Thesis types/Structures

It is a good idea to have an early plan on how to structure your thesis. There are three main ways to structure a PhD at Federation University:

  1. as a “conventional” thesis;
  2. as a thesis incorporating published papers;
  3. as a creative thesis

See further information about these thesis types in Regulation 5.1, Section 11 in Federation HDR Policy). This page outlines the three most common thesis types at the university.

Types of thesis structures

The diagram below outlines the general structures of these three thesis types. Note, however, there is variability in terms of chapter order and inclusions/exclusions to the idealised models below.

The diagrams below show the differences between these thesis formats.

Three types of thesis

The conventional thesis

The conventional PhD thesis involves producing an unpublished document, up to 100,000 words in length, that scrutinises a research topic over a number of chapters (Federation University, 2019). The structure of a conventional thesis is generally organised as follows (variations to this are possible depending on the discipline area):

  • Introduction: This is where the general research area/topic, the specific focus and context, the proposed research gap(s), the research question(s) or hypotheses are briefly outlined. It is also the chapter where the organisation of the thesis is explained (i.e. an outline of what each chapter covers is provided) (See Writing an Introduction).
  • Literature review: The chapter provides critical comparison, analysis, synthesis and evaluation of the literature. In this chapter, candidates explore alternative perspectives to their research area and establish the strengths and weaknesses of existing research literature. This is a critical chapter as it outlines what the gaps are and how the researcher proposes to fill the gaps. (See Literature Reviews, Systemic Reviews and Meta-analyses)
  • Conceptual/Theoretical Framework: The chapter presents, evaluates, synthesises and modifies relevant theories, from which a framework is designed and then used as the guiding principles to interpret the results of the study. This chapter can include the following topics:
    • The conceptual framework is where candidates  justifies the need for the research.
    • The theoretical framework is the particular theory or theories that ground and provide a basis for the investigation.
    • The theory is the relationships between concepts and ideas that are taken for granted in conducting the investigation.
  • Methodology: This chapter is where the candidate reports on  how they conducted their research. How this chapter is written, and what it covers, depends on the field of research. It can include the following:
    • Research paradigm: This is where the researcher articulates the broad “practices and beliefs” (Weaver & Olson, 2006, p. 460) that guide their worldview regarding the research topic. The research paradigm underpins the researcher’s assumptions about the nature of reality of the topic (ontology), the ways of knowing it (epistemology) as well as the value and ethical systems assumed (axiology) in the thesis (Patton, 2002). These might only need to be mentioned briefly. These assumptions also guide the above-mentioned conceptual framework, theoretical framework, and theories used in the thesis.
    • Research design: This is the research plan that specifies how to “action” the study to answer the research question. A research design can include the following formats with a plan to create:
      • A quantitative study: Generating and analysing numerical data
      • A qualitative study: Generating and analysing non-numerical data (survey responses, interview data, etc)
      • A study that uses mixed methods: Using both numerical and non-numerical data
      • An ethnographic study: Examining human’s behaviour and points of view (e.g. analysing diaries to document participants’ everyday experiences)
      • An experimental study: Creating a series of procedures with a set of independent and dependent variables
  • Research methods: These are the implementation activities needed to collect and analyse the data. This section can include some of the following details (again variation exists from one thesis and discipline area to another):
    • Description of the participant selection criteria: This section gives information about the participants such as the number and type of participants, their age, personal backgrounds, etc.
    • Methods of generating the data: This section clarifies the ways data is collected, e.g., by interviewing, observing, surveying, etc.
    • Tools for generating the data: This section outlines the tools needed to collect the data, e.g., by using GoPros or audio recorders, etc.
    • Data collection procedures: This section describes the steps taken and the timeline needed to collect the data.
    • Types of data collected: This section describes the types of data generated, e.g., audio interviews, video interviews, diary notes, etc.
    • Data analysis: This section describes the steps and methods used to analyse the data that involves either a quantitative, qualitative, or other approaches (in some empirical theses a ‘step-by-step’ account of the process followed comprises an additional section called the  ‘Procedure’).
  • Results/Findings: The chapter presents what researchers found from the data collected during the course of their research. The results presented should provide a sufficient evidentiary basis for responding to the research question(s) set up in the introduction chapter, or otherwise to confirm/disconfirm the hypothesis(es). For continuity, it is a good idea to organise the findings in the same order as the research question(s)/sub-questions/hypotheses that were articulated in the Introduction. The section should be written in the past tense as the experiment or study conducted is now over (see The Results section and our helpsheet Report Writing: Tenses in Science).
  • Discussion: The chapter interprets the findings/results in terms of the extent to which they answer the research question(s). Often referred to as the ‘So What?’ chapter, its contents can include comments and explanations of what the results mean and how the results fit in the wider context of research. In this chapter, it is important to engage further with the literature to: (1) show how your findings are similar to existing studies; (2) show how your findings are distinctive compared to other studies; (3) refine and elaborate on the extent to which your thesis answers your research question(s); and (d) state the implications of your results for wider scholarship in the field (See Writing a Discussion section).
  • Conclusion: The chapter provides a summary of the key contributions made in your thesis. This has two important parts: (1) a statement of your contribution to the specific field, theoretically, methodologically or practically (or all of the above); (2) a statement of contribution to the general field of scholarship. Some theses also provide a limitations section specifying areas required further improvement, and/or a commendations section, which signals areas for future research. 

Thesis incorporating publications

The thesis incorporating published papers (or ‘PhD by publication’) is defined as one that normally includes three or more papers drafted, submitted or accepted for publication that form a significant part of the thesis content (Federation University, 2019, p. 7). Other unpublished chapters can be presented, but all must be contextualised and integrated into one main thesis in the introduction, literature review and conclusion. This type of thesis is increasingly common among PhD students who are encouraged to publish and get recognised by a wider audience in their respective fields. Another advantage is that it can raise the overall quality of the thesis, parts of which are in unpublished form  (see further guidelines regarding this type of thesis in Regulation 5.1, Federation University HDR Policy).

Important: It is advisable to ask your publishers for permission to reproduce published papers in the thesis. Failure to do so will breach copyright and may result in litigation. Some publishers may ask you to use a pre-print while others may permit use of the final published version.

The structure of a thesis incorporating published papers can vary depending on the candidate and discipline area, but can include the following:

  • Introduction: This is similar to the traditional thesis. The introduction may include the contextualisation of your field of research, problematisation of the research issues, research questions and the themes to be explored in subsequent chapters. As this type of thesis involves independent studies at some stage of the publication process, each with their own narrow scope and concerns, it is important to create a narrative thread to make the thesis read as a coherent whole.
  • Literature review: The need for a separate literature review will depend upon the extent of details provided in the literature review(s) in the published manuscript(s). There are two possible options:
    • If the literature review in each manuscript is sufficiently detailed, a short literature review that introduces the themes explored in subsequent published chapters can form part of the Introduction chapter.
    • Where literature reviews are not explored in great detail in the published papers, a formal literature review is required. This functions to integrate literature mentioned in later published papers into a coherent whole.
  • Manuscript chapters: As mentioned earlier, these chapters can be presented at different stages of publication readiness. Some universities accept the final published version to be included in the thesis while others require formatting to be consistent with the rest of the thesis (e.g., the same referencing style). Check with your supervisors and school to make sure you follow the rules of Federation University (see further in PhD by publication).
  • Additional unpublished findings chapter(s): Additional chapters that explore additional findings can be included in the thesis even if they are not published or submitted for review. They can have the same structure as the other published chapters or can be presented using the traditional format of a findings chapter (see Writing a Results section). Consult with your supervisors about this formatting issue.
  • Discussion: Although each published chapter has its own discussion section, it is advisable to have another independent Discussion chapter to integrate the findings and to answer the research question(s) posed in the Introduction chapter.
  • Conclusion: Like a conventional thesis, this chapter summarises the contributions made by the thesis, states the contribution to the wider field of scholarship, and provides recommendations for future research.

The creative thesis

The creative thesis involves the creation of a work by the PhD candidate in the form of “performances”, “folios or electronic media appropriate to the discipline” (Federation University, 2019, p. 8), or other types of creative work such as prose, poetry, or a screenplay (The University of Queensland, 2021). These works are often accompanied by a critical essay or commentary (an exegesis).  

  • A creative work (in its various forms) shows the candidate’s originality, understanding of the principles of the chosen field of creation, and their distinctive contribution to that field.
  • An exegesis is a critical essay on and about your creative work, which can be approached in a number of ways. The exegesis may reflect the contribution of the candidate’s creative work; it may explore the literary terrain of the creative work, or interrogate its historical, social, artistic or other relevant context. It may also illuminate the creative work with the application of a particular theoretical lens, or contextualise it within a particular mode of practice. An exegesis can be organised like a traditional thesis (see Section 1) that includes an Introduction, Literature Review, Conceptual/Theoretical Framework, Methodology, Findings and Conclusion, but other formats are possible. A general rule of practice is to ensure that the exegesis follows a structure that accords with its specific relationship to the creative work.

Important: The word limit is up to 100,000 words for both the creative component and the exegesis. At Federation University, the exegesis component is required to represent no less than 25% of the thesis (Federation University, 2019).