Thesis Chapters

The be-all and end-all of how to create a thesis chapter plan (no matter what department you’re part of).

Well, here’s a Big One. An Important One. The one that everyone I know worried about (or is worrying about) and the one that caused me no end of grief. Wish I had had something like this to look at, all in one place.

Google has just become your best friend. There are thousands and thousands of pages that can give you outlines of theses. Read as many of them as you can, but don’t waste all your time this way. Your university might have a standard format for your department, so ask around amongst students and your supervisor. Your discipline might have a specific number of chapters and a general format to use for a thesis. Ask as many people as you can who are doing similar work to you and take the average, or their best recommendations.

If it’s very much a ‘whatever you feel is right’, then you have a problem. It’s so much easier to start with a general idea than to start with nothing.

The basic format of a thesis is, usually, an intro chapter, methodology chapter, lit review, data chapters, analysis, conclusion. That’s not to say all theses look like this. Some method chapters end up in the intro chapter. Sometimes you’ll have more than one lit chapter. Sometimes analysis is in the data chapters. It’s really rather flexible.

Most theses are 5-6 chapters, though, and generally range from 50,000-80,000 words. Humanities subjects are normally on the high end, while science is normally lower (because of all those graphs). Your university department WILL have a maximum word count (or page count) and you MUST take that into account.

It’s generally advisable that, when you first start writing-up, to sit down and work out your chapters – roughly – and assign a general word count to them. You might not keep to those word counts, but it gives you something to aim for.

[If you can keep to those word counts, more the better though. It makes editing easier.]

Start easy. Chapter 1: Introduction. Chapter 2: Methodology (or not, if you’re putting that somewhere else). Chapter 3: Lit Review, and so on. Guestimate. It doesn’t have to be set in stone.

Once you have that chapter list, start to break those chapters down. Introduction normally starts with an intro, then the research question, aims and objectives, etc. There are basic formats on Google and most of them will work for you, with a bit of tweaking. The Intro isn’t rocket science.

[Unless you’re writing about rocket science.]

Your other chapters will be less specific. Google will probably stop being helpful around about the time you get to your data chapters, because each thesis is so individual.

I originally planned out 7 chapters, but ended up with 8, on account of needing to add another data chapter because I had two main data sets in answer to my question, and then some other data that didn’t fit in those chapters, but was still actually really important. So it ended up being data chapter 1, and sort of took the place of the methodology chapter too, but also linked my last lit review with my first proper data chapter a lot better than they had been. It worked out, basically.

My chapters ended up being thus:

Chapter 1: Introduction – intro, research question, research aims & objectives, context, methodology, outline

Chapter 2: Lit Review 1 – this was the very traditional lit review chapter for the general field in which I was writing

Chapter 3: Lit Review 2 – this was the first of two theories I used for my thesis – this theory was used to analyse the data after collection

Chapter 4: Lit Review 3 – this second theory was used to actually collect the data, so it was a bit methodology like as well, but I flagged that up specifically in Chapter 5 in it’s own part – this was also the unique part of my thesis, so it was the Key Chapter

Chapter 5: Data chapter 1 – introduction of case studies, linking Chapter 4 and Chapter 6, analysis methodology, conclusion and introduction of main data chapters

Chapter 6: Data chapter 2 – intro, included analysis, conclusion

Chapter 7: Data chapter 3 – intro, included analysis, reviewed research question at the end, conclusion

Chapter 8: Conclusion – summary of findings, limitations of research, future research, unexpected conclusions, conclusion (this was a page long).

Remember, every thesis is different, so this is just a sample. When I first started writing-up, I had a very general thesis outline, but as I got further along that got more and more detailed. That’s the way it should be. You don’t have to know everything you’re going to write and where it will go when you start – you just have to start.


3 thoughts on “Thesis Chapters

  1. Steven says:

    Thank you for this really good post. It has helped to reaffirm my own position which is a great boon for a part time PhD dummy like me. I’m going to have a great day today!


    • AmyH says:

      I’m very glad Steven! This blog is entirely here to remind people they are not alone, and that every time you feel unsure, to remember that everyone else is feeling unsure as well! I do hope you have a great day!


  2. Grey says:

    Thank you for this chapter. I had been sweating over the number of chapters for my thesis and I am glad i can go up to 8 wth adequate justification. I have 5 now before the data presentation. This is a big relief.


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