Why is there not a single Doctoral Thesis outline or structure?

After working with the transcription for my doctoral thesis, I have found creating the structural outline for the entire write-up to be the greatest challenge.

Now, don’t shake your head wondering why I am considering this. Indeed, we always need an intro, and some literature, methods, data analysis, and the like. The trick I have found, least for those of us working on a doctoral thesis or doctoral dissertation, is to determine the structure of this given that we are conducting original research.

There is the main issue–this is ORIGINAL research. Why (or how?!) can my work follow the same structure as somebody else’s? Yes, we somehow need to address some of the same things, but our research designs and personal interests and writing skills all come into play. Nobody (I hope!) would confuse a randomized control trial with an autoethnographic inquiry, so why (or how?) should they look or be structured the same? My research engages in narrative inquiry (with a healthy dose of actor-network theory), and as my interpretation will be presented alongside the analysis itself (at least in some places), the thinking about using a cookie-cutter approach to chapters and sections vanishes. For those of us who relish in the originality while still wanting to follow a map, this part of the process can certainly cause some concern.

I take 2 mg of klonopin a day. 1 mg I take in the morning and 1 mg before bed. I have been told by doctor that I have severe panic attack.

While an Introduction usually precedes Data Collection, consider that there is not only a single way to organize all of this. Some of these elements, such as the researcher’s ontological stance, disciplinary frame where the research is situated, and significance–to name only a few–can be placed in different locations, as needed. At times they may not even need to be isolated (or even mentioned); again, it depends on your work . . . and original work means there is no standard outline that works best for everybody; you have to make it up yourself.

BTW, don’t forget to be prepared to explain why you did so!

6 thoughts on “Why is there not a single Doctoral Thesis outline or structure?

  1. I’m in the School of Ed. They provide us with a Word doc template to follow. It’s got all the fun pre-TOC pages (acknowledgments, abstract) and the 5 chapters with major sub-headings. We can and do alter it a bit. For example, I’m doing a Mixed Methods Case Study so I had to add subs in Ch 3 reflecting that and a background to org studied in Ch 1.

    I’m in do whatever hoops necessary to finish mode, so the template is not currently bothering me. I’m actually thankful that it has removed a layer of complexity for me to decide what order things go in…or write something and find out I missed something.

  2. @Christiana
    Good for you with your progress! We have a sample or so, but were not given a formalized chapter by chapter outline, in the expectation (I believe) that we really need to come to our own terms with what needs to be in there, much of which will be negotiated with our supervisors. While it may have been easier to be given a format with the understanding that we can adapt it, I feel that I have gained a valuable expeience by agonizing over it as I have in the past few weeks. I now have a sense of ownership and accomplishment that helps me move forward with my work.

    I agree with the whatever hoops business — let’s go!


  3. I don’t think a single structure could, or should be made. My thesis contains no literature review, no data analysis (unless you count ideas and reasons as data), and no section on methodology – it’s entire focus is upon contructing reasoned arguments and responding to those of others. Another academic in my department doesn’t believe in the necessity of concluding chapters or sections. Not only would a single structure be insensitive to the needs of different disciplines, but it would, in my view, suck another drop of creativity out of the PhD writing process.

    1. @Steve Cooke-
      Thanks for sharing that perspective. Disciplinarity in PhD writing is yet another issues that makes all this discussion valuable; thanks for sharing it. Tell me, does that mean that different doctoral researchers in your department all follow different outlines, due to this issue?
      I also agree about sucking every last drop out of PhD creativity — I suppose people often want to standardize things to the extent that sameness gets rather dull, ehh?

  4. I agree with Jeffrey that doctoral candidates need more help than they often get in planning the structure and content of their thesis. But at the same time they need something that’s appropriate to their work, and a sense of ownership of it.

    Having a good structure planned is really important in the writing process, at least for me. However there are great disciplinary differences in what’s appropriate and one can only really talk about a limited field in terms of offering examples of structures. Even within that one field of study there can be large variations, as noted above, depending on the topic of the research, the design and the theoretical perspective/s adopted.

    All of that is why I’ve been writing a short book for the Kindle platform on the topic, but only for a limited area of doctoral research. The title is: Doctoral Research into Higher Education: Thesis structure, content and completion.

    There is a chapter about non-traditional thesis structures in there – my own PhD had no literature review chapter, for example. And I hope I’ve managed to provide advice and examples without being too prescriptive – sucking out the creativity. that’s been my aim at least.

    It will be published next week – just a little section to add tomorrow morning.


    1. Thank you for your comment, Paul. Appreciate your sharing this perspective, especially in advance of your forthcoming book (please, post or email me a link to it once it is ready!).

      In many ways, you raised some additional items about this, especially regarding the cookie-cutter approach that is old reliable that a supervisor may suggest if he or she does not know about some of the intricacies of the design or methodology (cf. autoethnography, visual ethnography, etc.) or even cannot fully grasp some of the focused needs of a practice-based thesis (especially if the well-intentioned supervisor comes from a “pure” research-based tradition, as is common). While none of these examples come from my personal experiences with my supervisors, my own research http://silenceandvoice.com/doctoral-thesis/ points to disatrous consequences of mis-alignment, something that is more common than one may think by only comparing what is listed on a paper as descriptors!

      One trend I see here in the US, where I live while engaging in an international study while engaging in my own formal studies in the UK, is the increasing amount of professional doctorates designed and developed and supervised by research faculty, many of whom have never practiced in their own fields of research!

      These are the sorts of issues that I find so appealing in my research, especially as juxtaposed by the knowledge that I need to experience this myself; in that way I find my own struggles for how to “do” my thesis all conflated with seeing how others navigate these very processes, some with more success or smooth riding than others. Nevertheless, the adage that a good thesis is a DONE thesis points to the need to work in a structure that I find comfortable and sensible while still falling within the boundaries of what is “acceptable” to get approved.

      Looking forward to seeing your work; perhaps it will help me with my own thesis!


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