How to structure a thesis
Starting a thesis can be daunting. There are so many questions in the beginning: How do you actually start your thesis? How do you structure it? What information should the individual chapters contain? Each educational program has different demands on your thesis structure, which is why asking directly for the requirements of your program should be a first step. However, there is not much flexibility when it comes to structuring your thesis in general. The generic structure of your thesis looks like this:
The abstract is the overview of your thesis and generally very short. It is recommended to write it last, when everything else is done.
The introduction chapter is there to give an overview of your thesis' basics or main points. It should answer the following questions:
- Why is the topic being studied?
- How is the topic being studied?
- What is being studied?
In answering the first question "why", you should know what your personal interest in this topic is and if and why it is relevant in general. Why does it matter in real life? You can also give background information here. By answering these questions, you can ground your whole paper from the onset and the readers will not have to answer these questions themselves. In answering the "how", you should briefly explain how you are going to reach your research goal. Some prefer to answer that question in the methods chapter, but you can give a quick overview here. And finally, you should explain "what" you are studying. You could put your research question in this part. It is recommended to rewrite the introduction one last time when the writing is done to make sure it connects with your conclusion. Learn more about how to write a good thesis introduction in our thesis introduction guide.
3. Literature review
Literature review is often part of the introduction, but it can be a separate section. It is an evaluation of previous research on the topic showing that there are gaps that your research will attempt to fill. A few tips for your literature review:
- Use a wide array of sources
- Show both sides of the coin
- Make sure to cover the classics in your field
- Present everything in a clear and structured manner
The methodology chapter outlines which methods you choose to gather data, how the data is analyzed and justifies why you chose that methodology. It shows how your choice of design and research methods is suited to answering your research question. Make sure to also explain what the pitfalls of your approach are and how you have tried to mitigate them. Discussing yourself where your study might come short can give you more credibility as it shows the reader that you are aware of the limitations of your study.
The results chapter outlines what you found out in relation to your research questions or hypotheses. It generally contains the facts of your research and does not include a lot of analysis, because that happens mostly in the discussion chapter. Whats helps making your results chapter better is to clearly visualize your results, using tables and graphs, especially when summarizing, and to be consistent in your way of reporting. This means sticking to one format to help the reader evaluate and compare the data.
The discussion chapter includes your own analysis and interpretation of the data you gathered, comments on your results and explains what they mean. This is your opportunity to show that you have understood your findings and their significance. Point out the limitations of your study, provide explanations for unexpected results, and note any questions that remain unanswered.
This is probably your most important chapter. This is where you highlight that your research objectives have been achieved, and how you have contributed to all parties involved with your research. In this chapter you should also point out the limitations of your study, because showing awareness of your limitation gives a better grounding on your thesis. You can talk about your personal learnings here and also make suggestions for future research.
Remember to check if you have really answered all your research questions and hypotheses in this chapter in a short and clear manner. Your thesis should be tied up nicely in the conclusions chapter and show clearly what you did, what results you got and what your learnings were. Learn more about how to write a good conclusion in our thesis conclusion guide.
Frequently Asked Questions about structuring a thesis
What are the basic elements of a thesis?
The basic elements of a thesis are: Abstract, Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion.
What part of my thesis should I write first?
It's recommended to start a thesis by writing the literature review first. This way you learn more about the sources, before jumping to the discussion or any other element.
What part of my thesis should I write last?
It's recommended to write the abstract of a thesis last, once everything else is done. This way you will be able to provide a complete overview of your work.
What is the longest part of a thesis?
Usually, the discussion is the longest part of a thesis. In this part you are supposed to point out the limitations of your study, provide explanations for unexpected results, and note any questions that remain unanswered.
What order do the elements of a thesis have?
The order of the basic elements of a thesis are: 1. Abstract, 2. Introduction, 3. Literature Review, 4. Methods, 5. Results, 6. Discussion, and 7. Conclusion.