Master Thesis Writing and Defence Guidelines within the UNESCO Chair in Interculturality, Good Governance and Sustainable Development, University of Bucharest


Emeritus Professor Dr. Mihai Korka

The following Guidelines include comments and recommendations

by Professor Dr. Thomas Straub and Professor Dr. Thomas Steger

1. What is a master thesis (dissertation paper)?

The word “dissertation” comes from the Latin “dissertare” meaning “to debate”. The first recorded use of the term “dissertation” in English was in 1651. Its meaning is “an extended written treatment of a subject”. This means that a dissertation paper not only researches the topic but it analytically reviews different points of view about the subject present in the pertinent scholarly articles and books.

In academic communities, a dissertation is a written discussion paper on a chosen topic. This discussion paper is the result of an in-depth independent research aiming at enlargement of the knowledge existing in the given disciplinary or interdisciplinary field.

A dissertation or master thesis is the final research paper that a student develops under the supervision of a scientific advisor. The content of the dissertation paper should mirror the level of graduate education (level 7 in the European Qualifications Framework) in terms of knowledge and skills acquired in the various disciplines composing the curriculum of the programme. The topic has to be relevant to the specific content of the study programme.

2. Types of research

According to Donald Stokes (1997), research might be inspired by four different intersections of categories of interests which are separated in four boxes/cells in the graph below:

  • The upper left-hand cell includes basic research that is guided solely by the quest for understanding phenomena without thought of practical use. It might be called Bohr’s quadrant in view of how clearly Niels Bohr’s quest of a model atomic structure was a pure voyage of discovery, however much his ideas later remade the world.
  • The lower right-hand cell includes research that is guided solely by applied goals without seeking a more general understanding of the phenomena researched in a scientific field. It would be appropriate to call it Edison’s quadrant, in view of how strictly this brilliant inventor kept his co-workers from pursuing the deeper scientific implications of what they were discovering in their headlong rush toward commercially profitable electric lighting.

  • The upper right-hand cell includes basic research that seeks to extend the frontiers of understanding but is also inspired by considerations of practical use. It deserves to be known as Pasteur’s quadrant in view of how clearly Pasteur’s drive toward understanding and use illustrates this combination of goals.
  • The lower left-hand cell is not empty. It includes research that is inspired neither by the goal of understanding nor by the goal of use. This quadrant includes research that systematically explores particular phenomena without having in view either general explanatory objectives or any applied use to which the results might be put.

Please observe in which category sits your research for the dissertation paper?

3. Choosing the topic of the master thesis

Criteria to be considered as orientation tools in the selection of the dissertation paper topic:

  • Relevance of the topic to the master’s degree programme (not to a specific discipline of the programme) and to the qualification targeted in the end of the studies;
  • The professional and scientific interests of the student offer a guarantee for accomplishing the dissertation paper;
  • The topic should be fully covered by the dissertation content. Avoid to broad topics;

Limitations might occur in the detailed desk documentation of the topic, in collecting field data and information, as well as in applying methodological tools for processing quantitative and qualitative data. Student + scientific advisor have to be aware of those (potential) limitations and find alternative solutions to answer appropriately the research question and check the hypothesis.

4. Writing a dissertation proposal (concept)

To write a dissertation proposal, you need to work out three components:

  • A clear, concise, and unambiguous title. Your title should indicate the specific content and context of the aspect/problem you wish to explore in the dissertation paper;
  • An focussed, clear, concise, but complex and arguable research question. Around this question the whole research is centred. Sometimes, 2-3 research questions are accepted, but this extends the research objectives and asks also for more work time;
  • A general research plan. It should state in a limited number of words the what, why and how of your future dissertation paper in a way that captures its significance. It is recommended to insert a set of objectives (specific goals) that support the aim of developing the research. From them you will develop later the structure of the dissertation paper.

The research question has to be significant enough to get support and scientific interest in order to be accepted. You have to underpin the importance and significance of your question for the respective research domain.

Sometimes, the worth of your research question might not be self-evident at first sight. In this case, you have to articulate arguments which attest the benefits of conducting the research by deepening the theoretical discussion and/or by analysing a number of research hypothesis which are, on the one hand, relating to the research question, and, on the other hand, uncovering evidence in the case study.

It is essential to give in this dissertation proposal (concept) a short outline of the methods to be applied. A professor (scientific advisor) will always look to the research methodology suggested by the student in order to observe if they are clearly articulated, logical, ethical, and practical (doable) in the given context. 

The dissertation proposal (concept) is a blueprint for action, so write it in the future tense. A proposal is about what you will do, not what are you doing now, or have done in the past.

In order to be accepted by the professor (scientific advisor), your proposal has to be able:

  • To reveal the merits of your research question (Why this work and topic? What do we already know? Describe the research gap in the relevant field. This should lead to the objective of the work).
  • To demonstrate the robustness of your research objective and methodology (Objective: What exactly do you want to research/test/find out? How does this contribute to the existing literature? Methodology: How will you proceed? Describe the analysis you would like to apply and its relevance. Describe the intended sample and its relevance).
  • To show your strong commitment (determination) to accomplish the research.

Eventually, some revision rounds will be necessary; normally, between one and four.

5. Choosing the appropriate scientific advisor; you have to consider:
  • The scientific advisor should be interested in the topic suggested by the student and competent in terms of previous research output or professional activities, which have to be at least indirectly related to the dissertation topic;
  • Assure a good direct or Internet based communication between the student and the scientific advisor. It gives a guarantee that the writing of the research proposal and of the dissertation paper is doable. It is also welcomed during the preparation of a successful oral/public defence of the finished work.
6. How to articulate a research question:

If you don’t have an option/idea:

  • Review the dissertation proposal criteria;
  • Write down a potential list of broad topics that might suit criteria and choose one which corresponds to your highest interest and appear to be feasible;
  • Explore this topic (area) by asking what issues surround it, what are the knowledge or practical needs, what are (possible) frustration and/or success factors in the respective area; what do other think is interesting in writing the research question;
  • By mapping these ideas, you will come up with your own research question and eventually formulate one or more hypothesis.

If you do have too many ideas/options, than:

  • Write down all your ideas;
  • Find out by means of comparison which is the more suitable one from the viewpoint of appropriateness of the topic, ability to collect relevant data, do you have the needed time to work out it in an ethical manor, is it in accordance with your larger interest, is it of some significance for the specialisation domain of the study programme;
  • Commit to the idea that fits your criteria best and commit to working it up to a completed dissertation proposal which should be forwarded to the scientific advisor.

Research hypotheses are used in those studies that are approaching the relationship between variables. They explore in form of testable statements the various facets of the (possible) relationships between two variables. Only statistically consistent hypothesis have to be accepted in the dissertation paper.

In the dissertation proposal, it is essential to give a short but convincing outline of the methods to be applied. A professor (scientific advisor) will always look to the research methodology suggested by the student in order to observe if they are clearly articulated, logical, ethical, and practical (doable) in the given context. 

Coming up with a research question and an accompanying research design is not a simple task. You have to take your time in order to think about the robustness and attractiveness of the topic and the research question. You have to be sure of the applicability and effectiveness of the suggested research methods and the feasibility of the dissertation paper in the given limited time frame.

Do not send/upload your first draft of the research proposal. You always need to check it from the logical perspective and to make sure it is understandable for others. This means to write and rewrite and rewrite some more the proposal to make it clear and successful. 

Examples of research questions:

Correct research question

Wrong definition of a research question

What effect does daily use of Facebook have on the attention span of under-16s?

What effect do social media have on people’s minds?

What effects had the internationalization of universities on the availability and affordability of housing for students in Bucharest?

Why is there a student housing crisis in Bucharest university hostels?

What effects do different legal approaches have on people who drive after drinking in Romania?

How can drunk driving be prevented?

7. Documenting a dissertation paper

The key to dissertation writing is research. It starts with identification, selection and valorisation of scholarly sources on the dissertation topic.

It is recommended to start with a general survey of the refereed literature, which can be helped by finding review papers in the respective field of research. This is followed by an in-depth survey of the papers closely connected to the dissertation topic. Out of these papers and books only relevant ideas and facts which are related to the chosen topic have to be selected in order to help you to write your own research paper. This library/desk documentation helps you to give a summary of the science behind the dissertation and to provide a literature review of relevant work published in the area of the dissertation topic. This literature review summarises, on the one hand, the key theoretical knowledge needed as a background for the development of the dissertation, and, on the other hand, it provides an overall summary of the research methodology that the author intends to apply in the development of the dissertation.

The best references are refereed journals and reviewed books. Much web-based material is not refereed and, unless confirmed from other sources, makes poor reference. Thus, it is not un-reasonable to use web- resources as a starting point of the research. However, it is recommended to confirm any information included in the paper from refereed or reviewed sources and reference those sources in the dissertation.

8. Size and structure of the dissertation paper/master thesis

The dissertation paper has often a pre-determined size in terms of pages or word length. Usually universities recommend a length of 60 pages for the core text of a dissertation paper. There are good academic reasons for having such a limit, in particular in the development of the skill to write concise, clear and rigorous documents. The size (word) limit refers to the core text and does not include references and/or appendices or technical annexes.

The structure of a dissertation paper is likely to contain the sections mentioned below arranged in the following order:

  • Title page has a standardized content and the form is provided by the Department. The title of the dissertation paper should be clear, concise, and unambiguous.
  • Abstract (up to 2 pages) is a synopsis of your whole research process. It should present the motivation for choosing the topic, underpin the originality of your project and its contribution to the enlargement/deepening of the knowledge; it should also present in a limited number of words the content of each chapter of the dissertation, and highlight the main findings.
  • Contents page(s) followed, if necessary, by List of abbreviation, List of tables and/or List of diagrams.
  • Introduction (up to 5 pages). This section introduces your topic and convinces readers that the problem you want to address is significant and worth exploring. In other words, the Introduction needs to grab the attention of the reader (s), showing that you understood the title and that you are clear about the purpose and objectives of your dissertation. The Introduction tells the reader not only the research question + hypotheses and the expected outcomes, but it mentions the means you are considering (existing knowledge in the literature and methods available) in order to fully cover the topic and reach the goals.
  • Chapter 1: Literature review (up to 30% of the core text) informs readers of the field about the space of your research while establishing your own credibility as a person capable of adding to this body of knowledge. It is recommended that you offer a convincing critical résumé of pertinent articles, scholarly studies and books published in the area of your dissertation paper and which are relevant for the questions or problems you intend to investigate. This chapter is a summary of the science behind your dissertation. Please note that the area of the literature review must be defined by the title of your research project and cannot take the form of an article by article It is rather a problem solving driven overview and must show what knowledge has been established and agreed upon in the area of your dissertation and outline their strength and weaknesses. If necessary, definitions of the key-terms should be discussed as an introduction to the literature review.
  • Chapter 2: Research methodology (up to 10% of the core text) focuses on methods, tools and instruments. This part is expected to summarize the key theoretical principles of research in the respective field and to provide a summary of the qualitative and quantitative investigation methods and techniques you intend to apply in your research in order to achieve the expected results.
  • In this section you might add delimitations and/or limitations of your research. Delimitations refer to the boundaries of the study or how your study was deliberately narrowed by conscious exclusions or inclusions of facets, subjects or regions. Limitations refer to design characteristics of your study which might impact the relevance and utility of the findings or the generalizability of the conclusions due to the small sample size or restricted access to records. Keep in mind that most research projects are limited by constraints such as time, access to resources or organizational issues.
  • Chapter 3: Case study = case presentation + discussion of the findings. This chapter has a first part dedicated to the presentation of the case and it ends by revealing the questions/problems that you will investigate and offer solutions aiming to solve ore improve the situation observed. The second part shortly describes the research process and concentrates on outcomes/results of the original research. A third part is an in-depth discussion of the results by contrasting them with previous research outcomes uncovered in the literature overview.
  • Conclusion, Recommendations and further research opportunities (up to 3 pages)
  • Bibliography (References)
  • Technical annexes/Appendices
9. Elaborating the dissertation paper

Before you engage in writing a research project, you need to know:

  • Background information: what is the context of your study?
  • Literature review: what have other researchers found?
  • Where and how will you find your answers? = methods to be involved in the project;
  • Are there ethical issues in collecting and making use of information?
  • What about costs (time and money)? Will you finish in due time?

Once you have gathered and organised enough material you can begin to turn it into written prose. To write effectively requires sustained concentration over long periods of time. Even with the incremental authoring possibilities that word processing offers, writing is best done in long uninterrupted sessions. Whatever you chose to do, the text must be consistent!


There are some rules you can follow which may make the task easier and which will certainly improve the quality of your writing. Our advice is to:

  • Keep your potential readership in mind (your supervisor and the external examiners and probably, students of the next generation);
  • Identify commonality among the ideas expressed in order to clarify the text and eliminate redundant ideas. You have to by concise in writing and logical in presenting the ideas in each section and sub-section of the dissertation paper;
  • Use numbered sections and subsections to suggest the hierarchical relationship between the various parts of the research paper. Do not exaggerate and keep with a balanced segmentation of the text of each chapter/section into subsections and/or paragraphs. Each chapter/section should begin on a new page with a few sentences that tell the reader what he/she will find in the section. This has the effect of “softening up” the reader so that when they move on to the body of the section they feel confident about the direction in which you are taking them. They are reassured at regular intervals when they encounter ideas which you have told them to expect.
  • Follow stylistic conventions related to academic writing. For instance, you should follow the next recommendations:
    • Avoid colloquialism;
    • Use rather the third pronoun (It is/ It has been ….) instead of writing for the first one (I think, I agree, I have...). Not even We have/We consider can be used without the special acceptance of the scientific advisor;
    • Avoid shortened forms such as don’t or there’s, etc.
10. Preparing the theoretical background for the master thesis

Preparing the theoretical background for the master thesis means to consider the following elements of a rational thinking (David Wheten, 1989): what, how, why, when

  • What: Which factors/descriptors (variables, constructs, concepts) logically should be considered as part of the explanation of the phenomena of interest in your research? There are two criteria for judging the extent to which we have included the “right” factors: comprehensiveness (i.e., are all relevant factors included?) and parsimony (i.e., should some factors be deleted because they add little additional value to our understanding?).
  • How: Having identified a set of factors/descriptors, your next question is: If and how are they related? In many cases, researchers test these relations, but limitations might not allow for adecquate testing, which does not mean that causal nature of the relationship is wrong.
  • Together the What and How elements constitute the domain or subject of the theoretical background of your paper.
  • Why: The central question to be addressed here is: Why should we give credence to a particular causal representation of the phenomena? The answer is given by the logic which is underlying the model. Logic represents the theoretical „glue” of the model, which is a symplified abstract representation of the real phenomena.
  • Together What & How describe the phenomen. Only Why explains. What & How provide a framework for interpreting patterns, or discrepancies, in the empirical observations. This is an important distinction because data, whether qualitative or quantitative, characterize the phenomena, while theory (Why) supplies the explanation for the characteristics.
  • When: Temporal and contextual factors might place limitations to the general theoretical model. They need to be explained and their impact on the general model has to be explained.
11. Presenting the research methodology

In each dissertation paper there is a part which presents the outcomes of a desk research (library documentation) and another one dedicated to the case study prerequisites (usually a field research). This second part consists in the detailed presentation of the quantitative and/or qualitative data and information collected, processed and analytically commented.

To make it easier, it is recommended to insert a description of the methodology involved in the field research. Short comments on the tools and procedure(s) applied have to be included in the dissertation paper (up to 10% of the core text).

12. Tables & Diagrams

The core text of a dissertation paper includes usually small tables and less then half a page diagrams (graphs). The larger ones are placed in the Appendices/Technical anexes of the dissertation paper. Each table or graph is identified by a number and introduced by a title that explains the content and gives time and space coordinates for the data included in its construction.

Number and title are placed above the table or diagram.

The source of data is compulsorily specified bellow each the table or diagram.

Following these rules increases the credibility and attractiveness of your dissertation paper.

13. Commenting results

After making a short but consistent descriptive presentation of the outcomes of original research, it is recommended to switch to an analytical approach aiming at explaining why these results were obtained. It is worth to refer to the ideas in the articles, studies and books you have consulted.

Consider also the larger context in which you have developed the case study and to use in the argumentation factors or characteristics as explanation for your research outcomes.

On the other hand, it is important to underpin relations between the variables you have observed by collecting data and information. If possible, test the relationships and compare your findings with those existing in the reviewed literature.  

14. Use of references & Technical layout

It is recommended to put in the core text in brackets the name and year of the investigated work and list in the end of the dissertation paper the authors in alphabetical order.

For example: In-text citation:

“The existence of ozone in the upper atmosphere was first proposed in 1881 (Hartley, 1881, pp. 111-128), based on the sharp cut-off below 300 nm in the solar spectrum. This hypothesis was not confirmed until thirty years later, when Fabry and Buisson (1913, pp. 196-206) demonstrated the close correlation between the absorption spectrum of ozone and the solar irradiance spectrum between 230 and 340 nm…..”

In the end of the dissertation paper you insert a list of reference entries:

  • Fabry, C. and H. Buisson (1913), L’absorption de l’ultraviolet par l’ozone et la limite due spectre solaire. Phys. Paris 3.
  • Hartley, W. N. (1881), On the absorption of solar rays by atmospheric ozone. Journal Chem. Soc. 39.
  • *** Karolinska Institutet (2015) Evaluating information. Available: http://kib.ki.se/en/search-evaluate/evaluating-information]. Accessed March 16 2016.
  • When you have got your information by interviewing or talking with a person you should address this as personal communication, which is denoted comm. after the person’s name i.e. (B. Daly, pers. comm.) in the text. Before using personal communication ensure you have permission from your contact person with whom you have communicated. In the reference list, you will add the name of the person and telephone number or e-mail address to make it possible for other persons to contact your source. Example: Daly, B. Länsstyrelsen, Skåne, daly.bl@hotmail.com

Another way of referencing consists in using numerical superscripts in the core text in order to insert footnotes in the end of the respective page. And yet a bibliographical list of all references has to be prepared and inserted in the end of the dissertation paper.

Nota bene: It is essential that all sources used in the preparation of the dissertation paper are properly acknowledged. Failure to do this is plagiarism which is severally punished.

Do not forget insertion of the consulted Bibliography as well as the Technical annexes.

For the technical layout of the dissertation paper you need to follow the recommendations given in: Guidelines for elaborating scientific dissertations within the UNESCO Chair in Interculturality, Good Governance and Sustainable Development, a document already posted on the Faculty’s official webpage.

15. Preparing the oral defence of the master thesis:
  • Prepare a 12-15 minutes’ presentation supported by a power point presentation. Slides should be inspiring for your discourse and easy readable for the audience. Do not insert to long texts or tables in a slide. You have to check the visibility of slides on a screen before entering the examination room;
  • Keep in mind the particular fields of interest of the examination committee’s members, as well as the audience present in the public defence session;
  • Dress appropriately as the public defence is a ceremonial moment for you;
  • During the presentation it is recommended to foster the attention of the examination committee and of the attendance by combining oral statement with slides/imagines.
  • Do not insist on descriptive details.
  • You have to find the best logic to convince the examination committee on the importance of the topic and your special interest for developing the research paper.
  • Organize your thesis defence by keeping time for the presentation of the final comments, further research interest and possible recommendations.
  • Accept discussions and questions as a means to demonstrate your competence.
  • Alvi, Mohsin Hassan (2016) A manual for referencing styles in research. Retrieved from ResearchGate.
  • * * * Dissertation writing. A guide for students. University of Southampton, United Kingdom. Accessed at: www.soton.ac.uk/edusupport/dyslexia
  • O’Leary, Zina (2018) Little quick fix: Research proposal. SAGE Publications Ltd. London
  • Stokes, Donald E.(1997) Pasteur’s quadrant. Basic science and technological innovation. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
  • Straub, Thomas (2013) How to write a master thesis. University of Fribourg, Switzerland.
  • * * * What is research design? New York University, USA. Accessed at nyu.edu: https://pdf4pro.com/amp/view/what-is-research-design-nyu-edu-ad73f.html
  • Whetten, David A. (1989) What constitutes a theoretical contribution? Academy of Management Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 490-495.