Academic Writing

Genres in academic writing: Research dissertations & theses

Examples of dissertation & thesis structure

A: Williams, Bethell, Lawton, Parfitt-Brown, Richardson & Rowe (2011, chap. 9) give the following examples of thesis structure:

1 Social Science (Education)

  Title Page
Contents Page
2. Main text 1. Introduction 
2. Research Question/Statement of Problem
3/4. Literature Review
5. Methodology
6/7. Results 
8. Discussion/Implications
9. Conclusion
3. End matter Bibliography/References

2 Arts (Dance)

  Title Page
Contents Page
2. Main text 1. Introduction 
2. Literature Review & Methodology
3(-7). Themed Content Chapters
8. Conclusion
3. End matter Bibliography

3 Science (Primary Cognition)

1. Preliminaries Title Page
Contents: List of Appendices, Tables & Figures
2. Main text 1. Introduction 
2. Methods 1
3. Methods 2
4. Experiment 1
5. Experiment 2
6. Experiment 3
7. Conclusions
3. End matter Appendices


See: Williams, Bethell, Lawton, Parfitt-Brown, Richardson & Rowe (2011, chap. 9) for more information.

4 Business & Management

Horn (2012) provides the following macro structure for dissertations in business and management:

Table of Contents
Table of Figures & Illustrations
Main text Introduction 
Literature Review
Methodology: More details
Data Collection
Analysis of Data
Findings from Data


and further details on the methodology section: Writing Genre Theses 3

B: Other writers (e.g. Cooley & Lewkowicz, 2003; Murray & Beglar, 2009; Paltridge & Starfield, 2007; Thomas, 2011) offer the following structures for the main text:

1. Traditional: Simple

(for e.g. experimental studies in the sciences and social sciences)

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Literature Review
Chapter 3 Materials & Methods
Chapter 4 Results
Chapter 5 Discussion
Chapter 6 Conclusion(s)

2. Complex/Multiple Study Dissertation

(for e.g. experimental studies in the sciences and social sciences)

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Background to Study and Literature Review
Chapter 3 (Background Theory)
Chapter 4 (General Methods)
Chapter 5 Study 1:
Discussion and Conclusion(s)
Chapter 6 Study 2:
Discussion and Conclusion(s)
Chapter 7 Study 3:
Discussion and Conclusion(s)
... ...
Chapter X-1 Overall Discussion
Chapter X General Conclusion(s)

3. Topic-Based Organisation

(for e.g. humanities)

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Topic 1:
Analysis/Discussion of Topic/Text etc.
Chapter 3 Topic 2:
Analysis/Discussion of Topic/Text etc
Chapter 4 Topic 3:
Analysis/Discussion of Topic/Text etc
... ...
Chapter X Conclusion(s)


C: For a topic-based thesis, Carter, Kelly & Brailsford (2012, pp. 39-41) suggest the following ways for organising the topics: chronological, least to most important, external to internal, theory to practice, old pattern to new material, general to specific, thesis as an hour glass, and international to local.

D: Murray (2011) gives the following to be used as a starting point

Generic Thesis Structure

Introduction/Background/Review of Literature

Define the gap in the literature
Define and justify your project


Method of inquiry
Show links between your method and others
Justify your method


Document the analysis, showing how you carried it out
Report what you found
Prioritize sections for the thesis or for an appendix


Justify your interpretation
Synthesize results in illustrations, tables, graphs, etc.


For future practice
Report issues which were beyond the scope of this study


E: British Standard BS 4821: Presentation of Theses and Dissertations (1990) gives the following main elements for the presentation of thesem dissertations and similar documents.


Front Matter

1 Title page

2 Abstract

3 List of contents

4 List of illustrations and tables

5 List of accompanying material

6 Preface, Acknowledgements

7 Author's declaration

8 Definitions

Main Body Text, divided in chapters, sections, etc.
End Matter

1 Appendidces

2 Glossary

3 List of references

4 Bibliography

5 Index

F: Perry (1998,p. 65) suggests the following broad structure:

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Model & hypotheses
Chapter 3 Methodology of data collection
Chapter 4 Analysis of collected data
Chapter 5 Contribution to body of knowledge

or in more detail, for marketing:

    Title page
    Abstract (with keywords)
    Table of contents
    List of tables
    List of figures
    Statement of original authorship
Introduction 1 Introduction
1.1 Background to the research
1.2 Research problem and hypotheses
1.3 Justification for the research
1.4 Methodology
1.5 Outline of the report
1.6 Definitions
1.7 Definitions of scope and key assumptions
1.8 Conclusion
Research Issues 2 Research issues (sections 2.3 & 2.4 might be allotted a chapter to themselves in a PhD thesis)
2.1 Introduction
2.2 (Parent disciplines/fields and classification models)
2.3 (Immediate discipline analysis models and research question or hypotheses)
2.4 Conclusion
Methodology 3 Methodology (there may be separate chapters for the methodologies of stages one and two of a PhD thesis)
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Justification for the paradigm and methodology
3.3 (Research procedure)
3.4 Ethical considerations)
3.5 Conclusion
Data Analysis 4 Analysis of data (this section usually refers to the analysis of the major stages of the research project)
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Brief description of subjects
4.3 (Patterns of data for each research question or hypothesis)
4.4 Conclusion
Conclusions 5 Conclusions and implications
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Conclusions about each research question or hypothesis
5.3 Conclusions about the research problem
5.4 Implications for theory
5.5 Implications for policy and practice
5.5.1 Private sector managers
5.5.2 Public sector policy analysts and managers
5.6 Limitations (if this section is necessary)


G: Naoum (1998) gives the following overall structure for construction students::

1 Title page
2 Summary of figures
3 Summary of tables
4 Acknowledgements
5 Abstract
6 Introduction
7 Literature review
8 Research design and method of analysis
9 Analysis of results
10 Summary and conclusions
11 Recommendations
12 References
13 Appendices


H. Mackey & Gass (2005) propose the following structure for a research report in second language acquistion:

Typical Research Paper Format




I. Introduction

A. Statement of topic area

B. Statement of general issues

C. General goal of paper

D. Literature review

1. Historical overview

2. Major contributions to this research area

3. Statement of purpose, including identification of gaps

4. Hypotheses

II. Method

A. Participants

1. How many?

2. Characteristics (male/female, proficiency level, native language, etc.)

B. Materials

1. What instruments?

2. What sort of test? What sort of task?

C. Procedures

1. How is the treatment to be administered?

2. How/when is the testing to be conducted?

D. Analysis How will the results be analyzed?

III. Results

Charts, tables, and/or figures accompanied by verbal descriptions

IV. Discussion /conclusion (often two separate sections)

Common features:

• Restatement of the main idea of the study

• Summary of the findings

• Interpretation of the findings in light of the research questions

• Proposed explanation of the findings, usually including information about any findings that were contrary to expectations

• Limitations of the study

• Suggestions for future research





Variations across disciplines

Gardner & Holmes (2009) show the following variations in the main body according to discipline.

Biological ScienceComputer ScienceEngineeringFood SciencePhysicsPsychology
Abstract Abstract Abstract Objective Abstract Abstract
Introduction 1. Introduction Introduction Introduction 1. Introduction Introduction
- 2. Theory Theory   - -
Materials and method 3. Design Apparatus and methods Method 2. Experimental details Method
Results 4. Implementation Observation and results Results 3. Results Results
Discussion 5. Results and analysis Analysis of results Calculation 4. Discussion Discussion
(Conclusion) 6. Conclusion Discussion Discussion    
(Future work)   Conclusion      
References References References References References References

How long should each section be?

Thomas (2011) suggests the following rough proportions for a 10,000 word dissertation:

ChaptersProportion of the whole
Number of words
(10,000 word dissertation)
1 Introduction 5 500
2 Literature Review 25 2500
3 Methodology 15 1500
4 Findings 20 2000
5 Analysis and discussion 30 3000
6 Conclusion 5 500


Dunleavy (2003, pp. 46-52) argues strongly that - apart from the Introduction and Conclusion - all chapters should be the same length, and recommends between 8,000 and 12,000 words for each chapter in a PhD thesis of 80,000 words. He recommends that there should be 8 chapters, with 5 of these - more than half - dealing with the core - those sections with high research value-added - of the thesis. These are preceded by two lead-in chapters and followed by a conclusion.

Lead-In Materials
(Introduction, Literature Review & Methods)
2 chapters at most

(Results & Discussion)
5/8ths of the words and 5 chapters

Lead-Out Materials
(Conclusions, Implications & Recommendations)
1 or 2 chapters