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5 Key Ways to Present Tables and Figures in a PhD Thesis

According to recent research, more than 65% of people are visual learners and predominantly use their visual channel to acquire and process information. Unfortunately, most students contacting us to use our writing services were not specifically informed by their supervisors about the influence of their tables and figures design on the readability of their doctoral dissertations. While most PhD thesis writing guides provided by universities focus on the formatting aspects such as numbering rules or preferred font sizes, few of them specify how practitioners can improve the quality of their visuals to better present the results of their hard work. Below, you will find five practical recommendations shared by our expert writers on how you can make your figures and tables more appealing and significantly improve your work readability.

1. Use Custom Templates

Few things annoy thesis reviewers as much as dissertation formatting problems. Even if you thoroughly proofread your PhD draft, there is always a chance that the fonts in your tables or figures may vary across different sections or get accidentally changed during the editing process. The best way to eliminate this problem is to tackle it at its source. Create a custom template for all your text editing software and make it your default one in your system (for Microsoft Office you may need to replace the Normal.dotm file). This will ensure that:

  • All of your tables and figures share the same font type, size, and interval by default.
  • The same formatting is applied to all in-text visuals.
  • You can instantly apply your default settings to any pasted materials.
  • The same style is applied to all created documents. This is highly convenient if you prefer to work with different chapters individually.
tables and figures

2. Learn from the Greats

While our specialists have been involved in thesis writing and the provision of PhD writing services for many years, most students lack this level of expertise. This means that any formatting solutions you can think of will probably be less effective and visually appealing than the ones used by professional writers.

The key here is to ‘learn from the greats’. Start exploring free and paid templates for tables and figures available online. You can browse through hundreds of options in the premium section on the Microsoft website or use specialised services such as Canva. Your main goal is to find inspiring examples and use these ideas in your own dissertation.

Here are some visual elements you may want to pay attention to:

  • Figure and table design.
  • The placement of individual elements.
  • Colours used for highlighting specific sections.
  • The style and position of captions.
  • Optimal table size and footnotes placement.

3. Think about Readability

The main mistake made by inexperienced academic writers is the lack of attention paid to their readers. This problem is evident at many levels.

  1. The use of original variable names such as VAR00001 provided by SPSS or similar software in your final draft.
  2. The lack of captions for the analysed statistical factors provided within tables or figures.
  3. Excessive abbreviations that cannot be deciphered without reading the dissertation text.
  4. The utilised font size and colours making the captions in the figure or table difficult to read.

The best way to eliminate these problems is to use a fresh pair of eyes. Ask your fellow student or even your family members to look at some printed figures and tables from your PhD thesis. Then, ask them whether they could fully understand all their contents and main ideas. Repeat this process until you are certain that any random reader finds the information provided in your visuals sufficient for determining their main purpose.

4. Follow the One-Page Rule

Another good practice in this sphere is the ‘one-page rule’. It relies on printing all materials related to your table that fit within a single page and submitting them to a random reader. In most student drafts edited by our writers, the data presented in such figures and tables was extremely difficult to understand.

Working with your supervisor may be a highly distracting experience in this aspect since you get accustomed to a specific reader having unlimited time to read your draft over and over again. In the thesis defence process, your work will probably be reviewed by less patient persons who will be ‘scanning’ or ‘skimming’ your text for key details.

If your individual tables and figures cannot be fit within the same page to facilitate readability, it may be a good idea to break them down into smaller manageable ‘chunks’ to ensure that every page containing your visual materials presentation works as a coherent and self-sufficient element of your overall thesis.

5. Avoid Repetitions and Redundancies

Finally, you need to understand why you are using specific tables and figures in the first place. While this may sound counter-intuitive, many students simply paste their visuals into their dissertation body while also discussing all their contents in the accompanying text. This approach creates unnecessary repetitions that wear down your readers’ attention. Unfortunately, this also means that they can miss some important parts of your discussion later on.

The best way to avoid this problem is to use your tables and figures as descriptive materials. At the same time, the accompanying text should focus on the critical discussion of your findings in the light of earlier studies. This way, you will avoid being descriptive in presenting your results while also reserving the valuable word count for comparing and contrasting them to the wider body of academic literature in your field of study.