Structuring a thesis

How To Structure A PhD Thesis

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Introduction


Universities and supervisors often assume that PhD students know how to structure their PhD theses. But often this assumption is false, which can cause considerable headache and uncertainty. It can also waste a lot of time and money as you engage in a process of trial and error working out what goes where.

If you go to your university’s library, you’ll find a whole shelves of books on how to structure or write your PhD. Many of are great, and I highly recommend you check them out, but here I want to present to you a thesis structure 101 lesson.

I’ve read those books, proofread hundreds of PhDs and coached dozens of students and want to take what I know and run you through a basic introduction to structuring your PhD thesis

In what follows, I’ll talk you through the basic outline of a typical thesis. This mirrors and expands upon the PhD Writing Template I’ve created. If you haven’t already downloaded it, you can find it here

Now, I want to make an important observation: what I present below is an outline of the typical thesis. Yours may differ, whether considerably or just a little. That's fine. The purpose is to give you an overarching summary so that when you do approach the books and guides that exist, you’ve already got a basic understanding of what goes where and why. 

So, in what follows, I’ll walk you through each of the main sections and talk about what the purpose of each is, offer some tips for planning and writing them, and show you how they relate to one another. 

At the end, I’ll tell you about an email based course I’ve put together that will teach you how to plan, structure and write your thesis. It goes into a lot more detail than I’ve presented here, so check it out if you’d like to learn more. 

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How To Structure An Abstract



Your abstract should be a short summary at the beginning of the thesis that sums up the research, summarises the separate sections of the thesis and outlines the contribution.

Above all, your PhD abstract should answer the question: 'so what'? In other words, what is the contribution of your thesis to the field? 

It should address six questions: 

  1. What is the reason for writing the thesis?   
  2. What are the current approaches and gaps in the literature?   
  3. What are your research question(s) and aims?   
  4. Which methodology have you used?   
  5. What are the main findings?   
  6. What are the main conclusions and implications?   

One thing that should be obvious is that you can't write your abstract until the study itself is written. It'll typically be the last thing you write (alongside the acknowledgements).

The tricky thing about writing a great PhD abstract is that you haven't got much space to answer the six questions above. There are a few things to consider though that will help to elevate your writing and make your abstract as efficient as possible: 

  1. Give a good first impression by writing in short clear sentences
  2. Don't repeat the title in the abstract
  3. Don't cite references
  4. Use keywords from the document
  5. Respect the word limit
  6. Don't be vague - the abstract should be a self contained summary of the research, so don't introduce ambiguous words or complex terms
  7. Focus on just four or five essential points, concepts, or findings. Don't, for example, try to explain your entire theoretical framework
  8. Edit it carefully. Make sure every word is relevant (you haven't got room for wasted words) and that each sentence has maximum impact
  9. Avoid lengthy background information 
  10. Don't mention anything that isn't discussed in the thesis
  11. Avoid overstatements
  12. Don't spin your findings, contribution or significance to make your research sound grander or more influential that it actually is. 
How To Structure An Introduction

The introduction serves three purposes:
  1. Establish your territory
  2. Establish and justify your niche
  3. Explain the significance of your research
The reader should be able to understand the whole thesis just by reading the introduction. It should tell them all they need to know about:
  1. What your thesis is about
  2. Why it is important
  3. How it was conducted
  4. How it is laid out.
Above all, you need to really nail home your contribution. Make it obvious. Put big flashing lights around it and a big arrow that says 'HEY THERE EXAMINER. LOOK HERE. THIS IS THE CONTRIBUTION. SEE HOW GOOD IT IS? GIVE ME MY PHD.'

I've written a longer guide on how to write your introduction, which you can find here

How To Structure A Literature Review


Imagine you’re making a new model of mobile phone. You’d need to look at old models to see how other people are designing them (and so you know how yours will differ) and to see how they are made. You’ll need to look for their flaws, and get an idea of where they can be improved. 

That’s because you can’t make something new if you don’t know what old looks like. 

The literature review is the same. You use it to make the case for your research by surveying the work that’s already been done in your discipline (and sometimes beyond). It’s a bit like a family tree. You use it to trace the lineage of your study. Putting it in its place. 

A literature review has three objectives:
  1. Summarise what has already been discussed in your field, both to demonstrate that you understand your field and to show how your study relates to it.
  2. Highlight gaps, problems or shortcomings in existing research to show the original contribution that your thesis makes.
  3. Identify important studies, theories, methods or theoretical frameworks that can be applied in your research.
There are nine steps involved in conducting a literature review:  
  1. Pick a broad topic
  2. Find the way in
  3. Who's saying what and when
  4. Take notes
  5. Narrow down the field
  6. Narrow does the sources
  7. Snowball
  8. Think about questions that haven't been asked
  9. Write early, write quickly and write relevantly
I’ve written a super-long, detailed guide that goes into a ton more detail on this. If you’re struggling to plan or write your literature review it will definitely help. 
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Your PhD Thesis. 
On one page.

Use our free PhD Structure Template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.


How To Structure A Theory Framework Chapter


The theory framework is the scaffolding upon which your thesis is built. When you’re done writing your theory framework chapter or section, your reader should be able to answer these questions:
  1. What theoretical concepts are used in the research? What hypotheses, if any, are you using?
  2. Why have you chosen this theory?
  3. What are the implications of using this theory?
  4. How does the theory relate to the existing literature, your problem statement and your epistemological and ontological positions? How has this theory has been applied by others in similar contexts? What can you learn from them and how do you differ?
  5. How do you apply the theory and measure the concepts (with reference to the literature review/problem statement)?
  6. What is the relationship between the various elements and concepts within the model? Can you depict this visually?
That means that a theory framework can take different forms: 
  1. It can state the theoretical assumptions underpinning the study.
  2. It can connect the empirical data to existing knowledge.
  3. It can allow you to come up with propositions, concepts or hypotheses that you can use to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.
Broadly speaking, a theory framework can be used to either derive certain testable assumptions or as a way of making sense of your data. In both cases, it structures your data collection by focusing your attention on a small subset of concepts.
You can therefore think of it like a toolbox. In your literature review you outlined the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theory framework is a toolbox stuffed full of concepts, variables, or hypotheses (your tools) that you’ll then use to address the problem and do the fixing. 

You can find an extended guide on creating your theory framework. Check it out if you're still struggling.

When you discuss theory, you are seeking to provide a background examination of what other researchers thing about a phenomenon and how they have conceptualised it. You should discuss the relevance of particular theoretical approaches for your study, and you should take care to consider the dominant theoretical schools in your field. This shows the examiner you have understood the state of the art.

 But, you should do so critically, and question the suitability of any theories that exist or that you are creating to your particular study. That means that you should discuss previous applications of theory in order to discuss what implications they have for your own research. 

The reason you do this is because your discipline likely has accepted and ’tried and tested’ ways of doing things. In many cases this is an advantage, because it can serve as inspiration for your choice of concepts, hypotheses or variables, and can influence your choice of methods. 

In other cases, it may be that existing theory is ill-equipped to account for your particular phenomenon. In either case, you need to demonstrate a good understanding of what that theory is discussing, both to demonstrate your skills as a researcher and scholar, but also to justify your own theoretical and methodological position. 

Plus, when you do settle on your own theoretical perspective, you must discuss how it relates to existing theory, even if the links are subtle or weak. 

How To Structure A Methods Chapter


Chances are that the methods chapter will be the most descriptive chapter in the thesis (it is worth noting that not all theses will have dedicated methods chapters, especially those with more straightforward methods) . 

The job of a methods chapter is:

  1. To summarise, explain and recount how you answered your research questions and to explain how this relates to the methods used by other scholars in similar contexts and similar studies.
  2. To discuss - in detail - the techniques you used to collect the data used to answer your research questions. 
  3. To discuss why the techniques are relevant to the study’s aims and objectives
  4. To explain how you used them. 

Your reader should be able to answer the following questions when they’re done reading it:

  1. What did you did do to achieve the research aims?
  2. Why did you choose this particular approach over others?
  3. How does it relate to your epistemological and ontological positions?
  4. What tools did you use to collect data and why? What are the implications?
  5. When did you collect data, and from whom?
  6. What tools have you used to analyze the data and why? What are the implications? Are there ethical considerations to take into account?

How To Structure An Empirical Chapter


This is quite a straightforward section, largely because presenting empirics is a straightforward endeavour. It’s technical, and fiddly, and people will skip over a lot of the details, but by the time you write your empirics you are so familiar with them that a lot of the detail comes easily. 

When your reader is finished with this section, they should be able to answer the following questions: 

  1. What are the results of your investigations?  
  2. How do the findings relate to previous studies?  
  3. Was there anything surprising or that didn't work out as planned?  
  4. Are there any themes or categories that emerge from the data?   
  5. Have you explained to the reader why you have reached particular conclusions?
  6. Have you explained the results?
The most important thing to remember when you’re writing this section is that you aren’t discussing your findings, you are only presenting them. The discussion typically comes in a separate section. 

Having your PhD proofread will save you time and money

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How To Structure A Discussion Chapter 

The discussion chapter is the place in which you discuss your empirics. Many people find it the hardest chapter, primarily because it’s the stage at which you start to flex your academic muscles and speak like a doctor. It is here that you start to push the boundaries of knowledge.

That’s a hard thing to do, largely because you’ve probably never had to do it before. All through your masters and undergraduate work you’ve learnt what other people have found. Now you’re finding out things that no-one else knows. 
The difference between a discussion and an empirical chapter is subtle, but I’ve written a detailed guide that will clear up any confusion you’ve got.

How To Structure A Conclusion


The job of the conclusion is to:
  1. Fully and clearly articulate the answer to your research questions
  2. Discuss how the research is related to your aims and objectives
  3. Explain the significance of the work
  4. Outline its shortcomings
  5. Suggest avenues for future research
It is not the place to introduce new ideas and concepts, or to present new findings.

Your job is to reflect back on your original aims and intentions and discuss them in terms of your findings and new expertise.
Three things to do in a conclusion: 

  1. Own your research by speaking with authority! You’ve earned the right to do that by the time you reach your conclusion 
  2. See the thesis and not the detail. Drive home the contribution that the thesis has made. Whatever it is, you need to shout about it. Loudly. Like an expert.
  3. Each chapter is a piece of the puzzle and only when they are all slotted together do you have an entire thesis. That means that a great conclusion is one that shows that the thesis is bigger than the sum of its individual chapters. 
  4. By the time the reader has finished reading the conclusion, they should be able to answer the following questions:
  5. Have you briefly recapped the research questions and objectives?
  6. Have you provided a brief recount of the answer to those questions?
  7. Have you clearly discussed the significance and implications of those findings?
  8. Have you discussed the contribution that the study has made?
  9. Do the claims you are making align with the content of the results and discussion chapters?

Struggling for motivation to write your conclusion? Remember this: it’s the last thing your examiner will read before they write their report and decide on the quality of your entire PhD. That means: last impressions count!

You can find a more detailed guide on writing a standout conclusion here

Wrapping Up: 


Each PhD is different, and your structure may diverge from the outline presented here. That’s fine - let the thesis take you in the direction it wishes to, but be mindful of whether you have ticked off all of the major sections. 

If you aren’t following the structure above, ask yourself why? Do you not have a dedicated methods chapter, for example, because your methods are straightforward and uncontested enough to be summarised in the introduction? Do you have a short literature review because there isn’t much literature to actually review? Have your supervisors encouraged you to adopt an unconventional structure? Are you familiar and comfortable enough with their reasons for doing so? Maybe you have an unusual set of aims and objectives that means your thesis is radically different. Would you be able to justify this choice at the viva, when quizzed? 

There’s clearly a lot more that can be said about how to structure each of these sections. Go to your university library and you’ll find dozens of books on how to write a PhD. Google it and you’ll find thousands of posts. It’s hard to know where to start. 

That’s why I’ve put together an email based course on How To Write Your Thesis. Over twelve emails you’ll get detailed chapter guides that expand on the above, a ton of templates, checklist and worksheets, and lots of curated videos and external resources to really cement your learning. By the end, you’ll understand what goes where and why and would have saved yourself a bunch of time and energy sifting through all those books and posts. 

That way, you can write more, worry less and graduate sooner. 

To sign up, click here

Our easy to follow but detailed course on planning, structuring and writing your  PhD will help you worry less, write more and graduate sooner. 


You'll receive templates, chapter guides, cheat-sheets, checklists and more, all expertly designed to make your life easier. 

Learn from the experts how to structure and write your PhD

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Dr. Max Lemprière is the founder of The PhD Proofreaders. He is an expert in presenting PhD research in the best possible way and maximising students' chances of success.