Thesis structures

Welcome to 2017!

I thought we’d start the year by looking at thesis structures. It is important you get the structure right, as the structure reflects your thinking, the logic of how all aspects of your works fit together. It also has to somehow respond to academic and disciplinary requirements.  Various disciplines and approaches lead to different structures.

These pages aim to explore possible thesis structures.They bring together notes from various workshops I facilitated and attended.

The conventional humanities model

A typical humanities model includes the following sections:

  • First pages (pages required by university, table of content, abstract, list of figures)
  • Introduction: outlines purpose of thesis, the research questions addressed and gives an overview of the thesis..
  • Literature review: discussion of the current knowledge in the field, explains how your research fits in the field. The literature review can be at the beginning or throughout the thesis.
  • Methodology
  • Narrative on data including analysis
  • Conclusion: complements your introduction – restatement of research questions, summary of arguments, conclusions and recommendations
  • Final sections

read For more ideas about a typical humanities structure see Structuring and Writing the Research Thesis.

 The conventional science model – IMRaD

The IMRaD model is the traditional way to structure a science paper.

  • Introduction and literature review OR here is the problem and this is why it is important
  • Methodology OR here is how I get the evidence to solve the problem
  • Results OR what did we find, here is the evidence
  • Discussion and conclusion OR what does it mean

The IMRaD model for a thesis often leads to a slightly more complex structure as the thesis may have several experiments/questions to answer a larger question:

Title: here is the main point


Chapter 1: the overall question and the answer (a kind of introduction)

Chapter 2: (can be part of Chapter 1) Literature review – shows that the question is an important one. The overall question can give rise to a number of second questions.

Chapter 3: secondary question one. Each question developed according to the IMRaD model.

Chapter 4: secondary question two (IMRaD) + discuss chapter 4 in relation to chapter 3

Chapter 5: secondary question three (IMRaD) + discuss relation to previous chapters to deliver overall answer.

Chapter 6: summarises the findings. Draws conclusions from the results and relates these to the wider literature. Provides ideas for further research.

This structure is flexible. A thesis presented as a series of publications will have distinct and self-standing chapters. The introduction and conclusion play a crucial role in bringing them all together.

A designed structure 

Here is some advice from Patrick Dunleavy about structuring ‘ big book’ theses. For more guidance see:

Three basic designs are feasible:

  1. The focus-down model.  Perhaps 90% of work done uses the focus down model.
  2. The opening out model (useful in physical sciences)
  3. The compromise model

Each of this models has a core. The core refers to the value added. You have to decide what the core is from a reader’s point of view.  These would be the value-added materials, these where you talk about new facts or show independent critical power.

The focus-down model


This model has a long literature review and a quick finish. The focus here seems to be on the literature.

The opening-out model

2016 CANBERAA SESSION Structuring and writing journal articles_057

This model proposes a quick set up to move straight into the core. This can be hard to do. Some disciplines do not like it. But its advantage is that it privileges what is important, your contribution

The compromise model

Compromise modelIn this model you start by engaging attention, by motivating the reader. Then continue maintaining the attention of the reader through signposting, but move quickly to the main part, your contribution.

Other structures

Many other structures are used:

  • Research based on secondary literature may not have a methodology
  • Creative theses have very unique formats
  • Thesis by publication – presented as a series of publications linked together by an introduction and a conclusion.

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