Structuring your thesis

Time spent thinking about and planning how you will structure your thesis is time well spent. Start to organise the material that you have already written into folders relating to each chapter. The following techniques may help you to decide upon a structure.

  • Discuss the structure with a colleague, explaining it as a continuous story you're trying to write 
  • Use visual techniques like mind-mapping
  • Create a storyboard for your thesis. This tells the ‘story' of the thesis in a small number of panels that mix text and pictures
  • Sort index cards with key ideas into a coherent structure
  • Use post-it notes with key ideas on a whiteboard to make connections with lines and colours.

Analysing existing theses is a good starting point to get an idea of typical structures in your field. Theses will usually contain most or all of the following sections:

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents page(s)
  • Introduction
  • Literature review (sometimes within the introduction)
  • Materials/sources and methods (can be part of every chapter if these are different per chapter)
  • Themed topic chapters
  • Results
  • Discussion or Findings
  • Conclusions
  • Your publications
  • References
  • Appendices

Once a rough structure is sketched out, it is a good idea to assign each chapter a likely word length and, if possible, a deadline for a first draft.

Writing preferences

People have different preferences in terms of writing. Think about the approach that will work best for you. For example here are two examples of writing preferences. 

Planning writers tend to have a highly structured approach to writing and if this is your approach you may find the following tips helpful.

  • Under each chapter heading define a series of sections
  • Break these into sub-sections and keep breaking these down until you are almost at the paragraph level
  • You can now work methodically through this set of short sections
  • Check completed sections or chapters agree with your plan

Generative writers prefer to get ideas down on paper and then organise them afterwards. If this approach suits you try the following approach.

  • Choose a chapter and just start typing
  • Then you need to do some work to impose a structure
  • Summarise each paragraph as a bullet point
  • Use this summary to gain an overview of the structure
  • Re-order the writing and strengthen the structure by adding sub-headings and revising what you have written to make the argument clearer

Reviewing your structure

As your research and writing develop you will want to revise and rework your structure. Try to review do this on a regular basis and amend plans for future chapters as you become more aware of what the thesis must contain.