Structuring a long text
A thesis is a long and complex piece of writing. The reader has particular needs: to keep focused, see where the text is leading, and be able to make connections between one section and another. You, the writer, need to provide as much helpful structure as possible to guide readers so they will fully understand your research findings and their significance.
You need to help your reader to navigate the structure you have decided on for your thesis. Some ways to do this are:
- outline the organisation of the thesis in the introductory chapter
- in the conclusion show how the parts of the thesis have worked together to answer the questions raised in the introduction
- use headings and subheadings to make the structure clear
- use reader directions within the text (e.g. previewing the organisation of a chapter at the beginning, highlight the focus of each chapter in its introduction and preview its organisation, or recapitulating important points and linking to the content of the next chapter at the end).
It is also important to explain how you have organised your thesis, whether it has a traditional structure or not.
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, however, a thesis needs to answer these questions:
- 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.
Thesis incorporating publications
Another type of thesis, found now in most disciplines though more common in some than in others, is the thesis incorporating papers that have been published or prepared for publication. You can read Monash requirements for such theses in Thesis including Published Works.
The best way to get a sense of what is typical in your discipline, and also what possibilities there are for variation, is to look at completed theses.
How can I find a suitable thesis to look at?
The Theses Library Guide provides information on locating and accessing theses produced by Monash University as well as other institutions. Have a look for recently completed theses in your discipline, or ask your supervisor to suggest some successful, well written theses for you to look at.
What should I look for in a thesis?
As you browse through a thesis, there are particular features that are worth taking note of. Refer to the Guide to analysing sample theses. The questions that make up the guide are designed to take you systematically through the sample thesis and to draw your attention to those features that can be generalised about the thesis genre.
Of course all theses, including your own, will have their own distinctive character, and this will be fashioned by the discipline you are working in and your research design, as well as your own personal style. For this reason, it is important not to treat your sample thesis as a model which is simply to be imitated. It is better to regard it as a resource from which you might generate ideas about the construction of your own work. We urge you to keep the following overarching questions uppermost in mind:
- How is each relevant aspect done in the sample thesis? (eg. the literature review)
- Is it done well?
- How is this section likely to differ in my thesis?
Guide to analysing sample theses
The following guide is based on the work of Swales (1990) and Hopkins and Dudley-Evans (1988).
Introduction and conclusion
The introductory chapter, which works with the conclusion to frame the thesis, is very important. Examiners indicate that they pay considerable attention to the first chapter, finding that it creates a strong initial indication of the standard of the thesis.
The introduction allows you to orient the reader to your research project and preview the organisation of your text. It needs to justify the research being presented, usually in terms of the importance of the problem being investigated, and the contribution the research makes to existing knowledge.
While patterns of organisation in introductions vary, most contain sections that perform these functions:
- introduction to the research problem
- (brief) review of the current state of knowledge in the area
- indication of gaps, shortcomings, problems in research to date
- statement of the aim of your research, especially how it will fill the gap, solve the problem etc.
- overview or chapter outline of the thesis.
They may also contain something about research methods and/or theoretical approaches, if these matters are not dealt with in other chapters.
Since establishing the need for the research within the current knowledge of the discipline is an important function of the thesis introduction, there generally needs to be a brief consideration of research on the topic, even if this is dealt with in more detail elsewhere in the thesis.
When should I write the introductory chapter?
Most people write many drafts of their introduction. It can be useful to try to write one early in the research process, to clarify your thinking, and give you something to revise! You will need to do a version for your confirmation proposal, and as your research progresses and your ideas develop, you will need to revisit it (like the abstract and the table of contents we suggested in the Structure your thesis section).
When the final draft of chapters is complete, check it once more to make sure that it matches what you have actually done.
Depending on the type of research presented in the thesis, conclusion chapters or sections tend to include at least some of the following:
- summary of the main findings or argument
- relation of findings/argument to other research
- explanations for findings
- implications of the findings
- limitations of the research
- suggestions for future research
Remember: conclusions are not summaries. They are not just short descriptions or a short account of your findings. Conclusions show the significance of the research for knowledge in the discipline - what is new and important about your work.
This chapter or section is your opportunity to leave a strong impression in the mind of the examiner/s of the strength of the research and of your expertise as a researcher.
It must connect with your introduction, to complete the framing of the thesis and show how you achieved what you set out to do.
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.
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.
Mark the words
Read the extract below and identify and click the phrases where forecasting statements have been used.
The aim of this chapter is to provide, through selective reference to some of the literature, a clearer understanding of the different microbiological, chemical and physical processes that occur within trickling filters. Experimental observations of various trickling filter phenomena are reviewed, and there is discussion of the sometimes conflicting conclusions about the mechanisms of trickling filtration that have been drawn from the empirical evidence. The chapter is divided into two parts. The subject of the first is the biological film which is the site of the biological oxidation of organic matter from the wastewater, and is thus the heart of the process of trickling filtration. The formation and structure of the biofilm (or slime layer) is outlined, and the different processes which occur within it are discussed. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to a consideration of the operating variables which determine trickling filter performance.
From a PhD thesis, Department of Chemical Engineering, Monash University.
In the preceding section, the results of tests performed on interfaces comprising concrete and either Johnstone or Gambier Limestone were outlined.
Looking back over the ground they have just covered helps to orient readers in a long text. Recapitulating statements need to be brief, though; readers don’t need to go over the ground in detail again!
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.
Statements like this help to place the detail of the text in the bigger picture.
Activities to help you plan
Activity 1: Write an abstract
Write a prospective abstract of your study, using one or two sentences to answer each of these questions:
- What is the problem or question that the work addresses?
- Why is it important?
- How will the investigation be undertaken?
- What is it likely to find out?
- What will that mean?
Keep a copy above your desk, and rewrite it every month!
Activity 2: Make a table of contents
Open a new document or take a sheet of paper. At the top, write:
At the bottom, write:
The space in between is where you can ‘play around’ with possible structures for your work. Within possible chapter headings, try also to add subsection headings.
(Try looking at other theses in your discipline. Can you recognise a logic in their chapter structures?)
Return to this sheet on a regular basis. Try to articulate how one chapter follows on from another – or how one subsection follows from the preceding one. Explain all this to a friend.
Hamilton, J., & Jaaniste, L. (2010). A connective model for the practice-led research exegesis: An analysis of content and structure. Journal of Writing in Creative Practice, 3(1), 31-44. doi: https://doi.org/10.1386/jwcp.3.1.31_1
Hopkins, A. & Dudley-Evans, T. (1988). A genre-based investigation of discussion sections in articles and dissertations. English for Specific Purposes, 7, 113-22.
Swales, J. (1990). Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.