Chemical Education Today

Book & Media Reviews
How to Write a Successful Science Thesis: The Concise Guide for Students by William E. Russey, Hans F. Ebel, and Claus Bliefert
Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, Germany, 2006. 233 pp, ISBN: 978-3527312986 (paper). $29.95 reviewed by Marin S. Robinson

Jeffrey Kovac
University of Tennessee Knoxville, TN 37996-1600

edited by

This slender volume is an excellent guide for the aspiring scientist faced with the solitary task of writing a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation. (The word thesis—used in the book’s title and this review—applies equally to a thesis or dissertation.) The book is divided into three parts (21 units) that address writing style and techniques, components of a thesis, and technical elements. The book is primarily designed for self study, with preview questions, marginal pointers, and challenge questions in every chapter, complete with an answer key at the end of the book. Illustrative examples are integrated throughout, drawn largely from chemistry theses, including many useful template statements that students can build upon in their own written work (for example, “Our interest in X–Y compounds was aroused by isolation of Z.”). Part I (5 units) provides a wealth of useful advice, highly relevant for students at the start of their research careers. The not-to-be-skipped Introduction suggests factors to consider when selecting a research topic and adviser beyond mere enthusiasm for the project (which is likely to wane over time). Subsequent units stress the value of preparing interim reports for one’s advisor (to practice writing and to prevent overlooking essential experiments), suggest tactics for managing the literature, and offer instructions for maintaining a first-rate laboratory notebook. Writing technique (e.g., spacing, margins, font size) and style are addressed, with attention to wordiness, voice, and word usage (e.g., compared to vs compared with). Organization is a central theme throughout the book. In Part I, outlining strategies and “idea clusters” are introduced (where students jot down ideas in clusters and then look for common threads). Elsewhere, the authors advocate a structure that is logical (rather than chronological!) with the most important ideas presented first. The use of topic sentences, subheadings, and parallel constructions (within and across sections) is also encouraged. Part II (11 units) addresses each section of a thesis (from title to appendices) in a conventional order (although some might argue that placing the Experimental Section after the

Conclusions is a bit unusual). The authors advise students to become familiar with this traditional format but mention that thoughtful nonconformity can also produce an excellent thesis. The authors develop the major sections of the thesis in ways that give them a life of their own, sparked with personality and a hint of suspense, making the thesis a “lively communication” with a story to tell. For example, the thesis Introduction sets the stage, serving as a “user-friendly portal” to kindle readers’ interest in the problem at hand. The Results section, the heart of the thesis, is where proud accomplishments are shared in a believable (reliable) story of scientific discovery. The Discussion section (intentionally kept separate from the Results section) is the “nerve center” of the thesis, answering questions posed in the Introduction, elaborating on specifics (even digressing a bit), highlighting novel findings, and confronting limitations of the work. The importance of being absolutely clear in distinguishing one’s own accomplishments from others’ is stressed. Lastly, the Experimental section offers a “painstaking” description of how the work was accomplished (including raw data and step-by-step details). For each section, the goals and purposes are identified, an organizational strategy is provided (often an outline or a list of questions or goals), and the appropriate verb tense (past or present) and voice (active or passive) are examined. Frequent comparisons are made between sections of a thesis and a journal article (for example, in level of detail), making it a natural step for a student to recast a thesis into a journal article. Part III (5 units) addresses more mechanical information such as footnotes, numbers, units, functions and includes useful guidelines for preparing tables and figures. The end-of-chapter exercises are particularly useful. The book is well-written and easy to read. The authors do not shy away from colorful language or asserting their own opinions, for example, their preference for “lively verbs” and disdain for noun structures (nominalizations) that “squeeze the verbs out of scientific text”. I enjoyed reading their opinions, even when I disagreed with them (e.g., I prefer right-ragged to justified margins). Such differences in opinion underscore the ever-changing nature of written language. Although the book is best suited to chemistry students, the approach is general enough to be useful across the sciences. I plan to recommend it to my own graduate students this year. Marin S. Robinson is a member of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ;  •  Vol. 84 No. 12 December 2007  •  Journal of Chemical Education


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