Thesis structures

Theses can come in different forms; you may be writing a traditional thesis, thesis by compilation or an exegesis. Whichever type you are doing, they all have one common feature: your thesis needs to have a thesis, as in an argument (some disciplines use key message, narrative or exposition). The argument is your answer to your research question/s, and the structure of your thesis should support the argument. A thesis plan can help you to stay on track and can save you a lot of time writing. 

Key points:

  • a thesis needs to have a clear research question/s or aim/s
  • a thesis needs to have an argument that answers the research question/s
  • each part of the thesis should contribute to making your argument
  • the structure of the thesis should support your argument.

Having a structure planned out can be helpful for people in both the early and later stages of a research project. Even though in the early stages of your project you won't know exactly how it will turn out, it's still helpful to have a sense of where you are going and what you need to do. In the later stages of a project, you can revisit your outline to see whether the different parts of the project (including chapters and sections) still fit together logically.

Tools for outlining your thesis structure

Thesis map

There are different ways to produce an outline. One way is to write up a Table of Contents, listing each section and subsection that you propose to include. For each section and subsection, write a brief point-form description of the contents of that section. The entire outline might be two to five pages long.

Another way to produce an outline is to use the thesis or exegesis map to guide you. A thesis or exegesis map includes your research question/s, and gives an overview of your main answer to your research question/s. It also outlines how each main part of your thesis or exegesis helps to answer your research question/s. This can help you to determine whether the structure makes sense, and whether parts need to be moved around.

On this page there are links to thesis and exegesis map templates that you can use to help you organise your thesis or exegesis. On these templates, the following questions help you to consider whether your work's structure supports your key message.

  • What is the overall question or aim of your research?
  • What is your expected answer to the question, in other words your argument, narrative or key message?
  • What do you need to establish in the introduction to set up your research question and to outline your argument?
  • What is the purpose of each chapter and section? How do they help you to answer your overall research question/aim?
  • What is the argument within each chapter/section?
  • In each section, what evidence do you need to support your argument?
  • Where will you consider the other sides of the argument, or the counterarguments?
  • Have you given yourself enough space to suitably address the counterarguments and potentially rebut them with your arguments?

When you have a draft outline, carefully review it with your supervisor: is there unnecessary material (i.e. not directly related to the research question/aim)? If so, remove or rework it. Is there missing material? Then add it. Whenever you want to make a major change to your work, outlining it first can help you to consider new, more persuasive possibilities for structure.

Another way to test whether your thesis structure is persuasive and logical is to talk about it with someone who knows very little about your topic. You could try explaining it to a friend, to see whether they need to know the information in a certain sequence, and to see whether there are ideas you need to spend more/less time on explaining. You can also make an appointment at ASLC to discuss your thesis outline.

Principles of structure

The main principle of writing an outline is to work out a structure that best supports your argument. To do this, first consider your research question, and how you would persuade someone that your response is defensible. For example, if you have a question that asks for a comparison of two or more case studies, your structure needs to enable you to make that comparison effectively. You might have a chapter or section that provides a brief overview of each case study. Then, you could have a chapter that compares the case studies in relation to one variable or theme. You could then follow with a chapter that compares the case studies in relation to another variable or theme, and so on. In this way, you would have a structure that enables comparison.

If a part of your thesis does not seem to fit in, ask yourself how it helps you to answer the question. This can help you to identify where it would fit better. Otherwise, you might need to cut the section out of your thesis - you could consider whether it would work well in a separate publication instead.

To decide which structure is best for you, it's useful to have a look at other examples in your area. You can access past ANU theses on the digital thesis collection, you can ask your supervisor, and/or you can ask your College administrators to show you some past samples. When you look at them, consider:

  • is it clear how each section of the thesis answers the research question?
  • does the structure logically support the argument?
  • is there a lot of background information that could be condensed?
  • if the thesis is making comparisons, does the structure help you to understand the comparisons?