Advice

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What Is a PhD Thesis?

Summary

This page will explain what a PhD thesis is and offer advice on how to write a good thesis, from outlining the typical structure to guiding you through the referencing. A summary of this page is as follows:

  • A PhD thesis is a concentrated piece of original research which must be carried out by all PhD students in order to successfully earn their doctoral degree.
  • The fundamental purpose of a thesis is to explain the conclusion that has been reached as a result of undertaking the research project.
  • The typical PhD thesis structure will contain four chapters of original work sandwiched between a literature review chapter and a concluding chapter.
  • There is no universal rule for the length of a thesis, but general guidelines set the word count between 70,000 to 100,000 words.

What Is a Thesis?

A thesis is the main output of a PhD as it explains your workflow in reaching the conclusions you have come to in undertaking the research project. As a result, much of the content of your thesis will be based around your chapters of original work.

For your thesis to be successful, it needs to adequately defend your argument and provide a unique or increased insight into your field that was not previously available. As such, you can’t rely on other ideas or results to produce your thesis; it needs to be an original piece of text that belongs to you and you alone.

What Should a Thesis Include?

Although each thesis will be unique, they will all follow the same general format. To demonstrate this, we’ve put together an example structure of a PhD thesis and explained what you should include in each section below.

Acknowledgements

This is a personal section which you may or may not choose to include. The vast majority of students include it, giving both gratitude and recognition to their supervisor, university, sponsor/funder and anyone else who has supported them along the way.

1. Introduction

Provide a brief overview of your reason for carrying out your research project and what you hope to achieve by undertaking it. Following this, explain the structure of your thesis to give the reader context for what he or she is about to read.

2. Literature Review

Set the context of your research by explaining the foundation of what is currently known within your field of research, what recent developments have occurred, and where the gaps in knowledge are. You should conclude the literature review by outlining the overarching aims and objectives of the research project.

3. Main Body

This section focuses on explaining all aspects of your original research and so will form the bulk of your thesis. Typically, this section will contain four chapters covering the below:

  1. your research/data collection methodologies,
  2. your results,
  3. a comprehensive analysis of your results,
  4. a detailed discussion of your findings.

Depending on your project, each of your chapters may independently contain the structure listed above or in some projects, each chapter could be focussed entirely on one aspect (e.g. a standalone results chapter). Ideally, each of these chapters should be formatted such that they could be translated into papers for submission to peer-reviewed journals. Therefore, following your PhD, you should be able to submit papers for peer-review by reusing content you have already produced.

4. Conclusion

The conclusion will be a summary of your key findings with emphasis placed on the new contributions you have made to your field.

When producing your conclusion, it’s imperative that you relate it back to your original research aims, objectives and hypotheses. Make sure you have answered your original question.

How Many Words Is a PhD Thesis?

A common question we receive from students is – “how long should my thesis be?“.

Every university has different guidelines on this matter, therefore, consult with your university to get an understanding of their full requirements. Generally speaking, most supervisors will suggest somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 words. This usually corresponds to somewhere between 250 – 350 pages.

We must stress that this is flexible, and it is important not to focus solely on the length of your thesis, but rather the quality.

How Do I Format My Thesis?

Although the exact formatting requirements will vary depending on the university, the typical formatting policies adopted by most universities are:

ElementFormat
FontAny serif font e.g. Times New Roman, Arial or Cambria
Font Size12pt
Vertical Line Spacing1.5 Lines
Page SizeA4
Page LayoutPortrait
Page MarginsVariable, however, must allow space for binding
ReferencingVariable, however, typically Harvard or Vancouver

What Happens When I Finish My Thesis?

After you have submitted your thesis, you will attend a viva. A viva is an interview-style examination during which you are required to defend your thesis and answer questions on it. The aim of the viva is to convince your examiners that your work is of the level required for a doctoral degree. It is one of the last steps in the PhD process and arguably one of the most daunting!

For more information on the viva process and for tips on how to confidently pass it, please refer to our in-depth PhD Viva Guide.

How Do I Publish My Thesis?

Unfortunately, you can’t publish your thesis in its entirety in a journal. However, universities can make it available for others to read through their library system.

If you want to submit your work in a journal, you will need to develop it into one or more peer-reviewed papers. This will largely involve reformatting, condensing and tailoring it to meet the standards of the journal you are targeting.

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