DIGM 680: 



Office Hours:





Thesis Development


Paul Diefenbach, Ph.D.

TBA and by appointment.

Room: 608 Nesbitt Hall

215-895-1618  (emergency cell: 215.514.1386) 





The Thesis

This section describes how to organize the written thesis which is the central element of your graduate degree. To know how to organize the thesis document, you first have to understand what graduate-level research is all about, so that is covered too. In other words, this note should be helpful when you are just getting started in your graduate program, as well as later when you start to write your thesis.

What Graduate Research is All About

The distinguishing mark of graduate research is an original contribution to knowledge. The thesis is a formal document whose sole purpose is to prove that you have made an original contribution to knowledge. Failure to prove that you have made such a contribution generally leads to failure.

To this end, your thesis must show two important things:

Your contribution to knowledge generally lies in your solution or answer.

What the Graduate Thesis is All About

Because the purpose of the graduate thesis is to prove that you have made an original and useful contribution to knowledge, the examiners read your thesis to find the answers to the following questions:

A very clear statement of the question is essential to proving that you have made an original and worthwhile contribution to knowledge. To prove the originality and value of your contribution, you must present a thorough review of the existing literature on the subject, and on closely related subjects. Then, by making direct reference to your literature review, you must demonstrate that your question (a) has not been previously answered, and (b) is worth answering. Describing how you answered the question is usually easier to write about, since you have been intimately involved in the details over the course of your graduate work.

If your thesis does not provide adequate answers to the few questions listed above, you will likely be faced with a requirement for major revisions or you may fail your thesis defence outright. For this reason, the generic thesis skeleton given below is designed to highlight the answers to those questions with appropriate thesis organization and section titles. The generic thesis skeleton can be used for any thesis. While some professors may prefer a different organization, the essential elements in any thesis will be the same. Some further notes follow the skeleton.

Always remember that a thesis is a formal document: every item must be in the appropriate place, and repetition of material in different places should be eliminated.

Master's vs. PhD Thesis

There are different expectations for Master's theses and for Doctoral theses. This difference is not in format but in the significance and level of discovery as evidenced by the problem to be solved and the summary of contributions; a Doctoral thesis necessarily requires a more difficult problem to be solved, and consequently more substantial contributions.

The contribution to knowledge of a Master's thesis can be in the nature of an incremental improvement in an area of knowledge, or the application of known techniques in a new area. The Ph.D. must be a substantial and innovative contribution to knowledge.

A Note on Projects, Computer Programs and Other Prototypes

The purpose of your thesis is to clearly document an original contribution to knowledge. You may develop projects (animations, games, etc.), computer programs, prototypes, or other tools as a means of proving your points, but remember, the thesis is not about the tool or project, it is about the contribution to knowledge. Tools such as computer programs or animations are fine and useful products, but you can't get an advanced degree just for the tool. You must use the tool to demonstrate that you have made an original contribution to knowledge; e.g., through its use, or ideas it embodies.

Master's Thesis Process


Master's Thesis:

Thesis Students should begin working on the thesis by developing ideas and examining the existing research literature. The student should work with the thesis advisor from the beginning of this process by discussing possible thesis ideas. The thesis advisor can provide guidance in all areas of developing and writing a thesis. The advisor must approve the thesis topic and before you begin significant work on your thesis topic.  The thesis project should leverage the student's prior coursework, the historical and theoretical foundations, and the research performed in the New Media Projects. Here are Drexel's and Dissertation Requirements.   Latex (not required, but fairly standard for publishing) formatting style guides for the thesis can be found here.


Thesis Committee

You choose your thesis committee based on faculty members' research interest and on historical and theoretical knowledge of Digital Media, with the advice of your thesis advisor. The committee must have two members, a minimum of one of which is faculty from the Department (core or adjunct faculty). Members from outside the University who have not served on thesis committees in our department, must submit a copy of his/her vita and be approved by the director of the program. You should have your committee set up by the end of the 3rd week of fall term. You must have it set up prior to defending your thesis proposal. This means that you have spoken to all members and they have agreed to be on your committee. Your thesis advisor usually chairs the committee. Thesis Proposal Students conducting a thesis must have two meetings with their thesis committee: 1) a proposal meeting, in which the thesis project is proposed and approved by the committee, and 2) a defense meeting, in which the final project is described and reviewed by the committee.  While your committee is available for advice during the thesis, these are individual projects and most research and problem solving should be performed by the student.  Committee members should not be unduly burdened.


Thesis Proposal

Students completing a thesis should plan a proposal date for the 8th week of the fall term.  A guide to the proposal is found here and a template is here.  In the thesis proposal meeting your committee evaluates whether your topic is appropriate for a thesis and the methods you propose for addressing that topic are appropriate. The thesis proposal defense is a formal meeting where you present your proposal and receive feedback from the committee. Your committee will then take a vote to approve or disapprove your proposal. Once you have obtained your committee's approval, you can proceed with the thesis.  Your thesis proposal format should follow a template that is provided in class.  A preliminary version of your proposal is due in the 3rd week, with a final version due prior to week 8.  The proposal should demonstrate significant research on prior work, prior art, and prior research.  The students should be able to successfully contextualize their project in the scope of other works.


Thesis Defense

You must successfully defend your thesis before you are eligible to graduate. The thesis defense is a meeting in which you present your thesis rationale and findings. You must contact all members of your thesis committee to determine a date and time that everyone will be available for the defense. It is recommended that you set this date at least four to six weeks in advance because you will be trying to coordinate the schedules of four busy people (yourself and the three committee members.) You must also schedule a conference room through the program coordinator. It is the student's responsibility to confirm the location and then notify all committee members of the time and place for the defense. In the thesis meeting you will present your thesis and answer questions posed by your thesis committee. The committee will then vote on your work (either pass or not pass). To be recommended for the master's degree, you must receive approval of all three voting members of the committee. The committee may also require revisions.

Potential decisions (or "verdicts") include:

The thesis is accepted as presented. A grade may be awarded, though in many countries PhDs are not graded at all, and in others only one of the theoretically possible grades (the highest) is ever used in practice.

Revisions (for example, correction of numerous grammatical or spelling errors; clarification of concepts or methodology; addition of sections) are required. One or more members of the jury and/or the thesis supervisor will make the decision on the acceptability of revisions and provide written confirmation that they have been satisfactorily completed. If, as is often the case, the needed revisions are relatively modest the examiners may all sign the thesis with the verbal understanding that the candidate will review the revised thesis with his or her supervisor before submitting the completed dissertation.

The thesis must be revised extensively and undergo the evaluation and defense process again from the beginning with the same examiners. Problems may include theoretical or methodological issues. A candidate who is not recommended for the degree after the second defense must normally withdraw from the program.

The thesis is unacceptable and the candidate must withdraw from the program.

This verdict is given only when the thesis requires major revisions and when the examination makes it clear that the candidate is incapable of making such revisions.



Institutional Review Board Approval

If you plan to complete an empirical thesis using human participants (including studies using existing data related to human participants), you must obtain approval from the University Institutional Review Board (IRB), which has the duty to ensure that human rights are protected in any research project. There is specific protocol for submitting a research proposal to the IRB.


There are three mutually exclusive IRB reviews: 1) Exempt status; 2) Expedited Review; 3) Full Committee Review. You should review the IRB guidelines and you and your advisor make a judgment about which level applies to your study. Your advisor is usually indicated as the "Principle Investigator" for the IRB submission. There are a number of forms that must be completed in order to submit a proposal to the IRB. The forms are available from the Research Office. Here is a concise summary of what usually happens at each level:

You should count on on several months to complete all the requisite paperwork, forms and information required by the IRB for Full Committee Review.


Additionally, students must comply with all university policies concerning the conduct of research and scientific integrity. All university policies with regard to falsification of data, fraudulent claims, and plagiarism will be enforced.



A Generic Thesis Skeleton

1. Introduction

This is a general introduction to what the thesis is all about -- it is not just a description of the contents of each section. Briefly summarize the question (you will be stating the question in detail later), some of the reasons why it is a worthwhile question, and perhaps give an overview of your main results. This is a birds-eye view of the answers to the main questions answered in the thesis (see above).

2. Background Information (optional)

A brief section giving background information may be necessary, especially if your work spans two or more traditional fields. That means that your readers may not have any experience with some of the material needed to follow your thesis, so you need to give it to them. A different title than that given above is usually better; e.g., "A Brief Review of Frammis Algebra."

3. Review of the State of the Art

Here you review the state of the art relevant to your thesis. Again, a different title is probably appropriate; e.g., "State of the Art in Zylon Algorithms." The idea is to present (critical analysis comes a little bit later) the major ideas in the state of the art right up to, but not including, your own personal brilliant ideas.

You organize this section by idea, and not by author or by publication. For example if there have been three important main approaches to Zylon Algorithms to date, you might organize subsections around these three approaches, if necessary:

3.1 Iterative Approximation of Zylons
3.2 Statistical Weighting of Zylons
3.3 Graph-Theoretic Approaches to Zylon Manipulation

4. Research Question or Problem Statement

Engineering theses tend to refer to a "problem" to be solved where other disciplines talk in terms of a "question" to be answered. In either case, this section has three main parts:

1. a concise statement of the question that your thesis tackles
2. justification, by direct reference to section 3, that your question is previously unanswered
3. discussion of why it is worthwhile to answer this question.

Item 2 above is where you analyze the information which you presented in Section 3. For example, maybe your problem is to "develop a Zylon algorithm capable of handling very large scale problems in reasonable time" (you would further describe what you mean by "large scale" and "reasonable time" in the problem statement). Now in your analysis of the state of the art you would show how each class of current approaches fails (i.e. can handle only small problems, or takes too much time). In the last part of this section you would explain why having a large-scale fast Zylon algorithm is useful; e.g., by describing applications where it can be used.

Since this is one of the sections that the readers are definitely looking for, highlight it by using the word "problem" or "question" in the title: e.g. "Research Question" or "Problem Statement", or maybe something more specific such as "The Large-Scale Zylon Algorithm Problem."

5. Describing How You Solved the Problem or Answered the Question

This part of the thesis is much more free-form. It may have one or several sections and subsections. But it all has only one purpose: to convince the examiners that you answered the question or solved the problem that you set for yourself in Section 4. So show what you did that is relevant to answering the question or solving the problem: if there were blind alleys and dead ends, do not include these, unless specifically relevant to the demonstration that you answered the thesis question.

6. Conclusions

You generally cover three things in the Conclusions section, and each of these usually merits a separate subsection:

1. Conclusions
2. Summary of Contributions
3. Future Research

Conclusions are not a rambling summary of the thesis: they are short, concise statements of the inferences that you have made because of your work. It helps to organize these as short numbered paragraphs, ordered from most to least important. All conclusions should be directly related to the research question stated in Section 4. Examples:

1. The problem stated in Section 4 has been solved: as shown in Sections ? to ??, an algorithm capable of handling large-scale Zylon problems in reasonable time has been developed.

2. The principal mechanism needed in the improved Zylon algorithm is the Grooty mechanism.

3. Etc.

The Summary of Contributions will be much sought and carefully read by the examiners. Here you list the contributions of new knowledge that your thesis makes. Of course, the thesis itself must substantiate any claims made here. There is often some overlap with the Conclusions, but that's okay. Concise numbered paragraphs are again best. Organize from most to least important. Examples:

1. Developed a much quicker algorithm for large-scale Zylon problems.

2. Demonstrated the first use of the Grooty mechanism for Zylon calculations.

3. Etc.

The Future Research subsection is included so that researchers picking up this work in future have the benefit of the ideas that you generated while you were working on the project. Again, concise numbered paragraphs are usually best.

7. References

The list of references is closely tied to the review of the state of the art given in section 3. Most examiners scan your list of references looking for the important works in the field, so make sure they are listed and referred to in section 3. Truth be known, most examiners also look for their own publications if they are in the topic area of the thesis, so list these too. Besides, reading your examiner's papers usually gives you a clue as to the type of questions they are likely to ask.

All references given must be referred to in the main body of the thesis. Note the difference from a Bibliography, which may include works that are not directly referenced in the thesis. Organize the list of references either alphabetically by author surname (preferred), or by order of citation in the thesis.

8. Appendices

What goes in the appendices? Any material which impedes the smooth development of your presentation, but which is important to justify the results of a thesis. Generally it is material that is of too nitty-gritty a level of detail for inclusion in the main body of the thesis, but which should be available for perusal by the examiners to convince them sufficiently. Examples include program listings, immense tables of data, lengthy mathematical proofs or derivations, etc.

Comments on the Skeleton

Again, the thesis is a formal document designed to address the examiner's two main questions. Sections 3 and 4 show that you have chosen a good problem, and section 5 shows that you solved it. Sections 1 and 2 lead the reader into the problem, and section 6 highlights the main knowledge generated by the whole exercise.

Note also that everything that others did is carefully separated from everything that you did. Knowing who did what is important to the examiners. Section 4, the problem statement, is the obvious dividing line. That's the main reason for putting it in the middle in this formal document.


Suggestions and Resources

Getting Started

The best way to get started on your thesis is to prepare an extended outline. You begin by making up the Table of Contents, listing each section and subsection that you propose to include. For each section and subsection, write a brief point-form description of the contents of that section. The entire outline might be 2 to 5 pages long. Now you and your thesis supervisor should carefully review this outline: is there unnecessary material (i.e. not directly related to the problem statement)? Then remove. Is there missing material? Then add. It is much less painful and more time-efficient to make such decisions early, during the outline phase, rather than after you've already done a lot of writing which has to be thrown away. A good reference for the entire process can be found here: http://www.learnerassociates.net/dissthes/

How Long Does it Take to Write a Thesis?

Longer than you think. Even after the research itself is all done -- assets built, code written, subject testing done -- it is wise to be writing the thesis during the research. It's not the physical act of typing that takes so long, it's the fact that writing the thesis requires the complete organization of your arguments and results. It's during this formalization of your results into a well-organized thesis document capable of withstanding the scrutiny of expert examiners that you discover weaknesses. It's fixing those weaknesses that takes time.

This is also probably the first time that your supervisor has seen the formal expression of concepts that may have been approved previously in an informal manner. Now is when you discover any misunderstandings or shortcomings in the informal agreements. It takes time to fix these. Students for whom English is not the mother tongue may have difficulty in getting ideas across, so that numerous revisions are required. And, truth be known, supervisors are sometimes not quick at reviewing and returning drafts.

Bottom line: leave yourself enough time. A rush job has painful consequences at the defence.

Writing Tips

Writing Style

Some resources for writing style can be found here:



Your presence and the Active vs. Passive voice:

Traditionally in much academic writing, it is not generally accepted to write: 'I think…' or 'It is my opinion…', because this detracts from the supposed objectivity of scholarship. It is true that too much insertion of yourself in your writing swings the focus away from the material you are investigating and on to you. However, under the influence of a number of (post-)modern philosophers and other theorists, this may even be desirable in some disciplines. It is a debate that is still in flux within the academic community.  More on this is found in:


Often in academic writing, we don't want to focus on who is doing an action, but on who is receiving or experiencing the action. The passive voice passive voice (verbs which do not indicate who or what is doing the action) is thus extremely useful in academic writing because it allows writers to highlight the most important participants or events within sentences by placing them at the beginning of the sentence. In addition, in academic writing sometimes it is obvious, irrelevant or repetitive to state who the 'doer' of the sentence is.  In academic writing, it is sometimes best to avoid showing too much commitment to an idea. It may be better to be a little evasive, to put some distance between yourself and your writing. Indeed, until fairly recently, most people would have advised that you should NEVER use personal language (I think; in my opinion etc) in your writing. This does seem to be changing however, and in some fields it has become more acceptable to show personal commitment and to be less evasive. Examples of the passive are:

It can be argued that ...
Some students could be described as lazy.
It is therefore suggested that ...

It is best, though, to avoid using the passive all the time. Aim for a variety of structures.

Passives are often used when you are referring to tables, graphs, appendices etc:

It can be seen in Fig.1 that the percentage ...
As is shown in Table 3, ...
The full text of the letter can be found in Appendix 2.

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting. In scientific writing, however, passive voice is more readily accepted since using it allows one to write without using personal pronouns or the names of particular researchers as the subjects of sentences (see the third example above). This practice helps to create the appearance of an objective, fact-based discourse because writers can present research and conclusions without attributing them to particular agents. Instead, the writing appears to convey information that is not limited or biased by individual perspectives or personal interests.  More on passive vs. active voice are found below:




An argument against the passive voice in academic work is found here:


Note: part of this document is based on Prof. John Chinneck's document and on a variety of other sources.