Recommended outline and guidelines for M.S. theses

Prof. Neil Rowe

Version of May 2020


Abstract (10-22 lines)

·         Summarize the main points of the thesis.  You should try to have at least one sentence corresponding to each chapter of the thesis except the first and last chapters.

·         Mention your most important accomplishments.  Motivation for the work is less important, but say something about that too.

·         The abstract is not included in the templates for theses, but you should include it anyway at the front of your thesis file.  Once it is finished and agreed upon, you can copy it into the appropriate place in the thesis processing documentation.


Chapter 1:  Introduction (2 to 6 pages)



Chapter 2: Previous attempts to solve this problem, and other problems like it, with computer programs or methodologies (4 to 12 pages)



Chapter 3:  Description of the problem you tried to solve and the general approach that you used (2 to 10 pages)



Chapter 4:  Description of your program or methodology (5 pages minimum)



Chapter 5:  Discussion of results (3 to 30 pages)



Chapter 6:  Conclusion (1 to 3 pages)



Possible appendices


·         Instructions on downloading and installing the software you wrote.  If third-party software was important for this thesis and was difficult to download and install, give instructions for it too.

·         Results of test runs or examples if interesting to the reader (if there are several, make this several different appendices).

·         Text of your programs if interesting to the reader (but this should not exceed 50 pages).  Do not include programs not written by you, even if they were important to the thesis.



Some general guidelines for thesis writing


Thesis writing is a form of technical writing.  Technical writing tries to convey difficult concepts, and so it needs to be especially clear compared to other kinds of writing. That means sentences should be kept short and should use the minimum number possible of specialized words.


1.       A thesis should represent 360 hours of work if you have three schedule slots for it (3 quarters * 12 weeks/quarter * 10 hours/week), and 480 hours of work if you have four schedule slots for it.

2.       Use words you would use to explain things to fellow students who are not necessarily familiar with your field.  Avoid fancy words just because they sound “academic”.  A helpful resource on improving clarity of your language is

3.       Try to use the same term for the same thing; don't try to be poetic.  This makes it easier for readers trying to understand the technical ideas.  However, if you are mentioning the same term quite a bit, a pronoun can provide variety when it clearly has only one meaning.

4.       The purpose of a thesis is to describe interesting things you did. So don't spend many pages on other peoples' work unless you need it to make points about it.  On the other hand, it is important to refer to at least some related work to show you understand how your work fits into a culture of academic inquiry.  So as a minimum, you should have at least six references to refereed papers by other researchers or academics.

5.       Do not assume the reader remembers something you said earlier; cross-reference instead. Technical papers are not usually read in order.  Also, avoid repeating statements since readers can page backward if they need to.  Things are different with spoken language, for which repetition is necessary.

6.       Avoid one-sentence paragraphs except for numbered or bulleted items of a list.  Similarly, avoid one-paragraph sections and subsections.  Combine text as necessary to avoid these situations.

7.       Use past tense to describe what you did.  Use "we", "us", "our", and "ours" so you can clarify what you did.  And prefer active voice for verbs, not passive.  Some examples:

·         Replace "Results in path planning were investigated" by "We investigated path planning".

·         Replace "the code that was developed" by "our code".

·         Replace "Some examples are shown in Figure 3-1" by "Figure 3-1 shows some examples".

Some conferences and journals disagree with this and prefer you use passive voice to sound more scientific. But in a thesis, it is more important to identify what you did.

8.       When you finish chapters, run the spelling corrector in your word-processing software, and then run the program in  This is a Python program that identifies several thousand cases of unnecessary wording in a text document. If you install a Python interpreter and unzip, you can run from the command line as with one argument, the name of the text file.  It covers well-known problems like:

·         "utilize" (use "use" instead)

·         “employ the use of” (use “use” instead)

·         “employ” (use “use” instead)

·         “take advantage of” (use “use” instead)

·         “leverage” (use “use” instead)

·         “perform” (use “do” instead)

·         “be used to” (eliminate)

·         "in order to" (use "to" instead)

·         “as a way to” (use “to” instead)

·         "one of the" (use "one" instead)

·         "some of the" (use "some" instead)

·         “the entirety of” (use “all” instead)

·         "a kind of" (use "a" instead)

·         "a type of" (use "a" instead)

·         "in fact" (delete)

·         "actually" (delete)

·         “simply” (delete)

·         “vice” as a preposition (used “instead of” or “versus”)

·         “whether or not” (use “whether”)

·         “with regard to” (use “for” or “about”)

·         “for the purposes of” (use “to”)

·         “have the option to” (use “could”)

·         “have the ability to” (use “can”)

·          “are required to” (use “must”)

·          “and/or” (use “or” since the default meaning in English is inclusive-or)

·         “a wide variety of” (use “many”)

·         “a large number of” (use “many”)

·         “a large fraction of” (use “most”)

·          “in such a way” (use “so”)

·          “this paper” (use “this thesis”)

9.       Colons and semicolons are more helpful in academic writing than elsewhere since they make it easier to see the sentence structure when conveying difficult concepts.  Try to use them when you can, but be sure you are using them properly.

10.    Hyphenate a sequence of words functioning together as an adjective. For instance, in "large artificial-intelligence program" you should hyphenate the two middle words since a reader unfamiliar with your topic might think you mean an "intelligence program" that is "large" and "artificial".  Some more examples:

·         "intelligent computer-aided instruction"

·         "ten-procedure fire-fighting program"

·         "problem-dependent forward-chaining Python code"

·         "large integrated nonbacktracking Java program"

This means that the same sequence of words is sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not depending on whether it functions like an adjective.  For instance, you should write "I used artificial intelligence" but also "I used artificial-intelligence programs".

11.    Minimize acronyms as much as possible since they make a thesis harder to understand.

a.         For example, write "NPS" as "Naval Postgraduate School" or by its principal capitalized noun as "School".

b.       An exception is that acronyms that are used many times of a thesis are acceptable, like an acronym for the name of your topic or your program that you use 20 times in the thesis.

c.        When use an acronym, write out its words in parentheses the first time you use the acronym.

d.       Do not make a hyperlink to an acronym table, though it is OK to have an acronym table.  Hyperlinks are difficult to navigate in PDF, your final thesis format.

e.        Note that the words making up an acronym are not necessarily capitalized.   For instance, you should write out the acronym “AI” as “artificial intelligence” not “Artificial Intelligence”.  The criterion is whether the acronym is a “proper noun”, a word like NPS that refers to a single thing in the real world, often geographically locatable.

12.    "Internet" and "Web" (when referring to the World Wide Web) should be capitalized since they are "proper nouns" referring to only one thing in the world.  On the other hand, "intrusion-detection system" should not be capitalized since it refers to many things in the world, despite frequently being seen as a capitalized acronym "IDS" (which is another reason to avoid acronyms).  Just because an acronym is capitalized does not mean that its component words must be capitalized.

13.    Avoid hyperbolic language (e.g. “incredibly”), emotional language (e.g. “terrible”), and exclamation points because academic writing should try to be objective about its subject.

14.    Some nouns in English like “software”, “mail”, and “traffic” are inherently plural (“mass nouns”) and should not have an “s” on the end.  “Data” is another inherently plural mass noun, but it does have a singular of “datum” if you need it.

15.    Figures and tables should appear after the first paragraph in which they are referred, not before.  Treat equations like figures.  It is traditional to put a caption below a figure but above a table.  Only include figures or tables not created by you if they are very necessary, since a thesis is intended to show your own work.  Do not insert hyperlinks to figures and tables.

16.    The thesis processing office has citation and reference ideas contrary to most technical-writing practice, so don’t trust them.

a.        Standard citation formats in computer science and related fields are either in the APA format of parenthesized of author_last_name-year pairs (e.g. "(Rowe, 2008)") or the IEEE format of numbers in brackets (e.g. "[7]") where the number is that of an item in your reference list. 

b.       I prefer APA format in a thesis because it is clearer and more flexible.  A reader may want to know the name of the author without having to go to the reference list.

c.        A citation should usually go at the end of the first sentence referring to the ideas contained in the reference, and should occur before the period ending the sentence.  However, for a long sentence an earlier location in the sentence may be better.

d.       Citations of papers with more than two authors should use “et al.” after a comma and the last name of the second author.

e.        Citations of two or more references related to the same idea should go in the same pair of parentheses, separated by semicolons.

f.        Do not cite the same reference more than once in the same paragraph, despite what the thesis processing office says.  It makes it look like you are too careless to remember what you just cited.  Technical-writing practice is to assume that a citation refers to everything in its paragraph until the next citation.

g.       Do not use hyperlinks to reference lists since they are difficult to use in PDF format, your eventual final format, and do not use footnotes for references.

h.       Technical-writing practice is not to use names of authors outside of citations and reference lists since it focuses on ideas, not people.

i.         I do not recommend using bibliographic tools to create your reference list.  They make unnecessary work for you since you are unlikely to cite most of these references again.

j.         Your reference-list format must be consistent with the citation format.

k.       A reference list in APA format should have references in alphabetical order of the first author's last name.

l.         Every item in a reference list must list an author; use the name of the organization issuing or creating the reference as the author if no human author is listed.

m.     References to conference papers are more desirable than Web pages.  References to journal papers, book chapters, and books (if not too general) are more desirable than conference papers.  But usually you need to include a few conference papers to cover recent work on your topic.

n.       When you have a final draft, check that every citation in your text is matched by a reference in the reference list at the end of the thesis, and every reference in the reference list is matched by at least one citation in the text.

17.    Minimize the use of quotations and graphics from other people.  A thesis is supposed to be original work, and if you are quoting other people or copying their pictures, you are not doing original work.  It is better to paraphrase.  If you do use quotations, enclose them in quotation marks and give a formal citation at their end.  This is important because universities treat plagiarism seriously.  Try to avoid using other people’s figures.

18.    Programs you wrote go in appendices.  Detailed output, figures, and tables that would make the results chapter too long also should go in appendices.

19.    Do not assume that once a thesis is checked by your advisors that it is fine.  Advisors are human and don’t catch everything.  Check everything yourself after the advisors have looked at it.

20.    Do not assume that once a thesis has been checked by the Thesis Processing Office that it is fine.  They only check formatting, and cannot find things like incorrect terms, missing explanations, unnecessary repetition, insufficient captions, and overuse of acronyms.  The Writing Center can help some with those things, however.

21.    The Thesis Processing Office and the Writing Center only make suggestions.  Your advisors and second readers can overrule them.