Thesis Guidelines

A thesis for Distinction in Biology should be a presentation, written primarily for the non-specialist reader, of the significance, results and conclusions of a productive research project. The thesis is a written exam to be evaluated by the Faculty in Biology and must answer the following questions: What did you do? Why did you do it? What is the significance of your results? What else would you do, were you to continue the project?

In answering the above questions, you have an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding and intellectual ownership of a project; not simply your productivity in the lab. The volume of results or completeness of the study is not critical for a successful thesis. Instead, we will be looking for the following:

  • a statement of a general aim, i.e. a meaningful question of biological importance;
  • a review of appropriate literature as a means to define the terms and context of the general aim;
  • presentation of a set of specific aims or experimental approaches to specific hypotheses;
  • presentation of results and their meaning;
  • discussion of the significance of the results in terms of the general aim;
  • a description of future directions for the project.

Format of the Thesis

The basic format of the thesis should resemble that of a scientific journal article and should include the following sections: Introduction & Background; Methods; Results; Discussion; and References. In some instances, it may be useful to sub-divide the Methods & Results section to reflect and correspond to each separate "Specific Aim". However, if you chose to take this route, remember that there should still be a general Introduction and Discussion sections that address the project as a whole. The thesis should not consist of several "mini-papers" stapled together.

1. Introduction Section

The introduction & background section should provide the non-specialist with a clear understanding of the subject and the nature and rationale for the specific project (i.e. general & specific aims). As part of writing for a non-specialist, be sure to include definitions of any specialized terms that are critical to your work. The thesis should be completely free of unexplained jargon!

Begin with an explicit statement of your general aim (hypothesis). A review of pertinent literature then serves to define the context and import of your general aim. Alternatively, the statement of the general aim may follow logically from the review of literature. Typically, this section will be longer and more comprehensive than that found in an article for publication. It will be followed by a listing of your specific aims and a brief explanation of why you chose the specific experimental approaches for each.

2. Methods & Results Section

The presentation of methods and results may follow the format recommended by your research supervisor for publication in an appropriate journal. However, limit your thesis to experiments and their results that are the product of your own work. It is strongly recommended that these sections be written in the first person to make clear that you are presenting your specific work.

If you must allude to work done by collaborators as part of your presentation, be sure to cite the precise source. For example: "The sample was collected using needle biopsy by Dr. So&So" or "There was a significant increase in activity as compared to control experiments performed earlier by Dr. What's-her-name". In general, comparison of your results with the results of others should be reserved for the Discussion.

In some projects, methods and results may involve proprietary information (eg, drugs under development), or information intended for later publication. Your thesis will only be shared only with your thesis committee the Department of Biology. It will not be ‘published’ in a publication, nor posted to a searchable web site without approval of the student and PI, and your poster will only be displayed at the poster session on campus. However, you should consult with your PI before including any sensitive names or data in your thesis or poster. You may ‘anonymize’ the names or reagents or genes, if need be.

It is not uncommon that some projects will still be in preliminary stages, with little in the way of reportable results, by the deadlines specified for submission of your thesis and poster. This does not automatically disqualify a thesis for distinction, as progress in a research project varies on a case by case basis. Consult with your Biology thesis committee (i.e, your faculty reader or the DUS) to discuss the best way to structure your methods and results section if this is the case.

3. Discussion Section

The Discussion Section should provide the non-specialist with a clear interpretation of the experimental results. Avoid simple repetition of the results, focusing instead on their significance in the context of the general aim and the findings of others. It is perfectly okay to be speculative here - this is your opportunity to demonstrate that you are really thinking about the big picture.

Devote a portion of this section to addressing future directions for your project. You should comment on how any uncertainties in your results might be resolved. In addition, you should suggest additional experiments and approaches that you might take if you were to continue the project.

Your Faculty Reader should provide feedback on an initial draft of the thesis submitted by the first draft deadline. The Faculty Evaluation Form will give you a sense of how your Reader will evaluate your draft. Expanded guidelines and evaluation rubric can be found as part of the Biology Thesis Assessment Protocol: Thesis Evaluation Rubric (PDF).

Submission Guidelines

The format of the final copy should follow these guidelines:

  • Cover Page (sample): Title; student's name; supervisor's name; date of submission; 3 signature lines at bottom right (Research Supervisor, DUS, Reader). Please follow the format and language of the sample.
  • Abstract Page: single-spaced, no page number
  • Text, figures and references: double-spaced, page numbers centered at the bottom

Sample Theses

Examples of Distinction papers from previous years are available for examination in the Undergraduate Studies Office (Rm 135 BioSci).  Four samples are also available below as PDF files.

  1. Phosphorylation of inositol hexakisphosphate and diphosphoinositol pentakisphosphate by a conserved class of kinases
  2. Does dinoflagellate bioluminescence deter shrimp grazing? An investigation into the Burglar Alarm Hypothesis
  3. Predictors of Microstegium vimineum and their implications in stream restorations of central North Carolina
  4. Deleting the SAM Domain of Adaptor Protein SLP-76 Impairs Thymocyte Development and T Cell Receptor-Mediated Signaling in Mice 

Additional Resources