should I number my thesis?

I’ve just been in a university where doctoral researchers are issued with a thesis template. This automatically sets up the font, layers of headings and the section and subsection numbering systems. If doctoral researchers decide to use this template, and I gather that most do, then they are automatically writing their thesis text in the 1.1, 1.1.1., 1.1.2 1.2.1 etc format.

The viva I was involved in had two external examiners (it happens sometimes), and both of us felt that this numbering system wasn’t the kind of structure that suited a lot of the theses that we saw. We agreed that we wouldn’t like the doctoral researchers we worked with to be obliged to work with, and to, this kind of numbering system.

Our concern arose not simply because we are both qualitative researchers, with one of us specialising in life histories and the other in ethnographies. Our worries were more to do with what this kind of hierarchical number system does to a thesis text. We could both think of examples in which the flow of the thesis narrative and the construction of its argument were disrupted by very enthusiastic division of the text into tiny numbered bits. We agreed that this too often felt to us as readers that we were encountering a very long list… Reading it was like metaphorically driving a long car journey on a road with endless speed bumps. What’s more, the numbered text looked like a report, rather than a sustained piece of rhetorical persuasion of the kind one might see in a literary essay, or a published scholarly monograph, or an historical analysis.

Of course, hierarchically numbering a thesis is not wrong. It is the norm in some disciplines. It is, as our experience suggests, what is expected in some institutions. But it is also a kind of default thesis structure and this may not be what best suits the actual scholarly work that has been done.

I wonder what this default system does to the craft of scholarly writing… In using hierarchical number systems, do doctoral writers tend to construct what they want to say as a series of points, which they then tend to write in bits, rather than thinking about, and writing for, flow? I’ve also noticed that in theses which are numbered 1.1,1.1.1,1.1.1a etc. that writers seem to have thought less about the actual headings they’ve used than those people who haven’t constructed their text around atomized sectioning approaches.

My answer to the question of numbering – whether and how – is of course that there is no ‘correct’ approach. How the text is structured is always a matter of choice. And, as in any choice-making, it is important that the writer consider all of the issues at play in the decisions that they make. It may be that disciplinary and institutional expectations hold sway. But I’d suggest that it is equally important for doctoral writers to consider the ways in which choices about the form of a text can shape both the writing – and the reading – experience. Flow or speed bumps?

But there is another consideration. And it is the one which was of concern to both of us acting as external viva examiners the other day. In choosing a thesis format, or having one imposed on them, the writer ends up producing a particular kind of text which might look more like a ‘scientific report’ at one end of the spectrum and a ‘non fiction book’ – or even ‘fiction’ – somewhere near the other end. We both maintained that it was important to consider how these different kinds of thesis texts might sit with the ‘positioning’ (epistemological positioning that is), that the thesis writers claim. So, if the writer says that they work with feminist poststructuralist understandings for example, it would be particularly odd to receive a thesis which looked and read much more like a post-positivist research report.

So while there is no right answer to how a thesis text might be numbered, the decision that the writer makes is often more than simply being about the writing and reading experience that it supports. Numbering choices might also reflect something of the way in which the writer views the purposes and practices of scholarly work and its representation in and as text.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in argument, epistemology, narrative, reader, thesis and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to should I number my thesis?

  1. A nice reminder to question why we are doing things the way we do. It’s also useful to try things another way just to see what it generates (or it may increase your confidence in the way you are doing it). I’m a scientist at heart (with a love of qualitative research) and I often revert to report style writing but I sometimes write the first draft in a fiction style and find it flows more and I get more information down. I can then transfer it into a report format.


  2. Pingback: how should I number my thesis? | Construcci&oac...

  3. jamharl says:

    Pat, I realized that it is really important to have a connection to what we are writing even in thesis writing. It helps in presenting and conveying message to our readers.


  4. Thanks for this. I deliberately decided not to number my chapters on my thesis like 1.1 1.2 and so on.. because my thesis was not a linear one, and the argument did not follow the traditional pattern.However, my examiners demanded that I did so. I came out with a midway solution in which major headings are numbered, but within the chapters, I use subtitles and headings.


  5. kargraham says:

    Thanks for this Pat. It’s reminded me to review my layout choices before submission. I’ve used the numbering format in my drafting because it has helped with organising my sections and my thought processes. It has also helped in my meetings with supervisors in that it makes it easier to refer to the different sections. However, I hadn’t thought about whether this was actually the best thing for my thesis overall. Will have to give it some thought.


  6. Pingback: Style, Form and Function – How Should My Thesis Look? | Telling Tales

  7. M-H says:

    I had no idea that some institutions were so prescriptive. It would have been a disaster for me – I wouldn’t have been able to write the kind of thesis I wanted to at all using a system like this. And I would really hate having to examine one that was laid out like this. Interesting!


  8. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Reblogged this on Observations of a tired sOul..


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s