Thesis structure options

A thesis can be structured in a number of ways. The style you choose should be appropriate for your discipline.

Not all of these structures are available in all faculties. The table below shows which structures are available in the various faculties at Deakin.

Faculty of Arts and Education and School of Architecture and Built Environment All other Faculties and Institutes
Conventional Thesis
Monolithic text like a book
Yes Yes
Thesis by publication
Series of papers, some or all of which have been published by the time of examination
Yes Yes
Creative work plus exegesis
Visual arts, media arts, performing arts and creative and professional writing
Yes No
Folio format
Substantial dissertation together with reports, papers and publications in media appropriate for the professional context
Yes No

Thesis formats

Your supervisor can guide you on which of the following formats best suits you:

Conventional thesis structure

The conventional thesis is a monolithic text rather like a book. It tends to be structured as follows:

  • an abstract
  • an introductory chapter
  • a review of the literature in the field, possibly accompanied by an outline of the objectives of the research project
  • a chapter discussing the methods used in the research
  • a series of substantive chapters presenting the research findings
  • possibly a general discussion drawing the findings together
  • a conclusion that summarises your contribution to knowledge, and may also reflect on future research questions that follow from your project.

Published work may be incorporated in a conventional thesis. Research degree students are encouraged to publish during candidature because the comments of reviewers can provide very useful feedback and thesis examiners will in general be impressed by material that has already been peer-reviewed. With a conventional thesis model, it makes sense to base chapters around these publications. The chapter tends to be a more detailed version of the publication. In some disciplines, it has been common practice to turn a thesis into one or more publications after the examination. If you use sections of your publication directly in your thesis, you will need to reference the publication. If it is a co-authored publication you must also include an authorship statement.

Thesis by publication

Thesis based on a series of publishable works produced during candidature

An alternative model, sometimes called "thesis by publications", is one in which the thesis comprises a series of papers, some or all of which may have been published by the time of submission. The thesis must include linking sections or chapters to explain how the papers constitute a coherent body of work. It is acceptable to include manuscripts submitted for publication, but not yet published as part or all of the publishable inclusions.

The University does not prescribe a minimum number of publications for this mode of thesis, because publication practices vary widely between disciplines. However, if individual schools or research centres choose to create their own guidelines they may do so, subject to approval by the Thesis Examination Committee. In any case, the quantity and quality of publications assembled into a doctoral thesis must demonstrate that the contribution made by the student constitutes a substantial original contribution to knowledge, and a masters thesis must demonstrate a substantial piece of research executed with a high level of autonomy.

The thesis by publication model is perceived to have advantages for some students because it minimises the tension between preparing papers for publication and preparing the thesis for examination. It also has the significant advantage that examiners tend to be impressed by work that has already been peer-reviewed, as previously published papers would have been.

It is important that you discuss the proposed structure of your thesis with your supervisor early in candidature. If you decide to structure your thesis as a series of publications rather than a more conventional document, there are a number of important considerations.

  1. Ultimately, the material you present for examination needs to be equivalent to that which would be presented in a conventional thesis. You need to demonstrate to the examiners that you have made a substantial original contribution to knowledge.
  2. Where to publish? You should only publish in refereed scholarly media. Journals with a high impact factor are more likely to impress examiners (and potential employers).
  3. How many publications? There is no fixed answer, and expectations may depend on your discipline. This also needs to be balanced with the quality of the journals. As mentioned above, the requirement is for a substantial original contribution to knowledge.
  4. The length of the publication process - the review process of some journals can be lengthy which could delay thesis submission. This is an important consideration given that you should be aiming to complete your PhD in three years (masters students should be aiming at two years).
  5. What is the extent of your contribution? For multi-authored papers, you must obtain the written permission of all your co-authors to include the paper in your thesis, and you must specify your individual contribution to each of the publications. The examiners need to assess your ability to perform independent research, and as stated above, your total contribution needs to constitute a substantial original contribution to knowledge. For each multi-authored paper, a copy of the Authorship Statement must be attached at the beginning of the paper. This statement needs to describe clearly the contributions made by you and by every other author, and must be signed by all authors. It is recommended strongly that you complete this statement for each publication and have it signed at the time of publication. There are several reasons for this: the publication and the relative contributions of each author will be fresh in their memory; you are still in contact with the other authors (this may not be the case a year or two later); and it will save you a potentially onerous task at the already busy time of thesis submission.
  6. The thesis must be an integrated and coherent whole. It is not just a collection of papers. You need to consider your most important readers, the examiners. The thesis must include a critical introduction, a section which describes how all the publications are linked (possibly more than one such section), and a conclusion which provides a synthesis of all the material. The conclusion is important and needs to be of a very high standard. It is not just a summary of the thesis. This is your chance to really tell the examiners about the significance of your work, how it all fits together as a coherent body, how it demonstrates originality, and how it can lead to future research.
  7. Journal papers tend not to include a thorough discussion of the literature. This may limit your ability to demonstrate a detailed understanding of the theoretical issues relating to your topic. The introduction to your series of publications is the best place to do this. Alternatively, the inclusion of theoretical or other appendices may be appropriate in such cases.
  8. Journal papers generally do not include detailed evidence for all the methods or analytical procedures used, which means that you may not be able to show the examiners the full scope of your mastery of the topic. Technical appendices can address this issue.
  9. Journal papers tend to exclude the things which did not work. In the sciences this could be the experiments which failed. In the social sciences it could be a poorly-designed questionnaire or an over-ambitious sample size. Examiners like to see the intellectual journey you have undertaken in which you have developed into an independent researcher with a mature appreciation of the breadth of your field and an understanding of how your research fits within it. There is another reason for including a description of methods that did not work, which is that this can be of tremendous assistance to future researchers in your field (including subsequent PhD or Masters students). If they know, from reading your thesis, some of the things NOT to do, they will be saved from wasting time attempting to follow unproductive methods.
  10. In many cases papers include duplicated material which can be tedious for the examiners. The thesis should be structured to avoid or at least minimise repetition.
  11. There is a risk that by focusing on publication rather than research, you may be tempted to publish sections of your work prematurely and miss opportunities to fully capitalize on the significance of the work. Being conscious of this risk can help you and your supervisor avoid the pitfalls.
  12. It is the University's preference that all completed theses be made available online as described under Lodgement of Final Thesis. If you elect to make your entire thesis available online there are a range of options for dealing with published papers. You should raise your intent to provide a copy on open access with the journal at an early stage, seeking their approval. If the journal is unwilling to approve the paper being made available online in the thesis, it may be appropriate to approach another journal. Alternatively, you could consider structuring the chapter on which the paper is based in such a way that the material is presented without having to reproduce the actual article. The examination copy would include the full article for the convenience of the examiners, but the version available for open access would require the reader to link to the journal publisher to obtain the article.

Despite these cautions, the thesis by publication format does have the significant advantages stated above, that most examiners will be impressed by a collection of peer-reviewed works, and it may save work by not having to reformat publications into thesis chapters. This is weighed against the extra work in writing additional "glue" sections (the introductory and concluding chapters that describe how the publications constitute a coherent body of work and a substantial contribution to knowledge).

Additional useful advice is provided on copyright and the timing of publication relative to thesis submission.

Thesis based on a series of publications produced prior to candidature

It is possible to submit a thesis based on publications produced prior to candidature. The publications, which need to be specified at the time of admission, must form a coherent body of work that demonstrates a substantial original contribution to knowledge on the part of the applicant. The publications must normally have been produced within the last ten years. The research leading to the publications must have been conducted in a way consistent with university research integrity requirements. Any part of the publications submitted for another degree must be identified, and cannot be considered as part of the contribution to knowledge that is to be demonstrated in the thesis.

Please note the advice in points 1-12 of the section 'Thesis based on a series of publishable works produced during candidature' above. Most of this advice is relevant to a thesis based on prior publications. The requirement for an Authorship Statement for each co-authored publication (point 5) is also applicable.

Please also see the Copyright and Licensing section below for further information on your rights and responsibilities as users and creators of information and learning resources.

Students admitted on this basis may not be required to complete compulsory coursework or the Deakin Research Induction training but this is at the discretion of the Faculty. All students must complete the Research Integrity training prior to thesis submission.

Creative work plus exegesis

Theses in the creative arts (visual arts, media arts, performing arts and creative and professional writing) may be presented in one of two forms: a conventional written thesis, or a thesis comprising creative work and a supporting written exegesis. In the creative work plus exegesis model, both components are examined. Together they need to demonstrate a substantial original contribution to knowledge.

The purpose of the exegesis is to elucidate the creative work's themes and/or place it in a disciplinary context and/or explore the creative processes involved. In the latter case, it may provide guidance to the examiner regarding the sequence of development in the creative work.

Additional detailed information is available relating to creative work examinations.

Further information relating to each area of the creative arts is provided in the relevant Advice to Examiners document.

Folio format

Doctoral students may produce a thesis which takes the form of a folio that includes a substantial dissertation, together with reports, papers and publications in media appropriate for the professional context. Students are required in their dissertation to present, develop and argue a position that they support by empirical study and locate in a clearly expressed understanding of the relevant literature and the relevant issues in applicable theory, policy and/or professional practice.

The folio should be a coherent selection of work carried out by the student, not simply a collection of unrelated pieces. It will normally include original evidence, a critical account of the methodology, a selective and critical review of relevant published research, and evidence of relevance to professional practice in the field. It may consist of one document or several, consisting of a selection of the products of research that establish the student's claim to have carried out research of doctoral standard.

In the field of education, for example, the folio will normally consist of two elements: a dissertation, and a selection of reports, papers and/or publications that constitute scholarly communication to educational professionals and/or workplaces. The different parts of the folio should be integrated through a commentary (either within the dissertation or as a separate document) that explains the relationship between the components. The reports, papers and publications may be papers delivered at conferences or published in academic or professional journals; they may be reports on discrete projects relevant to the thesis; they may be exemplars, evaluation reports or critical policy documents; they may be produced collaboratively with others, providing due acknowledgement of the contributions of others is made.

Further information about this model is provided in the relevant Advice to Examiners document.

Other format plus oral

An oral examination is an oral defence of a written thesis. It is an examination system better suited to evaluating the student and not just the thesis. Where an oral thesis examination may be required as part of the examination of a higher degree by research, it will be done in conjunction with one of the thesis structure formats described above.

The Head of Academic Unit or nominee determines whether an oral thesis examination is required for the discipline. If required, the oral thesis examination will be listed in a student's completed Candidature Agreement. A student may request to undertake an oral with the approval of the Head of Academic Unit. All oral examinations will only proceed where at least two examiners support the thesis at the level of the degree being sought.

Further information can be found in the HDR Assessment Procedure and Schedule C: Oral Thesis Examination. Guidelines are also available which provide information around the conduct of an oral thesis examination and outline the roles of the participants.

You should discuss the length, composition and format with your supervisor, but you are responsible for its production and for ensuring that it conforms to the specifications. You may find it helpful to look at other theses from your discipline held by the University Library. If there are special reasons for a different format, these should be discussed with your supervisor at an early stage and approval must be obtained from the Research and Research Training Committee.

Examiners object when a thesis is too long. It is written for experts and should be as short as is consistent with the proper development of the subject for such readers.

The upper limits for theses, including the bibliography, appendices and any notes, are:

  • 50,000 words for masters theses
  • 100,000 words for doctoral theses

The final copy of your thesis must be free of errors – typographical and spelling errors in particular are a source of irritation to examiners and suggest a lack of care and attention. Use the spelling checker, but remember that this is no substitute for careful proof-reading of the text.

Bibliographic citation

Bibliographic references in the thesis must conform to the conventions of the academic discipline.

All sources of material in the thesis must be clearly and accurately cited. No particular style is prescribed for the citation of references, but a style which is appropriate to the material and, preferably, in common use in that discipline should be chosen in consultation with your principal supervisor. This style should then be followed consistently throughout the thesis. Students may include work they have published (generally during candidature) in their thesis. Where these publications include authors in addition to the student, the student must be explicit about their own contribution to the work.

Tables, diagrams and figures should be inserted in the text as close to the first reference to them as is convenient, with suitable captions.

Examiners invariably comment unfavourably on an unsuitable or incomplete bibliographic style. Inappropriate use of et al in the text should be avoided; it should only be used in cases where there are more than two authors.

In general, the full titles of periodicals and other serials should be given. If they must be abbreviated, the abbreviations used should be those accepted as standard.

Important copyright information

Please ensure that you follow the advice provided on copyright matters, including the advice specific to research students. Students completing a thesis by publication are advised to consider specific advice on copyright issues.

You should also be aware that you will need to declare any substantial third party copyright material used in your thesis. If you have included such material you will need to obtain permission from the copyright owner before agreeing to online access. It is advisable to acquire this permission before you submit your thesis for examination.

Copyright and Licensing

Copyright and Licensing is an online resource designed to help research students and staff understand and manage their rights and responsibilities as users and creators of information and learning resources. OPAL can help you:

  • understand options for providing open access to your research
  • manage your rights when you publish and share your research
  • make informed and responsible choices when using other people's copyright material
  • discover open research, data and educational resources.
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