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You probably worry about finding the thread that runs through your PhD thesis. In this post I want to offer two pieces of advice: first, you should worry about it because it’s really important. Second, the thread, by definition, can only come towards the end of the thesis. In this post, I want to explore what the thread actually is, and then give you some tips for ‘finding’ it.

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What is the thread in through your PhD?

The thread running through your PhD is the central argument that pulls your whole thesis together. Take a step back for a moment and consider the PhD thesis in its entirety: the thread is the argument/idea that the entire thesis is seeking to develop.
It runs through every chapter, and unites them all towards a shared, common objective or purpose.
As you work on your PhD, it tends to be in discrete sections. You work on the lit review, then you work on your methods, then you get your data, and so on. If you were to staple these various sections together and hand that to your examiner, they’ll be left wondering what the point of the thesis. ‘So what?’ they’ll ask.
And that’s what the thread is there for. It’s the answer to the ‘so what’ question.
Picture the thesis as being made up of the foundation, core and synthesis stages. The thread is made up of a little bit of each of these.
It’s helpful to think back to the purpose of the PhD itself: to make an original contribution to knowledge. That contribution is first elaborated upon in the foundation stage of the PhD, where you show the gap and the significance. It’s then bought to life in the core and synthesis, where you present your data and actually fill the gap with new findings.
The thread is there to weave that contribution.

Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.

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

An important implication of this, one that is often overlooked in discussions on how to formulate your thread, is that the thread is weaved across the chapters. It is not a fixed thing, nor is it consistent from the first to last page. You layer it; you weave a tapestry, starting with your gap, then your findings, then filling the gap.
Together, these various sections form the argument your thesis is making.
And that argument is broadly directed at the following goals:
  • This is the gap and the questions I think we can answer to fill it
  • This is why filling that gap matters
  • And this is the answer to my questions.
Picture it differently: if you start on page one by immediately fleshing out a nuanced, complicated argument, your reader is going to be confused. Instead, you have to ease them in gently. Tell them what you’re doing, then why you’re doing it, then how you’re doing it, and then what you found when you did it. Together, these elements make up your thread – they’re all directed at a bigger purpose: that contribution.

What is a contribution to knowledge? 


But if your thread is directed at elaborating upon your contribution, this spawns a new question: what is a contribution to knowledge?
There are typically three types of contribution that you could make in a PhD. 

1. An empirical contribution

This is where you present findings on a subject/case/phenomena that hasn’t been studied before.

2. A theoretical contribution

This is where you develop a new theory to explain a phenomenon, or you apply theory that has never been applied to this phenomenon in order to generate new theoretical insight.

3. A methodological contribution


This is where you apply new methodological tools to things that have already been studied, in order to generate new insights or a new perspective. Or, this is where you develop new methodological techniques (for example, new survey designs, or new measurement techniques) that can be used by other researchers in the future in different contexts.
Your thesis may only make one type of contribution. That’s absolutely fine. You may find that you hit two or even all three of these.



Finding and sewing the thread through your PhD isn’t easy and, given that it is an elaborate process, it can only really be done at the final stages of the PhD journey. That’s because this is the stage when you finally have your data, findings, core argument and a complete literature review. It’s also when your theory framework is sufficiently robust and, to put it more bluntly, when you actually know what you’re talking about. 
This means that if you aren’t in the final stages, there’s no need to panic: you can’t find the thread yet because you haven’t go to that stage of the journey. It’ll come.  
If you’re still struggling to find your thread, 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. Or, if you want a self-taught guide to structuring your thesis, check out our 5-star rated How to Write A PhD virtual training program.