How Long is a Doctoral Thesis?

When you’re starting out on a doctoral thesis, it’s often unclear what you actually need to produce. How many words? How many chapters? How many pages? What’s normal for my field?

These are secondary considerations, because the ultimate goal of a doctoral project is to produce good, original research – and that’s not something that can be achieved just by churning out a particular quantity of writing. But those of you who, like me, prefer to work within certain practical parameters, may like to learn about the length of a typical doctoral thesis.

Luckily for us, a team of Student Learning advisors from the University of Auckland – Ian Brailsford, Liz Sowden, and Brigida Figueira – conducted research on finished doctoral theses held in the University of Auckland Library to figure out their average length and composition. They picked a sample of 100 doctoral theses from each year in the period 2008 – 2015, and analysed how each thesis was composed.

They found that the median thesis had:

  • 7-8 chapters
  • around 200 pages (excluding bibliography & appendices)

However, those medians didn’t stay stable across disciplines. Theses in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) were much shorter, with medians falling in the 150-200 page range. Non-STEM theses were longer, with medians in the 200-250 page range over the 8 year period of the sample.

I looked at the last 30 doctoral theses available in AUT’s own repository, and found similar results: a median thesis length of 200.5 pages (excluding bibliography & appendices), and a median of 7.5 chapters.

Here’s how the numbers varied by field:

Median # chapters Median page length
Business 6 195
Engineering 7 149
Health 8 219
Humanities 7 189
Social Sciences 9.5 265

Bear in mind that these medians come from a small sample, and they are only midpoints. There is plenty of variation in thesis length, which to be expected given that every project is different! In my sample, there were doctoral theses as short as 100 pages / 5 chapters, and as long as 350 pages / 12 chapters.

So the good news is that you have quite a lot of freedom to determine how much you need to write to make your argument or communicate your results. In fact, some of the most influential doctoral theses fall well outside of the ‘typical.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein published nothing in his lifetime except a 78-page doctoral thesis, and he was one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th Century. John Nash, the famous mathematician from A Beautiful Mind, was even more economical – he wrote just 26 pages in his doctoral thesis.

I’m not suggesting that anyone stop writing after 30 pages – it might be harder to get away with that kind of thing if you don’t anticipate ever being important enough to have Russell Crowe play you in a movie. But it’s nice to know that we’re not held to a hard-and-fast page quota.

Sources cited

Brailsford, I., Sowden, L., & Figueira, B. (2016, April). Are doctoral theses changing over time? Poster session presented at the Quality in Postgraduate Research conference, Adelaide, Australia.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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