• A Guide to Writing a PhD Thesis

Written by Ben Taylor

A PhD thesis is a work of original research all students are requiured to submit in order to succesfully complete their PhD. The thesis details the research that you carried out during the course of your doctoral degree and highlights the outcomes and conclusions reached.

The PhD thesis is the most important part of a doctoral research degree: the culmination of three or four years of full-time work towards producing an original contribution to your academic field.

Your PhD dissertation can therefore seem like quite a daunting possibility, with a hefty word count, the pressure of writing something new and, of course, the prospect of defending it at a viva once you’ve finished.

This page will give you an introduction to what you need to know about the doctoral thesis, with advice on structure, feedback, submission and more.

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Beginning your PhD thesis

The first stage of your PhD thesis will usually be the literature review . We’ve already written a detailed guide to what the PhD literature review involves , but here’s what you need to know about this stage of your PhD:

  • The literature review is a chance for you to display your knowledge and understanding of what’s already been written about your research area – this could consist of papers, articles, books, data and more
  • Rather than simply summarising what other scholars have said about your subject, you should aim to assess and analyse their arguments
  • The literature review is usually the first task of your PhD – and typically forms the first part or chapter of your dissertation

After finishing your literature review, you’ll move onto the bulk of your doctoral thesis. Of course, you’ll eventually return to the lit review to make sure it’s up-to-date and contains any additional material you may have come across during the course of your research.

PhD thesis research

What sets your PhD thesis apart from previous university work you’ve done is the fact that it should represent an original contribution to academic knowledge . The form that this original contribution takes will largely depend on your discipline.

  • Arts and Humanities dissertations usually involve investigating different texts, sources and theoretical frameworks
  • Social Sciences are more likely to focus on qualitive or quantitative surveys and case studies
  • STEM subjects involve designing, recording and analysing experiments, using their data to prove or disprove a set theory

Depending on the nature of your research, you may ‘write up’ your findings as you go, or leave it until the dedicated ‘writing-up’ period, usually in the third year of your PhD. Whatever your approach, it’s vital to keep detailed notes of your sources and methods – it’ll make your life a lot easier when it comes to using references in your dissertation further down the line.

PhD thesis vs dissertation

It’s common to use the terms ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ interchangeably, but strictly speaking there is a difference in meaning between them:

  • Your thesis is your argument. It’s the conclusions you’ve arrived at through surveying existing scholarship in your literature review and combining this with the results of your own original research.
  • Your dissertation is the written statement of your thesis. This is where you lay out your findings in a way that systematically demonstrates and proves your conclusion.

Put simply, you submit a dissertation, but it’s the thesis it attempts to prove that will form the basis of your PhD.

What this also means is that the writing up of your dissertation generally follows the formulation of your doctoral thesis (it’s fairly difficult to write up a PhD before you know what you want to say!).

However, it’s normal for universities and academics to use either (or both) terms when describing PhD research – indeed, we use both ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ across our website.

Can I use my Masters research in my PhD thesis?

If you’re studying an MPhil, it’s normal to ‘ upgrade ’ it into a PhD. Find mroe information on our guide.

PhD thesis structure

Having completed your initial literature review and conducted your original research, you’ll move onto the next phase of your doctoral dissertation, beginning to sketch out a plan that your thesis will follow.

The exact structure and make-up of your doctoral thesis will vary between fields, but this is the general template that many dissertations follow:

  • Introduction – This sets out the key objectives of your project, why the work is significant and what its original contribution to knowledge is. At this point you may also summarise the remaining chapters, offering an abstract of the argument you will go on to develop.
  • Literature review – The introduction will generally lead into a write-up of your literature review. Here you’ll outline the scholarly context for your project. You’ll acknowledge where existing research has shaped your PhD, but emphasise the unique nature of your work.
  • Chapters – After you’ve finished introducing your research, you’ll begin the bulk of the dissertation. This will summarise your results and begin explaining the argument you have based on them. Some PhDs will also include specific chapters on methodology and / or a recreation of the data you have developed. Others will develop your argument over a series of stages, drawing on sources and results as relevant.
  • Conclusion – The dissertation will end with a final chapter that pulls together the different elements of your argument and the evidence you have provided for it. You’ll restate the significance of your project (and its all-important original contribution to knowledge). You may also take the opportunity to acknowledge the potential for further work or opportunities to apply your findings outside academia.
  • Bibliography and appendices – At the end of your thesis, you’ll need to include a full list of the books, articles and data you’ve referenced in a bibliography. You may also need to provide additional information in the form of an appendix.

How long is a PhD thesis?

The length of a PhD thesis varies from subject to subject, but all are far longer than those for undergraduate or Masters degrees. Your university will usually set an upper limit – typically between 70,000 and 100,000 words, with most dissertations coming in at around 80,000 words.

Generally speaking, STEM-based theses will be a little shorter than those in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Different universities (and departments) will have different policies regarding what counts towards the PhD thesis word count, so make sure you’re aware what is expected of you. Check with your supervisor whether references, the bibliography or appendices are included in the word count for your dissertation.

How many chapters should a PhD thesis have?

There’s no hard and fast rule for the numbers of chapters in a PhD thesis, but most will have four or five chapters (in addition to the introduction and conclusion). This is the sort of thing you’ll discuss with your supervisor when planning out your research.

Writing up your PhD thesis

Once you’ve conducted your research and settled upon your thesis, there’s only one thing left to do: get it down on paper. Appropriately enough, this final part of a PhD is often referred to as the ‘ writing up period ’.

This is when you produce the final dissertation, which will be submitted as the basis for your viva voce exam. The nature of this task can vary from PhD to PhD.

In some cases you may already have a large amount of chapter drafts and other material. ‘Writing up’ therefore becomes a process of re-drafting and assembling this work into a final dissertation. This approach is common in Arts and Humanities subjects where PhD students tend to work through stages of a project, writing as they go.

Alternatively, you may have spent most of your PhD collecting and analysing data. If so, you’ll now ‘write up’ your findings and conclusions in order to produce your final dissertation. This approach is more common in STEM subjects, where experiment design and data collection are much more resource intensive.

Whatever process you adopt, you’ll now produce a persuasive and coherent statement of your argument, ready to submit for examination.

PhD thesis feedback

Your supervisor will usually give you feedback on each chapter draft, and then feedback on the overall completed dissertation draft before you submit it for examination. When the thesis is a work-in-progress, their comments will be a chance for them to make sure your research is going in the right direction and for you to ask their advice on anything you’re concerned about. This feedback will normally be given in the form of a supervisory meeting.

Although your PhD supervisor will be happy to give you advice on your work, you shouldn’t expect them to be an editor – it’s not their responsibility to correct grammatical or spelling mistakes, and you should make sure any drafts you submit to them are as error-free as possible. Similarly, they won’t be willing to edit your work down to fit a particular word count.

Finishing your PhD thesis

When you’ve finished the final draft of your doctoral thesis and it’s been approved by your supervisor, you’ll submit it for examination. This is when it’s sent to the examiners who will conduct your viva.

Submitting your thesis involves printing enough copies for your examiners and the university’s repository. Don’t leave this until the last minute – printing multiple copies of a 300-page document is a substantial undertaking and you should always allow enough time to account for any possible glitches or issues with the printing process.

Your viva will usually take place within three months of submitting your thesis. You can find out more in our dedicated guide to the PhD viva . After your viva, your examiners will give you a report that confirms whether or not you need to make any changes to your thesis, with several different potential outcomes:

  • Pass – You’ve received your doctoral qualification!
  • Minor corrections – These are usually fairly small edits, tweaks and improvements to your thesis, which you’ll be given three months to implement
  • Major corrections – For these substantial changes, you may have to rewrite part of your dissertation or complete extra research, with a six-month deadline

Most PhD students will need to fix some corrections with their thesis (hopefully not major ones). It’s very rare for a dissertation to be failed.

Once you’ve made any necessary changes to your thesis, you’ll submit it one last time (usually electronically).

If you have plans to publish all or part of your work, you may want to request an embargo so that it won’t be visible to the public for a certain time. 12 months is a fairly standard time period for this, although you may want to ask for a longer embargo if you know that you want to turn your thesis into a book or monograph.

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  • What Is a PhD Thesis?
  • Doing a PhD

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:

  • your research/data collection methodologies,
  • your results,
  • a comprehensive analysis of your results,
  • 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.

Finding a PhD has never been this easy – search for a PhD by keyword, location or academic area of interest.

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:

Font Any serif font e.g. Times New Roman, Arial or Cambria
Font Size 12pt
Vertical Line Spacing 1.5 Lines
Page Size A4
Page Layout Portrait
Page Margins Variable, however, must allow space for binding
Referencing Variable, 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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Dissertation Structure & Layout 101: How to structure your dissertation, thesis or research project.

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) Reviewed By: David Phair (PhD) | July 2019

So, you’ve got a decent understanding of what a dissertation is , you’ve chosen your topic and hopefully you’ve received approval for your research proposal . Awesome! Now its time to start the actual dissertation or thesis writing journey.

To craft a high-quality document, the very first thing you need to understand is dissertation structure . In this post, we’ll walk you through the generic dissertation structure and layout, step by step. We’ll start with the big picture, and then zoom into each chapter to briefly discuss the core contents. If you’re just starting out on your research journey, you should start with this post, which covers the big-picture process of how to write a dissertation or thesis .

Dissertation structure and layout - the basics

*The Caveat *

In this post, we’ll be discussing a traditional dissertation/thesis structure and layout, which is generally used for social science research across universities, whether in the US, UK, Europe or Australia. However, some universities may have small variations on this structure (extra chapters, merged chapters, slightly different ordering, etc).

So, always check with your university if they have a prescribed structure or layout that they expect you to work with. If not, it’s safe to assume the structure we’ll discuss here is suitable. And even if they do have a prescribed structure, you’ll still get value from this post as we’ll explain the core contents of each section.  

Overview: S tructuring a dissertation or thesis

  • Acknowledgements page
  • Abstract (or executive summary)
  • Table of contents , list of figures and tables
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Literature review
  • Chapter 3: Methodology
  • Chapter 4: Results
  • Chapter 5: Discussion
  • Chapter 6: Conclusion
  • Reference list

As I mentioned, some universities will have slight variations on this structure. For example, they want an additional “personal reflection chapter”, or they might prefer the results and discussion chapter to be merged into one. Regardless, the overarching flow will always be the same, as this flow reflects the research process , which we discussed here – i.e.:

  • The introduction chapter presents the core research question and aims .
  • The literature review chapter assesses what the current research says about this question.
  • The methodology, results and discussion chapters go about undertaking new research about this question.
  • The conclusion chapter (attempts to) answer the core research question .

In other words, the dissertation structure and layout reflect the research process of asking a well-defined question(s), investigating, and then answering the question – see below.

A dissertation's structure reflect the research process

To restate that – the structure and layout of a dissertation reflect the flow of the overall research process . This is essential to understand, as each chapter will make a lot more sense if you “get” this concept. If you’re not familiar with the research process, read this post before going further.

Right. Now that we’ve covered the big picture, let’s dive a little deeper into the details of each section and chapter. Oh and by the way, you can also grab our free dissertation/thesis template here to help speed things up.

The title page of your dissertation is the very first impression the marker will get of your work, so it pays to invest some time thinking about your title. But what makes for a good title? A strong title needs to be 3 things:

  • Succinct (not overly lengthy or verbose)
  • Specific (not vague or ambiguous)
  • Representative of the research you’re undertaking (clearly linked to your research questions)

Typically, a good title includes mention of the following:

  • The broader area of the research (i.e. the overarching topic)
  • The specific focus of your research (i.e. your specific context)
  • Indication of research design (e.g. quantitative , qualitative , or  mixed methods ).

For example:

A quantitative investigation [research design] into the antecedents of organisational trust [broader area] in the UK retail forex trading market [specific context/area of focus].

Again, some universities may have specific requirements regarding the format and structure of the title, so it’s worth double-checking expectations with your institution (if there’s no mention in the brief or study material).

Dissertations stacked up

Acknowledgements

This page provides you with an opportunity to say thank you to those who helped you along your research journey. Generally, it’s optional (and won’t count towards your marks), but it is academic best practice to include this.

So, who do you say thanks to? Well, there’s no prescribed requirements, but it’s common to mention the following people:

  • Your dissertation supervisor or committee.
  • Any professors, lecturers or academics that helped you understand the topic or methodologies.
  • Any tutors, mentors or advisors.
  • Your family and friends, especially spouse (for adult learners studying part-time).

There’s no need for lengthy rambling. Just state who you’re thankful to and for what (e.g. thank you to my supervisor, John Doe, for his endless patience and attentiveness) – be sincere. In terms of length, you should keep this to a page or less.

Abstract or executive summary

The dissertation abstract (or executive summary for some degrees) serves to provide the first-time reader (and marker or moderator) with a big-picture view of your research project. It should give them an understanding of the key insights and findings from the research, without them needing to read the rest of the report – in other words, it should be able to stand alone .

For it to stand alone, your abstract should cover the following key points (at a minimum):

  • Your research questions and aims – what key question(s) did your research aim to answer?
  • Your methodology – how did you go about investigating the topic and finding answers to your research question(s)?
  • Your findings – following your own research, what did do you discover?
  • Your conclusions – based on your findings, what conclusions did you draw? What answers did you find to your research question(s)?

So, in much the same way the dissertation structure mimics the research process, your abstract or executive summary should reflect the research process, from the initial stage of asking the original question to the final stage of answering that question.

In practical terms, it’s a good idea to write this section up last , once all your core chapters are complete. Otherwise, you’ll end up writing and rewriting this section multiple times (just wasting time). For a step by step guide on how to write a strong executive summary, check out this post .

Need a helping hand?

how to do phd thesis

Table of contents

This section is straightforward. You’ll typically present your table of contents (TOC) first, followed by the two lists – figures and tables. I recommend that you use Microsoft Word’s automatic table of contents generator to generate your TOC. If you’re not familiar with this functionality, the video below explains it simply:

If you find that your table of contents is overly lengthy, consider removing one level of depth. Oftentimes, this can be done without detracting from the usefulness of the TOC.

Right, now that the “admin” sections are out of the way, its time to move on to your core chapters. These chapters are the heart of your dissertation and are where you’ll earn the marks. The first chapter is the introduction chapter – as you would expect, this is the time to introduce your research…

It’s important to understand that even though you’ve provided an overview of your research in your abstract, your introduction needs to be written as if the reader has not read that (remember, the abstract is essentially a standalone document). So, your introduction chapter needs to start from the very beginning, and should address the following questions:

  • What will you be investigating (in plain-language, big picture-level)?
  • Why is that worth investigating? How is it important to academia or business? How is it sufficiently original?
  • What are your research aims and research question(s)? Note that the research questions can sometimes be presented at the end of the literature review (next chapter).
  • What is the scope of your study? In other words, what will and won’t you cover ?
  • How will you approach your research? In other words, what methodology will you adopt?
  • How will you structure your dissertation? What are the core chapters and what will you do in each of them?

These are just the bare basic requirements for your intro chapter. Some universities will want additional bells and whistles in the intro chapter, so be sure to carefully read your brief or consult your research supervisor.

If done right, your introduction chapter will set a clear direction for the rest of your dissertation. Specifically, it will make it clear to the reader (and marker) exactly what you’ll be investigating, why that’s important, and how you’ll be going about the investigation. Conversely, if your introduction chapter leaves a first-time reader wondering what exactly you’ll be researching, you’ve still got some work to do.

Now that you’ve set a clear direction with your introduction chapter, the next step is the literature review . In this section, you will analyse the existing research (typically academic journal articles and high-quality industry publications), with a view to understanding the following questions:

  • What does the literature currently say about the topic you’re investigating?
  • Is the literature lacking or well established? Is it divided or in disagreement?
  • How does your research fit into the bigger picture?
  • How does your research contribute something original?
  • How does the methodology of previous studies help you develop your own?

Depending on the nature of your study, you may also present a conceptual framework towards the end of your literature review, which you will then test in your actual research.

Again, some universities will want you to focus on some of these areas more than others, some will have additional or fewer requirements, and so on. Therefore, as always, its important to review your brief and/or discuss with your supervisor, so that you know exactly what’s expected of your literature review chapter.

Dissertation writing

Now that you’ve investigated the current state of knowledge in your literature review chapter and are familiar with the existing key theories, models and frameworks, its time to design your own research. Enter the methodology chapter – the most “science-ey” of the chapters…

In this chapter, you need to address two critical questions:

  • Exactly HOW will you carry out your research (i.e. what is your intended research design)?
  • Exactly WHY have you chosen to do things this way (i.e. how do you justify your design)?

Remember, the dissertation part of your degree is first and foremost about developing and demonstrating research skills . Therefore, the markers want to see that you know which methods to use, can clearly articulate why you’ve chosen then, and know how to deploy them effectively.

Importantly, this chapter requires detail – don’t hold back on the specifics. State exactly what you’ll be doing, with who, when, for how long, etc. Moreover, for every design choice you make, make sure you justify it.

In practice, you will likely end up coming back to this chapter once you’ve undertaken all your data collection and analysis, and revise it based on changes you made during the analysis phase. This is perfectly fine. Its natural for you to add an additional analysis technique, scrap an old one, etc based on where your data lead you. Of course, I’m talking about small changes here – not a fundamental switch from qualitative to quantitative, which will likely send your supervisor in a spin!

You’ve now collected your data and undertaken your analysis, whether qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods. In this chapter, you’ll present the raw results of your analysis . For example, in the case of a quant study, you’ll present the demographic data, descriptive statistics, inferential statistics , etc.

Typically, Chapter 4 is simply a presentation and description of the data, not a discussion of the meaning of the data. In other words, it’s descriptive, rather than analytical – the meaning is discussed in Chapter 5. However, some universities will want you to combine chapters 4 and 5, so that you both present and interpret the meaning of the data at the same time. Check with your institution what their preference is.

Now that you’ve presented the data analysis results, its time to interpret and analyse them. In other words, its time to discuss what they mean, especially in relation to your research question(s).

What you discuss here will depend largely on your chosen methodology. For example, if you’ve gone the quantitative route, you might discuss the relationships between variables . If you’ve gone the qualitative route, you might discuss key themes and the meanings thereof. It all depends on what your research design choices were.

Most importantly, you need to discuss your results in relation to your research questions and aims, as well as the existing literature. What do the results tell you about your research questions? Are they aligned with the existing research or at odds? If so, why might this be? Dig deep into your findings and explain what the findings suggest, in plain English.

The final chapter – you’ve made it! Now that you’ve discussed your interpretation of the results, its time to bring it back to the beginning with the conclusion chapter . In other words, its time to (attempt to) answer your original research question s (from way back in chapter 1). Clearly state what your conclusions are in terms of your research questions. This might feel a bit repetitive, as you would have touched on this in the previous chapter, but its important to bring the discussion full circle and explicitly state your answer(s) to the research question(s).

Dissertation and thesis prep

Next, you’ll typically discuss the implications of your findings . In other words, you’ve answered your research questions – but what does this mean for the real world (or even for academia)? What should now be done differently, given the new insight you’ve generated?

Lastly, you should discuss the limitations of your research, as well as what this means for future research in the area. No study is perfect, especially not a Masters-level. Discuss the shortcomings of your research. Perhaps your methodology was limited, perhaps your sample size was small or not representative, etc, etc. Don’t be afraid to critique your work – the markers want to see that you can identify the limitations of your work. This is a strength, not a weakness. Be brutal!

This marks the end of your core chapters – woohoo! From here on out, it’s pretty smooth sailing.

The reference list is straightforward. It should contain a list of all resources cited in your dissertation, in the required format, e.g. APA , Harvard, etc.

It’s essential that you use reference management software for your dissertation. Do NOT try handle your referencing manually – its far too error prone. On a reference list of multiple pages, you’re going to make mistake. To this end, I suggest considering either Mendeley or Zotero. Both are free and provide a very straightforward interface to ensure that your referencing is 100% on point. I’ve included a simple how-to video for the Mendeley software (my personal favourite) below:

Some universities may ask you to include a bibliography, as opposed to a reference list. These two things are not the same . A bibliography is similar to a reference list, except that it also includes resources which informed your thinking but were not directly cited in your dissertation. So, double-check your brief and make sure you use the right one.

The very last piece of the puzzle is the appendix or set of appendices. This is where you’ll include any supporting data and evidence. Importantly, supporting is the keyword here.

Your appendices should provide additional “nice to know”, depth-adding information, which is not critical to the core analysis. Appendices should not be used as a way to cut down word count (see this post which covers how to reduce word count ). In other words, don’t place content that is critical to the core analysis here, just to save word count. You will not earn marks on any content in the appendices, so don’t try to play the system!

Time to recap…

And there you have it – the traditional dissertation structure and layout, from A-Z. To recap, the core structure for a dissertation or thesis is (typically) as follows:

  • Acknowledgments page

Most importantly, the core chapters should reflect the research process (asking, investigating and answering your research question). Moreover, the research question(s) should form the golden thread throughout your dissertation structure. Everything should revolve around the research questions, and as you’ve seen, they should form both the start point (i.e. introduction chapter) and the endpoint (i.e. conclusion chapter).

I hope this post has provided you with clarity about the traditional dissertation/thesis structure and layout. If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below, or feel free to get in touch with us. Also, be sure to check out the rest of the  Grad Coach Blog .

how to do phd thesis

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36 Comments

ARUN kumar SHARMA

many thanks i found it very useful

Derek Jansen

Glad to hear that, Arun. Good luck writing your dissertation.

Sue

Such clear practical logical advice. I very much needed to read this to keep me focused in stead of fretting.. Perfect now ready to start my research!

hayder

what about scientific fields like computer or engineering thesis what is the difference in the structure? thank you very much

Tim

Thanks so much this helped me a lot!

Ade Adeniyi

Very helpful and accessible. What I like most is how practical the advice is along with helpful tools/ links.

Thanks Ade!

Aswathi

Thank you so much sir.. It was really helpful..

You’re welcome!

Jp Raimundo

Hi! How many words maximum should contain the abstract?

Karmelia Renatee

Thank you so much 😊 Find this at the right moment

You’re most welcome. Good luck with your dissertation.

moha

best ever benefit i got on right time thank you

Krishnan iyer

Many times Clarity and vision of destination of dissertation is what makes the difference between good ,average and great researchers the same way a great automobile driver is fast with clarity of address and Clear weather conditions .

I guess Great researcher = great ideas + knowledge + great and fast data collection and modeling + great writing + high clarity on all these

You have given immense clarity from start to end.

Alwyn Malan

Morning. Where will I write the definitions of what I’m referring to in my report?

Rose

Thank you so much Derek, I was almost lost! Thanks a tonnnn! Have a great day!

yemi Amos

Thanks ! so concise and valuable

Kgomotso Siwelane

This was very helpful. Clear and concise. I know exactly what to do now.

dauda sesay

Thank you for allowing me to go through briefly. I hope to find time to continue.

Patrick Mwathi

Really useful to me. Thanks a thousand times

Adao Bundi

Very interesting! It will definitely set me and many more for success. highly recommended.

SAIKUMAR NALUMASU

Thank you soo much sir, for the opportunity to express my skills

mwepu Ilunga

Usefull, thanks a lot. Really clear

Rami

Very nice and easy to understand. Thank you .

Chrisogonas Odhiambo

That was incredibly useful. Thanks Grad Coach Crew!

Luke

My stress level just dropped at least 15 points after watching this. Just starting my thesis for my grad program and I feel a lot more capable now! Thanks for such a clear and helpful video, Emma and the GradCoach team!

Judy

Do we need to mention the number of words the dissertation contains in the main document?

It depends on your university’s requirements, so it would be best to check with them 🙂

Christine

Such a helpful post to help me get started with structuring my masters dissertation, thank you!

Simon Le

Great video; I appreciate that helpful information

Brhane Kidane

It is so necessary or avital course

johnson

This blog is very informative for my research. Thank you

avc

Doctoral students are required to fill out the National Research Council’s Survey of Earned Doctorates

Emmanuel Manjolo

wow this is an amazing gain in my life

Paul I Thoronka

This is so good

Tesfay haftu

How can i arrange my specific objectives in my dissertation?

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how to do phd thesis

How to Write a PhD Thesis: A Step-by-Step Guide for Success

Since 2006, oxbridge essays has been the uk’s leading paid essay-writing and dissertation service.

We have helped 10,000s of undergraduate, Masters and PhD students to maximise their grades in essays, dissertations, model-exam answers, applications and other materials. If you would like a free chat about your project with one of our UK staff, then please just reach out on one of the methods below.

Writing a PhD thesis is a complicated and demanding process that involves rigorous research, detailed analysis, and structured writing. This guide provides an extensive overview of each step required to craft a successful PhD thesis, offering essential insights and strategies that benefit novice and seasoned researchers.

Step 1: Understand the Requirements

The initial step in crafting your PhD thesis is to thoroughly understand its specific requirements, which can vary widely between disciplines and institutions. A thesis must contribute new knowledge to its field, necessitating a deep familiarity with the expected structure, depth of analysis, and submission formalities. Your university guidelines should state how many words in a PhD thesis are needed within your discipline—usually ranging from 60,000 to 80,000 words.

Step 2: Choose Your Topic Wisely

Selecting a suitable topic is crucial and should be approached with great care. Your subject should interest you, fill a research gap, and be feasible within your available time and resources. Extensive preliminary reading and discussions with advisors are crucial at this stage to refine your topic and formulate precise research questions.

Step 3: Develop a Detailed Proposal

A detailed proposal acts as your thesis roadmap, outlining your research questions, the study's significance, methodologies, and a preliminary literature review. This document guides your research trajectory and is a reference point throughout your project.

Step 4: Conduct Rigorous Research

The research phase forms the backbone of your thesis. It involves systematic data collection, comprehensive literature review, and meticulous analysis. Effective research methods are crucial, and keeping organised, detailed records during this phase will facilitate a smoother writing process later on.

Step 5: Start Writing Early

Begin writing early in the research process. Starting with less complex sections like the literature review or methodology can help clarify your thoughts and identify gaps in your research. Early writing reduces the burden as the thesis deadline approaches.

Step 6: Structure Your Thesis

A PhD thesis usually has an introduction, a literature review, a methodology, findings, a discussion, a conclusion, and a list of references. Each section serves a distinct purpose: the introduction presents your research question and its significance, while the conclusion synthesises your findings and highlights their importance. But, how long is a PhD thesis typically? It usually ranges from 100 to 300 pages, varying by field and the nature of the research conducted.

Step 7: Seek Feedback Regularly

Regular feedback from your supervisor and peers is invaluable. Sharing drafts of chapters as you complete them ensures you remain on the correct path and integrates diverse perspectives that can enhance your work.

Step 8: Revise Thoroughly

Revision is a critical phase in which good writing is refined into excellent writing. Use feedback to enhance your arguments, clarify points, and refine your prose. Expect multiple rounds of revisions and be prepared to rework sections as needed.

Step 9: Proofread and Edit

Comprehensive proofreading and editing are crucial to ensure your thesis is error-free. Consider employing PhD thesis help from a PhD thesis writing service if needed. These professionals can provide detailed feedback and help polish your document to perfection.

Step 10: Prepare for the Viva

The final step is the viva, where you'll present your research to a panel of experts in your field. Thorough preparation, including a deep understanding of your research and readiness for potential questions, is essential. This presentation is your opportunity to highlight the significance and rigour of your work.

The Importance of a High-Quality PhD Thesis

A high-quality PhD thesis is not just a requirement for completing your doctorate; it significantly contributes to your field of study. Furthermore, it highlights your ability to conduct independent research, contribute original insights, and communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively. The calibre of your thesis can influence your academic and professional future, impacting job opportunities, postdoctoral positions, and the ability to publish your work in reputable journals.

Seeking Professional Help: Sources and Providers

When crafting your PhD thesis, seeking professional help can be a wise decision. Support can come from various sources:

University Resources : Most universities offer writing centres and libraries with professionals skilled in research methodologies, writing, and editing. PhD Thesis Writing Services : Specialised services can provide comprehensive help throughout the writing process. These services employ experienced PhD thesis writers familiar with the nuances of doctoral writing across various disciplines. Independent Consultants : Expert consultants or freelance PhD thesis writers can offer personalised guidance and feedback, focusing on specific areas of your thesis where you need extra help.

The Advantages of Professional PhD Thesis Help

Opting for professional PhD thesis help offers several advantages:

  • Expert Guidance : Professional writers and editors bring expertise that can help you improve your thesis. They understand the academic standards and can help ensure your thesis meets them.
  • Time Management : With the help of a PhD thesis writing service, you can manage your time more effectively. Professionals can speed up the research, writing, and revision processes, allowing you to focus on other important academic or personal commitments.
  • Reduced Stress : The process of writing a PhD thesis can be stressful. Having a professional by your side can alleviate much of this stress by ensuring you are on the right track and providing reassurance through expert feedback.

Key Takeaways

A high-quality PhD thesis is the masterpiece of your academic career, thus requiring meticulous attention to detail and a deep understanding of your research topic. When asking, "How many words are in a PhD thesis?" it's important to note that quality and depth of research often matter more than the word count.

Utilising professional help, whether through university resources, dedicated PhD thesis writing services, or independent consultants, can provide invaluable support. These professionals enhance the quality of your work and help streamline the entire thesis process, allowing you to present a polished, scholarly work that stands out in your field. By investing in professional help, you invest in your academic success and future career prospects.

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How to Write a Dissertation | A Guide to Structure & Content

A dissertation or thesis is a long piece of academic writing based on original research, submitted as part of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree.

The structure of a dissertation depends on your field, but it is usually divided into at least four or five chapters (including an introduction and conclusion chapter).

The most common dissertation structure in the sciences and social sciences includes:

  • An introduction to your topic
  • A literature review that surveys relevant sources
  • An explanation of your methodology
  • An overview of the results of your research
  • A discussion of the results and their implications
  • A conclusion that shows what your research has contributed

Dissertations in the humanities are often structured more like a long essay , building an argument by analysing primary and secondary sources . Instead of the standard structure outlined here, you might organise your chapters around different themes or case studies.

Other important elements of the dissertation include the title page , abstract , and reference list . If in doubt about how your dissertation should be structured, always check your department’s guidelines and consult with your supervisor.

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Table of contents

Acknowledgements, table of contents, list of figures and tables, list of abbreviations, introduction, literature review / theoretical framework, methodology, reference list.

The very first page of your document contains your dissertation’s title, your name, department, institution, degree program, and submission date. Sometimes it also includes your student number, your supervisor’s name, and the university’s logo. Many programs have strict requirements for formatting the dissertation title page .

The title page is often used as cover when printing and binding your dissertation .

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The acknowledgements section is usually optional, and gives space for you to thank everyone who helped you in writing your dissertation. This might include your supervisors, participants in your research, and friends or family who supported you.

The abstract is a short summary of your dissertation, usually about 150-300 words long. You should write it at the very end, when you’ve completed the rest of the dissertation. In the abstract, make sure to:

  • State the main topic and aims of your research
  • Describe the methods you used
  • Summarise the main results
  • State your conclusions

Although the abstract is very short, it’s the first part (and sometimes the only part) of your dissertation that people will read, so it’s important that you get it right. If you’re struggling to write a strong abstract, read our guide on how to write an abstract .

In the table of contents, list all of your chapters and subheadings and their page numbers. The dissertation contents page gives the reader an overview of your structure and helps easily navigate the document.

All parts of your dissertation should be included in the table of contents, including the appendices. You can generate a table of contents automatically in Word.

If you have used a lot of tables and figures in your dissertation, you should itemise them in a numbered list . You can automatically generate this list using the Insert Caption feature in Word.

If you have used a lot of abbreviations in your dissertation, you can include them in an alphabetised list of abbreviations so that the reader can easily look up their meanings.

If you have used a lot of highly specialised terms that will not be familiar to your reader, it might be a good idea to include a glossary . List the terms alphabetically and explain each term with a brief description or definition.

In the introduction, you set up your dissertation’s topic, purpose, and relevance, and tell the reader what to expect in the rest of the dissertation. The introduction should:

  • Establish your research topic , giving necessary background information to contextualise your work
  • Narrow down the focus and define the scope of the research
  • Discuss the state of existing research on the topic, showing your work’s relevance to a broader problem or debate
  • Clearly state your objectives and research questions , and indicate how you will answer them
  • Give an overview of your dissertation’s structure

Everything in the introduction should be clear, engaging, and relevant to your research. By the end, the reader should understand the what , why and how of your research. Not sure how? Read our guide on how to write a dissertation introduction .

Before you start on your research, you should have conducted a literature review to gain a thorough understanding of the academic work that already exists on your topic. This means:

  • Collecting sources (e.g. books and journal articles) and selecting the most relevant ones
  • Critically evaluating and analysing each source
  • Drawing connections between them (e.g. themes, patterns, conflicts, gaps) to make an overall point

In the dissertation literature review chapter or section, you shouldn’t just summarise existing studies, but develop a coherent structure and argument that leads to a clear basis or justification for your own research. For example, it might aim to show how your research:

  • Addresses a gap in the literature
  • Takes a new theoretical or methodological approach to the topic
  • Proposes a solution to an unresolved problem
  • Advances a theoretical debate
  • Builds on and strengthens existing knowledge with new data

The literature review often becomes the basis for a theoretical framework , in which you define and analyse the key theories, concepts and models that frame your research. In this section you can answer descriptive research questions about the relationship between concepts or variables.

The methodology chapter or section describes how you conducted your research, allowing your reader to assess its validity. You should generally include:

  • The overall approach and type of research (e.g. qualitative, quantitative, experimental, ethnographic)
  • Your methods of collecting data (e.g. interviews, surveys, archives)
  • Details of where, when, and with whom the research took place
  • Your methods of analysing data (e.g. statistical analysis, discourse analysis)
  • Tools and materials you used (e.g. computer programs, lab equipment)
  • A discussion of any obstacles you faced in conducting the research and how you overcame them
  • An evaluation or justification of your methods

Your aim in the methodology is to accurately report what you did, as well as convincing the reader that this was the best approach to answering your research questions or objectives.

Next, you report the results of your research . You can structure this section around sub-questions, hypotheses, or topics. Only report results that are relevant to your objectives and research questions. In some disciplines, the results section is strictly separated from the discussion, while in others the two are combined.

For example, for qualitative methods like in-depth interviews, the presentation of the data will often be woven together with discussion and analysis, while in quantitative and experimental research, the results should be presented separately before you discuss their meaning. If you’re unsure, consult with your supervisor and look at sample dissertations to find out the best structure for your research.

In the results section it can often be helpful to include tables, graphs and charts. Think carefully about how best to present your data, and don’t include tables or figures that just repeat what you have written  –  they should provide extra information or usefully visualise the results in a way that adds value to your text.

Full versions of your data (such as interview transcripts) can be included as an appendix .

The discussion  is where you explore the meaning and implications of your results in relation to your research questions. Here you should interpret the results in detail, discussing whether they met your expectations and how well they fit with the framework that you built in earlier chapters. If any of the results were unexpected, offer explanations for why this might be. It’s a good idea to consider alternative interpretations of your data and discuss any limitations that might have influenced the results.

The discussion should reference other scholarly work to show how your results fit with existing knowledge. You can also make recommendations for future research or practical action.

The dissertation conclusion should concisely answer the main research question, leaving the reader with a clear understanding of your central argument. Wrap up your dissertation with a final reflection on what you did and how you did it. The conclusion often also includes recommendations for research or practice.

In this section, it’s important to show how your findings contribute to knowledge in the field and why your research matters. What have you added to what was already known?

You must include full details of all sources that you have cited in a reference list (sometimes also called a works cited list or bibliography). It’s important to follow a consistent reference style . Each style has strict and specific requirements for how to format your sources in the reference list.

The most common styles used in UK universities are Harvard referencing and Vancouver referencing . Your department will often specify which referencing style you should use – for example, psychology students tend to use APA style , humanities students often use MHRA , and law students always use OSCOLA . M ake sure to check the requirements, and ask your supervisor if you’re unsure.

To save time creating the reference list and make sure your citations are correctly and consistently formatted, you can use our free APA Citation Generator .

Your dissertation itself should contain only essential information that directly contributes to answering your research question. Documents you have used that do not fit into the main body of your dissertation (such as interview transcripts, survey questions or tables with full figures) can be added as appendices .

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/images/cornell/logo35pt_cornell_white.svg" alt="how to do phd thesis"> Cornell University --> Graduate School

Guide to writing your thesis/dissertation, definition of dissertation and thesis.

The dissertation or thesis is a scholarly treatise that substantiates a specific point of view as a result of original research that is conducted by students during their graduate study. At Cornell, the thesis is a requirement for the receipt of the M.A. and M.S. degrees and some professional master’s degrees. The dissertation is a requirement of the Ph.D. degree.

Formatting Requirement and Standards

The Graduate School sets the minimum format for your thesis or dissertation, while you, your special committee, and your advisor/chair decide upon the content and length. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, and other mechanical issues are your sole responsibility. Generally, the thesis and dissertation should conform to the standards of leading academic journals in your field. The Graduate School does not monitor the thesis or dissertation for mechanics, content, or style.

“Papers Option” Dissertation or Thesis

A “papers option” is available only to students in certain fields, which are listed on the Fields Permitting the Use of Papers Option page , or by approved petition. If you choose the papers option, your dissertation or thesis is organized as a series of relatively independent chapters or papers that you have submitted or will be submitting to journals in the field. You must be the only author or the first author of the papers to be used in the dissertation. The papers-option dissertation or thesis must meet all format and submission requirements, and a singular referencing convention must be used throughout.

ProQuest Electronic Submissions

The dissertation and thesis become permanent records of your original research, and in the case of doctoral research, the Graduate School requires publication of the dissertation and abstract in its original form. All Cornell master’s theses and doctoral dissertations require an electronic submission through ProQuest, which fills orders for paper or digital copies of the thesis and dissertation and makes a digital version available online via their subscription database, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses . For master’s theses, only the abstract is available. ProQuest provides worldwide distribution of your work from the master copy. You retain control over your dissertation and are free to grant publishing rights as you see fit. The formatting requirements contained in this guide meet all ProQuest specifications.

Copies of Dissertation and Thesis

Copies of Ph.D. dissertations and master’s theses are also uploaded in PDF format to the Cornell Library Repository, eCommons . A print copy of each master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation is submitted to Cornell University Library by ProQuest.

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What is a thesis?

What is a dissertation, getting started, staying on track.

A thesis is a long-term project that you work on over the course of a semester or a year. Theses have a very wide variety of styles and content, so we encourage you to look at prior examples and work closely with faculty to develop yours. 

Before you begin, make sure that you are familiar with the dissertation genre—what it is for and what it looks like.

Generally speaking, a dissertation’s purpose is to prove that you have the expertise necessary to fulfill your doctoral-degree requirements by showing depth of knowledge and independent thinking.

The form of a dissertation may vary by discipline. Be sure to follow the specific guidelines of your department.

  • PhD This site directs candidates to the GSAS website about dissertations , with links to checklists,  planning, formatting, acknowledgments, submission, and publishing options. There is also a link to guidelines for the prospectus . Consult with your committee chair about specific requirements and standards for your dissertation.
  • DDES This document covers planning, patent filing, submission guidelines, publishing options, formatting guidelines, sample pages, citation guidelines, and a list of common errors to avoid. There is also a link to guidelines for the prospectus .
  • Scholarly Pursuits (GSAS) This searchable booklet from Harvard GSAS is a comprehensive guide to writing dissertations, dissertation-fellowship applications, academic journal articles, and academic job documents.

Finding an original topic can be a daunting and overwhelming task. These key concepts can help you focus and save time.

Finding a topic for your thesis or dissertation should start with a research question that excites or at least interests you. A rigorous, engaging, and original project will require continuous curiosity about your topic, about your own thoughts on the topic, and about what other scholars have said on your topic. Avoid getting boxed in by thinking you know what you want to say from the beginning; let your research and your writing evolve as you explore and fine-tune your focus through constant questioning and exploration.

Get a sense of the broader picture before you narrow your focus and attempt to frame an argument. Read, skim, and otherwise familiarize yourself with what other scholars have done in areas related to your proposed topic. Briefly explore topics tangentially related to yours to broaden your perspective and increase your chance of finding a unique angle to pursue.

Critical Reading

Critical reading is the opposite of passive reading. Instead of merely reading for information to absorb, critical reading also involves careful, sustained thinking about what you are reading. This process may include analyzing the author’s motives and assumptions, asking what might be left out of the discussion, considering what you agree with or disagree with in the author’s statements and why you agree or disagree, and exploring connections or contradictions between scholarly arguments. Here is a resource to help hone your critical-reading skills:

http://writing.umn.edu/sws/assets/pdf/quicktips/criticalread.pdf

Conversation

Your thesis or dissertation will incorporate some ideas from other scholars whose work you researched. By reading critically and following your curiosity, you will develop your own ideas and claims, and these contributions are the core of your project. You will also acknowledge the work of scholars who came before you, and you must accurately and fairly attribute this work and define your place within the larger discussion. Make sure that you know how to quote, summarize, paraphrase ,  integrate , and cite secondary sources to avoid plagiarism and to show the depth and breadth of your knowledge.

A thesis is a long-term, large project that involves both research and writing; it is easy to lose focus, motivation, and momentum. Here are suggestions for achieving the result you want in the time you have.

The dissertation is probably the largest project you have undertaken, and a lot of the work is self-directed. The project can feel daunting or even overwhelming unless you break it down into manageable pieces and create a timeline for completing each smaller task. Be realistic but also challenge yourself, and be forgiving of yourself if you miss a self-imposed deadline here and there.

Your program will also have specific deadlines for different requirements, including establishing a committee, submitting a prospectus, completing the dissertation, defending the dissertation, and submitting your work. Consult your department’s website for these dates and incorporate them into the timeline for your work.

Accountability

Sometimes self-imposed deadlines do not feel urgent unless there is accountability to someone beyond yourself. To increase your motivation to complete tasks on schedule, set dates with your committee chair to submit pre-determined pieces of a chapter. You can also arrange with a fellow doctoral student to check on each other’s progress. Research and writing can be lonely, so it is also nice to share that journey with someone and support each other through the process.

Common Pitfalls

The most common challenges for students writing a dissertation are writer’s block, information-overload, and the compulsion to keep researching forever.

There are many strategies for avoiding writer’s block, such as freewriting, outlining, taking a walk, starting in the middle, and creating an ideal work environment for your particular learning style. Pay attention to what helps you and try different things until you find what works.

Efficient researching techniques are essential to avoiding information-overload. Here are a couple of resources about strategies for finding sources and quickly obtaining essential information from them.

https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/writing_in_literature/writing_in_literature_detailed_discussion/reading_criticism.html

https://students.dartmouth.edu/academic-skills/learning-resources/learning-strategies/reading-techniques

Finally, remember that there is always more to learn and your dissertation cannot incorporate everything. Follow your curiosity but also set limits on the scope of your work. It helps to create a folder entitled “future projects” for topics and sources that interest you but that do not fit neatly into the dissertation. Also remember that future scholars will build off of your work, so leave something for them to do.

Browsing through theses and dissertations of the past can help to get a sense of your options and gain inspiration but be careful to use current guidelines and refer to your committee instead of relying on these examples for form or formatting.

DASH Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard.

HOLLIS Harvard Library’s catalog provides access to ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global .

MIT Architecture has a list of their graduates’ dissertations and theses.

Rhode Island School of Design has a list of their graduates’ dissertations and theses.

University of South Florida has a list of their graduates’ dissertations and theses.

Harvard GSD has a list of projects, including theses and professors’ research.

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10 tips for writing a PhD thesis

Ingrid curl shares simple rules for keeping your work clear and jargon-free.

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Writing up a PhD can often take place in a frenzy of activity in the last few months of your degree study, after years of hard work. But there are some steps that you can take to increase your chances of success.

  • Do not be daunted by the task of “writing up”. Work on the text as your PhD takes shape, remember that all writers need editing, and help yourself by using these basic tips to make life easier. Read what great writers say about how to write before you start, and take their advice to heart. There is no dark art to clear, concise work; it is mostly a result of editing, and editing again. Above all, keep Elmore Leonard’s advice in mind: “If it reads like writing…rewrite it.”
  • Plan the structure of your thesis carefully with your supervisor. Create rough drafts as you go so that you can refine them as you become more focused on the write-up. Much of writing comprises rewriting so be prepared to rework each chapter many times. Even Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of everything is shit.”
  • Academic writing does not have to be dry. Inject some flair into your work. Read advice on writing and remember George Orwell’s words in Why I Write : “Never use the passive where you can use the active”; and Mark Twain’s on adjectives: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” If you prefer, Stephen King said: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
  • Do not write up in chronological order. Work on each chapter while it is fresh in your mind or pertinent to what you are doing at that moment, but come back to it all later and work it up into a consistent, coherent piece, restructuring sections where necessary.
  • Think carefully about your writing. Write your first draft, leave it and then come back to it with a critical eye. Look objectively at the writing and read it closely for style and sense. Look out for common errors such as dangling modifiers, subject-verb disagreement and inconsistency. If you are too involved with the text to be able to take a step back and do this, then ask a friend or colleague to read it with a critical eye. Remember Hemingway’s advice: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” Clarity is key.
  • Most universities use a preferred style of references. Make sure you know what this is and stick to it. One of the most common errors in academic writing is to cite papers in the text that do not then appear in the bibliography. All references in your thesis need to be cross-checked with the bibliography before submission. Using a database during your research can save a great deal of time in the writing-up process. Helpful software includes EndNote or Paperpile. Managing your bibliography from day one may seem obsessive but it will save you a great deal of time and stress by the end of the PhD process.
  • Use a house style. Professional publications such as Times Higher Education use a house style guide to ensure consistency in spelling. For example, do not use both -ise spellings and -ize spellings, stick to British spelling and be consistent when referring to organisations or bodies. Because dictionaries vary in their use of hyphenation, use one dictionary and stick to it throughout the writing process. If you consult the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors , you will note the extraordinary number of words with alternative spellings. It can also be a very useful guide to preferred spellings, use of italicisation and foreign phrases.
  • Take care when quoting from other sources. Ensure you note whether the italic emphasis is in the original and take careful notes when you are collecting quotes for your thesis. Transcribe them accurately to save work later and keep original spellings (even if they differ from your chosen style) to ensure fidelity to your source.
  • Think about plagiarism. If you are quoting from works, quote from them accurately and paraphrase where necessary for your argument. This is where careful note-taking and use of references is invaluable and will help you to avoid even inadvertently plagiarising another work.
  • Remember that your thesis is your chance to present your work in the best possible light. Consider your opening paragraphs, entice your reader with your writing and above all be clear about your hypothesis and your conclusion. Append material where it adds value but not where it merely bulks out your work. Consider your reader at all times. This is your chance to showcase your work.

If you stick to these simple rules, your writing will be clear and jargon-free. Above all, take to heart Orwell’s advice: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

Ingrid Curl is associate editor of  Times Higher Education , and a former PhD student.

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Thesis and Dissertation: Getting Started

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The resources in this section are designed to provide guidance for the first steps of the thesis or dissertation writing process. They offer tools to support the planning and managing of your project, including writing out your weekly schedule, outlining your goals, and organzing the various working elements of your project.

Weekly Goals Sheet (a.k.a. Life Map) [Word Doc]

This editable handout provides a place for you to fill in available time blocks on a weekly chart that will help you visualize the amount of time you have available to write. By using this chart, you will be able to work your writing goals into your schedule and put these goals into perspective with your day-to-day plans and responsibilities each week. This handout also contains a formula to help you determine the minimum number of pages you would need to write per day in order to complete your writing on time.

Setting a Production Schedule (Word Doc)

This editable handout can help you make sense of the various steps involved in the production of your thesis or dissertation and determine how long each step might take. A large part of this process involves (1) seeking out the most accurate and up-to-date information regarding specific document formatting requirements, (2) understanding research protocol limitations, (3) making note of deadlines, and (4) understanding your personal writing habits.

Creating a Roadmap (PDF)

Part of organizing your writing involves having a clear sense of how the different working parts relate to one another. Creating a roadmap for your dissertation early on can help you determine what the final document will include and how all the pieces are connected. This resource offers guidance on several approaches to creating a roadmap, including creating lists, maps, nut-shells, visuals, and different methods for outlining. It is important to remember that you can create more than one roadmap (or more than one type of roadmap) depending on how the different approaches discussed here meet your needs.

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How to Write a PhD Thesis: 13 Tips For PhD Thesis Writing 

13 Tips for writing a PhD Thesis - Paperpal

Completing a successful PhD research thesis is extremely challenging, and how to write a PhD thesis is often a question in students’ minds. Fret not, there are many ways to make the process of PhD thesis writing less bumpy. This article will provide some PhD thesis writing tips to simplify the writing process and help you complete your thesis on time, while keeping your sanity mostly intact. 

Only about 50% of students enrolled in a PhD program ever complete it 1 . They drop out at many different points during the process for many different reasons. Some leave because the course work is too difficult or time consuming. Some leave for personal or financial reasons. One common cause of non-completion, or late completion, is the daunting spectre of PhD thesis writing. 

PhD thesis writing tips: How to overcome the challenge of writing your PhD thesis

First, remember that although writing a PhD thesis is difficult, this can be accomplished. Here are some things to consider that will increase your confidence and make the task of PhD thesis writing a bit less scary. 

  • Create an outline before you start writing – The most effective way to keep your work organized is to first create an outline based on the PhD thesis structure required by your university. Using an outline for your PhD paper writing has tremendous benefits. It creates a handy space to keep and organize all the little snippets of information and questions you will have during your preparation. It allows you to effectively plan your work and manage your time and makes the actual writing much easier. A thesis is shaped more than written, and an outline provides it the required PhD thesis structure. 
  • Follow all university guides – Be careful to ensure that you are meeting all the requirements of your university. This includes everything from topic selection to structure to writing style. It is extremely frustrating to spend a lot of time and effort on a section only to have to do it over because you didn’t follow the proper guidelines. Read all relevant material from your university over and over until you have it memorized. Then, check it again. 
  • Section order – It is usually best not to do your PhD thesis writing in chronological order. For researchers, the easiest parts to write are usually the Method and Results. So, gain some confidence first and write the Introduction and Conclusion last to tie it all together. 
  • Work extensively with your supervisor – Don’t forget that in the process of PhD thesis writing, help is right there when you ask for it. Do not hesitate to ask for guidance from your supervisor, advisors, or other committee members when you get stuck. Clear and regular communication with these important resources can save you untold heartache during the PhD research and thesis writing processes. This should not be a solo exercise; they have all been where you are now. 
  • Plan carefully, create rough drafts, and refine 2 – This is so important and basic to all academic research that it bears repeating. You will not write the final PhD thesis on your first try. Do not become frustrated, trust the process. 
  • Produce quality writing – Make sure your ideas flow easily and are clear and easy to read. This is not a strong skill for most beginning researchers, but it’s a skill that can be learned with a lot of practice. Therefore, edit, edit, and edit some more. If you need it, there are many places to get PhD thesis writing help and assistance. 
  • Details matter – Pay attention to the small things, especially with the document formatting. If you start out using the proper format, you will be saving a tremendous amount of time and grief later. 
  • Avoid plagiarism – Quote accurately, otherwise paraphrase. There is no excuse for being a lazy writer. Consider using a smart tool or service to check for plagiarism during your PhD thesis editing process to make sure you did not unintentionally copy any material. 
  • Rein in the references – Use a database, such as EndNote or Mendeley, to keep them organized and under control; check and double check citations and references with the bibliography to ensure they all match. Don’t forget to use the PhD thesis style required by your university. 
  • Keep it simple – Remember, this is only the start of your career, not your ultimate work 3 ; perfectionism can be a disaster. 
  • Make consistent progress – Try to write at least a little every day; check quotations and references when writing seems too difficult. 3  
  • Keep your reader in mind – As with all writing, your PhD thesis is meant to be read, so be considerate of those who read it; be concise, include all necessary data/information to support your argument but nothing extra. Strive to be understood and avoid unnecessary words. 
  • Be persistent and eager – Writing a doctoral thesis becomes easier if you are consistent and dedicated. All other things being equal, your attitude will ultimately determine your success. Have patience and work hard. Create work you will be proud of for a lifetime. 
  • Cassuto, L. Ph.D. attrition: How much is too much? The Chronicle of Higher Education.    https://www.chronicle.com/article/ph-d-attrition-how-much-is-too-much/?cid=gen_sign_in [Accessed 20 July 2022]
  • Curl, I. 10 tips for writing a PhD thesis. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/10-tips-writing-phd-thesis [Accessed 20 July 2022]
  • Thomas, K. Finishing your PhD thesis: 15 top tips from those in the know. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/aug/27/finishing-phd-thesis-top-tips-experts-advice [Accessed 20 July 2022]

A PhD thesis includes several key components, that are essential for the work to be considered seriously. These may vary depending on the research field and specific requirements of the institution, but generally include: ·         an introduction that presents the research question and context, ·         a literature review that surveys existing knowledge and research, ·         a methodology section describing the research design and methods employed, ·         a presentation of findings or results, ·         a discussion section interpreting the results and their implications, and ·         a conclusion that summarizes the main findings and contributions. Additionally, appendices may contain supplementary materials such as data, charts, or technical details.  

The time required for writing a PhD thesis can vary significantly depending on factors such as the research topic, the individual’s research progress, the specific requirements of the institution, and the researcher’s writing process. On average, it can take several months to a few years to complete a PhD thesis. The research, data collection, and analysis stages can span several years, with the PhD thesis writing phase itself often lasting several months. Here, AI writing assistants like Paperpal, designed for academics, can help you write better. Explore Paperpal and see the difference for yourself!

To select a suitable topic for your PhD thesis, start by identifying your research interests and areas of expertise. Consider the gaps or unresolved questions in your field of study and explore potential research avenues and read extensively in your area of interest. Consult with your advisor or mentors, who can offer guidance and help narrow down your options. Once you have a tentative topic, conduct a literature review to ensure its novelty and feasibility. It’s important to choose a topic that aligns with your passion, has potential for meaningful contribution, and is feasible given available resources and time constraints.

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As a graduate student, you may need to complete a thesis or dissertation as part of your program's graduation requirements. While theses are common among master’s students and dissertations among doctoral students, this may not apply universally across all programs. We encourage you to reach out to your program adviser to determine the specific requirements for your culminating project.

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The Office of Theses and Dissertations is the unit of the Graduate School responsible for certifying that theses and dissertations have been prepared in accordance with formatting requirements established by the Graduate School, the University Libraries, and the graduate faculty of Penn State. We are here to help you navigate the review and approval process to ensure you are able to graduate on time.

Cover of the 2023-2024 Penn State Graduate School Thesis and Dissertation Handbook

The Thesis and Dissertation Handbook explains Penn State formatting requirements for all master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. It covers the submission process and approval deadlines, the responsibilities of each student, and provides page examples. We highly recommend all students doing theses or dissertations to carefully review the handbook.

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Among these resources, you can get help from the Graduate Writing Center and the Statistical Counseling Center, notify the University of your intent to graduate, and prepare for Commencement.

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  • Dissertation & Thesis Outline | Example & Free Templates

Dissertation & Thesis Outline | Example & Free Templates

Published on June 7, 2022 by Tegan George . Revised on November 21, 2023.

A thesis or dissertation outline is one of the most critical early steps in your writing process . It helps you to lay out and organize your ideas and can provide you with a roadmap for deciding the specifics of your dissertation topic and showcasing its relevance to your field.

Generally, an outline contains information on the different sections included in your thesis or dissertation , such as:

  • Your anticipated title
  • Your abstract
  • Your chapters (sometimes subdivided into further topics like literature review, research methods, avenues for future research, etc.)

In the final product, you can also provide a chapter outline for your readers. This is a short paragraph at the end of your introduction to inform readers about the organizational structure of your thesis or dissertation. This chapter outline is also known as a reading guide or summary outline.

Table of contents

How to outline your thesis or dissertation, dissertation and thesis outline templates, chapter outline example, sample sentences for your chapter outline, sample verbs for variation in your chapter outline, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about thesis and dissertation outlines.

While there are some inter-institutional differences, many outlines proceed in a fairly similar fashion.

  • Working Title
  • “Elevator pitch” of your work (often written last).
  • Introduce your area of study, sharing details about your research question, problem statement , and hypotheses . Situate your research within an existing paradigm or conceptual or theoretical framework .
  • Subdivide as you see fit into main topics and sub-topics.
  • Describe your research methods (e.g., your scope , population , and data collection ).
  • Present your research findings and share about your data analysis methods.
  • Answer the research question in a concise way.
  • Interpret your findings, discuss potential limitations of your own research and speculate about future implications or related opportunities.

For a more detailed overview of chapters and other elements, be sure to check out our article on the structure of a dissertation or download our template .

To help you get started, we’ve created a full thesis or dissertation template in Word or Google Docs format. It’s easy adapt it to your own requirements.

 Download Word template    Download Google Docs template

Chapter outline example American English

It can be easy to fall into a pattern of overusing the same words or sentence constructions, which can make your work monotonous and repetitive for your readers. Consider utilizing some of the alternative constructions presented below.

Example 1: Passive construction

The passive voice is a common choice for outlines and overviews because the context makes it clear who is carrying out the action (e.g., you are conducting the research ). However, overuse of the passive voice can make your text vague and imprecise.

Example 2: IS-AV construction

You can also present your information using the “IS-AV” (inanimate subject with an active verb ) construction.

A chapter is an inanimate object, so it is not capable of taking an action itself (e.g., presenting or discussing). However, the meaning of the sentence is still easily understandable, so the IS-AV construction can be a good way to add variety to your text.

Example 3: The “I” construction

Another option is to use the “I” construction, which is often recommended by style manuals (e.g., APA Style and Chicago style ). However, depending on your field of study, this construction is not always considered professional or academic. Ask your supervisor if you’re not sure.

Example 4: Mix-and-match

To truly make the most of these options, consider mixing and matching the passive voice , IS-AV construction , and “I” construction .This can help the flow of your argument and improve the readability of your text.

As you draft the chapter outline, you may also find yourself frequently repeating the same words, such as “discuss,” “present,” “prove,” or “show.” Consider branching out to add richness and nuance to your writing. Here are some examples of synonyms you can use.

Address Describe Imply Refute
Argue Determine Indicate Report
Claim Emphasize Mention Reveal
Clarify Examine Point out Speculate
Compare Explain Posit Summarize
Concern Formulate Present Target
Counter Focus on Propose Treat
Define Give Provide insight into Underpin
Demonstrate Highlight Recommend Use

If you want to know more about AI for academic writing, AI tools, or research bias, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

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When you mention different chapters within your text, it’s considered best to use Roman numerals for most citation styles. However, the most important thing here is to remain consistent whenever using numbers in your dissertation .

The title page of your thesis or dissertation goes first, before all other content or lists that you may choose to include.

A thesis or dissertation outline is one of the most critical first steps in your writing process. It helps you to lay out and organize your ideas and can provide you with a roadmap for deciding what kind of research you’d like to undertake.

  • Your chapters (sometimes subdivided into further topics like literature review , research methods , avenues for future research, etc.)

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Know How to Structure Your PhD Thesis

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Table of Contents

In your academic career, few projects are more important than your PhD thesis. Unfortunately, many university professors and advisors assume that their students know how to structure a PhD. Books have literally been written on the subject, but there’s no need to read a book in order to know about PhD thesis paper format and structure. With that said, however, it’s important to understand that your PhD thesis format requirement may not be the same as another student’s. The bottom line is that how to structure a PhD thesis often depends on your university and department guidelines.

But, let’s take a look at a general PhD thesis format. We’ll look at the main sections, and how to connect them to each other. We’ll also examine different hints and tips for each of the sections. As you read through this toolkit, compare it to published PhD theses in your area of study to see how a real-life example looks.

Main Sections of a PhD Thesis

In almost every PhD thesis or dissertation, there are standard sections. Of course, some of these may differ, depending on your university or department requirements, as well as your topic of study, but this will give you a good idea of the basic components of a PhD thesis format.

  • Abstract : The abstract is a brief summary that quickly outlines your research, touches on each of the main sections of your thesis, and clearly outlines your contribution to the field by way of your PhD thesis. Even though the abstract is very short, similar to what you’ve seen in published research articles, its impact shouldn’t be underestimated. The abstract is there to answer the most important question to the reviewer. “Why is this important?”
  • Introduction : In this section, you help the reviewer understand your entire dissertation, including what your paper is about, why it’s important to the field, a brief description of your methodology, and how your research and the thesis are laid out. Think of your introduction as an expansion of your abstract.
  • Literature Review : Within the literature review, you are making a case for your new research by telling the story of the work that’s already been done. You’ll cover a bit about the history of the topic at hand, and how your study fits into the present and future.
  • Theory Framework : Here, you explain assumptions related to your study. Here you’re explaining to the review what theoretical concepts you might have used in your research, how it relates to existing knowledge and ideas.
  • Methods : This section of a PhD thesis is typically the most detailed and descriptive, depending of course on your research design. Here you’ll discuss the specific techniques you used to get the information you were looking for, in addition to how those methods are relevant and appropriate, as well as how you specifically used each method described.
  • Results : Here you present your empirical findings. This section is sometimes also called the “empiracles” chapter. This section is usually pretty straightforward and technical, and full of details. Don’t shortcut this chapter.
  • Discussion : This can be a tricky chapter, because it’s where you want to show the reviewer that you know what you’re talking about. You need to speak as a PhD versus a student. The discussion chapter is similar to the empirical/results chapter, but you’re building on those results to push the new information that you learned, prior to making your conclusion.
  • Conclusion : Here, you take a step back and reflect on what your original goals and intentions for the research were. You’ll outline them in context of your new findings and expertise.

Tips for your PhD Thesis Format

As you put together your PhD thesis, it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed. Here are some tips that might keep you on track.

  • Don’t try to write your PhD as a first-draft. Every great masterwork has typically been edited, and edited, and…edited.
  • Work with your thesis supervisor to plan the structure and format of your PhD thesis. Be prepared to rewrite each section, as you work out rough drafts. Don’t get discouraged by this process. It’s typical.
  • Make your writing interesting. Academic writing has a reputation of being very dry.
  • You don’t have to necessarily work on the chapters and sections outlined above in chronological order. Work on each section as things come up, and while your work on that section is relevant to what you’re doing.
  • Don’t rush things. Write a first draft, and leave it for a few days, so you can come back to it with a more critical take. Look at it objectively and carefully grammatical errors, clarity, logic and flow.
  • Know what style your references need to be in, and utilize tools out there to organize them in the required format.
  • It’s easier to accidentally plagiarize than you think. Make sure you’re referencing appropriately, and check your document for inadvertent plagiarism throughout your writing process.

PhD Thesis Editing Plus

Want some support during your PhD writing process? Our PhD Thesis Editing Plus service includes extensive and detailed editing of your thesis to improve the flow and quality of your writing. Unlimited editing support for guaranteed results. Learn more here , and get started today!

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The PhD Proofreaders

How To Structure A PhD Thesis

Nov 21, 2019

How To Structure A PhD Thesis

Introduction

Universities and supervisors often assume that PhD students know how to structure their PhD theses. But often this assumption is false, which can cause considerable headache and uncertainty.  It can also waste a lot of time and money as you engage in a process of trial and error working out what goes where.

If you go to your university’s library, you’ll find whole shelves of   books on how to structure or write your PhD . Many of these are great, and I highly recommend you check them out, but here I want to present to you a thesis structure 101 lesson.

I’ve read those books,   proofread hundreds of PhDs   and   coached   dozens of students and want to take what I know and run you through a basic introduction to structuring your PhD   thesis .

In what follows, I’ll talk you through the basic outline of a typical thesis. This mirrors and expands upon the   PhD Writing Template   I’ve created. If you haven’t already downloaded it, you can find it   here .  

Now, I want to make an important observation: what I present below is an outline of the   typical   thesis. Yours may differ, whether considerably or just a little. That’s fine. The purpose is to give you an overarching summary so that when you do approach the books and guides that exist, you’ve already got a basic understanding of what goes where and why.

So, in what follows, I’ll walk you through each of the main sections and talk about what the purpose of each is, offer some tips for planning and writing them, and show you how they relate to one another.

At the end, I’ll tell you about an   email based course   I’ve put together that will teach you how to plan, structure and write your thesis. It goes into a lot more detail than I’ve presented here, so check it out if you’d like to learn more. 

How to Structure an Abstract

Your abstract should be a short summary at the beginning of the thesis that sums up the research, summarises the separate sections of the thesis and outlines the contribution.

Above all, your PhD abstract should answer the question: ‘So what?’ In other words, what is the contribution of your thesis to the field?

  • What is the reason for writing the thesis?
  • What are the current approaches and gaps in the literature?
  • What are your research question(s) and aims?
  • Which methodology have you used?
  • What are the main findings?
  • What are the main conclusions and implications?

One thing that should be obvious is that you can’t write your abstract until the study itself has been written. It’ll typically be the last thing you write (alongside the acknowledgements).

The tricky thing about writing a great PhD abstract is that you haven’t got much space to answer the six questions above. There are a few things to consider though that will help to elevate your writing and make your abstract as efficient as possible:

  • Give a good first impression by writing in short clear sentences.
  • Don’t repeat the title in the abstract.
  • Don’t cite references.
  • Use keywords from the document.
  • Respect the word limit.
  • Don’t be vague – the abstract should be a self-contained summary of the research, so don’t introduce ambiguous words or complex terms.
  • Focus on just four or five essential points, concepts, or findings. Don’t, for example, try to explain your entire theoretical framework.
  • Edit it carefully. Make sure every word is relevant (you haven’t got room for wasted words) and that each sentence has maximum impact.
  • Avoid lengthy background information.
  • Don’t mention anything that isn’t discussed in the thesis.
  • Avoid overstatements.
  • Don’t spin your findings, contribution or significance to make your research sound grander or more influential that it actually is.

How to Structure an Introduction

The introduction serves three purposes:

  • Establish your territory.
  • Establish and justify your niche.
  • Explain the significance of your research.

The reader should be able to understand the whole thesis just by reading the introduction. It should tell them all they need to know about:

  • What your thesis is about
  • Why it is important
  • How it was conducted
  • How it is laid out

How to Structure a Literature Review

Imagine you’re making a new model of mobile phone. You’d need to look at old models to see how other people are designing them (and so you know how yours will differ) and to see how they are made. You’ll need to look for their flaws, and get an idea of where they can be improved.

That’s because you can’t make something new if you don’t know what the old one looks like.

The literature review is the same. You use it to make the case for your research by surveying the work that’s already been done in your discipline (and sometimes beyond). It’s a bit like a family tree. You use it to trace the lineage of your study. Putting it in its place.

A literature review has three objectives:

  • Summarise what has already been discussed in your field, both to demonstrate that you understand your field and to show how your study relates to it.
  • Highlight gaps, problems or shortcomings in existing research to show the original contribution that your thesis makes.
  • Identify important studies, theories, methods or theoretical frameworks that can be applied in your research.
  • Pick a broad topic
  • Find the way in
  • Who’s saying what and when
  • Narrow down the field
  • Narrow does the sources
  • Think about questions that haven’t been asked
  • Write early, write quickly and write relevantly

how to do phd thesis

Your PhD Thesis. On one page.

Use our free PhD Structure Template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.

How to Structure a Theory Framework Chapter

The theory framework is the scaffolding upon which your thesis is built. When you’re done writing your theory framework chapter or section, your reader should be able to answer these questions:

  • What theoretical concepts are used in the research? What hypotheses, if any, are you using?
  • Why have you chosen this theory?
  • What are the implications of using this theory?
  • How does the theory relate to the existing literature, your problem statement and your epistemological and ontological positions? How has this theory has been applied by others in similar contexts? What can you learn from them and how do you differ?
  • How do you apply the theory and measure the concepts (with reference to the literature review/problem statement)?
  • What is the relationship between the various elements and concepts within the model? Can you depict this visually?

That means that a theory framework can take different forms: 

It can state the theoretical assumptions underpinning the study.

  • It can connect the empirical data to existing knowledge.
  • It can allow you to come up with propositions, concepts or hypotheses that you can use to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.

Broadly speaking, a theory framework can be used to either derive certain testable assumptions or as a way of making sense of your data. In both cases, it structures your data collection by focusing your attention on a small subset of concepts.

You can, therefore, think of it as a toolbox. In your literature review, you outlined the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theory framework is a toolbox stuffed full of concepts, variables, or hypotheses (your tools) that you’ll then use to address the problem and do the fixing.

You can find an   extended guide on creating your theory framework . Check it out if you’re still struggling.

When you discuss theory, you are seeking to provide a background examination of what other researchers think about a phenomenon and how they have conceptualised it. You should discuss the relevance of particular theoretical approaches for your study, and you should take care to consider the dominant theoretical schools in your field. This shows the examiner you have understood the state of the art.

But, you should do so critically, and question the suitability of any theories that exist or that you are creating to your particular study. That means that you should discuss previous applications of theory in order to discuss what implications they have for your own research.

The reason you do this is that your discipline likely has accepted and ’tried and tested’ ways of doing things. In many cases, this is an advantage, because it can serve as inspiration for your choice of concepts, hypotheses or variables, and can influence your choice of methods.

In other cases, it may be that the existing theory is ill-equipped to account for your particular phenomenon. In either case, you need to demonstrate a good understanding of what that theory is discussing, both to demonstrate your skills as a researcher and scholar, but also to justify your own theoretical and methodological position. 

How to Structure a Methods Chapter

The job of a methods chapter is:

  • To summarise, explain and recount how you answered your research questions and to explain how this relates to the methods used by other scholars in similar contexts and similar studies
  • To discuss – in detail – the techniques you used to collect the data used to answer your research questions 
  • To discuss why the techniques are relevant to the study’s aims and objectives
  • To explain how you used them

Your reader should be able to answer the following questions when they’re done reading it:

  • What did you did do to achieve the research aims?
  • Why did you choose this particular approach over others?
  • How does it relate to your epistemological and ontological positions?
  • What tools did you use to collect data and why? What are the implications?
  • When did you collect data, and from whom?
  • What tools have you used to analyze the data and why? What are the implications? Are there ethical considerations to take into account?

How to Structure an Empirical Chapter

  • What are the results of your investigations?  
  • How do the findings relate to previous studies?  
  • Was there anything surprising or that didn’t work out as planned?  
  • Are there any themes or categories that emerge from the data?   
  • Have you explained to the reader why you have reached particular conclusions?
  • Have you explained the results?

Having your PhD proofread will save you time and money

Our top-rated PhD proofreaders check your writing, formatting, references and readability. The goal? To make sure your research is written and presented in the most compelling manner possible. 

That way, you’ll have complete peace of mind prior to submission and save yourself months of costly revisions. 

How to Structure a Discussion Chapter 

The discussion chapter is the place in which you discuss your empirics. Many people find it the hardest chapter, primarily because it’s the stage at which you start to flex your academic muscles and speak like a doctor. It is here that you start to push the boundaries of knowledge.

That’s a hard thing to do, largely because you’ve probably never had to do it before. All through your masters and undergraduate work you’ve learnt what other people have found. Now you’re finding out things that no-one else knows.

The difference between a discussion and an empirical chapter is subtle, but I’ve written   a detailed guide   that will clear up any confusion you’ve got.

How to Structure a Conclusion

The job of the conclusion is to:

  • Fully and clearly articulate the answer to your research questions
  • Discuss how the research is related to your aims and objectives
  • Explain the significance of the work
  • Outline its shortcomings
  • Suggest avenues for future research

It is not the place to introduce new ideas and concepts, or to present new findings.

Your job is to reflect back on your original aims and intentions and discuss them in terms of your findings and new expertise.

Three things to do in a conclusion:

  • Own your research by speaking with authority! You’ve earned the right to do that by the time you reach your conclusion 
  • See the thesis and not the detail. Drive home the contribution that the thesis has made. Whatever it is, you need to shout about it. Loudly. Like an expert.
  • Each chapter is a piece of the puzzle and only when they are all slotted together do you have an entire thesis. That means that a great conclusion is one that shows that the thesis is bigger than the sum of its individual chapters. 
  • By the time the reader has finished reading the conclusion, they should be able to answer the following questions:
  • Have you briefly recapped the research questions and objectives?
  • Have you provided a brief recount of the answer to those questions?
  • Have you clearly discussed the significance and implications of those findings?
  • Have you discussed the contribution that the study has made?
  • Do the claims you are making align with the content of the results and discussion chapters?

Wrapping Up 

There’s clearly a lot more that can be said about how to structure each of these sections. Go to your university library and you’ll find dozens of books on how to write a PhD. Google it and you’ll find thousands of posts. It’s hard to know where to start.

That’s why  I’ve put together an  email based course on How To Write Your Thesis . Over twelve emails you’ll get detailed chapter guides that expand on the above, a ton of templates, checklist and worksheets, and lots of curated videos and external resources to really cement your learning. By the end, you’ll understand what goes where and why and would have saved yourself a bunch of time and energy sifting through all those books and posts.

That way, you can write more, worry less and graduate sooner.

To sign up,   click here . 

Hello, Doctor…

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Be able to call yourself Doctor sooner with our five-star rated How to Write A PhD email-course. Learn everything your supervisor should have taught you about planning and completing a PhD.

Now half price. Join hundreds of other students and become a better thesis writer, or your money back. 

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26 comments.

Abdullahi

This is seriously and absolutely helpful but some terminologies used may not be understood by most beginners in research methodology. Beginners would better understand the use of chapter1, etc. Thank you.

Dr. Max Lempriere

Thanks for the useful feedback. Enjoy the rest of your day.

Lallé M. ZOUBA

Wonderful…. It is really practical to have such tips… Many thanks….

You’re welcome!

Ahmed aldhafeeri

Well done Max, very informative post.

Great. Thanks for the kind words.

Dean -

Cheers Max! Sent it on to many friends starting the journey

Great. Thanks Dean!

Maureen

Hi Dr Lumpriere,

Thanks for creating this website, it is really helpful to situate oneself – I am really new to this. In your experience, how many hours does one (roughly. – of course depending on the scope of the project) have to dedicate to a PhD weekly on average?

Thanks again, Maureen

Hi Maureen – it really depends on so many factors, including how much familiarity you already have with research and how quickly you want to finish. It’s hard to say! I devoted around 3/4 of full time to mine per week – so roughly 30 hours. But then I had never conducted research before, didn’t have any caregiving responsibilities, and wanted to complete quickly.

Felix

Thanks a lot for dedicating your time and effort to helping those who are still struggling with writing up their PhD!

Best, Felix

You’re welcome Felix.

Adebayo Adeleye

Good job. Thanks for the information here.

You’re welcome! Glad you found it useful.

Eric

This is great, I am impressed by the guideline. I shall consult these steps as I work on my Thesis for my PhD.

Iram

Thanks for this information keep it up.

Carlo Butera

Very interesting and useful job!

Stephen Ubah

Well done Dr Max. Quite helpful, thanks

Adebanjo Babawale

I am really grateful for this tip. God bless the writer in Jesus’ name

Iyua Mbah

Thank you for this guide.

Salin Gurung

Thank you very much for the information. It’s very useful.

Marta

This article is insanely helpful. Especially the questions that should be answered in each part. Even though I was aware of most of it, seeing it all put together so neatly helps a lot. Thank you!

Wow. Such great praise. Thanks!

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Learning how to develop a research question throughout the PhD process: training challenges, objectives, and scaffolds drawn from doctoral programs for students and their supervisors

  • Open access
  • Published: 15 July 2024

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  • Nathalie Girard   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-1036-0010 1 ,
  • Aurélie Cardona 2 &
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With the higher education reform putting forward the professionalization of doctoral students, doctoral education has been strongly focused on generic transferable skills to ensure employability. However, doctoral training should not forget core skills of research and especially the ability to formulate research questions, which are the key to original research and difficult to develop at the same time. Learning how to develop a research question is traditionally seen as a one-to-one learning process and an informal daily transmission between a novice and a senior researcher. The objective of this paper is to offer a framework to design doctoral programs aimed at supporting the process of development of research questions for doctoral candidates guided by their supervisors. We base our proposal on two doctoral training programs designed with a pedagogical strategy based on dialogs with peers, whether they be students, supervisors, or trainers from a diversity of scientific backgrounds. The resulting framework combines three learning challenges faced by doctoral students and their supervisors when developing their research question, as well as training objectives corresponding to what they should learn and that are illustrated by the scaffolds we have used in our training programs. Finally, we discuss the conditions and originality of our pedagogical strategy based on the acquisition of argumentation skills, taking both the subjective dimensions of PhD work and the added value of interactions with a diversity and heterogeneity of peers into account.

Avoid common mistakes on your manuscript.

Introduction

With the higher education reform ongoing in the Western world, doctoral education has undergone “a shift from the master–apprentice model to the professional model” (Poyatos Matas, 2012 ), focusing doctoral education on doctoral graduate employability (Cardoso et al., 2022 ) and thus on generic transferable skills (Christensen, 2005 ). However, Poyatos Matas ( 2012 ) warns doctoral educators of the danger of reducing doctoral education to a business or team skills approach, arguing the “importan[ce of maintaining] an adequate balance between skill-based and knowledge-based approaches to doctoral education.” Along the same line, Christensen ( 2005 ) argues that training in transferable skills “should not be overemphasised with respect to original research.” Nevertheless, Poyatos Matas ( 2012 ) does not explicitly explain what the core skills of research, grouped into a broad category referred to as “research skills,” are among seven other skills listed by the European Universities Association’s Salzburg principles.

Among research skills, the way the research question is formulated is critical. As Einstein and Infeld expressed it in 1971 , “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution […]. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old questions from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” In this article, we consider the development of a research question as a process that consists of determining and reducing the identified problems, whether scientific or socio-economic, and translating them into a relevant and treatable question (Callon, 1984 ). We assume that it is a key process for research activities and a skill that PhD students have to acquire during their PhD experience. However, learning how to develop a research question is far from being easy, as revealed by the multiplication of methodological guides and tutorials on this topic. As researchers and human resource advisors working in a multidisciplinary research institute (INRAE) Footnote 1 , we have also observed many PhD students struggling to formulate their research question, which may seriously inhibit the writing of the final manuscript, whether it be a thesis by publication or not. Some authors have pointed out that the current graduate school education system has largely focused on producing better learners and problem solvers, thus neglecting problem-finding or creativity development in doctoral education (Whitelock et al., 2008 ). Preparing a “research proposal” and developing a researchable question is even recognized as a critical step for doctoral students (Zuber-Skerrit & Knight, 1986 ), becoming a “threshold to cross” during the PhD journey (Chatterjee-Padmanabhan & Nielsen, 2018 ). It thus appears essential to explore the challenges of research question development and how doctoral training programs can contribute to its learning.

The objective of our article is to offer a framework to think about and design doctoral training programs that support the development of research questions for doctoral candidates guided by their supervisors. Our proposal is grounded in two doctoral training programs designed with a pedagogical strategy based on dialogs with peers, whether they be other students, supervisors, or trainers from a diversity of scientific backgrounds. This article is structured into four sections. We present our theoretical background in order to explore the diversity of approaches to develop a research question, laying out our vision of doctoral experience and education, and the way in which the concept of scaffolding has been used in the learning processes that underlie the development of research questions (“ Theoretical background ” section). We then present our methodology, combining an analysis of the literature, our experience in conducting research, supervising and training doctoral students and their supervisors, and our case studies (“ Materials and methods ” section). Our results consist of a framework that combines three learning challenges and the corresponding training objectives, illustrated by scaffoldings we have used in our training programs (“ Results: scaffolding learning challenges for the development of the research question within a thesis ” section). Finally, we discuss the conditions and originality of our proposal based on the acquisition of argumentation skills, with the consideration of the subjective dimensions of PhD work and the added value of interactions with a diversity and heterogeneity of peers (“ Discussion: Enriching peer-learning scaffolding to support the development of a research question as a dialogical process ” section).

Theoretical background

Opening up the process of research question development: a diversity of approaches.

According to the literature about the development of research questions, it is a task that is difficult to formalize and for which several approaches coexist. It may differ according to the disciplines (Xypas & Robin, 2010 ) as well as according to the practical context of the doctoral thesis (i.e., participative research, methodological or fundamental research, financial support). We identified four approaches to research question development:

Gap-spotting (e.g., Locke & Golden-Biddle, 1997 ), the more classical approach, which consists in identifying gaps in existing literature that need to be filled.

Challenging the assumptions underlying existing theory in order to develop and evaluate alternative assumptions. Such an approach aims at coming up “with novel research questions through a dialectical interrogation of one’s own familiar position, other stances, and the domain of literature targeted for assumption challenging” (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2013 ). These authors explicitly adopt a critical perspective of gap-spotting, which they consider as a form of “underproblematization.”

Expressing a contrastive stance to create dialogical space, presented as critical in order to develop a convincing research question (Mei, 2006 ). This approach has addressed the research question formulation by focusing on the writing process.

Problem-solving study based on a negotiation about the “problem framing” involving scientists and stakeholders, and which focuses on practical problem-solving (Archbald, 2008 ).

The literature and our experience show that these different approaches coexist, but do not fall within the same temporality. For example, gap-spotting can be an operation that takes place at the beginning of the research process and which is limited in time, whereas the negotiation of problems between scientists and stakeholders can be much longer and can arise at different stages of the research process. In the same way, challenging existing theories can be a long and incremental process that evolves as the doctoral student acquires new knowledge from scientific literature along the doctoral path or due to an unexpected observation in the field. Trafford and Leshem ( 2009 ) also explain how research begins with a gap in knowledge or professional practices and how research questions evolve with new inputs from the literature, fieldwork, and the progressive establishment of a conceptual framework and theoretical perspectives, to finally end up by proposing a “justifiable contribution to knowledge”. In this perspective, the formulation of a research question can be considered as an incremental path that continues during the doctoral journey.

The knowledge and know-how involved in research question development are thus of a very specific nature (metacognition, implicit, diversity of thinking, etc.), rendering it impossible to design doctoral training programs focused on this complex task as a simple “knowledge transfer”. Moreover, beyond the cognitive learning required, it also refers to more developmental challenges, both for doctoral students and their supervisors, since it is embedded in their specific epistemological and social working situation.

Our vision of the PhD experience and doctoral education

We consider research and, thus, doctoral experience as an activity involving affects, interests, and social networks (Shapin, 2010 ). In line with other scholars (Lonka et al., 2019 ; Sun & Cheng, 2022 ; Xypas & Robin, 2010 ), we argue that doctoral education should rely on a person-centered approach. This means paying attention to doctoral students’ profiles, their perceptions of the academic environment and their professional aims, i.e., the individual contexts of each PhD thesis and the diversity of PhD researchers’ needs and goals (Inouye, 2023 ), as well as their conceptions of research or epistemological backgrounds (Charmillot, 2023 ). We thus consider the PhD process as a professional experience with its multidimensional nature and the distinct quests of PhD students (quest for the self; intellectual quest; professional quest) when navigating their doctoral paths (Skakni, 2018 ).

This type of view leads to a developmental approach of the PhD journey, with doubts, uncertainties, and paradoxes in becoming doctoral researchers, and a “transformation of understanding and of self” (Rennie & Kinsella, 2020 ). Influenced by their personal trajectories and post-PhD goals, doctoral students may thus adopt various approaches in the yearly phase of the PhD process when developing their research projects, whether writing a research proposal constitutes or not a formal step to becoming a full doctoral candidate Footnote 2 . We also consider the PhD experience as a transformative process of a bidirectional nature, for both doctoral students and their supervisors (Halse & Malfroy, 2010 ; Kobayashi, 2014 ).

When it comes to doctoral education, this point of view implies the necessity to combine both generic support and individual guidance, to tailor training and to take each of the doctoral student’s stage of development into account. It also requires that trainers take on the role of facilitators more than those “who know”, in a socio-constructivist approach to learning. Nevertheless, designing doctoral training dedicated to research question development throughout the doctoral journey opens up questions on how to promote such learning in the workplace.

Scaffolding as an adaptive support of learning

In line with Vygotsky’s approach to learning, we consider that the concept of scaffolding can be beneficial to understanding how PhD supervisors can assist their doctoral students in learning how to develop their research question. Firstly defined by Wood et al. ( 1976 ) as a process similar to parents helping infants to solve a problem, this concept has proven to be an efficient pedagogical strategy to support learning in science (Lin et al., 2012 ). It can then be connected to Vygotski’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) ( 1978 ), consisting of tasks that students cannot yet carry out on their own, but which they can accomplish with assistance. Scaffolding has been specified by Belland ( 2014 ) in instructional settings as a “just-in-time support provided by a teacher/parent (tutor) that allows students (tutees) to meaningfully participate in and gain skill at problem solving”. Beyond this use within formal instruction, it has been put forward as “a central educational arrangement in workplace learning”, considered as a “socially-shared situation between master and apprentice” (Nielsen, 2008 ). Scholars argued that scaffolding could also be used to improve higher-order thinking abilities through social interaction, such as argumentation when solving ill-structured problems or when building dialectical arguments.

Three critical features are central to successful scaffolding:

Firstly, the notion of a shared understanding of the goal of the activity is crucial (Puntambekar & Hübscher, 2005 ), requiring an “intersubjectivity” between the tutor and the tutee (Belland, 2014 ), which is reached when they collaboratively redefine the task. The stake here is to make sure that learners are invested in the task, as well as to help sustain this motivation, encouraging them to be informed participants who understand the point of the activity, the value and use of the strategies and “making it worthwhile for the learner to risk the next step” (Wood et al., 1976 ).

Secondly, the tutor should provide the tutee with a graduated assistance based on an ongoing diagnosis of the tutee’s current level of skill, which Belland ( 2014 ) sums up by “providing just the right amount of support at just the right time, and backing off as students gained skill”. Therefore, scaffolding is highly contingent on both the task and the learner’s characteristics, thus being “dynamically adjusted according to tutee ability” (Belland, 2014 ) and requiring the tutor to manage a careful calibration of support (Puntambekar & Hübscher, 2005 ).

Thirdly, scaffolding is successful when the learner controls and takes responsibility for the task, thus moving towards autonomous activity. Scaffolding should then promote this transfer of responsibility, as well as including its own fadeout as internalization progresses.

First focused on the interactions between individuals, the scaffolding concept is now being more broadly applied to artifacts, resources, and environments designed as scaffolds (Puntambekar & Hübscher, 2005 ), with three main “scaffolding modalities”:

One-to-one scaffolding, which “consists of a teacher’s contingent support of students within their respective ZPDs”, considered as the ideal modality with a tailored scaffolding;

Peer scaffolding, which goes beyond the original idea of assistance by a more capable individual (Wood et al., 1976 ) and which hypothesizes that peers can also provide such support;

Computer/paper/artifact-based scaffolding, which emerged as a solution to the dilemma that teachers cannot provide adequate one-to-one scaffolding to all students in a classroom.

Beyond the advantages and limitations of each scaffolding modality, various scholars have discussed the challenges of designing scaffolding in complex environments. It can be a question of taking the heterogeneity of learners into consideration when designing tools (Puntambekar & Hübscher, 2005 ), of building dynamic assessments and fading into the whole environment (Puntambekar & Hübscher, 2005 ; Belland, 2014 ), or of considering the learning environment by combining tools and agents (Puntambekar & Hübscher, 2005 ) in a system of “distributed scaffolding” (Tabak, 2004 ). Lastly, beyond the dyadic relationship between the master and the apprentice, many authors have shown the distributed and collective nature of scaffolding at the workplace (Filliettaz, 2011 ), pointing out the role of “the entire work community” in workplace learning. This enlargement of the concept of scaffolding appears to be especially relevant for the learning of research question development, which is a long process that results from a diversity of interactions, as shown in the previous sub-section.

Existing scaffoldings to support the learning of research question development

In her report of the Bologna seminar on Doctoral Programs for the European Knowledge Society, Christensen ( 2005 ) argues that only training by doing research can provide doctoral candidates with core skills such as “problem solving, innovative, creative and critical thinking”. Until now, the traditional model of doctoral education was based on a supervisor-centered model and a transmission model “where the apprenticeship learns from the master by observation” (Poyatos Matas, 2012 ). Such informal learning thus takes place in private spaces, pointing out the lack of explicit knowledge on “what the academic career involves, the norms, values, and ethics embedded in their disciplines, and the expectations of work habits that they would be expected to meet” (Austin, 2009 ).

Even if this master-apprenticeship model was previously adequate, it turns out to be outdated because of the evolution of doctoral conditions. The increasing control and limitation of PhD duration and the obligation of regular reporting about the progress of the PhD leave less room and time for mimetic and trial-and-error learning. This is especially true in the case of specific doctoral education models such as the PhD by publication, the professional doctorate, the practice-based doctorate (Poyatos Matas, 2012 ), and the case of traditional PhDs. However, most of the time, doctoral students remain “without fully learning how to frame their own questions and design and conduct their own studies” (Austin, 2009 ). It is thus not surprising that the offer of learning supports for PhD students has greatly increased, with a wide diversity of options (handbooks, YouTube channels, writing courses or groups, etc.). Among the diverse training programs offered to doctoral students and sometimes supervisors, some doctoral schools and universities have also created specific training programs to support research question development, while some authors like Inouye ( 2020 ) put forward that training and supervision should include explicit training on the Research Proposal as a “threshold to cross” (see footnote n°2). On the basis of this diversity of offers, we identified three main scaffoldings corresponding to the three main modalities identified in the previous section: artifacts, peer-learning groups (e.g., Chatterjee-Padmanabhan & Nielsen, 2018 ; Poyatos Matas, 2012 ; Zuber-Skerritt & Knight, 1986 ), and supervisors (e.g., Manathunga et al., 2006 ; Whitelock et al., 2008 ).

Following a developmental approach to the PhD process, the present study aims at offering a generic framework to think about and design doctoral programs that scaffold the learning of the development of research questions.

Materials and methods

Building a framework by combining our experiences with the literature.

This research was based on two distinct doctoral training programs that we designed and independently ran over a period of 10 years. Having reflected together on our department’s doctoral training policy, we then progressively formalized the issues at stake in doctoral training and analyzed how our programs responded to them. The importance and difficulties of learning how to develop research questions during doctoral studies then became crucial, leading us to formalize what we had learned from our two programs. In this article, these programs are our case studies, i.e., the situation where we conducted an empirical inquiry to investigate the scaffolding of research question development and from which we can expand and generalize theories on doctoral training (Yin, 2018 ).

For each case study, we combined several methods to collect data:

We used ethnographic techniques (Parker-Jenkins, 2018 ) with a participant observer stance. As researchers conducting research and supervising doctoral students, as HR advisors supporting doctoral students and researchers at INRAE, and as trainers and coordinators in two doctoral training programs, we are involved in prolonged and repeated periods of observation. We thus documented detailed field notes that were revisited as research data.

We built a corpus of pre-existing documents presenting the two doctoral programs (brochures, Website contents, scientific articles, time schedules and targeted objectives at each sequence). For each document, we carried out an open-coding operation to identify the narratives about research question development.

We gathered feedback spontaneously expressed by the trainees during the training courses, the hot debriefs occurring at the end of each course, and training assessments one month after the course, as well as in the course of our activity (in individual HR interventions or in reading the acknowledgements of a PhD thesis).

In parallel with data collection, we carried out a review of the literature on the evolution of doctoral education and the emerging learning challenges for doctoral students and their supervisors, some epistemological articles on research question development and the process of doctoral experience, empirical articles describing training for research question development and seminal articles, and reviews on scaffolding in education sciences. We undertook a cross-reading of this literature to build a conceptual framework identifying the key concepts to study training for research question development: scaffolds, scaffolding objectives, learning challenges, and scaffolding practices. We then analyzed our data to identify the scaffolds mobilized in each case study, the objectives of this scaffolding, and the learning challenges of research question development considered as a scaffolding system. Finally, we characterized our scaffolding practices, i.e., the way in which we, as trainers, concretely support the learning required to achieve the challenges of research question development. Both training programs result from a continuous improvement process based on the feedback of the trainees: with such feedback and our own observations, we were thus able to identify and select the most effective teaching methods in line with our objectives to support the learning of research question development. Behind the classical scaffolding modalities identified in the literature, we chose to identify the diversity of very contextual scaffolding practices and devices used, which we then linked to our training objectives. For each program, we also detailed how these objectives relate to the larger learning challenges of research question development. This led us to formalize a generic grid, which was tested and improved by using it to describe each of our programs.

Two doctoral training programs as case studies for cross-analysis

As a public research institute, the main goals of INRAE are to produce and disseminate scientific knowledge, with a specific focus on the contribution to education and training. Given the broad field of competences within INRAE devoted to the development of agriculture, food and the environment, and its inherent multidisciplinary nature, the thesis defended may draw from extremely various disciplines, ranging from molecular biology to sociology, with a dominance of life and environmental sciences. Moreover, INRAE is a targeted research institute that works with and for various partners in higher education and research, industry, and the agricultural sector and regional governments. This means that many research projects, including doctoral research, are designed and carried out within partnerships with these various stakeholders. INRAE doctoral students are supervised by INRAE researchers, mainly within complex multidisciplinary supervision teams together with French or international academic partners.

In this context, we have developed our vision of research activity and doctoral experience (see the “ Our vision of the PhD experience and doctoral education ” section) and have been designing, improving, and leading two doctoral training programs for more than 10 years (Table  1 ), which share common postulates such as the following:

Considering the PhD process as a part of the professional trajectory.

Aiming at supporting autonomy of doctoral students through the enhancement of their capacity to defend the choices they have made to build research questions, thus also aiming at helping supervisors to adopt a companionship stance.

Considering research question development as an activity, which implies the choice of pedagogical principles based on action learning rather than knowledge transfer.

Considering diversity as an asset, we base our training programs on multidisciplinary workshops.

Nevertheless, they differ in terms of the training audience and times of training in the PhD process:

Course A is only open to doctoral students of the ACT Footnote 3 division of INRAE, whereas course B trains both doctoral students and their supervisors belonging to the different divisions of INRAE.

Doctoral students may attend course A three times during their thesis, whereas course B is designed to train doctoral students once during their thesis, at the end of the first year.

Results: scaffolding learning challenges for the development of the research question within a thesis

In this section, we present a generic framework to think about and design doctoral training programs with the aim of scaffolding the learning of research question development. It combines learning challenges (LC) faced by doctoral students and their supervisors when formulating their research question and training objectives (TO) corresponding to what the participants should learn. We also illustrate how each of these TO can be scaffolded, drawing on some examples from our training programs.

First challenge: to empower doctoral students in the development of their research question, guided by their supervisors

As a professionalization period, the PhD process is considered as a peer-learning process (Boud & Lee, 2005 ) that relies on a mentoring relationship that aims at developing the autonomy of the young researcher (Willison and O’Regan, 2007 ). Developing doctoral agency (Inouye, 2023 ) and, more specifically, promoting a subject-centered approach (Sun & Cheng, 2022 ) to research question development is the first learning challenge that we identified. We then consider that the doctoral student is the one who makes the subject evolve, who reflects and chooses the components of the research question. We divide this first learning challenge into three training objectives and various sub-objectives (see Fig.  1 ), one focused on the doctoral student, one on the supervisor, and one on their relative roles.

figure 1

Training objectives set out for the challenge: “to empower doctoral students in their research question development”

First, the doctoral student needs to understand the expectations, nature, and difficulties of PhD research and, specifically, of research question development (TO1). This encompasses the sub-objective of understanding the iterative and unplanned nature of the research process as well as making it clear with their supervisor(s) how their creativity can be expressed regarding institutional or financial constraints. For many authors, problem finding or identifying and describing a research question is part of doctoral subjective creativity and a key for an original contribution to knowledge. At the same time, we observe, as other scholars (Brodin, 2018 ; Frick, 2011 ; Whitelock et al., 2008 ) have, that there is a lack of explicit expectations on creativity in doctoral education, which is then limited by scholarly traditions and institutional requirements. During research question development, “standing at the border between the known and the unknown” Footnote 4 can put doctoral students in a situation of uncertainty about their identity and purpose (Trafford & Leshem, 2009 ). For Frick ( 2011 ), doctoral becoming requires an alignment between “how students view themselves in relation to the research process of becoming a scholar (ontology), how they relate to different forms of knowledge (epistemology), how they know to obtain and create such knowledge (methodology), and how they frame their interests in terms of their values and ethics within the discipline (axiology)”. At the crossroads between these four dimensions, research question development is thus a key process that stimulates doctoral student becoming and that requires the support of supervisors so that their students can understand what is expected of them. Knowing that this can be a source of stress for doctoral students, we put the subject of “what is a research process” up for discussion between supervisors and students in course B. After discussing with other students on their perception of creativity in their thesis, students are invited to watch, together with their supervisors, a video calling for scientists to stop thinking of research as a linear process from question to answer but, instead, as a creative and eventually sinuous path (see footnote n°4). Students often express a sense of relief later on when they work with their supervisors on the second reformulation of the thesis subject. In this way, doctoral students become aware that a formulation is likely to evolve during the thesis and feel more comfortable about formulating one that is in no way definitive at the end of the course. In the same way, in course A, we invite the second-year PhD students to work on the transformation of their research subject in order to illustrate its evolution. We ask them to write the formulation of their subject as worded in the PhD offer or initial PhD contract and the formulation that they would use today to describe it. We then collectively work with the other PhD students at various stages in their thesis to identify the differences between the two formulations, so that the concerned second-year PhD students may explain their choices, eventualities, or constraints that led to the transformation of the subject. During debriefs, trainees express that this exercise helped them to understand that this transformation is an integral part of the research process.

This learning challenge also implies that doctoral students and their supervisors clarify their respective roles regarding research question development (TO2). The degree to which supervisors encourage doctoral students to think and act autonomously has been shown to be associated with students’ supervision satisfaction and greater research self-efficacy (Overall et al., 2011 ). This can be done firstly by clarifying the distinction between the supervisor(s)’s research project, professional career issues and those of the PhD. In course B, asking the doctoral students and their supervisors to describe and discuss the thesis supervision ecosystem has been observed as one of the crucial steps in this clarification of their respective roles in research question development. For doctoral students, research question development also implies that they take ownership of the subject, whereas it was often initially written by the supervisors. In course B, the rule “letting the student speak first” has been expressed by doctoral students as very useful for taking on the role, especially during the three workshops focused on the formulation of the thesis subject. In course A, we ask the doctoral students to present the professional context of their PhD (research project, subsidy, disciplines of the supervisors, proximity of the supervisors to the subject, etc.). This presentation helps the trainees to clarify the contextual framing of the PhD students’ theses, as well as the margin of freedom. For their part, supervisors need to let the PhD students develop their research question by themselves and find the right stance, with a careful balance between “hands-off” and “hands-on” (Gruzdev et al., 2020 ). In course B, supervisors first exchange between themselves about what it means to supervise a thesis and their role in the PhD process. The three reformulation workshops are then practical opportunities to take on this role: experiencing this role of being a support and not the leader of the PhD project is sometimes seen as difficult by supervisors who are used to being research project leaders, but they also admit that it is a necessary step to experience the supervision stance.

Supervisors also need to understand the challenges faced by PhD candidates in the development of research questions (TO3) by first abandoning the assumption of the already autonomous student (Manathunga & Goozée, 2007 ). According to Halse and Malfroy ( 2010 ), the supervisor is “responsible for recognizing and responding to the needs of different students”, within a “learning alliance” with the student. When it comes to formulating their research question, it becomes important to be able to situate their own role with their values and desires in the research process, in general, and, in particular, in the development of the research question, which is not just made up of rational intellectual choices. For this objective, supervisors have to be able to clearly identify the doctoral student’s state of progress in the development of the research question within the thesis and, more broadly, the doctoral student’s values and desires in doing research (Skakni, 2018 ). In course B, we ask them to step back and remain silent (even stolid!) when their doctoral students present their subject. While listening and writing down their observations, they foster their understanding of the states of progress and the orientations chosen by the students. With this rule, we then observe that most of them are able to adopt the correct stance for later workshops when they are asked to work with students on their research question.

Second challenge: to be aware of the various forms and processes of research question development within a diversity of ways of doing research and to be able to situate oneself in this diversity.

The second learning challenge focuses on making the PhD students (and their supervisors) aware of the diversity of ways of doing research and especially various forms and processes of research question development (see the “ Opening up the process of research question development: a diversity of approaches ” section) and situating oneself in this diversity. Many authors argue that doctoral education should highlight scientific pluralism (Pallas, 2001 ), opening the epistemological doctoral experience in order to question the implicit norm of neutrality of the positivist ideal (Charmillot, 2023 ). This is particularly true when it comes to the development of research questions for “wicked problems” (Rittel & Webber, 1973 ), i.e., economic, political, and environmental issues involving many stakeholders with different values and priorities. In this context, developing research questions often requires analysis at the crossroads between several disciplines (Bosque-Perez et al., 2016 ) and between different social stakes (Manathunga et al., 2006 ). It requires reinforcing a scientific culture favorable to this practice of multi-/inter-/transdisciplinarity (Kemp & Nurius, 2015 ), then making interdisciplinary research skills a part of graduate education (Pallas, 2001 ; Bosque-Perez et al., 2016 ). Doctoral students then have to develop their awareness about the diversity of forms and processes of research question development, requiring that they are able to understand this diversity, to know how they themselves relate to different forms of knowledge (Frick, 2011 ), and to acknowledge their performativity in the world.

Within this second learning challenge, we distinguish four training objectives (Fig.  2 ), all concerning doctoral students and their supervisors.

figure 2

Training objectives for the challenge: “to be aware of the diversity of ways of doing research, to be able to situate oneself in this diversity”

Both of them need to understand and respect the diversity of research stances (TO4). In both of our case studies, we ensure that a diversity of disciplines is represented in each working group, and we guarantee the mutual respect among them. We facilitate the expression of all doctoral students about how they are developing their research question, thus illustrating the diversity of research stances. During the hot debrief of course A, trainees regularly point out the discovery of this diversity as a positive outcome, which helps them to situate their own work. Moreover, discussing research question development within small and heterogeneous groups in terms of disciplines is experienced by participants as a strength “to take a step back and clarify key points” (student, course B, 2017), acknowledging that “working with other disciplines, it helped us to refocus and clarify the subject” (supervisor, course B, 2023).

Doctoral students and their supervisors also need to be able to formulate questions and clearly explain the doctoral research project, especially the way they develop their research question, whatever their discipline may be (TO5). This is why active participation is required in the workshops in both case studies, putting doctoral students and supervisors in the position of an active learner, not a passive trainee. Since such workshops may be very demanding for the PhD student and might be emotionally intense, it is of utmost importance that the trainers carefully manage the collective discussion, guaranteeing trust, mutual respect, and achieving balance in speaking. In particular, doctoral students and their supervisors are the ones who know the scientific community(ies) to which they will contribute and are the only ones who can assess the relevance of the subject. Participants are then asked to question the PhD students without calling the relevance of their theses into question. When aiming at promoting the expression of PhD students as human subjects , trainers have to pay particular attention to the fact that participants do not reformulate the subject for the students but, on the contrary, help them to open up the possibilities, to sort out, and to clarify the status of the elements presented. Trainers also use expression modes such as the questioning forms (open/closed questions), the subject pronouns used (I/we), and the origin of the arguments or events expressed by the PhD student as points of vigilance for managing the group discussion and as levers to go deeper into the questioning and analysis of the PhD students’ thinking about their research questions.

They both have to examine (in their own research and that of others) the place of stakeholders in the development of the research question (TO6). In course A, we use the conceptual framework of translation from Callon ( 1984 ) to analyze how a social problem can be translated into a research question. In course B, the framework given to trainees to develop their research question specifically points out the distinction to be made between the academic research stakes and the stakes for society. They also have to understand how the diversity of ways of scientific knowledge production perform or do not perform in problematic situations (TO7).

Third learning challenge: to know how to develop their research question throughout the research process

The third learning challenge concerns the staggered process of formulation of the research question throughout the PhD process. For many authors, the formulation of a “researchable question” or “research conceptualization” (Badenhorst, 2021 ) by the doctoral student is the first step in the doctoral research process with the writing, and sometimes formal presentation, of a “research proposal”. It is often seen as a threshold in the doctoral journey (Chatterjee-Padmanabhan & Nielsen, 2018 ) and a key feature of “doctorateness”, combining gaps in knowledge, contributions to knowledge, research questions, conceptual frameworks, and research design (Trafford & Leshem, 2009 ). For Frick ( 2011 ), the preparation of a proposal requires background reading and “demarcation of the research question”. It consists in knowing to which scientific issues the thesis will contribute and in identifying the relevant disciplinary concepts. Mastering the various modes of communication in the development of a research question is of utmost importance for PhD students, enabling them to accurately formulate their research question (Lim, 2014 ), as well as to take most of their supervisors’ or other researchers’ (colleagues, reviewers) feedback into consideration (Carter & Kumar, 2017 ). More widely, knowing how to formulate their research question is not sufficient without being able to step back from their own formulation. Boch ( 2023 ) expresses it as a necessary reflexivity in research writing, which means becoming aware of oneself in research and integrating this experience into the writing in an argumentative and convincing way. Stepping back from their research question also puts forward the need for doctoral students to be clear about the translations and reductions made (Callon, 1984 ), their research strategies (Inouye, 2023 ), or research stances (Hazard et al., 2020 ).

This learning challenge includes three training objectives (Fig.  3 ), two of them concerning the doctoral student and the third one concerning the students and their supervisors.

figure 3

Training objectives for the challenge: “to know how to express their research question throughout the research process”

Doctoral students must clearly lay out the research stakes (both academic and for society) throughout their thesis process (TO8). In course B, we give learners a framework to think about and discuss research question development as a combination of three main ingredients (operational and scientific stakes, research question, strategy), requiring that students make the difference between the scientific stakes and the thesis objective clear, while defining the scope of the thesis within broader issues (European project, lab project). In course A, the conceptual framework of the translation from Callon is useful to recognize the driving forces of the reductions and translations in order to identify them and their consequences on the formulation of the research question. It helps clarify their research practices and understand how they contribute to the development of the research strategy, beyond what has been done so far. In course A, we use a trajectory to identify the consistency and the sense of the various research practices of the 3 rd year PhD students. In course B, the “research strategy,” viewed both as a “realized” and “planned” one (Mintzberg, 1987 ), is useful as both a hindsight (what have been my choices so far?) and planning tool (how to reach my research objective as I can express it today?), allowing students to put the weight of their thesis schedule into perspective.

In order to progress in their reflection, the doctoral students need to understand the importance of different oral and written (scientific or not) communications for making the formulation of their research question evolve (TO9). In course A, when designing the trajectory of the 3 rd year PhD students, we question them about their scientific communications or articles and about the consequences they had on the evolution of the formulation of their research question. We also ask them about the impact of the different feedback they had at the time of these communications and articles (from peers, from supervisors and other researchers, and from stakeholders) on the development of their research question. In course B, there are three exercises focused on the research question. While being considered as difficult, these exercises are also seen by trainees as effective for training themselves in expressing (orally and then on a written basis) their own subject and receiving feedback and questions from other students and their supervisors. We can observe that research questions and soundness of argumentation deeply evolve throughout the week, to the great satisfaction of students and their supervisors.

Doctoral students, as well as their supervisors for the research carried out under their responsibility, have to understand and explain the consequences of research question choices on the ways knowledge produced in the thesis could be used in the real world (TO10). In course A, we use a heuristic tool to help PhD students to understand the relevance for action of the knowledge they generate (Hazard et al., 2020 ).

Discussion: enriching peer-learning scaffolding to support the development of a research question as a dialogical process

Learning how to build a research question is traditionally seen as a one-to-one learning process based on informal and daily transmission between a novice and a senior researcher. In order to open up this informal process, we have grounded our pedagogical strategy in multiple opportunities for dialog with peers, whether it be other students, supervisors, or trainers. Taken as a whole, it thus combines interdisciplinarity, peer-learning, and dialogical principles that result in the construction of an “overall distributed scaffolding strategy” (Belland, 2014 ) and that create synergy between peer scaffolding, one-to-one and media scaffolding (Belland, 2014 ).

Firstly, our case studies emphasize speaking and argumentation skills rather than writing competencies. Many research works like Zuber-Skerritt and Knight ( 1986 ), Maher et al. ( 2013 ), Kumar and Aitchison ( 2018 ), and Badenhorst ( 2021 ) have explored the needs and modalities of doctoral education in terms of writing, even from the supervisor’s perspective (González-Ocampo & Castelló, 2018 ). Our pedagogical choice contrasts with this focus on doctoral writing since we give trainees many dialogical opportunities to train themselves to orally express and defend their intellectual autonomy. Doing so, we join Cahusac de Caux et al. ( 2017 ) who argue, “peer feedback and discussion benefits students by helping them verbalise their internal reflective thinking, fostering reflective practice skills development”. Even if we use some media-based scaffoldings, tools are not at the core of our case studies: our objective is instead to help trainees to put their thoughts into words, in line with the cognitive apprenticeship of Austin ( 2009 ), referring to a specific kind of apprenticeship for the less easily observed processes of thinking.

Secondly, our training programs make the most of the diversity and heterogeneity of peers, whether they be more or less experienced in supervision, from various disciplines, or at different stages of their thesis, thus enriching peer-learning scaffolding. All the participants, in their capacity as scientists, are considered as peers who are able to understand the work of other researchers, regardless of the discipline and the thesis subject. It is also by striving to understand and question subjects that are sometimes far from their field of research that researchers acquire the capacity for analysis, synthesis, and hindsight that is necessary in research work. By setting up dialogical spaces to help inexperienced researchers hone their argumentation skills, our training programs implement our view of research in practical terms as a collective process and of doctoral education as a professional socialization process, thus requiring that research organizations facilitate collective practices in the workplace (Malfroy, 2005 ). Moreover, with the inherent heterogeneity of participants, these workshops also constitute places where the multidisciplinarity and plurality of the sciences are experienced firsthand, convergent with Manathunga et al. ( 2006 ) or Bosque-Perez et al. ( 2016 ). Doing so, we are taking part in the debate of whether scaffolds need to contain domain-specific knowledge (Belland, 2014 ) by saying that there is no need for discipline or domain-specific scaffolds. Moreover, being active on one’s own case as well as on others’ situations is an efficient training strategy to move away from the objects and routines of a discipline or community when expressing ideas between specialists. Such collective reflexivity, sometimes turning into an analysis of professional practices, is a classic vocational training principle known to enhance the development of professionalization in the long term. What we add in our training sessions is the heterogeneity of participants, which is a resource for reflexivity, but that has to be carefully managed.

Thirdly, trainees are considered as human subjects engaged in their PhD with their various motivations and professional projects, which can strongly impact the way they see their thesis and envision their research work (Skakni, 2018 ), as well as their affinities and values, their doubts, and fears. Thanks to our focus on oral exchanges, we are then able to reveal and deal with these subjective dimensions of PhD work, which are often hidden when training PhD students in scientific writing. More precisely, expressing one’s doctoral experience and professional situations experienced is known as an efficient scaffolding practice within the collaborative reflective writing of “learning journals” with peer feedback (Boldrini & Cattaneo, 2014 ). We have shown how to implement such scaffolding in small groups of doctoral students with the facilitation of experienced researchers.

However, our proposal requires that some binding conditions be met:

Learning to formulate a research question through dialog with peers requires spending time, in our case, 4 full days, within small groups to ensure that everyone can take part in it and take advantage of the feedback of others.

This dialog is made possible and emphasized by the diversity of participants (either in terms of discipline, stage of the thesis, experience, etc.).

Managing both the human and scientific conditions of this dialog requires reflexive and open-minded trainers that adopt a facilitating stance.

As a result, our perspective on scaffolding is not merely an issue of training technique but, on the contrary, a situated perspective that echoes the view of Nielsen ( 2008 ) on training “both as part of a social practice and as part of the learner’s trajectory of participation”, within an expansive process inspired by Engeström’s work. With this developmental view on doctoral experience, we acknowledge that research question development is a process that goes beyond the limited time of a 4-day training program. Trainee feedback collected after their participation in course A or B revealed that they continue the work begun during the training programs, on the basis of the given scaffolding (e.g., “I feel that we familiarized ourselves with these tools [referring to the concepts of translation and reduction] because we work on them and I started to think. […] I know these tools will remain in my head until I write my thesis and that I really learned a lot” Hot debrief, course A, 2016). It is also not rare that trainees mention their participation in course A or B to their PhD steering committees as having helped to frame/define their research question. Course A or B is also frequently mentioned as an essential support in acknowledgement of their PhD thesis. Although limited in time, the training programs studied in this article act as an accelerator in research question development (e.g. course B “we saved several months”, supervisor, 2017, “In just 2 days, everything became much clearer and more focused”, student, 2021). We thus assume that they contribute to awareness and reflexivity on research activity and to the professional development of trainees, which is particularly crucial in France with the pressure put on thesis duration and the absence of formal recognition of the research proposal stage.

Our experience puts forward two avenues for future research. Firstly, bringing together doctoral students at different stages of their thesis and then offering them the opportunity to participate each year of their PhD process opens a window on to their intellectual trajectory and a situated adjustment of our scaffolding practices. Secondly, training doctoral supervisors—and trainers involved in these doctoral programs—remains of utmost importance to make scaffolding last and be adapted throughout the next months and years.

This study examined the learning challenges and objectives required for the task of research question development throughout the PhD process, both for doctoral students and their supervisors. We have drawn some lessons for the scaffolding of these challenges and objectives from two different doctoral training programs that we have been designing and leading for more than 10 years.

Considering the development of a research question as a dialogical process, we suggest three conditions to scaffold these learnings: firstly, offering many dialogical opportunities is an effective way for students to train themselves to express their intellectual autonomy and to defend their research project; secondly, making the most of the diversity and heterogeneity of peers, whether they be more or less experienced in supervision, from various disciplines, or at different stages of their thesis, thus enriching peer-learning scaffolding, proved to be beneficial when the multidisciplinarity and plurality of the sciences are experienced firsthand; and finally, giving priority to oral communication allows trainers and trainees to reveal and deal with the subjective dimensions of PhD work and their various motivations and professional projects that always underlie the development of a research question. Taken as a whole, our work seriously rises to the challenge of training reflexive researchers with an acute awareness of the collective nature of research and an intellectual openness to the plurality of sciences.

INRAE, the French public research institute devoted to the development of agriculture, food and the environment ( https://www.inrae.fr/en ), continuously hosts some 2000 PhD students.

For example, in the UK, writing and defending a research proposal allows a Transfer of Status from an initial probationary status to that of a full doctoral candidate (Inouye, 2020 ), whereas in France, there is no such formal assessment.

The ACT research division of INRAE aims at understanding and supporting transformative changes in socio-ecosystems and agrifood systems, which take actors’ practices and strategies into account in order to promote sustainable innovations and transitions, particularly at the territorial level.

As Uri Alon puts it in his TED video: “Why science demands a leap into the unknown” https://www.ted.com/talks/uri_alon_why_science_demands_a_leap_into_the_unknown .

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Girard, N., Cardona, A. & Fiorelli, C. Learning how to develop a research question throughout the PhD process: training challenges, objectives, and scaffolds drawn from doctoral programs for students and their supervisors. High Educ (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-024-01258-2

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