Graduate Studies

Thesis Overview

What is a Thesis?

The California State University Education Code (Title V, Section 40510, p. 473) defines a thesis as follows:

The written product of a systematic study of a significant problem that defines a problem, states the major assumptions, explains the significance of the undertaking, sets forth the sources for and methods of gathering information, analyzes the data, and offers a conclusion or recommendation. The finished project [product] evidences originality, critical and independent thinking, appropriate organization and format, and thorough documentation.

While the Code delineates the technical differences between a thesis and a project, at times there is a fine line between the two. A thesis is distinguished by certain elements such as an introduction to the study, a review of the literature, a methodology section, results, summary, and recommendations for further research, while a project may not have these components. There is also a difference between the elements found in a quantitative thesis versus those found in a non-quantitative (qualitative) thesis, thus some sections of this description may not apply, and the format should only be used as a guide and not an unyielding outline.

Organiz­ing the research material in an outline based on this format—with five chapters in mind—will help to clarify thoughts and present information in a logical sequence. The following is offered to elucidate what is to be included in the various sections.


An abstract must be submitted as part of every thesis. The abstract should contain all the essential information about the project and provide the reader with an overview of the study. It should be written in complete sentences and include statements of the problem, procedure or methods, results and conclusions. The abstract should include accomplishments, the most pertinent facts and implications of the study, and a brief explanation of the work, and should not exceed 250 words (approximately 1½ pages in length). Mathematical formulae, citations, diagrams, footnotes, illustrative materials, quotations, and acronyms may not be used in the abstract.

Please click here for a Power Point about the Abstract (PDF) (PDF).

Organization of Your Thesis

Organiz­ing the research material in an outline based on this format—with five chapters in mind—will help to clarify thoughts and present information in a logical sequence. The following is offered to elucidate what is to be included in the various sections.

Chapter 1

Introduction to the Study

It is the primary function of the Introduction to introduce and give an overview of the study. The following components should be included in the Introduction.

The beginning of the chapter should serve as a carefully organ­ized lead-in to the problem under investigation. This section should include an overview of the historical evolution, the current status, the projected future dimensions of the prob­lem, or all three.

Statement of the Problem
Present the focal point(s) of the research. Introduce the “what” of the present investigation (i.e., clearly state what the study will examine or investigate). State the specific major question(s) and/or hypothesis(es) to be studied or tested. Make a precise statement of all minor questions to be explored.

Purpose of the Study
Justify the study. Why is the present investigation signifi­cant? Explain how it supports other studies, differs from previous studies, extends present knowledge and/or examines new issues.

Theoretical Bases and Organization
How does the present research correspond with other studies? What are the underlying theoretical bases upon which the study is constructed? One or more hypotheses should create the solid foundation upon which the conceptual framework is built.

Limitations of the Study
Discuss both content and methodological limitations of the investigation. How will the research work within or around these confines? 

Definition of Terms
Define any special terms used in the study and establish abbreviations that will be used throughout the text.


Review of the Literature

There are several ways in which this chapter may be structured: chronologically, categorically, or through related theoretical viewpoints. Emphasis should be placed on the reasons underlying the particular areas, topics, and periods selected for review. 

The chapter should:
  • Provide evidence supporting the historical, theoretical, and research background for the study.
  • Define how the investigation differs from other studies in the field.
  • Show how the study relates to other research studies in similar areas.
  • Theoretical foundations, expert opinion, and actual research findings should be included. Primary sources should be used whenever possible.

Chapter 3


This chapter describes the research design or approach in depth. This should be a detailed and clearly written description which permits a precise replication of the study. Several parts of this chapter apply mainly to a quantitative thesis, but may be ap­propriate to a non-quantitative thesis as well.

Design of the Investigation
Explain how the study is designed to investigate each question or hypothesis. If appropriate, identify all variables and how they are ma­nipulated. 

Population and/or Sample
Describe the principal characteristics of the popu­lation selected. If a random sample is used, describe the general population from which the sample was selected and the sampling procedure used. 

Describe the exact sequence followed to collect and tabulate the data. Describe the instrument(s) used to collect the data and establish the validity of the instrument(s) via studies by other researchers. 

Data Analysis Procedures
Describe and explain data analysis procedures and/or statistical treatments used. Include descriptions of tests, formulae, computer pro­grams, and procedures.

Chapter 4

Results and Discussion

This section reports on and discusses the findings of the study.

Presentation of the Findings
The results of the investigation are presented in narrative form and may be supplemented with graphics. Whenever appropriate, use tables and figures to present the data. 

Discussion of the Findings
The discussion of the results should be well argued in relation to each question or hypothesis. Inferences, projections, and probable explanations of the results may also be included. Discuss the implications of patterns and trends, and include any secondary findings.

Chapter 5

Summary, Conclusion, and Recommendations

This concluding section should summarize the entire research effort. A suffi­ciently comprehensive overview should enable the intended audience to understand the entire study. At this point, it is appropriate to reacquaint the reader with the conceptual framework, the design of the investigation, the methodology, and the results of the study.

This section should include the significance of the study and its conclusions, the limita­tions and weaknesses of the study, implications for future research, and recommen­dations.

Cite references according to the department style guide, and be sure to include every source cited in the study, including material that has been adapted for use in tables and figures.

Material too detailed for inclusion in the body of the text, or material that cannot be effectively presented due to its length or size may be included in the appendices. Tables and graphs that have been introduced in the main body of the thesis are required to be included in the text immediately following the first reference. They should not be placed in the appendices. Appendices might include such things as questionnaires, raw data, maps, photos, artwork, letters of permission to reproduce material, and personal correspondence.