Making the Best Use of Tables and Figures in Your Thesis or Dissertation
Scholarly writing can be significantly enhanced by the careful use of well-designed tables and figures of various kinds. By catching the eye and presenting complex information in concise visual forms, successful tables, charts, graphs, diagrams, maps, photographs and other illustrations often reveal trends and patterns more clearly and efficiently than textual descriptions can, so they serve as excellent tools for writers and readers alike. Such aids to communication and comprehension may seem relatively simple, but designing, labelling, presenting and discussing accessible, accurate and attractive tables and figures for your thesis or dissertation can be challenging.
Tables and figures are most effective if they are clearly numbered (Table 1, Figure 1 etc.) and referred to by their numbers in the main text of a thesis or dissertation, in each case with a brief explanation of what the reader will find in the table or figure. They should be numbered in the order in which they are first mentioned, and each table or figure should be given a descriptive heading or caption. Since the information provided in them stands on its own, all the numbers, words and symbols used in tables and figures should be laid out very carefully with enough space around them to avoid crowding and confusion. Be sure that any specialised terminology and nonstandard abbreviations and symbols you use in a table or figure are accurately defined in that table or figure, and remember that detailed information too cumbersome for headings and captions can instead be presented in table notes or figure legends.
As a general rule, tables and figures should not repeat information that is given in the main text of a thesis or dissertation. There will be overlaps, of course: the detailed results of your study might be presented in long tables, for instance, while the most significant findings and trends are shown in graphs, with your main text dedicating space to discussions of both to formulate your argument. Repetition should be kept to a minimum, however, so it is important to decide which aspects of your research can be presented most effectively in tables or figures and which aspects would be better treated in your main text. Making these decisions before you begin drafting your chapters will enable you to design your tables, figures and text to report the necessary information as clearly as possible with a minimum of repetition. If you have your tables and figures completed before you write, you may also be able to detect in them important patterns that you might have missed were you writing before designing your tables and figures.
When you draft your thesis or dissertation with your tables and figures in front of you, you will also be using those visual tools much as you expect your readers to use them, and this serves as an excellent means for testing the clarity, accuracy and general usefulness of your tables and figures. After all, understanding the perspectives and needs of your anticipated readers is an essential aspect of sharing your ideas effectively in scholarly writing, so using your tables and figures as you report your research and explain your interpretations can be an illuminating exercise that inspires revisions and improvements far beyond the tables and figures themselves.
Finally, do not forget to check any guidelines provided by your department or university to ensure that your tables and figures are presented and labelled in the formats and positions required or preferred for your thesis or dissertation.
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How to make a simple Gantt chart
13 September 2011by Jonathan O'Donnell
In every grant application, I want to see a simple visual guide (a Gantt chart) that shows what you are planning to do. It is the perfect time to plan your project clearly. It shows the assessors that you have thought about your research in detail and, if it is done well, it can serve as a great, convincing overview of the project.
Clearly, these charts are hard to do. If they were easy, more people would do them, right?
Here are five steps to create a simple guide to your research project.
1. List your activities
Make a list of everything that you plan to do in the project. Take your methodology and turn it into a step-by-step plan. Have you said that you will interview 50 people? Write it on your list. Are you performing statistical analysis on your sample? Write it down.
List of tasks for “Simple Privacy”, a one year project
Check it against your budget. Everything listed in the budget should also be listed on your uber-list? Have you asked for a Thingatron? Note down that you will need to buy it, install it, commission it… What about travel? Write down each trip separately.
2. Estimate the time required
For each item on your list, estimate how long it will take you to do that thing. How long are you going to be in the field? How long will it take to employ a research assistant? Realistically, how many interviews can you do in a day? When will people be available?
- Initial meeting: about 3 weeks to find a time.
- Desk audit: 4 months.
- Draft key elements: about 1 week each.
- Testing: about 1 week each, but can start organising as soon as first element is drafted.
- Write up: 2 months.
- Final report: no time, really – just need to find a time to meet.
Generally, I use weeks to estimate time. Anything that takes less than a week I round off to a week. Small tasks like that will generally disappear from the list when we consolidate (see Step 4). Then I group things together into months for the actual plan.
3. Put activities in order
What is the first thing that you are going to do? What will you do next? What will you do after that?
In the comments, Adrian Masters provided some great questions to help with this stage:
- What do I need to do by when?
- What do I need from others & when?
- How do I check that I am still on track?
One by one, put everything in order. Make a note of any dependencies; that is, situations where you can’t do one thing until another is started or finished. If the research assistant is going to do all the interviews, then the interviews can’t start until the research assistant is hired.
Where possible, you should eliminate as many as possible dependencies. For example, if you can’t find a decent research assistant, you will do the fieldwork yourself (but that might mean that work will be delayed until you finish teaching). It isn’t a necessary step to getting your time-line in order, but it is good project management practice.
In the comments, Amy Lamborg pointed out that you might want to work backwards. If you have a fixed end date, you might want to “…build back towards the project start date, then jiggle everything until it fits!” If you want an example of this, have a look at the post “Work backwards“. It is about writing an application, but the principle of starting with the fixed end date and working backwards still applies.
4. Chunk it up
Now that you have an ordered list, and you know how long everything will take, you need to reduce the list without losing any specificity. At the same time, if you are combining tasks, you might want to add a bit of time as a contingency measure.
- Meet with partners: 3 weeks.
- Review data protection regimes: 4 months.
- Draft three key elements: 3 months.
- Test three key elements: 3 months, with some overlap.
- Analyse test results and report: 3 months.
How you divide up your time depends on your project. If it is only one year long, you might list items by month. If your project is three years long, then you might list items by quarter. If you are planning over five years, you might break it down to six-month periods.
5. Draw me a picture
If you use project management software to manage your project, and you are comfortable with it, then use it to produce a summary of your project, too.
Most project management software (e.g. like Microsoft Project) will allow you to group activities into summary items. Chunk your tasks into major headings, then change the time interval to your months, quarters, half-years, or whatever you have chosen to use.
Or you can just draw it up with word-processing software (which is what I always do), spreadsheet software, or even hand-draw it.
Example of a Gantt chart
Frankly, I don’t care – as long as it ends up in your application!
Also in the ‘simple grant’ series: