Making the Best Use of Tables and Figures in Your Thesis or Dissertation

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.
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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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