Structuring a thesis

What are you doing and how are you doing it? Articulating your aims and objectives.

How long does it take the person reading your thesis to understand what you’re doing and how you’re doing it? If the answer is anything other than ’in the the opening paragraphs of the thesis’ then keep reading. 

If you tell them as early as possible in clear and simple terms, whatever you write after will make much more sense. If you leave them guessing for ten pages, everything they read in those ten pages has no coherence. You'll know where it is all leading, but they won't. 

Unless you tell them. 
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Out of all the PhDs I’ve read - and I’ve read a lot - I’d say that around 50% wait until more than ten pages in to discuss their aims and objectives. Around 10-15% don’t bother to tell the reader at all. 

Surprising, right?

You might be think 'that’s not me’. But are you sure? 


What are aims & objectives?


If you build a house without foundations it’s pretty obvious what will happen. It’ll collapse. 

Your thesis is the same; fail to build the foundations and your thesis just won’t work

Your aims and objectives are those foundations. That's why we've put them right at the top of our PhD Writing Template (if you haven't already downloaded it, join the thousands who have by clicking here).

If you write your aims and objectives clearly then you’ll make your reader’s life easier. 

A lot of students fail to clearly articulate their aims and objectives because they aren’t sure themselves what they actually are. 

Picture this: if there’s one thing that every PhD student hates it’s being asked by a stranger what their research is on. 

The truth is that if you struggle to explain in simple terms what your research is on and why it matters, you may need to refine your aims and objectives to make them more concise. Sure, your research will always be complicated, but at its core there is a take home message; a headline explaining what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. 



Research Aims


Your research aims are the answer to the question: ‘what are you doing?’. 

  1. You need to clearly describe what your intentions are and what you hope to achieve. These are your aims.

  2. You aims may be to test theory in a new empirical setting, derive new theory entirely, construct a new data-set, replicate an existing study, question existing orthodoxy, and so on. Whatever they are, clearly articulate them and do so early. Definitely include them in your introduction and, if you’re smart, you’ll write them in your abstract.  

  3. Be very explicit. In the opening paragraphs, say, in simple terms, ’the aim of this thesis is to….’ 

  4. Think of your aims then as a statement of intent. They are a promise to the reader that you are going to do something. You use the next two hundred pages or so to follow through on that promise. If you don’t make the promise, the reader won’t understand your follow-through. Simple as that. 

Because they serve as the starting point of the study, there needs to be a flow from your aims through your objectives (more on this below) to your research questions and contribution and then into the study itself. If you have completed your research and found that you answered a different question (not that uncommon), make sure your original aims are still valid. If they aren’t, refine them. 

When writing up your aims, there are a number of things to bear in mind:

  1. Avoid listing too many. Your PhD isn't as long as you think it is and you won't have time or room for more than around two or three.

  2. When you write them up be very specific. Don't leave things so vague that the reader is left unsure or unclear on what you aim to achieve.

  3. Make sure there is a logical flow between each of your aims. They should make sense together and should each be separate components which, when added together, are bigger than the sum of their parts.


Research objectives 



Your aims answer the questions ‘what are you doing’. The objectives are the answer to the question ‘how are you doing it’. 

Research objectives refer to the goals or steps that you will take to achieve your aims. 

When you write them, make sure they are SMART: 

  1. Specific: talk in a precise and clear way about what you are going to do 
  2. Measurable: how will you know when you have achieved your aim
  3. Achievable: make sure that you aren't overly ambitious. 
  4. Realistic: recognise the time and resource constraints that come with doing a PhD and don't attempt to do too much. 
  5. Time constrained: determine when each objective needs to be completed.

You need to be as explicit as possible here. Leave the reader in no doubt about what you will do to achieve your aims. Step by step. Leave no ambiguity. At the same time, be careful not to repeat your methods chapter here. Just hint at your methods by presenting the headlines. You'll have plenty of space in your methods discussion to flesh out the detail. 

Elsewhere in the thesis you will necessarily have to talk in a complex language and juggle complex ideas. Here you don’t. You can write in clear, plain sentences.
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Aims & Objectives. Mastered.

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


What is the difference between research aims and objectives? 


The aims of a study describe what you hope to achieve. The objectives detail how you are going to achieve your aims. 

Let's use an example to illustrate:

Aim: 
  1. To understand the contribution that local governments make to national level energy policy. 
Objectives: 
  1. Conduct a survey of local politicians to solicit responses
  2. Conduct desk-research of local government websites to create a database of local energy policy
  3. Interview national level politicians to understand the impact these local policies have had
  4. Data will be coded using a code book derived from dominant theories of governance
If you're still struggling, Professor Pat Thompson's great blog has a guide that will help. 


I can’t articulate them clearly, my research is complicated!


Of course your research is complex. That’s the name of the game. But the sign of someone able to master complexity is their ability to summarise it. Sure, you’re not looking to capture all the richness and detail in a short summary of aims & objectives, but you are looking to tell the reader what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

If you’re struggling to clearly articulate your aims & objectives, then try the following task. At the top of a post-it note write the sentence ‘In this research I will…’. Then keep trying until you can fit an answer onto one single post it note. The answer should answer two questions: what are are you doing and how are you doing it. 



Conclusion


Remember: whenever you write, make it as clear as possible. Pay attention to the words ‘as possible’ there. That means you should write as clearly as you can given the fact that your subject and research is necessarily complex. Think of it the other way: it's about not making things more complicated and unclear than they need to be. 

In other words, make your reader’s job as easy as you can. They'll thank you for it. 

Try and sum up your aims & objectives in two or three sentences in the comments...

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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.