some more thoughts on structuring the thesis

A little while ago I was asked a tricky question about thesis chapter: How much should each thesis chapter stand-alone? On pursuing this a little, it turned out that there was more to the question. The questioner also wanted to know: How much repetition should there be within a thesis chapter?

The quick answer to this double-barrelled question is that no thesis chapter stands entirely alone. The thesis text is an argument in which each chapter is one step, one move in the argument heading towards the inevitable conclusion. The chapters must therefore be in logical order. Each chapter must be connected to the one before and one after. Getting the sequencing right is critically important.

Now finding the logical order for chapters is much easier for me to write than for me and you to actually do. As soon as you get past using the default IMRAD, you find problems in deciding what goes where. There are multiple possibilities. Which sequence to choose? What makes most sense? And even in the default IMRAD structure, there is still the question of how the ‘data’ chapters are to be sequenced. What goes where, what groups with what? What are the key organizing ideas that data can be grouped around? Should the discussion be integrated or be in a separate chapter? What would read most persuasively? These are crucial decisions in the ordering process.

But the issue goes further than order. The reader must not only be able to move logically from one chapter to the other, but they must also be able to do so without falling through the space in between. In order to avoid getting lost when going from one chapter to the next, there must be a thread to the argument that the reader can follow and hang on to.

Because theses are long, and usually have complex arguments, the custom is to give the reader some help to hang onto the thread of the argument. So there is usually a map to the entire thesis provided in the introductory chapter. Each subsequent chapter also starts with a brief guide to what is to come, and it concludes with a brief statement about the key points that the reader is to remember as they move on. This is the meta commentary.

The provision of meta-commentary makes the thesis entirely different from a novel, for example, where giving away what is to come would make for pretty unhappy readers. The reverse is true for the thesis. The examiner-reader wants to know what’s to come. So unless the thesis is deliberately subverting the usual dissertation genre and makes that clear at the start, then thesis readers are generally frustrated if no map is provided.

However, having just said that chapters don’t stand alone, I now want to modify that statement. There is also a way in which each chapter does actually stand-alone. It’s because each chapter must be its own little self-contained argument.

Let me explain. If it is about literatures, then the chapter has to map the field, locate the study, indicate which literatures the study draws on, and which ones it will talk to. No other chapter has to do this work. And the reader doesn’t know any of this until they read the chapter. So they enter the chapter uninformed about the ways in which literatures are used, but they leave the chapter with a great deal of information about the basis for the research they are about to encounter.

A methods chapter similarly has a very particular piece of work to do. It must ground the study in a research tradition and assure the reader that the research has been carried out well. It must also provide an audit trail of what has happened, where, with whom and producing what data, which was analysed in a particular way, and so on. No other chapter has to do this work. The reader enters the methods thesis section uninformed and leaves aware of how the research has been conducted and why.

It might help to consider too that if in fact there is a lot of repetition of content (as opposed to meta commentary and the odd reminder about things that have gone before), then the reader can get very confused – the argument doesn’t seems to develop, it isn’t building distinct move by distinct move, move after move. The reader doesn’t know where it’s all going, in fact it seems to be going round in circles! What’s more, the text will quickly get boring if the argument doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

So, the answer to the original question about whether each chapter stands alone, and how much repetition is acceptable or appropriate, is actually more complex than it first appears. Chapters are connected together in the way the content builds argument. There is also repetition between chapters in the form of a meta-commentary that guides the reader from one chapter to another and through the text. But each chapter also ought to be stand-alone, in as much as each chapter has a particular job to do.

Questions to ask therefore when thinking about structuring the thesis are:
(1) what is the overall argument?
(2) what is the specific contribution each chapter makes to the argument?
(3) sequencing – what order should the chapters come in?
(4) what is the internal argument for each chapter?
(5) what meta commentary should be provided to make sure the reader moves smoothly from one chapter to the next?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in ILMRaD, IMRAD, meta-commentary, structure, thesis and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to some more thoughts on structuring the thesis

  1. Thank you for writing this post. I`m in the midst of writing my interim report, and will begin writing the method chapter for my dissertation sometime this week. Your comments were really timely! I especially liked your point that every section has its own argument.


  2. Pat, thanks for such a generous overview that is really clear and helpful – its answered a lot of questions just in one post


  3. maelorin says:

    This is made more complicated when one is trying to integrate publications into a thesis. Each of those must stand alone. Yet the collection must also have some cohesion to be able to be assessed as a coherent entity.

    A lead-in Introduction and a summation Conclusion may not be enough on their own to link everything together adequately. I’m developing a series of publishable chapters and sub-chapters, with consistent introductory and summation pieces to top-and-tail them. Breaking my overall structure into Parts helps roadmap what might otherwise be a jumble of short and longer articles: shoring up the readers confidence that this will be a coherent body of work, developing a coherent argument.

    At least, this is the plan for the next six months of my life >.<


  4. Pingback: Some more thoughts on structuring the thesis | ...

  5. allthingsdissertation says:

    Reblogged this on all things dissertation and commented:
    there is more to each thesis chapter than Destination Done….dissertation


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  9. Manal says:

    Dear Patter,
    I wonder it is possible that you critique my own doctoral chapters?


  10. Elizabeth Pakai says:

    Thank you for your notes they have helped me sort through some of the work so far.


  11. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge! I appreciate it very much!!


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