Writing a Master Thesis

Spring 2023

Johannes Mauritzen


The best way of getting a hold of me is by e-mail:


I try to reply to all emails within 24 hours / 1 working day.

Seminars and dates (for NHH students only)

    Date Theme
    TBA What is a master thesis? Anatomy of a research paper
    TBA First draft of introduction, background, descriptives and tentative results. Written feedback
    TBA First seminar
    TBA Second seminar
    TBA Turn in first draft. Written feedback.


I encourage you to write your master thesis in English. Here is why:

  • A goal should be that this master thesis introduces new knowledge to society. Writing in English allows for the thesis to reach a much larger audience.
  • Many NHH master students will work for international firms where good written (business) english is important. Practice makes perfect!
  • The literature you will be relying on will overwhelmingly be written in English. Writing your own thesis in English will avoid problems with having to translate (and perhaps mistranslate) technical language.
  • Writing a master thesis in English has become the standard at top business schools in Norway and Scandinavia (NHH, BI, SSE, CBS, etc)

What makes a good master thesis

Working with a company.

You should consider working with a firm or organisation when writing your master thesis. Here is why:

  • You are at a business school and working with a firm is one of the best ways to ensure that you are tackling problems relevant for actual businesses.
  • Firms can provide feedback on strengths and weaknesses of research question, modelling, interpretation and conclusions.
  • Many firms have a high level of competancy, which is distinct from the competency you will find among academics.
  • Working with a firm gives you valuable connections and networks which can help in landing a job.
  • Firms are often enthusiastic about working with master students and are eager to share their competency and perhaps get some insights from the project.

A Master thesis makes a clear argument.

  • The argument functions as the "red thread" that organises the thesis and ties together the sections
  • You should not write a report that summarizes all information on a subject.
  • The argument is based on a combination of evidence and theory, which you present in an organized and clear manner.
  • You should use data and appropriate statistical estimation methods to support your arguments.
  • Estimation is not enough. You also need some theory to motivate and interprate your results in relation to the area/market/observations your are stuyding.
  • The argument makes use of relevant literature and other sources, which are well documented.

Organise your thesis according to a hierachy of information

You should treat your final thesis as a research article that may be useful and of interest to other students, researchers and even businesses. But different readers may have different interests in how much time they want to invest in reading your thesis. Therefor you should organise your article according to a hierarchy of information:

The title

The title is the part of your thesis that most people will read: Make it good. When people are searching for literature on a topic, the title will be the first, and perhaps only part of your thesis that they will see. A title should therefor be descriptive and specific and tell the reader what your thesis is about, without being overly wordy. You can be playful and clever, but not at the expense of how informative your title is. A bad made-up example: Tossing out the baby with the bathwater?. A better example: Tossing out the baby with the bathwater? How firms can improve layoff decisions using tree-based machine learning. In two short sentences, we have managed to convey the general subject, the research question, methodology and even some of the results. Sometimes a good title simply states the main result of the thesis. A real life example: Why High-Order Polynomials Should Not Be Used in Regression Discontinuity Designs (Gelman and Imbens 2017). Another: Why You Should Never Use the Hodrick-Prescott Filter (Hamilton 2018).

The abstract.

After the title, the most read part of your thesis will be the abstract. This should be about a paragraph long. It succinctly tells what the research question is and motivates the question. It tells about the methods used. It provides the main results and it states why the results are important.

Examples of good abstracts:

The $800 Billion Paycheck Protection Program: Where Did the Money Go and Why Did It Go There?
David Autor, David Cho, Leland D. Crane, Mita Goldar, Byron Lutz, Joshua Montes, William B. Peterman, David Ratner, Daniel Villar and Ahu Yildirmaz
The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) provided small businesses with roughly $800 billion dollars in uncollateralized, low-interest loans during the pandemic, almost all of which will be forgiven. With 94 percent of small businesses ultimately receiving one or more loans, the PPP nearly saturated its market in just two months. We estimate that the program cumulatively preserved between 2 and 3 million job-years of employment over 14 months at a cost of $169K to $258K per job-year retained. These numbers imply that only 23 to 34 percent of PPP dollars went directly to workers who would otherwise have lost jobs; the balance flowed to business owners and shareholders, including creditors and suppliers of PPP-receiving firms. Program incidence was ultimately highly regressive, with about three-quarters of PPP funds accruing to the top quintile of households. PPP's breakneck scale-up, its high cost per job saved, and its regressive incidence have a common origin: PPP was essentially untargeted because the United States lacked the administrative infrastructure to do otherwise. Harnessing modern administrative systems, other high-income countries were able to better target pandemic business aid to firms in financial distress. Building similar capacity in the U.S. would enable improved targeting when the next pandemic or other large-scale economic emergency inevitably arises.
Will Studying Economics Make You Rich? A Regression Discontinuity Analysis of the Returns to College Major
Zachary Bleemer and Aashish Mehta
We investigate the wage return to studying economics by leveraging a policy that prevented students with low introductory grades from declaring a major. Students who barely met the grade point average threshold to major in economics earned $22,000 (46 percent) higher annual early-career wages than they would have with their second-choice majors. Access to the economics major shifts students' preferences toward business/finance careers, and about half of the wage return is explained by economics majors working in higher-paying industries. The causal return to majoring in economics is very similar to observational earnings differences in nationally representative data.
Formative Experiences and the Price of Gasoline
Christopher Severen and Arthur A. van Benthem
Formative experiences shape behavior for decades. We document a striking feature about those who came of driving age during the oil crises of the 1970s⁠—they drive less in the year 2000. The effect is not specific to these cohorts; price variation over time and across states indicates that gasoline price changes between ages 15–18 generally shift later-life travel behavior. Effects are not explained by recessions, income, or costly skill acquisition and are inconsistent with recency bias, mental plasticity, and standard habit-formation models. Instead, they likely reflect formation of preferences for driving or persistent changes in its perceived cost.

The introduction

The introduction is often the most misunderstood part of a master thesis. I would argue that this is the most important part of the thesis. Once a reader has read the title and abstract and decided they are still interested, the introduction will be the next part they will read.

Build-up and motivate your research question.

The reader should get a full idea of what the thesis is about from the introduction. I think about it as a popular-scientific summary of your article. In the introduction you have some background and motivation, and perhaps also a review of some literature that builds up to your research question. Then of course you should state your research question (as a part of a normal paragraph--not pulled out into a blockquote, or italicized or bolded. )

Tell how you will answer the research question.

This is often where many students stop. But this only gives a partial picture of your thesis. You should also tell how you will try to answer the research question. That is, you want to give a good summary of the methodology and motivate the methodology. Here you can also give a summary of the data that is used.

Tell the reader what the results are. Really.

Many students think that writing a thesis is like writing a mystery novel--that you should wait until the end before revealing the results. Nope. In addition to succinctly stating your main result(s) in the abstract, you should again state your results, now in more detail, in your introduction, perhaps also discussing why the results are important. Repitition is fine. You can (and should) state your results in the abstract, in the introduction, in your results section, and in your conclusion.

What else you can have in your introduction.

Other elements can also be included in your introduction, depending on preferences and the lay-out of your thesis. Many like to include an explicit discussion of their contributions. Something like, "We contribute to the literature on machine learning in bankruptcy prediction, showing the importance of macroeconomic factors." Many also include a preview of the organisation of the rest of the thesis. If you do this, it should be more informative than, "section 2 is the methodology, section 3 is theory".

The best way of learning to write a good introduction.

Don't read other master thesis to inform the way you write your introduction. Even those that have received a high grade often have poor introductions. Instead, read introductions in top academic journals.

You can find some interesting and high-quality articles in, for example American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Here is the full article about the wages of students studying economics, which has a nice introduction.

The body of the thesis

For the body of the thesis--what I will define as everything between the introduction and conclusion--some students get the impression that you must have an organisation consisting of sections for methods, theory, and results. This organisation can be fine, but you have a good deal of choice of how you choose to organize your thesis. An organisation consisting of elements specific to your thesis can be more effective. Instead of a section titled "Methodology", you could have "A tree-based boosting model of bankruptcy." Instead of "Theory", you could have "Mechanisms for macroeconomics affecting bankruptcy." In general, a thesis does not need a methodology and theory sections, but it should include discussion of methodology and theory.

A few tips on the body of the thesis:

How to conclude.

A conclusion serves a few roles. It will include a few of the same elements that you have in your Introduction: A statement of your research question, and the answer/results that you have found. The conclusion is often also a place to discuss some of the potential limitations and scope of the study. For example, is the study of bankruptcy relevant to all firms or just the small firms in your study? But don't get too carried away with talking about the weaknesses of the study and the things you should have done. A reader may ask why you didn't do those things if they were important. Finally, the conclusion is a place where you can allow yourself to speculate a bit. What are the potential implications of your study? What are some avenues for future research?

Style and usage

In the semester before your master thesis, you should read Economical Writing by Donald McCloskey

You should also look at other writing and style guides. Some that I like include:

My advice for all students, but especially for those where English is not the native language is as follows:

Guidelines and roles for advising

NTNU info on writing a master thesis.

  • A master thesis is an independent project, which should be an application and extension of the knowledge and tools you have learned over the course of your education. It is your responsibility to find an appropriate theme, formulate an argument, show evidence and theory for your argument, and organise your thesis in an approprate way.
  • My role, as advisor, is primarily to give feedback. It is therefor important to start early with the writing process so that I have something to give feedback on.
  • It is normal with 3-4 advising sessions over the course of the semester. It is your responsibility to contact me and suggest a date/time when you would like a session. At NTNU I may specify a schedule for turning in drafts and setting up advising sessions, so that all groups get equal access to advising (see above).
  • As a general rule, I would like you to send me something in writing before an advising session.
  • A good way of sharing drafts and writing with me is with the "share" button in Word (if you use word.)
  • There will not be any advising sessions the last two weeks before the deadline.


  • Make sure you understand rules and standards for citation. If if in doubt, cite. Here is some info from NTNU on plagiarism.
  • The library can assist you with questions about proper citation.


  • Grading happens after you have turned in your thesis. Grading is independent of the advising process and an external examiner and (at NTNU) a seperate internal examiner is used.
  • Grading a thesis necessarily involves some subjective judgement from the examiner. At the margin, the process can even be characterised as somewhat random.
  • I will always try to give feedback that is meant to improve the thesis, but I can not give an indication about what letter grade a thesis will or should get.
  • If you have questions, concerns or objections about the grade, I am not able to assist you--formally or informally. You will need to go through the formal channels of requesting an explanation (which I think every student is entitled to, regardless), and potentially requesting a regrade. But beware: A regrade can also move your grade down and my experience is that it rarily results in an improved grade.
  • Best advice: Focus on writing a thesis that you yourself are proud of.


Here is the course website to my course in applied statistics. Here you can find info on using Python for data processing, transformation, running linear and some non-linear regression models, diagnostics and decision analysis.

Ranik's how-to on using the Refinitiv Eikon and Enin databases (through NTNU library)

Here is a list of data sources I have run across over the years.

Here is a list of sources for learning more about statistics and machine learning in general.

Here is a list of sources for learning more about Bayesian analysis and statistics

Here is a list of sources for learning more about programming in r.

Here is a list of sources for learning more about programming in python.