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Understanding how to structure a PhD thesis can seem like a dark, mysterious art. Yet it needn’t be. Behind each PhD is a fairly predictable and tried-and-tested structure. You start by introducing the thesis, then you lay the foundations, then you get down to business, then you discuss what you’ve found and tie it all together.

Or, put differently, we can say that a PhD is made up of four distinct sections: 

  1. Introduction
  2. Foundation
  3. Core
  4. Synthesis

In this post, I want to explain what they are, how they relate, and why thinking about your thesis in this way can help you as you plan, structure, and write it. 

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1. The introduction stage

 
The introduction is typically one single chapter. It is here that you first introduce the aims and objectives of the research, the research question, an outline of how the thesis is structured, and then a brief summary of the findings and contribution. The purpose of this chapter is to prepare the reader for what is to come. There’s a fine line between being too detailed and not being detailed enough. One piece of advice we always give is this: someone who only reads your introduction and ignores the rest of the chapters should be able to get a rough idea of what the entire thesis is about. That’s a good rule of thumb for how much detail you need.
 
One of the most-read articles on The PhD Knowledge Base is our guide to writing introductions. You can check it out here.
 

2. The foundation stage

 
The foundation chapters are typically the literature review, theory framework and methods chapters. It’s here that you provide the context, discuss existing literature and relevant theories, and outline the methods you will use to answer your research questions. Their purpose is to situate your study in the broader literature and describe how you conducted it. For some, the line between background and introduction will be blurred, particularly if you have your literature review or theory discussion in the introduction.
 

3. The core stage

 
The core is where you present your findings. This can be one or (more often) several chapters. Note that you only need to present your findings; discussion comes later.
 
 

4. The synthesis stage

 
The synthesis stage of the thesis is where you relate the core to the background, where you discuss the findings in relation to existing scholarship, and where you critically examine the study’s significance. The discussion here needs to be related to the aims and scope you discussed in the introduction. In other words: it’s here that you give a definitive answer to your research questions and make your contribution obvious.
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
Every PhD is different, but typically these four sections lead to between 6 and 10 chapters.
 
Chapter one: Introduction
Chapter two: Literature review
Chapter three: Theory framework
Chapter four: Methods
Chapter five: Empirical data
Chapter six: Discussion
Chapter seven: Conclusion
 
There will be some variance across subjects and students. Some may combine the lit review and theory framework. Some may have multiple empirical chapters. Others may include their discussion in the conclusion. But, on the whole, most PhD theses will have these distinct sections.
 

Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.

Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis. 

How the four sections relate to one another

Each chapter has a specific function. And your job when you plan and write your thesis is to make sure everything is in the right place.
 
If you look carefully, you’ll notice that each chapter is layering onto those that came before it. So, your theory framework is a natural extension of your lit review. Your choice of theoretical perspective will then inform your methods. All of this is determined by your choice of research questions, which is itself related to the literature. Any analysis and discussion you do will be informed by your theory and in pursuit of your aims, objectives, and research questions.
 
I like this diagram, which you can find in How to Write A Better Thesis:
 
 

 

diagram of how the four sections relate

The challenge in planning and then writing a PhD is knowing what goes where in the first place and getting things in the right order when you plan and write chapters.
 
The free guides and resources on The PhD Knowledge Base and our unique How to Write A PhD Course will help with both of those things
 
And, to help you easily visualise the purpose of each section of your thesis, we’ve created a free one-page writing template.
 
With it, you can visualise your thesis on one page, see exactly what goes where, and how everything slots together. It guides you through creating a synopsis for each chapter and an overall outline of the thesis using simple questions to structure and guide your thinking.
 
You’ll see that it breaks the thesis down into ten chapters.
 
  • Abstract
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Literature review
  • Theoretical framework
  • Methodology
  • Empirical chapters
  • Discussion chapters
  • Conclusion
  • References
 
And you’ll see that the template contains eleven elements: one for each of the ten sections above and one (at the very top) detailing the overarching aims and objectives of the thesis.
 
Within each element is a number of questions. By answering each of these questions in order, you will havea synopsis for each particular element. By combining all of these, you will have an outline of the thesis as a whole.
 
The very top element – ‘Aims and Objectives ‘ – is where you detail the headlines of the thesis. Think of these as the answer you give when people at parties ask what your research is on. They also form the thread that runs through the entire thesis (more on that below). That’s why they’re discussed first.
 
 

 

Conclusion

 

Breaking your thesis down into these four distinct sections can be a helpful way of understanding what goes where and how everything relates. It’s also an effective way for you to understand how the PhD flows and layers upon itself, starting with the foundations, then adding in data, and then tying the two together in a discussion.
 
If you’re still struggling to understand what goes where, or you need any other support as you write your thesis, check out our one-on-one PhD coaching. It’s like having a personal trainer, but for your PhD.

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