Thesis structures

  Whether you're writing a traditional thesis, thesis by compilation or an exegesis, your work needs to have an argument (some disciplines use key message, narrative, story or exposition). The argument is your answer to your research question/s, and the structure of your thesis should support the argument. A thesis argument map can help you to stay on track and can save you a lot of time writing. 

Thesis argument maps

Key points:

  • a thesis needs a clear research question/s or aim/s
  • a thesis needs an argument that answers the research question/s
  • each part of the thesis should contribute to your argument
  • the thesis structure should support your argument
  • an argument map can be very useful to guide you throughout your project

While there are different ways to produce an outline, we recommend using an argument map. Having an argument map 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 argument map to see whether the different parts of the project still fit together logically.

On this page there are links to argument map examples and templates that you can choose from to help you organise your thesis or exegesis.

Filling out your argument map

To fill out your argument map, do the following. 

  1. Write down your research question/s or aim/s in the top part of the map. 
  2. Underneath the research question or aims, you'll see 'Argument' or 'Central narrative'. You might like to think of your argument as the take home message that tells the reader what your research has found overall. Even if you don't yet know the answer to your research question, write down what you anticipate your main answer/s will be. Having an idea of your argument or narrative helps you to plan out your chapters logically. 
  3. Reflect on your argument: does it answer the research question? If it doesn't, do you need to clarify the argument? Or do you need to refine your research question? 
  4. The introduction column outlines common elements of an introduction. Jot down your ideas in relation to each of the points. 
  5. Write down the broad purpose of each chapter in the first row of the chapter columns. How will that chapter help you to answer your research question? How do the chapters follow on from one another?
  6. Jot down what you will argue in each of your chapter sections. You may have fewer than three sections in a chapter, so adapt the template as you like. How does each chapter section contribute to your chapter's argument? What evidence will you draw on?   
  7. Reflect on your overall thesis structure. Are the chapters in a logical order to answer your research question/s? Does the structure best emphasise your analysis or themes? Are the sections organised around your themes or analytical points? Do you leave plenty of room to address counterarguments? Would another structure work? If so, which structure do you think most clearly answers your research question/s and shows a logical progression of analysis?

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/s)? If so, remove or rework it. Is there missing material to add? 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 Academic Skills to discuss your argument map.

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 ANU Library's 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?