- What are the typical thesis elements in your field? Map out some other theses – structure, weightings, etc.
- What are the requirements for your thesis? Word limit? Format?
- Rowena Murray, How to Write a Thesis
What is a thesis? You might be thinking of it as a big mythical beast, but actually it’s a document with specific requirements. Once you understand its purpose, it’ll be easier to write one. Not necessarily easy, of course, but easier.
As I explained in the previous video, the purpose is to establish your significant and original contribution to knowledge. Regardless of your subject area or your institution, your examiners are seeking these two main criteria, significance and originality.
The way your thesis is arranged will depend on what type of PhD you’re doing. Some are much shorter than others. Regardless of the type of PhD you’re doing, they will all share some common theses elements.
- The introduction, that’s where you’re setting the context, explaining why this project is important, and outlining how you’ll approach.
- Your literature review. This is how you establish your contribution to knowledge. You need to situate your own research within what’s happening in the field. That’s the only way to demonstrate its significance and originality.
- Then your methodology, how you did it. Now, sometimes arts and humanities students, particularly those in the literature, are a bit frightened of the term methodology because it sounds very scientific and you hear other researchers talking about their methodology chapter. But if you’re doing literature based projects then your methodology might be incredibly short. My thesis was on a Victorian novelist and my methodology was simply reading some really bad novels and setting them in the context of 19th-century feminism. My methodology was a couple of paragraphs. Those of you who are doing ethnographies or practice-based PhDs, your methodology will be much bigger.
- Then your results, what you actually found.
- Discussion, that’s talking about your results in the context of the literature review and your field.
- Your conclusions. What have you concluded from your research? What are the implications?
The size of all these elements will vary a great deal according to your project, but they should all be present in some shape or form. Some might be chapters, others just a few paragraphs. Take a look at some recent theses in your field to see how they’re structured.
A friendly way of thinking about the elements of your thesis is to ask yourself some questions. These questions are adapted from an excellent book called How to Write a Thesis by Rowena Murray.
- The subject of my research is … What’s an overview of what you’re trying to do?
- It merits study because … That’s the significant question.
- My work relates to others in that … this is establishing your place within that conversation or field.
- Research questions are … what are you setting out to achieve? What are your objectives?
- I approached it from the perspective of … This might be in future tense if you haven’t yet done your research. The perspective could be your methodology, your theoretical framework.
- When I did, I found … these are your results.
- What I think this means is. How are you interpreting those results.
- And what are the implications? So what’s this going to do to your field? What could other people do with your research findings? How does this change our understanding of your particular topic?
If you’re able to write even a few lines in response to each of these questions, then you have a thesis. Admittedly it’ll be a short one, but you have a strong foundation on which to build.
Thinking about what you’ve done so far, or some of the activities you’ve planned, do they all fit within this structure? If you have anything that you’re trying desperately to squeeze into your thesis, then perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. It could be a journal article, blog post, or maybe even a future TV series. Narrowing your scope to that Minimum Viable Thesis improves your chances of getting it done.