Throwback Thursday: Ideas for Structuring Your Thesis or Dissertation

This post by University of Auckland staff member Dr Ian Brailsford first appeared on Thesislink in May 2019. Links and Postgraduate Handbook references have been updated.

My favourite Jorge Chan ‘PhD Comic’ is titled Writing your thesis outline.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Structuring your research thesis or dissertation is an inexact science and there are different ways of breaking it down. This post complements a past Thesislink post on visualising the through-thread. That post described the narrative ‘master’ thread required, not just through the whole work, but within each chapter or section too. I offer here three quasi-quantitative tools to help you structure your thesis or dissertation. But two caveats: your supervisors will have thoughts about structuring your work (especially in light of disciplinary norms) so discuss your ideas with them. Designing your structure is an ongoing process of moving from an overall concept or plan to shaping the final version.

Word limits (or, if writing articles, the journal’s requirements) help focus the mind. AUT’s 2021 Postgraduate Handbook (pp.111) gives clear guidance on the word limits for each degree programme and/or thesis format. As a simple example, if you are planning a traditional (Format One) doctoral thesis with seven chapters spanning 70,000 words then you are suddenly thinking of 10,000 word chapters. Each chapter, of course, doesn’t have to be 10,000 words but if one is going to be significantly shorter than 10,000 words then presumably another chapter might have to be longer. The same principles apply for a dissertation or master’s thesis. Word limits, as a dean of graduate studies used to phrase it, are a limit not a target.  

My two other structuring tools relate to:

  1. How much of your reader’s time does each section take to read; and
  2. Where are the internal divides between beginning, middle and end?

It’s that simple.

As someone who has examined dissertations and theses it is reassuring getting to the researcher’s own work within the first 30 to 40 minutes of reading time. When reviewing for academic journals it’s the first five to ten minutes. On the one hand, you want the writer to explain the background to the research and what’s already known about the topic to show they’re familiar with the territory. But, on the other hand, you don’t want to read pages and pages of text that’s ‘nice to know’ but not ‘need to know’. You get bored and restless. As an analogy, the first of Sir Peter Jackson’s three Hobbit films had almost one hour of exposition and backstory before Bilbo Baggins finally left Hobbiton and started his unexpected journey. I, for one, was already getting restless. Jackson was trying my patience. But I’d paid for my seat and still had some popcorn left.

As an examiner, I’m like the person who has bought the ticket to the show. I’m committed to reading and reviewing the work so I can’t leave early. However, your other readers may have less patience or sense of obligation. Think of when you read a good book or academic journal article. You know in the first few minutes that it’s good: you want to continue. Trust me, a 10,000-word literature review section that’s not really going anywhere is annoying as an examiner but as a general reader I’d stop and skip ahead to the conclusion to see ‘who done it’. Obviously different readers read at different speeds and with different levels of engagement; as a rule, get to the thing (your research) as soon as humanly possible.

Where are the junctures in your writing where you implicitly expect the reader to put your work down, grab a coffee or have a comfort break, and then pick up the thread? A meta-structuring device is to take your numbered table of contents page. Draw two horizontal lines: the first demarcating the transition from the beginning of your work (introduction, literature/theory discussion etc.) to the middle core or body of the thesis or dissertation (your research and discussion) and a second line for the final, end section (conclusions, reflections and/or recommendations).

This is where it becomes inexact. For some research work, it might be an even three-way split in terms of words and/or pages. For other projects, however, you might need the first half of the work to explain and justify the project before you move to the middle section. Alternatively, your opening up section might be brief as you have several case studies in the body of your work you want your readers to immerse themselves in. As ever, it depends: you get to decide as the designer. Drafting up an indicative table of contents as early as possible helps you to see the form of your work. As one examiner phrased it: “I look at the table of contents just to see whether it makes sense from that point of view. How much space is devoted to a certain section. You know roughly what should be there.” (Kiley & Mullins, 2004, p.130).

Going back to PhD Comics, the middle panel has more home truths. “Step 2, fill in the freebies: 1. Introduction, 2. Lit review, 3. Methodology, 4, 5 and 6 are blank and 7. Conclusions. You’re halfway done!” If you don’t have to reinvent the structuring wheel, don’t.


Kiley, M. & Mullins, G. (2004). Examining the examiners: How inexperienced examiners approach the assessment of research theses. International Journal of Educational Research, 41(2), 2004, 121-135.

About Ian Brailsford

Ian Brailsford is the co-author (with Susan Carter and Frances Kelly) of the book "Structuring your Research Thesis" and a freelance blogger for Thesislink and the Doctoral Writing SIG.

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