A thesis statement is an important element of an academic paper or thesis at any level, at it guides both the reader and the author. Technically, it is the sentence or two that states the main idea of your thesis or dissertation. Without a thesis statement, your paper may ramble on and on without a clean point and you take the risk of losing the reader. From a productivity point of view, you also risk producing lots of vague and unnecessary text fragments, because you as a writer lack the focus a concise thesis statement could give you.
What is a thesis statement?
As already said above, a thesis statement is a sentence or two that states the main idea of your thesis. It is the sentence or two that links everything else in your paper together. You could also see it as a compass that clearly shows the direction in which you are heading.
Sounds simple enough? The problem is that “thesis statement” is a term that is often used in essay writing, where it does take a slightly different form. So here, we focus on what it looks like in other academic formats:
- Bachelor theses,
- Master theses,
- doctoral dissertations,
- quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods studies, and
- journal papers,
Example of a thesis statement in an empirical research study
Take my open-access article “Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Future Time Perspective, Learning from Others, and Employability” as an example (you can access the fulltext for free here).
Here is the abstract:
Employees in countries with advanced industrial economies need to continuously develop their competences to sustain their employability – that is, to have a set of competences that enables them to maintain or find an adequate job.
But how should efforts to enhance employability progress in the context of the demographic shift? Previous research suggests that employees’ perspective about their future working life may influence their motivation to engage in learning activities. The study reported and discussed here investigates how employees’ perceptions of the future as a time of opportunities and limitations affects their engagement in learning from others and, in turn, their employability. We tested our model empirically in two Austrian consultancies (n = 167). We find that focus on opportunities in the future explains engagement in learning from others and, subsequently, differences in employability. The informants’ perspectives about the future may be a helpful alternative to the measurement of chronological age, which is problematic from a conceptual point of view.Froehlich, D.E., Beausaert, S.A. & Segers, M.S. Great Expectations: The Relationship Between Future Time Perspective, Learning from Others, and Employability. Vocations and Learning 8, 213–227 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12186-015-9131-6
What would you identify as the main statement here that gives away what I’ll be doing in the rest of the paper?
As I said, it might be a bit less clear in an academic article than in an essay that you might write for school or university; the context is just much more complex. But the sentence “The study reported and discussed here investigates how employees’ perceptions of the future as a time of opportunities and limitations affect their engagement in learning from others and, in turn, their employability” is quite telling. It makes the position that I have quite visible: I do think that constructs such as future time perspective and the undertaking of learning activities are very important for people’s employability.
And in the sentence before I have also given some (superficial) evidence about why I think this is the case: previous research indicates this.
Why you should have a clear thesis statement?
Now that we have identified the thesis statement in the example article, we can think about its function. Basically, there are benefits for two parties: the readers and the authors.
For the readers, it is easier to follow the article if they know what the main argument is. The thesis statement should be short and to the point, so it does not distract from the main argument. It should be clear what you are arguing for.
For the authors, a clear thesis statement makes their argument more visible. If they can articulate their position clearly and succinctly, they are less likely to lose readers in detail or to get bogged down in arguments that do not affect their main argument. Furthermore, a well-written thesis statement can also help them outline their research and make sure they cover all important aspects of their topic.
But you do not have to believe my words. Try it out for yourself, this is a tactic that I often use when applying my award-winning technique of videofeedback on Bachelor and Master theses or doctoral dissertations. Just based on the thesis statement above, try to construct a table of contents for the theoretical background.
Take a minute for this: What would be the major headings you expect to see in the theoretical background of this paper?
From my perspective, the thesis statement really gives everything away – all three core concepts are mentioned: future time perspective, learning activities, employability (if you used different words for the same terms, that is OK, of course). So that should be the main headings – and they are! You might not have guessed the order correctly, and this is indeed related to another topic. But to put this in a nutshell: Starting out with the dependent variable, the one concept you seek to explain (in the example it is individuals’ employability) is often a very good approach.
How to create your perfect thesis statement
How to make a thesis statement? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the process of creating a thesis statement will vary depending on the topic and nature of your paper. However, there are some general tips that can help you create one that is effective and relevant.
1. Think about the main argument or point you want to make in your paper. What is the main point you want to communicate? This is your thesis statement.
2. Once you have identified your main argument, try to boil it down into one or two concise sentences. This is where you will start to develop your thesis statement.
3. Be sure to focus your thesis statement on the main points of your argument – don’t get bogged down in details or secondary points. Remember, a good thesis statement should be clear, concise, and persuasive.
Step 1: Know your research question or research objective
A thesis statement can also be conceptualized as an answer to your research question. Therefore, before you can write a thesis statement, you first have to come up with a topic and a research question (or more generally speaking, a research objective). I have covered this in separate blog articles, mini course, and online course. If you struggle with creating a sound research question/objective, please consult these sources first.
Online Course (in German)
Step 2: Be clear about the constructs that appear in your research question
Your thesis statement must be based on the research question or objective that you identified in step 1. This means that you have to be clear about the constructs that appear in your research question/objective. For example, if your research question is “What are the effects of a new policy on employee productivity?” then your thesis statement might focus on the concepts of “efficiency” and “productivity”. But also on whatever this new policy is about. However, if your research question is “How do student perceptions of classroom lectures affect satisfaction levels?” then your thesis statement will likely focus on concepts like “attitude,” “satisfaction,” and “learning.”. In both cases, you need to be specific about what constructs appear in the research question/objective.
Step 3: Connect the constructs and give some background
Now explain how the constructs that you have extracted are linked with each other. Importantly, however, this should be based on some past theoretical or empirical evidence. Put differently, do not fail to mention any related theories or past empirical findings that do suggest these relationships.
Step 4: Revise your thesis statement for conciseness and clarity
Do not forget that a thesis statement is only one or two sentences. But if you have followed the previous three steps, you might have much more material than that. So focus. Extract only the most important evidence that you would like to focus on. In the example it was just, quite generally, “past research”; the specifics will have to be mentioned in the theoretical background, anyway). Remember to be clear and concise; a thesis statement is not about giving all the information at once. Here, it might be helpful to remember the main functions of a thesis statement. To be a compass for both the readers and yourself as an author. So, whenever you feel that the thesis statement is confusing or an outright burden for yourself, do not forget that it should be just a tool to help you craft a clear thesis. Simplify.
By the way, this is also a good time to proofread and edit your statement for grammar and clarity.
Bonus Step: Moving forward
You have already crafted your final thesis statement in step 4. But the thesis statement is too powerful as a tool to just leave it with that. You want to actually use it and help you structure the rest of your thesis. So apply the same exercise that we have done based on my study on your own (see above).
To flesh out your structure even more before you start, check our resources about structure.
By following these steps, you can create the perfect thesis statement for your academic paper. Remember to keep it simple. Use your thesis statement as a compass to help you structure the rest of your paper.