Your MSc Thesis in Geology at Acadia

  1. Overview
  2. The proposal
  3. The thesis
  4. Required presentations
  5. Thesis defence
  6. Important dates
  7. Resources


The essential requirements for a thesis (formal departmental policy) are:

  • a scholarly work where scholarly refers to:
    1. a precise statement of objectives;
    2. a thorough overview and analysis of the literature;
    3. an objective analysis and presentation of the facts;
    4. a conclusion that follows logically from the analysis.
  • it needs to incorporate a scientific method or approach to finding answers to questions, or incorporate scientific facts or data into the analysis and conclusions.
  • the expectation is that the thesis research should be of potentially publishable quality.

The basic steps involved in this process are:

  1. An issue is identified.
  2. Other people's work on the topic is collected and evaluated.
  3. Data necessary to solving the problem are either collected by the student, or obtained independently.
  4. Data are analyzed using techniques appropriate to the data set.
  5. Results of the analysis are reported and are interpreted in light of the initial issue.
  6. Recommendations are proposed that would lead to a deeper understanding.

The Thesis

Structure and lay-out of a thesis

A typical thesis should have the following pieces. The last two might not exist in your thesis.

Title page

See the university Graduate Thesis Regulations. You must follow this format exactly. The only change permitted is the font type - keep that consistent throughout your thesis. Note no page number on this page.

Approval page, Permission for duplication page

Again, see the university Graduate Thesis Regulations. You must follow this format exactly. These pages are numbered ii and iii.

Table of contents

List all headings and subheadings with page numbers. Indent each level and sub-level. There are document tools in Word to do this automatically, but our experience is, unless you have used them before, it takes longer to figure them out than to do it manually. Such tools must be employed from the start of writing. Keep the Roman numerals numbering going.

List of tables, List of figures

All tables and figures also require a listing. Shorten the captions to the essentials - do not simply cut and paste from the thesis.


The abstract is usually the last item to be written, and often reads like a rushed after-thought. A good abstract explains in one line why the paper is important. It then goes on to give a summary of your major results, indicating the methods used to reach those results, and with any important numbers with error limits. The final sentences explain the major implications of your work. A good abstract is concise, readable, and quantitative. It must fit on one page (university regulation).

  • Abstracts do not have references cited in them.
  • Information in title should not be repeated.
  • Be explicit.
  • Use numbers where appropriate.
  • Answers to these questions should be found in the abstract:
    1. What did you do?
    2. Why did you do it? What question were you trying to answer?
    3. How did you do it? State methods.
    4. What did you learn? State major results.
    5. Why does it matter? Point out at least one significant implication.

Acknowledgement page

This is pretty much yours to do as you wish. We suggest you make reference to your supervisor(s) and anyone who helped you, technically (including materials, supplies), intellectually (assistance, advice), financially (for example, departmental support, your supervisor's research grant, travel grants, parents), and emotionally (dogs have been included in the past). Keep it short and sweet and avoid mentioning beer brands.

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc.

The number of chapters is not that significant, and depends a lot on the nature of the thesis. Perfectly good theses could have as few as 4 chapters, or as many as 10. So could perfectly awful theses. Here is a suggested break-down of the chapter structure:


You can't finish a good introduction until you know what the body of the paper says. You will want to start your writing with the introduction, but you should go back and review or complete it after you written the rest of the thesis. A lot of what you say here should have been said in your thesis proposal, but make sure you write it here to show the work is done (i.e. use past tenses!)

Be sure to include a hook at the beginning of the introduction. This is a statement of something sufficiently interesting to motivate your reader to read the rest of the thesis, indicating what is the important/interesting scientific problem that your paper either solves or addresses. You should draw the reader in and make him/her want to read the rest of the paper.

The next paragraphs in the introduction should cite previous research in this area. It should cite those who had the idea or ideas first, and should also cite those who have done the most recent and relevant work. You should then go on to explain why more work was necessary (your work, of course.) Note here, though, that some theses might require a review of a substantial body of previous work. If this is likely to extend to several pages, it might be better to hive it off to its own chapter, but provide enough information here to permit the reader to put your work in context. It is often convenient to find a benchmark paper from 5-10 years ago, use that as a start, and base your introductory previous research on that. Keep the gory details all the way back to Fletcher or Linneaus for the "Previous Studies" chapter, if you have one.

What else belongs in the introductory section(s) of your thesis?

  1. A statement of the goal of the paper: why the study was undertaken, or why the paper was written. Do not repeat the abstract.
  2. Sufficient background information to allow the reader to understand the context and significance of the question you are trying to address.
  3. Proper acknowledgement of the previous work on which you are building. Sufficient references such that a reader could, by going to the library, achieve a sophisticated understanding of the context and significance of the question.
  4. The introduction should be focused on the thesis question(s). All cited work should be directly relevant to the goals of the thesis. This is not a place to summarize everything you have ever read on a subject.
  5. Explain the scope of your work, what will and will not be included.
  6. A verbal "road map" or verbal "table of contents" guiding the reader to what lies ahead.
  7. Is it obvious where introductory material ("old stuff") ends and your contribution ("new stuff") begins?

Remember that this is not a review paper. We are looking for original work and interpretation/analysis by you. Break up the introduction section into logical segments by using subheads.


What belongs in the "methods" section of a thesis or scientific paper?

  1. Information to allow the reader to assess the believability of your results.
  2. Information needed by another researcher to replicate your experiment.
  3. Description of your materials, procedures, theory. If your study involved mapping, details about the techniques employed.
  4. Calculations, techniques, procedures, equipment, and calibration plots.
  5. Limitations, assumptions, and range of validity.
  6. Description of your analytical methods, including reference to any specialized statistical software.

The methods section should answering the following questions and caveats:

  1. Could one accurately replicate the study (for example, all of the optional and adjustable parameters on any sensors or instruments that were used to acquire the data)?
  2. Could another researcher accurately find and reoccupy the sampling stations or track lines?
  3. Is there enough information provided about any instruments used so that a functionally equivalent instrument could be used to repeat the experiment?
  4. If the data are in the public domain, could another researcher lay his or her hands on the identical data set?
  5. Could one replicate any laboratory analyses that were used?
  6. Could one replicate any statistical analyses?

Citations in this section should be limited to data sources and references of where to find more complete descriptions of procedures. Do not include descriptions of results.


  • The results are actual statements of observations, including statistics, tables and graphs.
  • Indicate information on range of variation.
  • Mention negative results as well as positive. Do not interpret results - save that for the discussion.
  • Lay out the case as for a jury. Present sufficient details so that others can draw their own inferences and construct their own explanations.
  • Use SI units (m, s, kg, W, etc.) throughout the thesis. Try to avoid merely metric units (cm, hPa) unless the convention is well established in the field of study. Do not even think about non-metric units. If you need to convert, round off in SI units to an equivalent number of significant figures.
  • Break up your results into logical segments by using subheadings.
  • Key results should be stated in clear sentences at the beginning of paragraphs.  It is far better to say "X had a significant positive relationship with Y (linear regression p < 0.01, r2=0.79)" than to start with a less informative like "There is a significant relationship between X and Y".  Describe the nature of the findings; do not just tell the reader whether or not they are significant.

Note: Results vs. Discussion Sections

Quarantine your observations from your interpretations. The writer must make it crystal clear to the reader which statements are observation and which are interpretation. In most circumstances, this is best accomplished by physically separating statements about new observations from statements about the meaning or significance of those observations. Alternatively, this goal can be accomplished by careful use of phrases such as "I infer ..." vast bodies of geological literature became obsolete with the advent of plate tectonics; the papers that survived are those in which observations were presented in stand-alone fashion, unmuddied by whatever ideas the author might have had about the processes that caused the observed phenomena.

How do you do this?

  1. Physical separation into different sections or paragraphs.
  2. Don't overlay interpretation on top of data in figures.
  3. Careful use of phrases such as "We infer that ".
  4. Don't worry if "results" seem short.


  1. Easier for your reader to absorb; frequent shifts of mental mode not required.
  2. Ensures that your work will endure in spite of shifting paradigms.


Start with a few sentences that summarize the most important results. The discussion section should be a brief essay in itself, answering the following questions and caveats:

  1. What are the major patterns in the observations? (Refer to spatial and temporal variations.)
  2. What are the relationships, trends and generalizations among the results?
  3. What are the exceptions to these patterns or generalizations?
  4. What are the likely causes (mechanisms) underlying these patterns resulting predictions?
  5. Is there agreement or disagreement with previous work?
  6. Interpret results in terms of background laid out in the introduction - what is the relationship of the present results to the original question?
  7. What is the implication of the present results for other unanswered questions in earth sciences, ecology, environmental policy, etc....?
  8. Multiple hypotheses: There are usually several possible explanations for results. Be careful to consider all of these rather than simply pushing your favorite one. If you can eliminate all but one, that is great, but often that is not possible with the data in hand. In that case you should give even treatment to the remaining possibilities, and try to indicate ways in which future work may lead to their discrimination.
  9. Avoid bandwagons: A special case of the above. Avoid jumping to a currently fashionable point of view unless your results really do strongly support them.
  10. What are the things we now know or understand that we didn't know or understand before the present work?
  11. Include the evidence or line of reasoning supporting each interpretation.
  12. What is the significance of the present results: why should we care?

This section should be rich in references to similar work and background needed to interpret results. However, interpretation/discussion section(s) are often too long and verbose. Is there material that does not contribute to one of the elements listed above? If so, this may be material that you will want to consider deleting or moving. Break up the section into logical segments by using subheads.


  • What is the strongest and most important statement that you can make from your observations?
  • If you met the reader at a meeting six months from now, what do you want them to remember about your paper?
  • Refer back to problem posed, and describe the conclusions that you reached from carrying out this investigation, summarize new observations, new interpretations, and new insights that have resulted from the present work.
  • Include the broader implications of your results.
  • Do not repeat word for word the abstract, introduction or discussion.


  • May be incorporated as a "Conclusions and Recommendations" section
  • Include when appropriate (most of the time)
  • Remedial action to solve the problem.
  • Further research to fill in gaps in our understanding.
  • Directions for future investigations on this or related topics.

List of references

Cite all data, ideas, concepts, text that is not your own in the main body of the thesis using the Canadian Journals of Research. In the List of References, list only these. Every citation in the thesis should be in the list of references, and every item in the list of references should be used in the thesis. Be careful to include references in figure captions and tables too.


If your thesis has a substantial amount of data that deserves to be archived, it can usually be accommodated in an appendix. Other students will come looking for these data, so make sure they are complete, accurate and useful. As a general rule, any table extending beyond 1-2 pages and any repetitive illustrative material is better placed in an appendix. Other items might include lengthy calculations, references you used, but did not cite, list of equipment, complex procedures, any items you consider useful for future workers in this area, but not critical to your argument.

Other materials

Rarely some other items might be germane to a thesis and can be included also:

  • very large data sets - consider including them on a CD if they go beyond 10-20 pages length. If printed, it is acceptable to use a smaller font here in an appendix.
  • maps - commonly Geology theses require large maps in order to preserve scale. These could be included as a folded map in a pocket, although increasingly we are reverting to a CD for such item now.

Editing your thesis

Editing means "preparing (written material) for presentation, as by correcting, revising, or adapting." That means after you have written it, you read it again, think about it, and check it. Even a rough draft should be edited. Here are some items to consider:

Copy editing:

  • Proof read it (more than once).
  • Make sure all possible spelling and grammar errors identified by your word processor are fixed or known to be acceptable.
  • Read it again to check for homonyms (there, they're, their).
  • Check every sentence to make sure the verb agrees with the subject, the tenses are consistent (if the job is done, past tense; if the fact is still the case, present tense).

Content editing:

  • Is it presented logically?
  • Are sections repeated?
  • Is it all relevant?
  • Does it actually answer the question?

Don't rely on your supervisor to edit it for you. Start the job yourself.

Figures and Illustrations

"A picture is worth a thousand words" - well, maybe not 1000, but hopefully any illustration you employ will make the thesis clearer than if you were to describe it in words. Your illustrations are important - this includes maps, graphs, and photographs, and care needs to be used in making them.

The most common issue with illustrations is the tendency to simply scan and insert them. This is usually unacceptable. Scanned line maps and graphs almost always lose quality in the process - if the figure is important enough to include, draw it yourself. You learned CorelDraw in the Geomorphology class, or for simply figures, you have lots of PowerPoint experience - use it! Export the results as .ps or .eps files and insert them into the text.

Should you use colour? My recommendation is to use colour where necessary, but not if not necessary. The chances are that someone, someday, will want to make a photocopy or a print-out (on a black-only printer) of your figure. So if you have a graph with two lines - make one solid and one dashed, instead of red and blue.

Required presentations

For the MSc thesis you are not required to make any presentations. Technically, even for the thesis defence, you are "invited" to give an overview of your thesis. (I've never heard of anyone who didn't, though.) That aside, there are many good reasons to present your thesis publically:

  • it gives you experience in public speaking
  • the act of pulling a talk together is often very helpful to focus your thoughts and see what has been done, what still needs to be done
  • the more people who hear it, the better the chances you will be able to handle tough questions in the thesis defence.

Here are some venues you should consider:

  • the annual AGS Colloquium
  • the annual GAC-MAC meeting (or similar venue)
  • Northeast Geol Soc Americal meetings
  • check with your supervisor for other appropriate venues

The thesis defence

The thesis defence is an oral examination of your thesis, where you should expect to explain why you did it, what you did, which the techniques you used, the results, the findings, and the significance of it.  Examining you will be an external reader (from another university), an internal reader (from the E&ES Department), the department head, your supervisor(s). The defence will be chaired by someone from another department, and is open to the public.

For your defence, you should have:

  • a 15-20 minute PowerPoint presentation (not strictly required, but it rather expected)
  • a laser pointer or means to identify an area on the screen
  • include in extra slides after your presentation all illustrations that might possibly be called upon for discussion
  • a copy of your thesis (someone may ask you, "On page 72 is a sentence...")
  • freshly laundered, clean, white signatures sheets with everyone's name on it (and spelled correctly) - at least two copies are required.

Important dates (2014-15)

  • 29 August: last date to apply to graduate at fall graduation
  • 22 September: deadline for approved theses for fall graduation
  • 14 October: Senate approval of fall graduates
  • 30 January: last date to apply for spring graduation (after this date there is a late fee)
  • approx. 20 March: submission of thesis for defence (spring graduation)
  • approx. 20 April: last date for thesis defence (spring graduation)
  • 13 April: deadline for approved theses for fall graduation
  • 11 May: spring graduation