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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Structuring your thesis

There isn’t One Way to structure a thesis. It needs to come from, and be relevant to, your research. This section will introduce a number of perspectives and activities to get you to think about, and develop your thesis structure. This includes the requirements in our rules and regulations at Exeter; an overview of typical/basic thesis structures, to give you a sense of the overall shape of a thesis; resources on articulating your argument and contribution, to make sure you keep this at the forefront of your thesis structure; some strategies to help organise your thesis material and identify a suitable structure for your material and your argument and advice on how to use existing theses for information, inspiration and reassurance. To show you how this might work in practice, we have included a case study from graduate Dr. Edward Mills.

There are rules and regulations about the order of materials in your thesis. Although this doesn’t tell you how to structure it per se, it gives an indication of the wider order of materials and content you are expected to include. For further information on the University’s guidelines, check the Teaching and Quality Assurance Manual pages on Presentation of Theses.

Although there isn’t a magic formula, if you consider the expected elements of a thesis – introduction, literature review, methods, results/data, themes/discussion and a conclusion – we can outline some basic, or typical structures. You can also download these structures as a word document. 

When deciding on the structure of your thesis, you need to keep your argument and contribution to the field front and centre. It is the thread that runs through the thesis, from introduction to conclusion, linking all of your individual chapters together. Here are some resources on working on your argument and contribution – or the thesis of the thesis.

This podcast is about developing your thesis argument, based on Susan Carter’s blog post ‘A good argument: the thesis of the thesis.


There are three activities that you might like to try to think about, or map out your argument.

Activity 1 – The story of your doctorate

In the blog post Turning facts into a doctoral story: the essence of a good doctorate Susan Carter proposes that ‘[a] thesis needs a logically developed argument. The story unfolds that argument.’ Carter runs the following exercise with her students to help them think about how you turn facts in to a story. She gives them the following list of words and asks them to turn these words in to a story, using all of them.


lily                   wedding                     flower             plant                petal

rose                              colour                          daisy    paintings

funeral             scent                chrysanthemum           symbolism

miniature rose               wild flowers                           bride

edible flowers             climbing rose                           beauty

deep red                                  patterns of petals         golden

poisonous flowers                   art                    cauliflower

religious interpretations                       soft white


The purpose of the exercise is that each person, when presented with this list of words, will create a different story. The same is true of the facts or findings of your research. Why not give this a go, to practice your storytelling skills?

Then, write a list of ‘facts’ or findings from your research. All the important elements that need to be included in your thesis. You can write these as a list, a mindmap, on post it notes…whatever works for you.

Then, turn these facts in to a story. Put them in to a order that makes the overall argument or story unfold, and think about how you are connecting the individual facts or findings. These connections will be crucial to articulate the thread of your argument through your thesis.

Activity 2 – Better than Donald

This blog post from The Thesis Whisperer outlines the Beardsley-Freeman method of argument mapping. An argument map is a visual representation of your argument, traditionally using a box arrow structure to demonstrate the logic or building blocks of an argument or hypothesis. In this (now very dated) post she compares the arguments proposed by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 American Presidential Election using the argument mapping method, and in doing so demonstrates how to develop the building blocks of your thesis argument.

Develop an argument/thesis map using the following prompts.

  1. To begin, write out your argument, thesis statement or contribution. Try to articulate it simply in one sentence – the argument map will get at the detail.
  2. Do a mindmap of all the evidence and justifications you have for this argument, without judgement. Don’t try to order then or connect them, just write them all down.
  3. Now it’s time to make your argument map. The most simple form of argument is premise -> conclusion. But these arguments aren’t convincing – they need more detail. By this we mean a series of premises, with bridges and connections between them, that lead us logically to a conclusion. Using your mindmap, begin to articulate the key premises of your argument, the bridges between them, and how they lead you to a conclusion. Map this visually, to allow you to see the building blocks – which premises rely on each other to be convincing and the order they need to be presented in to lead us logically to your overarching argument/conclusion.

You can use The Thesis Whisperer’s blog post to help you map your argument as well as this example, which maps the argument in Dr. Edward Mills, former PGR in Modern Language’s thesis.

Activity 3 – Argue against yourself

This blog post from Pat Thomson suggests that to make your case stronger, you should argue against yourself. Try these strategies to develop and strengthen your arguments.

Here’s five playful but serious starter ideas for getting your head around arguments other than your own. These starters may well help you to see where you need more clarification, more boundary drawing, more references or additional information.

1. Re-examine your original problem or puzzle.

Imagine that yourself are someone who thinks about this problem or puzzle differently. Become Reviewer 2 and write a short rebuttal of your initial premise. Be brutal. Suggest other reading. Point out the omissions, lack of definitions, the assumptions. Wait a day. Now look at how you have presented your opening gambit, the warrant for your work. What do you need to say to head off Reviewer 2? Do you need to explicitly reject their views or do you simply need to strengthen your own position?

2. Become devil’s advocate.

Brainstorm all the various ways your topic might be understood. Take just one of the different points of view. Sum it up in a sentence. Free write for fifteen or twenty minutes starting with the sentence. Leave the text for a day, then come back to it and ask yourself what this exercise might teach you about how to better present your case. What do you need to add, remove, rewrite?

3. Become a three year old.

Three year olds ask why all the time. On and on and on. Why? Why? Why? Do the same. Ask why about each move you make in the argument. Why? Why is this the next step? What else might come here? Where would an alternative move take the argument? Is this alternative defensible? Where do the whys lead you, do you need to re write your argument “red thread”? Add new steps? Change the order? Get rid of some information? Add more citations?

4. Think like a hack tabloid journalist.

Imagine you are a newspaper columnist or a political speech writer who supports exactly what you are arguing against. Write half a page about your research from their point of view. Make it colourful. No words of more than two syllables. No sentences longer than fifteen words. Wait a day. Then read the piece asking what this polemic might suggest you need to do. (This exercise is particularly good if you are about to write for non academic audiences).

5. Be a sci-fi writer.

Make like George Orwell. Or George R. R. Martin. Get dystopian. Imagine that the things you have suggested as So What and Now What – the implications of your study – have actually made things worse. Brainstorm what has happened. Wait a day and then use this information to analyse the weaknesses in your argument, conclusion and implications.

These negative strategies may be most helpful to you as part of getting from a first to second draft. They speak to the choreography of the argument as well as its details.

Further resources

Why is it important to read existing theses?

  • To explore how other people have structured their theses
  • To build an understanding of what you should be aiming for
  • To identify how varied theses can be!
  • To find references you may have missed

‘Reading other people’s theses is a very useful strategy to help authors focus on what the reader needs, and in this case, that reader will be the examiner. This is one way to draw attention to the elements that distinguish a thesis from other genres. After all, it can be very difficult to write something without a clear sense of what the end-product needs to look like in terms of shape and content’. (Cally Guerin, 2018 in her blog post Reading theses to write a thesis)

Accessing existing theses

All theses submitted at the University of Exeter are available via Open Research Exeter (ORE). You can also access theses submitted at other institutions through the British Library EThOS e-theses online service.


Download a thesis relevant to your research and map out its structure. Is it perfectly written? Probably not! Use this as reassurance that your own does not need to be perfect. Consider the following:

  • How long is it?
  • What is the title? Compare it to your own – is it narrower or broader than yours?
  • Use the abstract to see how it provides an overview of the research
  • What data did they use?
  • How did they gather/analyse their findings?
  • What conclusions have they drawn?
  • How is it structured?
  • Is it clear that the research offers a novel contribution to their area of interest?
  • What does the table of contents contain?
  • How many chapters are there?
  • How long is each chapter?
  • How are figures/tables used?
  • Why have they been used?
  • How many are there?
  • How much information is contained in the captions?
  • How have the references and bibliography been presented?
  • How many references are used?
  • Is there an appendix?
  • If so, what does it add to the thesis?

This list has been extracted from Vitae and their resources on writing your doctoral thesis.

Remember: no thesis is the same! There are multiple ways of writing a good thesis. It is, therefore, important to read multiple theses to get an idea of where the consistencies lie.

You can also download this section of the course as a pdf.

Mindmapping is a tool you can use throughout the research process – to jot down ideas, map you understand of the field, and to collate your research findings and plan the structure of your thesis. Shifting from writing and listing to a more visual form can help you to see things different, make new connections and produce new insights.

‘You can do some heavy thinking about your thesis with a diagram. Ideas are much easier to move around and the ‘helicopter view’ a diagram affords helps you see how different pieces of writing and information might fit together.’ (The Thesis Whisperer, 2013)

Mindmapping is a form of radiant thinking – ideas radiate out from centre. But the process of organising ideas in that radiant hierarchy can also give you a structure. To explain, let’s refer to this simple example – a mind map about learning to fly.

This radiant hierarchy can become a structure for your thesis or individual chapters – if Flying is the thesis of your thesis, the blue level are the subjects of your chapters, the green the different sections, red subsections etc.


Create a mind map of your thesis material. You can use your argument map from the previous section, with the ‘thesis of your thesis’ in the centre and spokes around it for each of your key premises, as a starting point. Begin to add in the detail for these premises – get findings, figures, literature – and notes on writing you already have.

‘A film storyboard’, according to Wikipedia, ‘is essentially a large comic of the film or some section of the film produced beforehand to help film directors, cinematographers and television commercial advertising clients visualize the scenes and find potential problems before they occur. Besides this, storyboards also help estimate the cost of the overall production and saves time. Often storyboards include arrows or instructions that indicate movement’.

A research storyboard expands to hold an image or some mini version of all the components of the final text. What this especially means is that the storyboard shows:

  • all of the headings and sub-headings that will structure the analysis, given in full;
  • at least quick verbal sketches of every main text section
  • or perhaps later on, summaries of every main paragraph or groups of paragraphs;
  • images of all long quotations; and
  • versions of every Figure, chart, table or case study boxes planned. At the beginning these might just be made up sketch graphs instead of charts, or simple pictures of a planned diagram, or a set of empty boxes that is the same size as a planned table. With time these components get fleshed-out (e.g. using interim data in tables, or just quickly drawn charts). Late on they will be clickable images of the now finished exhibits.
This is a great way to map ‘what you have’. Creating a storyboard in PowerPoint, one slide per ‘board’, then makes it fluid and moveable. Open slide-sorter view, and you easily see the whole and move boards around to experiment with different organisations of ideas/structures. Full details on how to create a research storyboard can be found in the Storyboarding research blog post for the London School of Economics, and The Thesis Whisperer has a Post-It note version of this.


Using the outline above, create a research storyboard. You can do this in PowerPoint, or even on index cards, individual pieces of paper or post-it notes.

According to Steve Draper, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Glasgow:

‘A PhD thesis, like most organisms, needs a skeleton. In fact there are four aspects to this, which a doctoral student in the process of writing up should cover:

The main message: the conclusions you present: what the essential elements are, and the relationships they have to the final message. That is, it should not be just a description of what you did, but lead to some definite conclusion(s). This is your “contribution to knowledge”.

A reasonable argument. That is not just asserting your conclusion(s), but showing a reasonable discussion, an argument, reasons for accepting your conclusion. An argument consists of several parts, where some parts support others.

It is not just an argument, which is a structure in the mind, but also a structure for the writing. That is, the structure of the dissertation (what the parts are and how they relate to each other) should be strongly related to the logical structure of your argument.

Put in lots of “glue” statements to show readers how the parts relate; and to support readers who just dip in, or jump around. Not just a tree structure of subsections to organise the writer’s activity, but a set of signals that readers can easily use to organise theirs: signs to structure the reading.’

His full approach is outlined in his blog post ‘Creating the skeleton for a thesis’.


Create a thesis skeleton using the following prompts.

Decide on your thesis message

Use the resources on argument and contribution section to help you with this, as well as this resource by Draper. Revisit the story of your doctorate exercise.

Decide on your argument structure

Use the resources on argument and contribution section to help you with this, as well as this resource by Draper. Revisit the better than Donald/argument mapping exercise.

Create a scaffolding structure for your writing

For every piece of your thesis (every chapter, section, subsection; every table and figure) write down what this element is meant to do in the thesis, what it relies on and/or refers to, what later bits rely on it. Write this out, put it in the text at (say) the start of each piece, put it in italics or something to mark it as a message to you not to the reader.  For example:

  • This chapter will argue that…
  • This section illustrates that…
  • This paragraph provides evidence that…

You can also use your plan to help prompt your writing when you get stuck, and to develop clarity in your writing.

Signpost the structure for your readers – the ‘glue’

You need to make this structure clear to the reader. Consider these techniques to do this:

  • Organising the thesis into parts: dividing it into chapters, sections and perhaps subsections, and giving these names and numbers.
  • Things such as contents pages to tell readers where to jump to.
  • Things such as titles and opening paragraphs that tell a reader who has jumped in as quickly as possible whether they are in the right place for their purposes.

Dr. Edward Mills, former PGR in Modern Languages had a number of different options for structuring his thesis. He outlined these options, with the pros and cons of each approach, to help him decide which structure to use. He has shared this with us as a downloadable case study.


Using this blank template, map out the different options for structuring your thesis and the pros and cons of each approach.

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