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How to structure a chapter of a thesis or dissertation

In order for a thesis or dissertation to take the reader smoothly from what the research sets out to do through to its completion, each chapter must have a clear purpose.

There are two particularly useful techniques for achieving this, and using them will show up any clumsy thinking that needs further attention. The first gives a structure for the introductory paragraph or section of any chapter, and the second gives a structure for the final section or paragraph of the chapter. Both produce clear linkages between the chapters of the thesis or dissertation.

A structure for the introduction to a chapter

It should be clear from a chapter's introductory paragraph or section where that chapter fits into the rest of the storyline, i.e. where it carries on from previous chapters. The technique for accomplishing this is to draft a few keywords or notes for the chapter under each of the following headings:

General information

Then edit the notes together to form the first paragraph or section of the chapter.

You may choose to draft these notes before you write the chapter, so that they serve as a structure. Or you may like to tease them out from a chapter that you have already written. Either way, some rethinking will probably be necessary during the process, with the result that the chapter fits more smoothly into the overall thesis or dissertation.

A structure for the final section or paragraph of a chapter

The concluding section or paragraph of a chapter should indicate how the theme of the chapter has fitted into one or more of the storylines and (except of course for the final chapter) is carried on elsewhere in later chapters. The technique for doing this consists of writing a few keywords or notes under each of the following headings:

Sections from The Research Student's Guide to Success in the chapter on preparing the thesis / dissertation

The importance of the thesis

The need to recap on the writing and referencing techniques of previous chapters

Orientating yourself for the task ahead

Developing a framework of chapters

Developing the content of a chapter

Sequencing the content within a chapter

Linking chapters into one or more storylines

Cross-referencing in the thesis

The writing process

Producing the abstract

Presenting the thesis in accordance with institutional requirements

Then edit the notes together. As with writing the introductory section or paragraph, this technique will probably show up where some rethinking and redrafting is necessary.

There are examples in the book.


© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.