How to write a thesis outline (short essay)

At some stage, you are likely to be asked to write an outline of your thesis in form of a short essay. Here is how:

1) First: Be brief! Don’t write more than two pages.

2) The (tentative) title of your thesis. Please don’t try to be funny. It almost never works (unless you are a native speaker of English)

3) Write a very general first sentence about the biological context of your work (DON’T mention your study organism). I repeat: DO NOT START YOUR OUTLINE WITH YOUR STUDY ORGANISM (you will see how your thoughts change if you start with your topic!). Some examples of some wow! first-sentences – you really want to read on afterward:

  • The genetic diversity of a population predicts its extinction risk and its evolutionary potential.
  • Biodiversity is decreasing almost globally but the measures taken to stop this decline may differ locally.
  • Host-parasite dynamics cause very rapid evolution but can depend on specific host and parasite genotypes involved.

So, absolutely DO NOT start with ‘Species xyz belongs to the family of Abc-idae” – that is the most boring introduction in the world, even if you work in systematics. Your mark immediately drops to 3.0.

4) Move on to explain in more detail your first sentence using three to five primary references (Primary references are peer-reviewed journal articles or books. Wikipedia pages or textbook chapters, websites, or newspaper articles are not primary references). DON’T SUBMIT YOUR OUTLINE WITHOUT PRIMARY REFERENCES. And still DON’T MENTION YOUR STUDY ORGANISM.

5) Now you may say something about the biology of your study species but only why, and what of it, is suitable to address the scientific questions that you have just introduced. Tie the scientific problem and the study species together and tell me what you would exactly you like to research in your study species/ system. Please note, it is the scientific problem of your thesis we are interested in, not why your work might be economically, medically, or personally, important. How about…  “Populations of the long-nosed bird-eating frog occur in a highly patchy pattern in the Peruvian Andes. Studying the frogs’ genetic diversity and following their population decline will help me to find out how genetic diversity is related to extinction risk.”

As a biology student, you know that species names (and genus, of course) are ALWAYS written in italics, don’t you? Family is not in italics. Or else don’t call yourself a biology student.

6) Now you’ve stated the problem, perhaps even mentioned a hypothesis – that would be great! – tell me next: How will you solve the problem? By what method and what exactly will you measure. For example, I will carry out ovariectomy and then compare the tail length of ten such treated mice with 10 control mice. OR: I will compare the thickness of the cuticle of 20 males and 20 females. OR: I will knock in mutation X by CRISR/Cas9 and measure enzyme activity at 25 and 30 degrees OR whatever…

[BTW, if you do that, you can actually know what statistical test you will be applying to compare your experimental treatments. If you do, tell us, it makes a great impression.]

7) Here are more hints of how to write a report, or in fact, any scientific paper.

Send the paper to me and I will get some comments back to you to help you improve your writing.

You think this is too much work for a thesis outline? You would prefer to just start working without reading and thinking about its background? Please find another supervisor. Perhaps, studying (biology) at a university was not your best decision.