The ‘Standard’ Thesis Structure
- The standard thesis structure has four parts:
1. an introduction,
2. the background,
3. the core (for want of a better word), and
4. a synthesis.
Note how, as illustrated in the following figure, the sections are connected to each other. A conclusion responds directly to an aim, for example, and the background must directly foreshadow the core.
Some of these parts might contain more than one chapter, and the core might be more than half the thesis. Each of these parts has a distinct role.
The INTRODUCTION explains what the thesis is about: the problem that the thesis is concerned with, the aims and scope, and the thesis structure. In some disciplines it includes an overview of the findings. An introduction is typically written for a wider readership than the bulk of the thesis, and may use illustrative examples to help underpin the reader’s understanding of what you are trying to achieve. Such examples help to create a narrative that a reader can use as context for your work. However, an introduction isn’t an essay — the only purpose it has is to introduce the research. You should outline the problem you have investigated, explain the aim of the research and any limits on the scope of the work, and then provide an overview of what lies ahead. Five to ten pages is ample.
The BACKGROUND is the knowledge required before a reader can understand your research: relevant history, context, current knowledge, theory and practice, and other researchers’ views. In the background, your purpose is to position your study in the context of what has gone before, what is currently taking place, and how research in the area is conducted. It might contain a historical review. If the research is location-specific (an investigation of diet in low-income suburbs, for example, or an examination of how a dialect is changing) you will need to describe the study area and its characteristics; if the research is technology-specific (such as a study of food packaging or the yield of a harvesting machine) you will need to describe the specifics of this technology and how it affects the questions you can ask. The background usually contains a chapter reviewing current theory or practice, and may include the results of preliminary experiments or surveys carried out to help you feel your way into the problem. Experiments may also be used to establish benchmarks based on other work against which your work is to be measured, and these too form part of the background.
The CORE concerns your own work: your propositions or hypotheses, innovations, experimental designs, surveys and reviews, results, analysis, and so on. (This is sometimes called the contribution, though in a strong thesis the background too forms part of the contribution, as other researchers may value your interpretation and analysis of past work as much as they value the ‘new’ work presented in the core.) The core can easily form the bulk of the thesis and consist of several chapters.
The SYNTHESIS draws together your contribution to the topic. It will usually contain a discussion in which you critically examine your own results in the light of the previous state of the subject as outlined in the background, and make judgments as to what has been learnt in your work; the discussion may be a separate chapter, or may be integrated with the detailed work in the core. Finally, it is where you summarise the discussion and evaluation to produce conclusions. These should respond directly to the aim of the work as stated in the introduction.