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The Best Way to Structure Your Thesis or Dissertation


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A thesis or dissertation lives or dies by two main factors: 1. The thesis statement and 2. The story you tell about that statement. Did you see what I did there? I started a paper about thesis structure with a thesis statement. Now let's see how well the paper tells the story of that statement…

In general, there are different requirements of a thesis or dissertation in different fields of study, and even different institutions – dissertations on scientific research usually require an abstract, a liberal arts discipline might not. Sometimes the author is directed to use objective language, and never, ever, ever use "I," while in my critical dissertation for my MFA in Creative Writing, I was encouraged to make personal, subjective statements, on personal, subjective findings and bring my research into perspective based on my own creative projects. Regardless of the traditions of your field or institution, there are, unequivocally, a few things every thesis must have.

How to structure a thesis statement

The thesis statement is the roadmap for your entire dissertation. It is what tells the reader where they are going, what kind of road they are taking, the points of interest along the way, and the destination. It is usually the final sentence of your opening paragraph (whether that is the abstract or not). It is the statement of what you believe, and what you will prove.

Perfecting Your Thesis Statement

There are few different types or styles of thesis statements, including analytical or expository, but the single most compelling kind of thesis statement is the argumentative. I would argue that any thesis statement, regardless of field or discipline, can be presented in the argumentative form, and that form is what will transform your dissertation from a list of facts to a story about the significance of your findings.

Thinking about your thesis statement as a stake in the ground, a line in the sand, a revolutionary idea that you believe in, is a way to bring your personal investment to the dissertation form, which does everything it can to make you remove yourself from the work. Your thesis statement should take a stand, rather than announce a subject; your statement should be an assertion that requires evidence, not an observation or fact that is universally agreed; your statement should present an idea new to the reader, to make them wonder "How?" or "Why?" or simply "Wow."

Here are the practical ways to do that:

  • A thesis statement must have a narrow focus. We often write a dissertation on an idea that really gets us going – we want to research and explore all the pockets of discourse to date, find interesting peripherals, follow unexpected threads, fall down the rabbit hole… but that is the path to frustration and confusion, friend. As wide ranging as your research might be, your thesis statement does not need to incorporate any counter arguments, and it should not include alternatives. It should be a statement about a single idea, which is narrow enough that the dissertation can stand the weight of all the relevant research.
  • A thesis statement should not contain two conflicting ideas, or a question, or vagaries. You've done the research, you have found which is the most supported and supportable idea, you have answered the question. You don't need to be coy about that.
  • A thesis statement is your main idea, not the title of your dissertation. Which means: feel free to make the thesis statement interesting, but not clickbait. It also means: feel free to make your title click bait…(as long as you can back it up with the thesis statement!)

How the structure of the thesis statement is the structure of your dissertation

If your thesis statement works, then the rest of the dissertation is simply an explanation, a conversation, a justification – the story – of how you came to that statement.

The same way a fiction narrative story raises questions that must be answered – will the girl get the guy? Will the teenager's mom understand them? Will the physicist unlock the secret of pulsars? – your thesis statement has raised questions in the mind of your reader. Your dissertation must answer them. Again – you've done the research, you know what your conclusion is, you know where this story is heading. The questions that are raised in the mind of the reader? You are the one raising them. If your thesis statement isn't the start of that journey for your reader, you're going to need to rewrite it.

Okay: at this point we need some real talk. This particular article is not a dissertation. So I can do something that you might not be allowed to do in your dissertation: I can, mid-way, introduce a new thesis statement! A new idea! A total ninety degree turn! A twist in the plot! I can do that because this is an essay about process, and process is iterative. Ready? You can change your thesis statement. In the process of research, of drafting the dissertation, of researching further, or redrafting…your initial thesis statement might, in fact, in actuality, in reality, not be supportable, not be specific enough, might be a statement of fact rather than an opening argument of a position. If what your dissertation is discussion and unfolding and illuminating is not directly relevant to the thesis statement, or can't be drawn as directly relevant within three paragraphs, then – real talk – you got to drop that idea from the paper, or revise the thesis statement. If the answer is revise the statement (and it may well be – one mark of a decent research endeavor is that you find something unexpectedly meaningful that you didn't know before), be sure to keep in mind all the ideas (I won't say rules) you followed in the first part of this essay.

Rinse and repeat.

What every dissertation or academic thesis needs, however that shows up on the page

In some circumstances, including scientific research, the sequence of the elements in a dissertation are prescribed. At the other end of that spectrum – liberal arts, say – the sequence is more fluid, but the elements are the same. And, regardless of field, every element must be an explanation, exploration or story of your thesis statement.

  1. Abstract/Introduction: Although these are two very different elements, with their own guidelines and purpose, I am combining them because not every dissertation requires both, but every dissertation has to start somewhere. If you can, write this part last. This is the stage for your thesis statement. Which means that you should have been through the process, done the research, written the draft/s, to the point where you can articulate the argument that is the roadmap for the rest of the story of the paper. If you need to start at the start when you write (and many of us do – I'm not saying I do… but I'm not not saying that either), make one hundred percent sure that you revisit the introduction to achieve ultimate clarity of your thesis statement and the beginning of your dissertation. Specific questions to answer in the introduction, regardless of the allowances of your field, are about your particular interest – why did you choose to spend so very many hours of research on this idea – and general relevance – why do you care? Why should we care? Why is this important? Niche or general importance? Possibilities of what might come after?
  2. Method: What approach have you taken in your research? How did you gather your data and conclusions? Lab experiments? Thought experiments? Social science techniques like interviews or questionnaires? Text analysis? Be specific. No one ever got bored of reading about details like this. They lose interest when you skip or gloss over your method, and you lose credibility. Your credibility increases with every time you acknowledge difficulties, pitfalls and surprises in your method – or even how you started with one methodology but found another was more useful to your thesis statement.
  3. Literature review: What are the articles and texts – the prior academia – that have informed your research, and what is your take on that literature? There is always room for interpretation, or for raising questions about prior academic publications: what is the context of that paper? Are you following a direct line from an idea raised? Are you applying a different lens to an established idea? Even in observational sciences, never be afraid to understand and discuss the cultural, racial and socio-economic context or, possible biases, of prior researchers, their protocols, samples and findings.
  4. Discussion: This bit is super tricky. In order to craft a compelling thesis statement, you need a compelling level of conviction in that idea. In a discussion, you need to step back from that conviction – you need to assess your own findings with the same criticism, the same objectivity, or in the same context, as your literature review. What are the limitations of your research? What are the assumptions you made? Can you anticipate counter arguments or alternative research methods or approaches? A level of understanding of the context of your research gives credibility to the work you have done, by acknowledging that academic research is a continuous process that you, and others, co-contribute to.
  5. Conclusion: Another tricky part of your dissertation. I had a professor once who articulated it this way: The introduction is where you tell the reader what you are going to do, the body is where you do exactly that, and the conclusion is where you tell the reader what you just told them. The conclusion must directly reflect the thesis statement. If it doesn't, this is another decision point where you might need to revise the thesis statement…or the dissertation as a whole. A conclusion is often thought of as a summary. But, what if we think of this section as highlighting your work: Highlight what you wanted to achieve; highlight how you went about that; highlight what you found; highlight new questions raised by your findings; highlight the limitations of your findings and prompt future research possibilities.

Notice that every element of the dissertation includes questions for you, the researcher and writer. This is the way that you will tell the story of your thesis statement – by thinking about each section or element, not in terms of the data, the method, the finding – or not only in those terms. Dissertations, in any field, are the product of the preoccupations, research and ideas of individual academics and researchers. How does your dissertation tell the story of you?

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