Department of Environmental Sciences

How to Write Your Geology Thesis

Conducting thesis research

It is the students' responsibility to aggressively pursue their thesis research. This should happen without constant prodding from the adviser. Students should take the initiative and do what needs to be done, but at the same time they should also keep their advisers informed of their progress. 

Once the research is initiated, the adviser's only required role is to provide guidance; the students carry the rest of the research load. Although there are certainly exceptions, most thesis advisers do not (and should not be expected to) work as "co-researchers" with their students (i.e., they do not share in the field and/or laboratory work).

Literature survey

In any research project, one's objective should be to become the world's leading expert. This is entirely feasible for the typical narrowly defined thesis topic. One of the most important steps in becoming "the expert" is finding and studying the relevant literature. Every book and article with something to say about your thesis topic should be consulted.

Finding references

  • Your adviser will normally give you an initial set of references to work from. Pay close attention to the bibliographies. Some of the references they cite may be useful to you. If carlson library does not have a reference then request it either through inter-library loan or the ohiolink web site. Do not limit yourself to what's in carlson library: if you do, you will not have much.
  • Search for new references using ohiolink. The "subject" and "words" search options will be useful for this. For broader searches use the worldcat web site. This is an on-line catalog for thousands of libraries around the world. You can reach it through ohiolink by selecting "research databases" for the "humanities". Other research databases may be useful such as "geo-ref", which contains nearly every reference on north american geology published in a north american periodical.
  • The university of michigan has an excellent geology library and you might consider going there to "browse" the literature.
  • Taking notes from readings
  • Make photocopies of all useful articles, and sections of books. For books, always include a photocopy of the title page.
  • Always take a set of notes for each reference. Do not simply highlight the relevant passages on your photocopy; distill and synthesize the important information in your own words.
  • For each piece of information noted, record the page number.
  • Keeping files and recording references
  • Keep a well-organized file of all photocopies and notes.
  • Citations for all useful references should be recorded. For journal articles record, in the following order: author (last name and all initials), year published, title in full, journal name (don't use abbreviations), volume number (and issue number, if important), and pages. For books and maps record: all authors or editors (last names and all initials; indicate whether author or editor), year published, title in full, publisher's name, and publisher's city. Some faculty members will also want the total number of pages. For maps always be sure to record the scale. Either write the citation for each reference on a 3" x 5" note card and keep these in a box specially made for such cards, or enter it into an ms word document or a specialty program for references like endnote. 

Suggested thesis organization

Title page                     


Concisely summarize what you did and how you did it, and what your principal findings and conclusions are. Do not cite any references, tables, figures or anything else. The abstract "must stand alone". Think of it as an ultra mini-version of your thesis. It is important that the abstract be informative and well written because it is the only part of your thesis that many people will read.

            The abstract should be the last part of the thesis you write.


Thank your thesis advisor for giving you the topic and for supervising the work, and thank also the other thesis committee members and anyone else who helped you (physically, financially and/or emotionally) get through the experience (e.g., family, friends or pets).


This is an option for students who want to make their thesis a lasting testimony to a much loved and appreciated friend or family member.

Table of contents

List of figures

List of tables

List of plates


Statement of the problem: state the justification for doing the thesis. In other words, what is the geological problem that you are trying to solve and why does the work need to be done?

Objectives of the study: enumerate your specific objectives (i.e., provide a list of what you are going to do and what you expect/hope to achieve).

Background (or previous investigations): this should be a literature review of the previous work done by others on your thesis topic. For example, you might discuss the geology of your field area or earlier research findings relevant to your study. Do not mention any of your own thesis results in this chapter. It is always best if you can synthesize the literature rather than simply summarize each individual reference. If there are a large number of references it might be possible to present the key information in a table.

If you are repeating, word-for-word, what someone has said, you must put the text within quotes. Alternatively, you can paraphrase what was said but you should still use quotes for the critical clauses or terminology. For example: smith (1989) studied the podunk formation and concluded that it represents deposition in an "arid braided stream" environment (p. 32).


Here you describe the field and/or laboratory methods you used. Others need to be able to reproduce your work (or, at least, understand it) and so it is important that you leave nothing out. Very detailed analytical procedures involving numerous steps are best described in an appendix with only a general overview given in this chapter. As a rule, you want this section to be "readable" and so most of the uninteresting (but still important) detail should go into the appendices.


Describe (but do not discuss or interpret) your field and/or laboratory observations using copious figures, tables and/or maps to illustrate your findings. The raw data should be tabulated in an appendix, and this chapter should only be used to "summarize" and "organize" your results in ways that are meaningful and informative.


Use this chapter to interpret your findings in accordance with the objectives of the study. Also discuss any previously published interpretations that support or conflict with your own.


Concisely enumerate the principal findings and conclusions of your study. Do not mention anyone else's results and do not engage in any further discussion of your results. Also do not include any new figures or tables, but do refer to earlier figures and tables that support specific conclusions.

The conclusions differ from the abstract in two ways: conclusions (1) do not include anything about the statement of the problem, objectives, or methodology; and (2) present the findings in more detail.  

Recommendations for Future (or Further) Research

This should be an enumerated list of possible research topics for those who come after you. These topics normally include unsolved problems from your study or alternative approaches the same problem. Remember: a thesis is never the final word on anything; there is always more work that can be done.

References cited or Bibliography (this should come before the appendices)

This is an alphabetical listing of all the references cited in the text (do not include any references not cited). The citations must be complete: i.e., they should include, for a given reference, all of the authors with all their initials (do not use full first and second names), complete title for articles/books/maps, complete name for periodicals (do not use abbreviations), name of the publisher and city for books, and inclusive pages for articles. You may follow the standard citation format found in one of the major geology periodicals (e.g., journal of geology, bulletin of the geological society of america, geology, bulletin of the american association of petroleum geologists — they are all similar). Examples of standard citation formats are as follows:

Journal article: Randy, R. U., and I. R. Hott, 1988, Sedimentology and stratigraphy of the Podunk Formation, Humble County, Ohio: Journal of Unreproducible Results, v. 1, no. 3, p. 45-67.

BookRufus, B. O., 1993, Geologic formations I have known: Backalley Publishers, Toledo.

Thesis or dissertationZilla, G. O. D., 1988, Hydrogeology of the Mudhens Stadium, Maumee, Ohio: M.S. Thesis, University of Toledo.           

Article or chapter in a book: Butts, M. Y., 1972, Petrography of a strange rock I found; in Larrie, A. B., Moe, C. D., and Curly, E. F. (eds.), 'Geology of Never-Never Land': Rip-Off Press, Cleveland.                    

Map: Ali, B. B., 1960 (revised 1972), Geologic map of the Whataduck Quadrangle, Ohio (1:25,000): Subsurface Data Center, University of Toledo, Toledo. 

Appendices: include separate (or even multiple) appendices for the raw data, and for the detailed procedures for sampling, sample preparation and/or analyses. 


Miscellaneous notes

Figures and tables should follow on the next page after the page where they are first cited.

Every piece of information (fact or idea) that you use in the text but which is not your own must have its source cited at the end of the sentence (or paragraph) where it is used. The citation should always include the author(s)' last name, year of publication and the number of the page(s) where the information came from. Examples:

  • Smith (1990, p. 101) or (Smith 1990, p. 101)
  • (Smith and jones 1987, p. 53-57)
  • (Smith et al. 1986, p. 12, 18-21) for 3 or more authors

Page numbers are required for books and other lengthy monographs, and optional (but still useful and much recommended) for articles.

If the information cited by one source actually comes from an earlier source you should cite both. Example:

  • (Smith 1900 as reported by Jones 1988, p. 21)

Some computer software packages used in your research should be cited. When doing so give the full official name of the package together with the vendor's name, city and state (or country if not the us). For example:

  • Atlas GIS (Strategic Mapping, Santa Clara, CA)

If the information is a "personal communication" to you via telephone, email or letter, then cite it as, for example, "(B. J. Smith, Ohio Geological Survey, Personal Communication, 1989)". Personal communications are not included in the references cited.

If you borrow a figure or table from another source then, of course, that source must be cited in the figure caption or in a footnote below the table. In these citations give the author(s)' last name, year and the figure/table number in the original source as in, for example, "(from Smith 1990, fig. 12.5)". If you have modified the figure or table, then you say "(modified from ...)", and if you have redrawn a figure or retyped a table with added modifications, then you say "(adapted from ...)".

In each chapter divide your text into sections and, where appropriate, subsections. This helps to organize the material and improve its presentation. Your heading hierarchy needs to visually reflect the different levels of importance. The following is an example of such a hierarchy.

First Order Heading

Second Order Heading

Third Order Heading                       

1. Fourth Order Heading

Fifth Order Heading: . . .  First sentence . . .   


Writing a thesis


For the majority of students the most difficult part of thesis research is the writing. You are basically being asked to write a book, and this is intimidating task and one that is beyond your experience. Most students who never finish their theses, and there have been many in the geology department, fail because they lack the discipline, inspiration, patience and technique required of writers.

The first thing you need to do is acquire the basic writers "tools," and these include:

  1. A good dictionary such as websters, longmans or american heritage. Avoid the small, abridged "college" editions.
  2. A good book on english grammar. There are several to chose from but the easiest route is to buy whatever book is used in the english department's introductory composition course.
  3. Other books that all serious geological writers should have are a thesaurus (with synonyms and antonyms), and the american geological institute's "glossary of geology."

Steps in the writing process

Experienced writers all have their own ways of going about the writing process, and you will have to figure out (if you don't already know) what works best for you. Even if you think you already know how best to go about writing, i strongly recommend that you try following the steps listed below. These may seem like more work, but they will, i believe, make the writing process more efficient and enjoyable.

Step 1

Make an outline of the thesis. This should be as detailed as possible with each chapter subdivided into sections. The intent here is to identify all the topics that you will be writing about. Almost certainly the final thesis draft will follow a somewhat different outline but a preliminary one is an essential first step. Consult with your adviser on this.   

Step 2

Organize your notes and literature copies in accordance with the thesis outline. For every topic identified in the outline (i.e., every chapter section) make a complete set of notes that includes all the information needed for the thesis. This will involve transferring information from your earlier notes and rereading some the literature to glean additional information missed in the first reading. All information recorded that is not your own must be accompanied by a reference citation with author(s), year and page number(s), and quoted passages must be enclosed in quotes.

Step 3

Do the writing in a comfortable, quiet place that is free of distractions and where you can work undisturbed for hours at a time. I like to compose first drafts in longhand and then type them into a computer word-processor, but others may find it easier to do the initial writing on the computer.

Step 4

Pick one of the thesis chapters to write on. You do not have to start the thesis at the beginning. You can write the chapters in any order that you wish, and then later stitch them together.

Write two "first drafts" of the chosen chapter. The first one is basically a quick and dirty "mind dump" in which you do not worry about spelling, grammar, syntax or any of the other niceties of writing. The objective here is to get all the information on paper in the order that you want it. This approach protects you from "writer's block" which can occur when you have to contend with getting both the information and prose right. Writing the initial "first draft" is quick and easy if you have prepared your notes as described in step 2 above.

Next, write the second "first draft." this is just a rewriting of the first draft where you clean up the prose: spelling and grammatical errors are corrected, and the text is smoothed and streamlined so that it reads well. Try to be articulate and "interesting" in your choice of words (the thesaurus will be helpful here).  

Step 5

Type the second "first draft" using a word-processor like microsoft word. Run your text through word's spelling and grammar checkers to catch errors previously overlooked.

Step 6

Over the next days or weeks reread the chapter at least a few times and make further editorial changes. I often find that a draft that i thought was "finished" does not look quite so good a few days later. I like to do my editing on hard-copy pages rather than the computer monitor. The advantages of paper pages are that you can look at them in greater comfort and without the eye strain caused by computer monitors, and, more importantly, you can see whole pages or groups of pages simultaneously. In editing, it is often necessary to flip back and forth among pages. You will probably find that you do your best editing early in the day when you mind is still "fresh."

Step 7 

Repeat steps 4 through 6 for the other chapters. Your thesis is now largely written! Some further editing is needed to ensure that the text flows logically and coherently from one chapter to the next. For example, you want to avoid defining a technical term in a later chapter when it is used in earlier chapters: terms should always be defined where they are first used.    

When to Start Writing the Thesis

Trying to write your entire thesis at one time is a daunting task. It is much better to spread the writing out over a longer period. For example, the "introduction" can be written when you begin the thesis research, and the "background" and "methodology" chapters can be written early in the thesis work. After all the field and/or laboratory work is completed, you can then write the chapters on "results," "discussion," "conclusions" and "recommendations for future research." earlier-written chapters will, of course, need some revisions and you will also have to put together the "references cited" and "appendices".

First Drafts to the Thesis Adviser

Many advisers want the first draft of a thesis that you give to them to be complete: i.e., it includes all of the chapters and other required sections plus all the tables, figures and plates. The first draft should also be well written, and largely free of grammatical and spelling mistakes. Some faculty will refuse to read a draft that does not meet these criteria! If you are having problems writing the prose, you might consider consulting a counselor at the university's writing center.

Before handing in a first draft check with your adviser to find out what is expected. Some advisers will allow you to submit your thesis one chapter at a time.


Last Updated: 6/27/22