Tips and Tricks for the final research papers and thesis

Final research papers and theses for degrees at the TUM are as manifold as the TUM itself. They range from scientific research papers in engineering in close association with technical applications through to theoretical theses, yet they all have one thing in common: They should demonstrate that their authors have the ability to work on a chosen task independently, scientifically and methodologically within a limited period of time.

A major project, such as a thesis, should not be started without a working plan. The plan should include all phases of work on the thesis, from searching for a topic to submitting your work.
It is up to you to decide how detailed your plan will be and how much time you will allot for each step. This will strongly depend on your topic and the research methods you choose. Now, we would like to give you a few tips on the working plan:

  • Do not think too detailed; otherwise, there is the danger that you will have to spend too much time readjusting your plan. This consumes precious time that you need for your work.
  • In your working plan, record the times when, for example, the lab is closed, your supervisor is on vacation, or the university is closed due to holidays.
  • Do not overtax yourself. You should plan extra time as a buffer. It is very frustrating to already fall behind your schedule on the second day.
  • Fix clear deadlines. If you tend to continuously push back deadlines, it could help if you set your deadlines in combination with an appointment to see your supervisor. In this way, you will have surely completed your quota (or the major portion of it) within the set limit. Another helpful alternative is to plan a meeting with fellow students. After all, you wouldn’t want to meet them empty-handed
  • According to experience, the greatest level of stress comes towards the end of your project. Plan as few other activities as possible around this time, so that you can meet your submission deadline.

Each supervisor is different. One may attach importance to frequently receiving progress reports; another may only want to be consulted with concrete questions. But all supervisors have one thing in common:

  • They will not be running after you. It is your responsibility to make appointments and request to meet your supervisor should any issues arise that need to be resolved.
  • Keep your scheduled appointments or, if you have an important reason for not keeping an appointment, cancel it in good time.
  • Never go unprepared to an appointment. Sketch an update on how far you have come with your work, i.e., prepare a short overview of what you are working on at the moment, intermediate results you have achieved, or points at which you may have begun to falter. Formulate any questions you would like to ask before you go to your appointment (and consider possible answers to your questions).

Finding an appropriate topic and putting it in to concrete form is the first and perhaps most difficult step in writing a thesis. Allow yourself sufficient time to find a topic that suits your level of knowledge and interest.
When you are choosing a topic, remember that you will have to deal with it intensively over a period of several months. It makes sense, then, not to choose the first topic you come across. Decide on a topic which interests you personally and which fascinates you enough to evoke the necessary élan in the coming weeks and months as you work on your thesis.
Another consideration for selecting a topic would be your level of knowledge. You should take time to consider how well-versed you are on the subject. Have you already attended courses dealing with this topic that have led you to your initial idea on how to tackle this problem? Another consideration in your choice of topic might be its relevance for a job or further studies you intend to pursue.
In many academic departments, professors will suggest topics. Visit the departmental websites or the TUM-wide Themenbörse, where current thesis topics are posted. If you do not find anything there, you may also formulate your own thesis topic in consultation with your future supervisor. Inform yourself in advance about the research areas of the respective departments and contact the chair or a faculty member of that academic department in good time to discuss possible thesis topics or to concretize them.

You may also write your thesis externally, e.g., at a company, another university or a non-academic research institute.
Please note that you must always have a professor at the TUM for the finalization of your choice of topic, as well as for the registration and grading of your thesis.
Make sure you speak with your advising professor at the TUM in good time concerning the arrangements for collaboration with the external company or institute.

It is a good idea to get a general overview of available sources for your work while searching for the appropriate topic. At the latest, once you have chosen your topic, you should begin to research resource material. Start with introductory articles and books. If you discover certain authors have published literature relevant to your topic, or if you have identified keywords, you can search for further contributions in the library’s online-catalogues and literature data banks.
Researching has a “snowball effect”. The bibliographies of your introductory sources will lead you to further sources; their bibliographies will, in turn, direct you to even more sources, and so on. Be careful not to drown in your research and get buried in mountains of sources you will never be able to deal with in the limited time you have for writing your thesis. Set a clear deadline in your working plan for completing your initial research.
Every semester, the TUM university library offers courses with the title,"Fit für die Abschlussarbeit - Aufbaukurs Bibliothek". They inform you where to find, obtain and process current, specialized sources for your thesis topic. These courses take place in the departmental libraries at all three TUM campuses.

Record all the sources relevant to your work from the very start. It is extremely annoying to be in the throes of composition and realize you no longer remember where you found the excellent article you want to reference.
Write a short summary of the article and record page numbers of important quotations, so that you can find them again during the writing process.
By using an electronic organization system for recording your sources, you can gain the best overview of the material you have read. The university library has a campus license for the sources organization programs, Citave and EndNote. These programs allow you to comfortably organize your sources (e.g., for term papers, bachelor’s or master’s theses) and assemble bibliographical information. You can find more information on this subject here.

If your topic is too general, you must consider which concrete question you would like to answer in your thesis and which methods you will apply. This is the only way you can become clear about your own project.

Creating an outline may seem a cumbersome and troublesome task. But a good outline can make it much easier to write your thesis. Creating an outline forces you to consider your line of reasoning in the construction of your arguments. These thoughts should be clear, well-structured and comprehensible to the reader of your thesis.
Once you have an outline, the entire thesis is divided into small, clearly arranged units, which, in turn, facilitates the writing process. Suddenly, you no longer have that huge “mountain” of work in front of you, but you can see – like on a good trail map – the individual sections of your hiking trail leading to the summit ahead of you.
And: A good outline is an important foundation for good advising. On the basis of your outline, you can more readily discuss your specific questions, the structure, and length of your thesis.

Tip: Create a “commented outline” for yourself and add a few keywords, sentences or recommendations for further reading which will help you develop each subsection later on.
Remember that your outline is not carved out of stone. You can always revise or readjust your outline during the writing process.

A working plan, an outline, a mountain of reading material and, perhaps, the results of experiments, interviews or testing are of little help if you do not begin to process this information in some way, start doing something with it. This may sound easy – but often is not.

Remember: You do not have to immediately produce a polished chapter on paper. For a start, it often helps to begin with a section of a chapter you find easy to deal with. In the initial phase, you may only write down keywords and incomplete sentences you will later formulate completely during the writing process. 

Working scientifically means everything you write must be reliable and accurate, so that readers can check the facts. You must, therefore, properly acknowledge the source of every idea that is not your own and every fact on which you have based the argument of your thesis. That means any passage of your text that you have not developed on your own accord but have taken over from other sources, must be clearly indicated to the reader. This includes direct and indirect quotations, as well as tables or graphs

  • A direct quotation is placed in quotation marks.
  • When you paraphrase, you do not use quotation marks, but you still cite the passage to show the reader its source.
  • This also applies to graphs and tables or any figures on which your graphs and tables are based.
  • Citing correctly also means that all direct citations, graphs, or tables in your thesis must be listed as a source in your bibliography or reference list.

To avoid oversight (something that could easily happen with such a comprehensive final project), we recommend that you immediately indicate all citations and enter their sources in your bibliography or reference list as you draft your thesis.
Remember, when you submit your thesis, you must declare in writing that you have written it yourself and that no sources or aids other than those listed have been used (§18 (9), APSO).
The conventions of citation in scientific papers are something that must be learned. The university library offers a course, "Fit für die Abschlussarbeit - Aufbaukurs Bibliothek" , in which you can learn all about correct citation in scientific papers.

Is such advice out of place at a technical university? Far from it! It cannot be repeated often enough: Back up your data!
Save your data when you stop writing at the end of a day. Save your data in between, before you answer the telephone, take a break, treat yourself to a nap, clean your apartment and so on. It can be devastating to lose thoughts hard won and difficult to write down.
Moreover: make back-up copies on external storage sites. All students at the TUM have free access to readily available and secure storage and project disk drives. More

Sometimes, it happens that you research and read and write and write and hardly notice you have strayed from your path and lost sight of your conceptual question or hypothesis. As you write, make it a habit to check your sections and subsections regularly to see if your thoughts are accurate and on track. Is your line of reasoning correct? Is the development of your argument clear and logical? If you are not sure, confer with an outside reader. Fellow students, friends or relatives who are not familiar with the topic usually have a good sense of judgment.

All sections are completed? Congratulations!  But you are not finished yet. Now you have to make your work presentable for submission. To do this, once again, you will need a good deal of patience and care. For this step, you should allow a sufficient amount of time.

  • Proofread for grammatical accuracy and stylistic form. Or – even better – find someone who can do this for you because, as an author, you are often “routine-blinded” and no longer see your own typing, spelling and grammar mistakes. Friends, relatives or fellow students (who are currently not under the stress of writing a thesis) are perfectly suited for this job.
  • Check your table of contents, tables, lists and cross references. Ensure that all page numbers correspond to the correct page of the graphs and tables, that their headings have been correctly written and numbered, and that the bibliography is complete.  
  • Most academic departments have information on their websites regarding the format and style requirements for the thesis. Format your thesis according to these requirements.
  • Design your title page. You can also find information on this on the websites of your academic department.

Inform yourself early on about the formalities with which you must comply when submitting your work. That is:

  • The form in which the thesis is to be submitted (in paper or electronic form)
  • The number of copies to be submitted
  • Opening hours at the administration office, etc.

More about formalities

Boeglin, Martha (2007): Wissenschaftlich arbeiten Schritt für Schritt. Gelassen und effektiv studieren. Paderborn: Fink.
Mit eigenem Kapitel explizit zum Schreiben

Groß, Harald (2011): Lernlust statt Paukfrust. Mit deinen Motivatoren leichter lernen in Schule, Studium und Beruf. Berlin: Schilling.
Ein kurzweiliges Buch rund um das Thema (Selbst-)Motivation, was für die eigenständige Schreibarbeit wichtig ist.

Grüning, Christian (2007): Visual Reading. Garantiert schneller lesen und mehr verstehen. 1. Aufl. München: Grüning Verlag.
Wer schneller liest und versteht, ist klar im Vorteil; das Buch gibt eine Einführung in das „Speed-Reading“.

Rost, Friedrich (2010): Lern- und Arbeitstechniken für das Studium. 6. Aufl. Wiesbaden: VS Verl. für Sozialwiss.
Ein Rundumschlag zu Lern- und Arbeitstechniken, der auch das Thema Schreiben ausführlicher beinhaltet.

Seiwert, Lothar (2010): Das neue 1 x 1 des Zeitmanagement. Der Klassiker; [Zeit im Griff, Ziele in Balance; kompaktes Know-how für die Praxis]. 32. aktual. Aufl., 9. München: Gräfe und Unzer.
Ein Klassiker unter den Zeitmangement-Büchern, das auch sehr gut auf den Studienkontext übertragbar ist.

Schubert-Henning, Sylvia (2007): Toolbox - Lernkompetenz für erfolgreiches Studieren. 2. Aufl. Bielefeld: UVW, Webler.
Eine Handreichung mit 40 Tools für das Studium, u.a. zu Schreiben (z.B. Phasen des Schreibens).

ProLehre offers all students at the TUM a comprehensive program of courses on promoting competent learning. To the course offering of ProLehre

Carl von Linde-Akademie of the TUM also offers courses within the framework of its program “Success through Study” for students in the final phase of their degree program. More information: Bettina.Hafner(at)