What is a Thesis Statement and its Role in PhD-MS Research

My supervisor JC Browne at the University of Texas at Austin during 1990-1993 made me write the problem statement and the thesis statement for every research paper that I would read for my literature survey. Since early 2000s, when I started supervising my research students, I have also found the “Thesis Statement” extremely useful in focusing the researchers on the essence of the problem that they are solving and how their “thesis statement” presents in a single sentence the essence of what they have done in their research and why. Effort that I have put in with my research students in developing a precise articulation of thesis statement of their research or of the paper that they are reading or writing has revealed to me several benefits which were not visible to me when I was a student. Most important of these include:

  1. Your thesis statement tells how your thesis solves the problem and plugs the gap that you have identified from literature survey. 
  2. Your thesis statement precisely specifies what your contribution is that you are defending. 
  3. Your thesis statement defines the scope of your research [1]. It formally specifies the boundary of your research.
  4. Your thesis statement (along with your problem statement) becomes the bulwark against which extraneous questions in your defense can be defended. Questions that try to lead you away from the central issue of your thesis [2] can only be defended through your thesis statement or your problem statement as explained below. 
  5. It anchors your dissertation around a single theme. Each and every statement and paragraph of your thesis should be directed towards explaining and elucidating your thesis statement (or your problem statement). Any sentence or paragraph not doing this should either be thrown out or put in the appendix. It is like the thread holding the beads of a necklace together. Any bead not linked with the thread is not in the necklace and falls away. 
  6. Thesis statement in one sentence describes the “epistemology” of your MS/PhD research. Epistemology is “how we know what we know”. The thesis statement describes your originality, contribution and significance in a single sentence. Hence, writing it is hard. 
  7. A thesis statement must take a stand and state the thesis in a categorical fashion. It must take the form of a “refutable” and “falsifiable” assertion. Falsifiability and refutability  of a statement is the demarcation line that differentiates science from pseudo science. All researchers must understand this demarcation line which gained currency through the work of Karl Popper
See also: How to Read a Research Paper and Extract its Problem Statement and Thesis Statement

Difference between a dissertation and a thesis? 

“A thesis is an idea. A dissertation is a document that supports your thesis. After you write your dissertation explaining why your thesis is a good one, you have to stand up in front of a crowd and defend it — the thesis defense.
It is best if you can capture your thesis in a single sentence. If you can do this, make it sentence #1 of your dissertation, and repeat this sentence, word for word, wherever you need to drive home the point of your dissertation. This is a tremendous aid in focusing your work. A side benefit is that it provides an unassailable defense to an entire class of attacks on your work. For example, should someone attack your work by pointing out that it does not scale, you simply reply,

You may be correct, but right or wrong, your point is irrelevant. My thesis is that “crossbreeding gerbils with hamsters provides an order of magnitude speedup over standard treadmill technology.” I clearly demonstrate factors of 12-17 in my dissertation; I make no claims beyond an order of magnitude. ” [Dissertation Advice by Olin Shivers] 

This is one of the benefits of focus.

Thesis Statement

I found a wonderful description of  Thesis Statement in early 2000s that I have been using since to make my research students understand and write thesis statements of their MS/PhD research. What follows is my adaptation of that description for research students. I expect all research students to read the following several times and internalize these things. Please note that I have retained several statements from the original while I have modified many others to meet the requirements of MPhil and PhD Students. Several statements have been rewritten and added: 

1    What Is a Thesis Statement?

If you can not write the thesis statement of a research paper that you have read, you have not understood the paper. If you can not succinctly articulate the “thesis statement” of your research, you do not yet have a thesis.

I want you to write thesis statements of every paper that you review. I also want you to write the thesis statement of the research paper or dissertation that you are writing. Note a thesis statement is not necessarily a sentence that appears in the first paragraph of a research paper. The thesis statement might appear in the first paragraph, or the last paragraph, or it might not appear in the paper at all. 

The thesis statement that you write before completing your research is only a “trial thesis statement“. The term “trial” means that you are not yet committed to this thesis statement. The only reason for writing the thesis statement on trial basis is to focus on the particulars that can be refuted [3]. You will usually not finalize writing your thesis statement until you have nearly finished writing and revising your paper/dissertation.

The thesis statement (and its problem statement) must accompany any paper that you review or a draft that you prepare. It helps me understand whether you have understood them or not. Some researchers suggest that it is a good idea to have it right at the front. I agree with them [1]. So what is a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is a single declarative sentence that states what you want your readers to know, believe, or understand after having read your paper.

We will now break down the above definition into its component parts for understanding purposes. Paper and dissertation have been used interchangeably in the following text:

1.1 A thesis statement is a single sentence.

  • A thesis statement is only one sentence, not two or three or more. Why? Because the thesis statement is the essence of what you want to say in your paper; Hence, it should be one sentence. 
  • If you can not write the “thesis” (idea) of your research in one sentence, your research does not have a thesis (central theme). 
  • What makes your document a thesis (dissertation document) is that it aims to make a single assertion which is one point, one single point. This doesn’t mean that you can only make one assertion in a paper or your dissertation. But it means that all of the many claims (assertions) you make must fit together. And they must all support or lead to the single point (claim, conclusion, assertion) that defines the whole paper. And if everything you say in your dissertation supports that single point or claim, then you can express that claim in a single sentence. 
  • Note that nobody is saying that this ONE single statement must be a short sentence or a pretty sentence. But it must be one sentence, not two or more sentences. If you can not express the main point of your paper in one sentence, your paper probably doesn’t have one point (thesis or idea); it probably has two. And that means it should be two papers. Feel free to write them both, but one at a time!

1.2 A thesis statement is a single declarative sentence.

  • A declarative sentence is simply a sentence that makes the statement which is neither a “question” nor a “command”
  • It is really saying the same thing twice to say that a thesis statement is a “declarative” sentence. It just means that a “thesis statement” is a statement. The repetition is for emphasis; it helps us to keep focus that a thesis statement is not a question. 
  • You may often start work on your paper with a question in mind. That’s a good idea. But your research question is not your thesis statement
  • Your thesis statement will be the answer to the question, an answer that you will defend and explain in your paper. 
  • Please note that your Research Questions and Hypothesis are not thesis statements

1.3 A thesis statement is a single declarative sentence that states what you want your readers to know, believe, or understand.

  • Every good dissertation is unified, and moves toward a single major point, which is the solution to the stated problem. Thus every good dissertation has a thesis statement, though it may be implied rather than explicitly stated in the text of the dissertation or its paper. 
  • Whatever kind of dissertation you are writing; exploratory theory building or explanatory theory testing or experimental, you want to decide before you finish it what is going to be the essence of your research. 
  • Thus, you want your thesis statement to express in a sentence what your whole dissertation says, what you want your readers to know or believe or understand by the end of the dissertation
  • You don’t just want the thesis statement to be a general conclusion that someone might reach from your dissertation; you want them to say what your dissertation says. A major problem with most thesis statements is that they are too general and hence do not really give any guidance as to what issues and what evidence is presented in the dissertation. 
  • Hence, a thesis statement should not use vague and informal terms
  • Terminology used should be precise and must consist of only those terms that have been rigorously defined elsewhere in the paper. Every word or phrase used in the thesis statement (and problem statement) must be loaded, meaning there is a formal definition followed by a detailed explanation of each term in the thesis statement.

1.4 A thesis statement is a single declarative sentence that states what you want your readers to know, believe, or understand after having read your research

  • You can put thesis statement in the first paragraph of your paper. There is nothing wrong with putting the thesis statement in the first paragraph, if that will help you to get your point across to your readers. But many excellent papers do not state the thesis statement in the first paragraph. The decision as to whether to do so should be based on what will work best with your subject and your readers. 
  • However, the tradition of putting the thesis in the first paragraph has led some students to mistakenly think of the thesis statement as a kind of opening to your paper. In some cases, the thesis statement works well as part of the opening paragraph; in some cases it doesn’t. But a thesis statement is not necessarily part of the opening paragraphs, and in developing your thesis statement you should not be thinking primarily about how you want your paper to start. 
  • While writing a thesis statement, you should be thinking about what you want the whole paper to say, what you want the reader to know or believe at the end of the paper, not the beginning. 
  • This is why you often cannot finish your thesis statement until you finish your paper.

2 Why Write a Thesis Statement?

Why should you write a thesis statement in your thesis proposal/synopsis? What is it good for? Developing a thesis statement is an important part of the process of research. In fact, you really can’t do good research without developing a thesis statement. For this you need to know
(i) why do you need to develop a thesis statement?
(ii) Second, why do I ask you to write it down in your thesis proposal and dissertation?

2.1 Why do you need to develop a thesis statement when you write your research?

  • First, why do you need to develop a thesis statement when you research? Because, you can’t write a quality research paper or dissertation without one. In fact, this is the reason why MS/PhD dissertation and thesis are often used interchangeably and as synonyms
  • Also, it follows from the definition of a quality paper that a good paper cannot fail to have a thesis (central idea, essence)
  • A research paper or a dissertation must make a point. The thesis statement, as we have defined, is merely a statement of the point that the paper makes. If it doesn’t make a point, and if it’s just a random bunch of paragraphs about the same topic that never come to any conclusion, then it is NOT really a thesis (research paper or a dissertation). 
  • Notice that the definition says that a paper tries to make ONE point in an interesting way. Most papers don’t completely succeed for all readers. Having a thesis is no guarantee of a good paper. You might try to make a point, and fail. But if you don’t have a point to make, if you don’t have a thesis, then you can’t possibly succeed.

See also: Conclusion vs Assumption in Research Writing- Flipping the Thread of Argument in your PhD Thesis

  • When I talk about “having a thesis,” I don’t mean that you have to have the thesis before starting the research. When you start researching and start writing you are creating ideas. 
  • One of the things that makes writing so interesting and exciting is that, during the process of writing, you almost always discover ideas and connections between ideas that you didn’t recognize before. 
  • Even if you have a clear idea of what you think you want to say before you start to write, you will usually discover that in the process of writing your idea changes. 
  • Often you start research with only a question to answer or a topic to explore, and you’ll have to write your way to a thesis. 
  • You will keep revising your thesis statement as you revise your paper or dissertation. Where the thesis statement is most important is at the end of the process, during revision. You want your paper to come to a point, to have a clear thesis that every reader will understand.

2.2 What’s the value of writing out your thesis statement?

  • What’s the value of writing out your thesis statement? If you know the point you are trying to make, isn’t that enough? The basic answer is “yes.” If you really do know what you’re trying to say in the paper, if it’s crystal clear in your own mind, then it really isn’t necessary for you to write down your thesis and label it in order to produce a good paper. 
  • On the other hand, if your thesis is clear in your mind, it is very easy to write it down. It just takes a few seconds. No problem. 
  • Unfortunately, most of us are not absolutely clear in our minds about what point we are making when we write. Even when we think we know exactly what we want to say, we often discover when we start to write it down that it isn’t all there. 
  • The main reason I ask you to write down your thesis statement and submit it before, during, and after you write your paper or chapter is that I will use the “trial” thesis statement as a tool to discuss and revise your paper .

2.3 Seeing the relationship between your thesis statement and your paper.

Think of your research as a building. You are the architect. As you design the building you construct a prototype scale model so that you and your clients can see what the finished building will look like. It doesn’t have all the detail the finished building will, but it does allow the people to see the shape and overall design. If you make changes in the design, you will alter the prototype scale model. People’s reactions to the prototype scale model may help you to decide how to alter the design.

  • Your thesis statement is to your research as the prototype scale model is to the building. Until construction is complete, you can always make changes. And so your prototype scale model will not be “final” until the building is finished. 
  • If you think of the thesis statement as a prototype model of your research, you can see why your thesis statement must evolve and develop as your research does, and you won’t worry about having a finished thesis statement until you have a finished paper. But you will recognize that in working on your thesis statement you are working on your research. If the thesis statement is a good model of your paper –if everything in the paper is reflected in the thesis statement and everything in the thesis statement is developed in the research–then we can give you useful feedback on your trial thesis statement that will help you to decide how to revise your research.

See also: How Progress of Research is related to the Mood and Psychology of a PhD Student

  • Having to develop a written thesis statement along with your research also helps you to discover problems with your research and solve them. 
  • For example, unless you have a very clear idea of what you want to say when you start writing your paper , you are likely to “drift” as you write the first draft. That is to say, you will change your argument as you develop it. This is a good thing because you usually improve your argument as you change it. But it often results in a draft that starts out by posing one question and ends up by answering a different one. The paper will often seem to be two separate half-paper pasted together in the middle. This problem is usually not hard to fix, but it may be hard for you to see at first because you are so close to the paper that you have just written. 
  • A thesis statement can help you to recognize that your research has changed from its original intention. And in trying to revise your thesis statement so that it summarizes your whole paper, you will see that that is an impossible task until you have settled on a single direction in which to revise the paper. If you think of the thesis statement as a prototype scale model of your paper, it will point you toward answers to many of the questions that arise in the process of revision.
  • Sometimes it will not be easy to see the relationship between your thesis statement and your research. This can be frustrating. You may be tempted to think that if you could just ignore the thesis statement your research would be fine. Usually, this is wishful thinking. One of the reasons why it may be hard to come up with a thesis statement that matches your research is that you haven’t really decided what you want to say in the research document. You may have seven or ten decent paragraphs down on document. They might even be interesting. But if you can’t say for sure what they add up to, what point they make, you probably don’t have a paper yet. 
  • A good thesis statement will tell you when you have finished. This may not sound important, but it is. One of the hardest things about writing good research–even for very experienced writers–is knowing when you’re finished, knowing when you should stop revising, knowing when you’ve reached the end of the process. Many research papers that don’t work very well fail because they were never completed. And one reason we hand in incomplete paper is that we don’t know how to tell when the paper is finished. If you make the effort to really develop and revise your thesis statement, you will find that it gets much easier to tell when the finished paper has done what it needs to do.

3 How to Write a Thesis Statement: Starting from topic

To get started, use whatever techniques seem to work for you: freewriting, clustering, talking it over with friends, brainstorming. Throughout the whole process of reading, writing, and discussing your topic, be on the lookout for questions and problems that interest you. Don’t try to think of the one perfect topic for a paper ; there probably isn’t one. Try to think of interesting issues, several of them. I’ll probably ask you to suggest three or four topics that might lead to interesting directions of research.

Once you have a topic, the actual development of a thesis statement begins. At first, your goal is just to get your rough idea down on paper. You should not expect to just sit down and write a perfect thesis statement. It doesn’t work that way. Your first “trial” thesis statement is only a rough approximation of what you will eventually end up saying. But it gives you something to work with, something to improve. Usually, the process of revising a “trial” thesis statement consists of making your point clearer and more specific, narrowing down and filling in what you can really do in the paper, saying more about less.

This is a process that writers have to go through in order to produce good work. It’s normal and healthy. It’s a form of success, not a sign of failure. If you expect not to have to revise your thesis statement, you are bound to feel bad when you do. It’s the false expectation that causes the problem. So expect to revise your thesis statement and you will neither be surprised or disappointed. You can just get on with it.

Following techniques can be useful in revising and trying to improve a thesis statement once you have one to work with.

3.1 Ask and answer the questions “why?” and “how?” of your trial thesis statement.

One of the most common problems with a “trial” thesis statement is that you have given the final conclusion you want to reach in the paper, but you haven’t stated your reasons. Often you will devote much more space in your paper to giving reasons than to stating conclusions. A quick test is to look at your “trial” thesis statement and see if it makes sense to ask either “why?” or “how?” of your thesis statement as you have written it. If it does, then answer the question and write the answer down. The answer to that question will often be a better thesis statement than your original.

Thesis statements need to state both a conclusion and a premise. Often these take the form of “X because Y.” If you don’t answer the question “why?” in your “trial” thesis statement, try adding a “because clause.” If you do so, be careful to make it a clause and not a phrase. That is, make it a group of words with a subject and a verb, not just a string of nouns and modifiers. If you use “because” in your thesis statement, don’t ever follow it with “of.” “Because of” leads to a prepositional phrase; it will give you a static topic, but won’t tell who is doing what to whom. Always use “because” in the form “because somebody does something.”

3.2 Make your thesis statement a “positive” statement, not a negative one.

Tell us what somebody did, not what they didn’t do; what caused the problem, not what didn’t cause it; what you know, not what you don’t know. Be very careful about using the word “not” in a thesis statement. The problem with making your thesis statement a negative claim is that the only way to support it is by making a positive claim. So if your thesis statement is worded negatively, you probably haven’t said what you need to say yet. Notice that if you ask the question “why?” of a negative claim, you will almost always have to answer it with a positive one. This suggestion is about the wording of your thesis, not your attitude. I don’t mean that your statement must be “positive” in the sense of optimistic, just that it must be worded as a positive claim, rather than one that uses terms like “not.”

3.3 Use the active voice in every clause in your thesis statement.

Clauses that use transitive verbs are in either the active or the passive voice. A transitive verb is an action verb that transmits the action to a receiver. An example would be the verb “throw” in the sentence “Jane throws the ball.” The action, throwing, is transmitted from the doer, Jane, to a receiver, the ball. When a transitive verb is in the active voice, as in this example, the doer of the action is the subject of the sentence or clause. Jane did the throwing, she does the action, she is the subject of the sentence. When such a clause is in the passive voice, the receiver is the subject of the sentence: “The ball was thrown by Jane.” All of these terms are also defined in any grammar book. Look them up if you need to, as often as you need to, until the meanings become clear. And don’t hesitate to ask questions if you are confused.

Most of the time, the active voice is clearer, more informative, and more direct than the passive voice or than clauses using linking verbs (for example, “is” or “was”). But we are sometimes, though very rarely, justified in using the passive voice in writing for variety or emphasis. But when we are writing thesis statements, I think we should always use the active voice when we can. And we almost always can. We want a thesis statement to express action, not just join topics together. We want a thesis statement to express what we are going to say, not just what we are going to write about. If we try to put every clause in every thesis statement in the active voice it will help us to find out what we really want to say and to write better papers faster.

One corollary to the rule that we should use the active voice is that we should never, or hardly ever, use a form of the verb “to be” as the main verb in a clause. So if you find yourself using a verb like “is,” “are,” “was,” or “were” as a linking verb rather than just a helping verb, revise. Ask yourself “Who’s doing what? Who’s kicking who?” And rewrite your thesis statement in the active voice.

If you still find the concept of the active voice confusing or difficult, don’t think you’re the only one. Many students come into English Composition without a clear understanding of the idea of voice. But it is important. So please do the tutorial on The Active Voice.

4 Content of Your Thesis Statement

So far, we have been discussing fairly formal tests of a thesis. But as you start working with actual thesis statement, you will have to look at the meaning of the thesis, the ideas it contains, and ask whether what your thesis says expresses the right content, the meaning you want the paper to have.

4.1 Make it clear and unambiguous.

Make sure it couldn’t be interpreted to mean something other than what you want it to mean. It should be unambiguous. Ask whether the sentence could mean different things to different people. If it could, revise it to remove the possible meanings that you don’t want to convey.

4.2 Make it precise and limited.

State no more than you are willing to defend. Probably the most common problem with trial thesis statements is that they are too broad, that they claim too much. In a good paper , you will say more about less, not less about more. That is, you will develop your paper through specifics, examples, evidence of some detail that you can directly relate to your own experience or to specific sources. The test is will you answer the question “how do you know?” to the satisfaction of your readers for every major claim you make?

4.3 Make it controversial or informative.

Your thesis statement should be a statement about which your audience’s knowledge or thinking is deficient or erroneous. You should be telling them something they don’t already know or don’t already believe. The point you make in your paper shouldn’t be obvious. If most of your readers are likely to believe your thesis without even reading your paper , you probably don’t need to write an paper to support that thesis.

I have found social sciences research often trying to use quantitative research to establish that which is already intuitively known and understood. Often researchers are identifying relationships among variables that are already known or intuitively understandable. Why in the world you would like to research something that is already well known and well understood! I explain this using two extreme examples to just highlight the point:

  1. Proving that the “Sun rises in the East”. You can setup elaborate experiment to have thousands of people waking every morning and diligently recording their observations in all parts of the world. You go through a rigorous methodology to establish that indeed sun rises from the East. What a spectacular waste of energy and effort. Such a research is only worthwhile if you question the underlying assumption and establish through research that actually East was West or the phenomenon of Sun rising from the East was some optical illusion. 
  2. Proving that “increase in salary increases motivation”. This again is well known and intuitively understandable. Please do not make an effort to quantitatively assert using a rigorously executed methodology that indeed increase in salary results in increase in motivation. Your research would only be worthwhile if you can identify situations in which increase in salary would actually result in decrease of motivation. 

4.4 Make it defensible.

Can you move your audience to accept this thesis statement in an paper of the length you propose to write? Just as you can’t write a very good paper pointing out something that is already obvious to your readers, you shouldn’t make a claim that is so controversial that you really don’t have a chance of getting your readers to accept it.

Remember, for all working drafts and papers, you will put your thesis statement for the paper at the very end, as the last lines in the document, labeled “Thesis Statement.”

Checklist for Revising Thesis Statements

Use this checklist to revise your trial thesis statement. Each item in the list is liked back to its explanation above.

  1. Is your thesis statement a single declarative sentence
  2. Does your thesis statement state what you want your readers to know, believe, or understand after reading your paper ?
  3. Does your thesis statement reflect everything in the paper ? Does your paper develop everything in the thesis statement?
  4. Can you ask and answer the questions “why?” and “how?” of your trial thesis statement?
  5. Is your thesis statement a positive statement, not a negative one?
  6. Do you use the active voice in every clause in your thesis statement?
  7. Is your thesis statement clear and unambiguous?
  8. Is your thesis statement precise and limited?
  9. Is your thesis statement controversial or informative?
  10. Is your thesis statement defensible?

See Also:

What is PhD?

Why PhD is Difficult: 

Starting with your PhD

Reading Research and Writing your Research
Qualitative Learning from a PhD


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