How to structure your PhD thesis

Organising your PhD thesis in a logical order is one of the crucial stages of your writing process. Here is a list of the individual components to include

Writing tips
Shama Prasada Kabekkodu's avatar
18 Jun 2024
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PhD student writing her dissertation
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The task of writing a PhD thesis is top of mind for many aspiring scholars. After all, completing one is no small task. And while these pieces of writing often share a standard format, this can differ slightly based on the requirements of your institution or subject. So what elements make up a PhD thesis?

A doctoral thesis usually contains:

  • A title page
  • Declarations from the candidate and supervisor
  • A certificate from the candidate and supervisor
  • A plagiarism report
  • Acknowledgements 
  • A table of contents
  • Abbreviations 
  • An abstract
  • Chapters.

Chapters typically cover:

  • A general introduction 
  • Literature review
  • Analysis of the gap in research with aims and objectives
  • Materials and methods
  • Results
  • Summary and conclusion
  • Outlook
  • References or bibliography. 

You should also include a list of papers you have published and any relevant achievements at the end. 

An explanation of each of the components of a PhD dissertation 

Title page: a PhD thesis starts with a title page that contains the complete title of the research work, the submitting university, names of the candidate and supervisor, affiliation and month and year of submission.

Abstract: this serves as a concise synopsis of the dissertation, covering the research context, purpose of the study or research questions, methodology, findings and conclusions. This section is usually one to two pages in length. 

Table of contents: this page lists the thesis content and respective page numbers.

General introduction and literature review: this component is usually 20 to 40 pages long. It presents the readers with the primary material and discusses relevant published data. It provides an overview of pertinent literature related to the thesis such as texts that critically assess the existing literature to identify the gap in research and explain the need behind the study. 

Aims and objectives: this section of the thesis is typically one to two pages long and describes the aims and objectives of the study. Structure them as three to four bullet points describing specific points that you will investigate. Approach this by thinking about what readers should understand by the end of the thesis. Ensure you:

  • Give a clear explanation of the purpose and goals of your study 
  • Outline each aim concisely
  • Explain how you will measure your objectives
  • Ensure there is a clear connection between each aim
  • Use verbs such as investigate, evaluate, explore, analyse and demonstrate.

Materials and methods: this section briefly explains how you have conducted the study and should include all the materials you used and procedures you implemented. For example, if your research involves working with chemicals, list the chemicals and instruments used, along with their catalogue numbers and manufacturers’ names. This section should also explicitly explain the methodology you used, step-by-step. Use the past tense while writing this section and do not describe any results or findings of the study yet.

Results: this section is sometimes called the “findings report” or “the experimental findings” (referring to data collection and analysis). Write the results concisely and in the past tense. Include text, figure and table infographics created with tools such as Microsoft PowerPoint, Adobe Illustrator and BioRender to visualise your data

Discussion: this is a chance to discuss the results and compare the findings of your study with the initial hypothesis and existing knowledge. Focus on discussing interpretations, implications, limitations and recommendations here.

Summary and conclusion: this section should be shorter than the discussion and summarise your key findings. The summary and conclusion should be brief and engaging, allowing the reader to easily understand the major findings of the research work. Provide clear answers to the research questions, generate new knowledge and clarify the need for the study. 

Future perspective: this section of the thesis (which is often combined with a summary or conclusion) talks about the study's limitations, if any, and indicates the directions for future studies based on your findings. 

References or bibliography: the last section should include the list of articles, websites and other resources cited in the thesis.

Always remember that, depending on the department, university or field of study, you might have to follow specific guidelines on how to organise your PhD thesis. Ensure you consult your supervisor or academic department if you have any doubts.

Shama Prasada Kabekkodu is a professor and head of cell and molecular biology at Manipal School of Life Sciences, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.

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