Structuring the thesis

Various disciplines and approaches lead to different structures. The two basic models are

  • the humanities model
  • the science model

but within these models, you could chose to present your thesis as a series of publications, or design a thesis that focuses more on your contribution to research – this is the designed model. If you are writing a creative thesis, your thesis will more than likely be presented in two parts: an exegesis and a work of art. If your research is based on secondary literature you may not have a methodology. In some cases the research may just be a review of the literature.

It is useful to set out a structure for the thesis very early in the process as this allows to develop a map and always have in mind this map or representation of the bigger picture.

This page does covers

  • the conventional humanities model
  • the convential science model – IMRAD
  • the designed thesis as proposed by Patrick Dunleavy (see also

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 include 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

The idea of a designed structure is presented by Patrick Dunleavy.  For more guidance see:

Dunleavy suggest three basic big book thesis designs are feasible:

  1. The focus-down model. This is the more conventional model used probably in 90% of theses.
  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, your contribution. 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.

The compromise model

Compromise modelThis models starts by engaging attention, by motivating the reader. Then it continues maintaining the attention of the reader through signposting.

For more on how all these section fit together read pages Bringing together the thesis chapters.


Dunleavy, Patrick (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral dissertation or thesis. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kamler & Thomson (2006). Helping doctoral students to write. Pedagogies for Supervision. Routledge, Milton Park.

Lovitts. Barbara E.(2007). Making the implicit explicit. Creating performance expectation for the dissertation. Stylus Publishing: Sterling Virginia. (UC Library LB 2369.L6.2007).

Partridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors, Routledge: London & New York.

Tinkler, P & Jackson, C. (2004). The doctoral examination process: a handbook for students, examiners and supervisors, SRHE/Open University Press: Maidenhead.