Is there a typical thesis structure? Just as there are different types of research, there are different ways of reporting it. Whatever format is used, a thesis needs to answer these questions which form the structural base:
- What was done?
- Why was it done?
- How was it done?
- What were the results?
- What do they mean?
- Why are they important?
Here are some common patterns of thesis structure in broad disciplinary groupings.
Empirical research based on experimental results or data collected through observation and interview is usually reported using some form of this structure based on the design of a lab report:
|Introduction||What was done? Why was it done?|
|Review of the literature||Why was it done?|
|Methodology - Research design||How was it done?|
|Results||What were the results?|
|Discussion||What do they mean?|
|Conclusion||Why are they important?|
This structure makes it very clear where the questions every thesis must answer are being addressed. Often, especially in doctoral theses, there might be several chapters reporting and discussing results (even in some cases, more than one chapter reviewing literature). Often they have descriptive names rather than Results, Discussion, etc. The Methods-Results-Discussion structure might be repeated for individual studies within the larger project. Variations on this structure are found in theses across the social and physical sciences, but different disciplines have different emphases in their reporting, and there is a great deal of variation in terminology.
Research in the Humanities demands a different kind of thesis structure. There is no predetermined structure for the body of a thesis dealing with theory, historical study, legal analysis, philosophical argument, or interpretation of literary or other artistic work.
The structure is determined by the argument of the study, which is substantiated in the successive body chapters. However, the questions listed above should be answered somewhere.
The theoretical framework and the approach are usually made clear towards the beginning of the thesis, either in the introduction or in an early chapter, while arguments about meaning and significance might be distributed through the whole, and brought together in the conclusion.
Research literature might be dealt with either in a separate chapter or throughout the thesis, as appropriate.
For examples of thesis structures in your discipline, consult the theses of recent graduates and the Monash Handbook for Doctoral Degrees. Your supervisor will be able to guide you.
The emerging discipline of creative practice research is developing new thesis structures to meet the particular demands of writing an exegesis to contextualise and analyse the creative practice at the heart of the research.
A broad pattern has been observed (Hamilton & Jaaniste, 2010, p.34) in practice-based exegeses, although many theses diverge and there are also variations within the pattern.
In general, the structure has 3 main components, framed by an introduction and conclusion:
- discussion of relevant theoretical ideas and concepts
- analysis of the practice/work of relevant practitioners (artists, designers, architects, musicians, writers, performers, etc.)
- discussion of the researcher's practice/work.
There are various ways you can help your reader make sense of what you are trying to say in your thesis. One of the easiest ways to do this is through the use of an appropriately named and structured system of headings. Headings and subheadings in your thesis serve a similar purpose to road signs in a foreign city. The best signage systems can not only prevent you from getting lost on the route from Point A to Point B, but they can also help you find your way back on track if you do get disoriented. In the same way, headings can not only tell your readers where they are now, but where they have been, and also where they are going.
You can also provide your reader with some valuable directions in the text of your thesis itself.
Headings serve to reveal the organisation of a text, by showing its main divisions and sub-divisions. They work best when they are specific enough to give an idea of the content of the section they head, and fit together to provide an overview of the argument or topic development in a chapter.
Check your understanding View
Look at the following two versions of sub-headings for a chapter from a thesis investigating perceptions of English in Indonesia, and decide which version gives you a better idea of the content and structure of the chapter. Compare the two following examples.
Another way of orienting your reader is through directions to help them follow your thought patterns at the macro level. At the different levels of the thesis and starting with the top level this can apply to:
- The whole thesis ("The focus of this thesis is...")
- Another chapter ("The physical properties are presented and analysed in Chapter 5.")
- The current chapter ("The rest of this chapter will examine...")
- Another section ("In the previous section, it was demonstrated that...")
- The current section ("The following case study will illuminate...")
- Passage immediately preceding or following ("The objectives are as follows:...")
There is an art to using just enough reader direction, without predicting to a tiresome degree exactly what is going to happen next or tediously repeating what has just happened.
In this chapter, all the experimental results from the phenomenological experiments are presented and examined in detail.
A forecasting statement tells the reader in advance about the organisation of the whole thesis, a chapter, a section, or a passage. Forecasting statements may vary greatly in the level of detail they provide.
When deciding how much detail to include in a forecasting statement, concentrate on forecasting only one level of information at a time. List only the major divisions. If those divisions are themselves divided, provide each with its own forecasting statement. Do not provide more detail than readers can easily remember.
For example, if you are introducing the three main characteristics of a system, you might want to name them before explaining them. However, if there are seven characteristics, it would be better stating the number without naming them.
Check your understanding View
Looking back over the information they have just read helps to orient readers in a long thesis. Recapitulating statements need to be brief and concise, though; readers don’t need to go over the ground in detail again!
In the preceding section, the results of tests performed on interfaces comprising concrete and either Johnstone or Gambier Limestone were outlined.
Statements like this help to place the detail of the text in the bigger picture.
Before I describe and discuss the family rating scales, I believe it is important to give a brief account of the theoretical basis from which they were derived.
It is now appropriate to consolidate these ideas and to examine POSTGRES in greater detail in relation to its support for rules and objects.