define your topic

  • Determine its focus and parameters.

Gather relevant information from a variety of sources and paradigms

E.g., books, journal articles, research studies, theses, reviews, interviews, case studies or statistics.

Take notes and summarise

  • As you read, make brief notes in your own words.
  • Write short summaries for each chapter or article.

Organise material into key themes or concepts

  • Don't just present a series of abstracts!
  • Group similar studies, describing the most important ones in detail.
  • Mention less important studies briefly by stating "the results are confirmed in similar studies ...".

Relate previous research to concepts and your insights

  • Consider the wider significance of the material by discussing the implications of previous research (e.g., "Much of the research suggests ... "), relating this research to important theoretical concepts and your own insights.

Identify gaps in the literature

  • Point out gaps that exist in current knowledge, e.g., "While there has been much research in the area of..., there is a need for more extensive study in ...".

Suggest future research areas

  • Indicate directions for further study, e.g., "Further research should focus on ..." or "There is a need for ...".

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Research journals can be private records as well as openly accessible blogs. A research journal can be used for:


  • Write down your goals and intended time frames.
  • Keep track of references, library search terms, and interloan requests.
  • Log research by date, processes tried, or results.


  • Make brief notes after reading relevant literature.
  • Brainstorm ideas, make notes and create mind-maps as you select your topic, and for planning your thesis structure.


  • Milestones with dates and an indication of time spent.
  • Supervision – questions for your supervisor, comments from your supervisor, notes from meetings, plans made with your supervisor.
  • Thoughts that come to mind while collecting data, reading and writing other parts of your thesis.
  • Special achievements, dead-ends, surprises.
  • Useful definitions.
  • Contact details of relevant people or organisations.

Murray, R. (2011). How to write a thesis. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Establish organising habits and take advantage of reference management tools.

Folders and files

  • Your literature and notes can be filed electronically into folders containing downloaded PDF files or summaries of read material (tables in MS Word or Excel).
  • These folders should be on a secure hard drive or personal memory device.

Use EndNote or RefWorks

  • Customise EndNote or RefWorks fields to store your necessary information about each reference.
  • Electronic references can be stored in EndNote or RefWorks.
  • See also referencing.

Last updated : 21 June 2022
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