Your Outline

As I stated earlier, I love reading books in the productivity/self-help sort of space. When I was starting to realize that things were going south in the first incarnation of my thesis, I turned to these types of resources. I knew that I needed to bring some clarity to the task at hand if I was going to succeed on this project. I went to every library system in the central Ohio area, CML, Grandview, Upper Arlington, OSU… and got every book I could that seemed related to writing in any variation of long-form writing or thesis writing. I read a lot of stuff, in books and online, and a pattern started to emerge. I cross-referenced this pattern with several theses that had been written recently in the department and it seem to hold true. This works in your favor quite a bit.

This is the pattern, or maybe more accurately, the observation made by myself and countless authors on the subject.

The Overall Thesis Structure

A thesis is an extremely formulaic type of writing.Every thesis follows pretty much the same organizational structure.

There are four primary parts of every single thesis. They may vary a little as to how many chapters each part has, but every thesis has at least one chapter covering thesis four parts.

  1. Introduction: Don’t mess around with it! The only purpose is to introduce the research. You will outline the problem you intend to investigate, state the aim of the research, limit the scope of the investigation, and provide an overview of what lies ahead. 3-5 pages is usually sufficient.
  2. Background: The purpose is to position your research into the context of what has gone on before, what is currently taking place, and prove you know how research is generally conducted in this area. This is generally where your literature review goes. You might have chapters that cover the brief history of the topic area, current theory or practice, and/or results of any preliminary studies you may have carried out to help define your problem.
  3. Your Own Work: This part is really comprised of two parts nearly always: Your methodology and your Data and Analysis. Your methodology is the design of research developed to test hypotheses or answer questions developed from the background section. Your Data & Analysis is just that, the data and results of your methodology.
  4. Synthesis: This is your new contribution to the body of knowledge and is usually handled in two parts. This first part is a discussion that examines your work (part 3) in light of the background you presented (part 2). This may lead to the development of a new model or theory. The second part is a set of conclusions that should arise directly out of the discussion and and respond directly to the aim of the work stated in the Introduction (part 1)

How Many Chapters?

Largely this will develop out of your content and will be a bit different for everyone, but for planning and visualizing the end goal, I found the following useful.

In “How to write a better thesis” by David Evans and Paul Gruba, it states these general guidelines for thinking about the overall structure.

  • Each of your four parts, Intro, Background, Your Own Work, and Synthesis should have between 1-3 chapters. I can tell you now… your introduction will only be one chapter, and a short one.
  • If you have more than 10 chapters total, you should suspect that some are actually only subsections of other chapters and start consolidating. You might be framing your chapters in a less than logical way or attempting to cover more than you need.
  • We should expect no more than 8-10 chapters. Many theses are accomplished in 5-7 chapters.

For right now though, do not worry too much about this. Now just seemed like the most logical place to include this. For now, we are going to operate under the assumption that you are going to have exactly five “chapters”.

I know what you are thinking, five chapters? But Gabe, you said there were Four primary parts. You are right, and kudos to you for reading so attentively. I also said that the “Your Own Work” part (part 3) is nearly always accomplished in two parts: Your methodology and your Data and Analysis. This gives us five parts.

How to begin structuring a chapter

I do not want to get too into the specifics of chapter construction just yet, as this will be covered a bit more in the “Managing Writing” section, but chapters are also extremely formulaic. This should really be a refresher from your high school composition, but here is the big insight for now.

With the exception of the Introduction Chapter, which is its own sort of beast, every chapter will follow this basic structure:

  • Chapter
    • Introduction: Every chapter should have an introduction of some kind. People who read theses will scan these to decide if they want to read the chapter. This will link back to previous chapters, state the aim/purpose/function of the the chapter, and outline how you intend to achieve this aim/purpose/function.
    • Content: The stuff of your chapter.
    • Conclusion: Every Chapter should have a Conclusion. This should cover what has been achieved or established in the chapter that previously had not.

That is it. With this information your very first outline is already complete. It is very generic, but the basic structure is there ready for you to start capturing ideas and making the outline about YOUR thesis.

Your FIRST Outline

Just to make this easy on you, here is your first outline. You should be able to essentially copy and paste this into your text editor of choice and get to work organizing your ideas.

A. Introduction
   - Content
B. Background
   - Introduction
   - Content
   - Conclusion
C. Methodology
   - Introduction
   - Content
   - Conclusion
D. Data & Analysis
   - Introduction
   - Content
   - Conclusion
E. Synthesis
   - Introduction
   - Content
   - Conclusion

Your outline will expand from here, but this is the bare minimum to achieve something resembling a thesis document. In case you are wondering, my outline started exactly this way, and this is what it grew into.

So now that we have your basic outline as a way to start wrangling the content of your thesis, time to address the materials that are related to this process.