Masters Dissertation Introduction Length Times

By Cally Guerin

One of the exercises I like to do in doctoral writing workshops is to look at real theses and see how they compare to the generic advice on writing theses. Participants bring along theses that have recently been submitted in their discipline and are regarded by supervisors and examiners as examples of good research and writing. The process is designed partly to encourage PhD students to have a clearer picture in their own minds of the end-product they are working towards, and partly to provide ways of articulating standard structures. Increasingly, I find that the theses students bring along to the workshops don’t quite match the standard advice.

Take the first chapter of a thesis, for example. This is usually labelled as the ‘Introduction’, but what that means can be surprisingly varied in terms of length and what is included. In the past, I’ve worked with a list of components that could (should?) be included in this opening section: background information, rationale for research, scope of project, research questions and aims, maybe something about methodology and/or the theoretical framework, and an outline of chapters. I suspect that most writing advisers and supervisors have similar lists in their heads. But how and where do we actually see these elements appearing in the thesis? For example, where do they sit in relation to the literature review?

The introduction elements might all be covered in a relatively short ‘mini chapter’ of 6-10 pages. This is then followed by a separate, considerably longer chapter that provides a big literature review or detailed examination of the context, background or theory underpinning the project.

Alternatively, the introduction elements might act as a kind of bracketing for the first chapter. The chapter starts by setting out the problem or issue and providing background context, but then moves into a lengthy, detailed examination of the literature. After this, the chapter returns to details of the specific project that will be reported in the thesis, its questions, aims, methods and finally chapter outline. That is, ‘Introduction’ might include a substantial literature review before we know much at all about the specific focus of this particular project.

(Personally, I like the mini-chapter format so that I know up front what this project is about; no need to keep it a mystery for the first 30 pages, in my opinion – as a reader I want to know what I’m in for early in the piece. This use of a short introductory chapter does not appear to be linked to specific disciplines from what I’ve noticed to date, though I’d be interested to hear about others’ impressions of where they see this format.)

When I look at theses that have been passed by examiners as acceptable, the elements listed above are not always obviously on show. Sometimes they are disguised behind other language; sometimes they are simply not present. For example, we usually see the chapter outline, but not always; research questions or aims can be hard to identify; theory and methodology may not be very prominent at all in what is labelled as the ‘Introduction’ chapter. While writing a doctoral thesis has never been a ‘painting by numbers’ exercise, it seems that variations on the basic patterns are more and more common. Maybe these variations have always existed within the broader framework of disciplinary expectations. Perhaps the apparent loosening up of examiners’ expectations is partly related to the changing nature of the PhD, in which the topics and types of PhDs no longer fit neatly into the traditional structures – different kinds of projects demand different forms of writing.

In many ways this is exciting, as it frees up the researcher to find news ways of representing their projects. But there remains the question of how much candidates can or should push the boundaries of the thesis format. While I find myself wanting to encourage risk-taking, the consequences can be devastating in this high-stakes writing. This makes it an important topic to discuss with students so that they make well-informed decisions about how they present their work for examination. My feeling at this stage is that the conventional advice is useful as a reliable guide, but should not be presented as a rulebook. If something else makes sense in a particular context, follow the internal logic of the situation. It is very useful for students to be encouraged to find out for themselves what is the accepted practice in their field, and what emerging practices might work well for their own project.

I’d love to hear about your own experience of these apparent changes. Has the ‘advice’ only ever been a general guideline? Do you find that the conventional advice is still working effectively in your field, or is there a mismatch between the advice and the execution? Are today’s examiners more flexible in their expectations? Do we need to let go of some of the traditional advice when updating the next edition of our ‘how to write a thesis’ manuals? Let us know your thoughts.


Like this:



Genres in academic writing: Research dissertations & theses

Examples of dissertation & thesis structure

A: Williams, Bethell, Lawton, Parfitt-Brown, Richardson & Rowe (2011, chap. 9) give the following examples of thesis structure:

1 Social Science (Education)

1. Preliminaries

Title Page
Contents Page
2. Main text 1. Introduction
2. Research Question/Statement of Problem
3/4. Literature Review
5. Methodology
6/7. Results
8. Discussion/Implications
9. Conclusion
3. End matterBibliography/References

2 Arts (Dance)

1. Preliminaries

Title Page
Contents Page
2. Main text 1. Introduction
2. Literature Review & Methodology
3(-7). Themed Content Chapters
8. Conclusion
3. End matterBibliography

3 Science (Primary Cognition)

1. Preliminaries Title Page
Contents: List of Appendices, Tables & Figures
2. Main text 1. Introduction
2. Methods 1
3. Methods 2
4. Experiment 1
5. Experiment 2
6. Experiment 3
7. Conclusions
3. End matterAppendices

See: Williams, Bethell, Lawton, Parfitt-Brown, Richardson & Rowe (2011, chap. 9) for more information.

4 Business & Management

Horn (2012) provides the following macro structure for dissertations in business and management:

Table of Contents
Table of Figures & Illustrations
Main textIntroduction 
Literature Review
Methodology: More Details
Data Collection
Analysis of Data
Findings from Data

and further details on the methodology section: Writing Theses 3

B: Other writers (e.g. Cooley & Lewkowicz, 2003; Murray & Beglar, 2009; Paltridge & Starfield, 2007; Thomas, 2011) offer the following structures for the main text:

1. Traditional: Simple

(for e.g. experimental studies in the sciences and social sciences)

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Literature Review
Chapter 3 Materials & Methods
Chapter 4 Results
Chapter 5Discussion
Chapter 6Conclusion(s)

2. Complex/Multiple Study Dissertation

(for e.g. experimental studies in the sciences and social sciences)

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2Background to Study and Literature Review
Chapter 3(Background Theory)
Chapter 4(General Methods)
Chapter 5 Study 1:
Discussion and Conclusion(s)
Chapter 6 Study 2:
Discussion and Conclusion(s)
Chapter 7 Study 3:
Discussion and Conclusion(s)
Chapter X-1Overall Discussion
Chapter XGeneral Conclusion(s)

3. Topic-Based Organisation

(for e.g. humanities)

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Topic 1:
Analysis/Discussion of Topic/Text etc.
Chapter 3 Topic 2:
Analysis/Discussion of Topic/Text etc
Chapter 4 Topic 3:
Analysis/Discussion of Topic/Text etc
Chapter XConclusion(s)

C: For a topic-based thesis, Carter, Kelly & Brailsford (2012, pp. 39-41) suggest the following ways for organising the topics: chronological, least to most important, external to internal, theory to practice, old pattern to new material, general to specific, thesis as an hour glass, and international to local.

D: Murray (2011) gives the following to be used as a starting point

Generic Thesis Structure

Introduction/Background/Review of Literature

Summarize and evaluate books, articles, theses, etc
Define the gap in the literature
Define and justify your project


Define method, theoretical approach, instrument
Method of inquiry
Show links between your method and others
Justify your method


Report what you did, list steps followed
Document the analysis, showing how you carried it out
Report what you found
Prioritize sections for the thesis or for an appendix


Interpret what you found
Justify your interpretation
Synthesize results in illustrations, tables, graphs, etc.


For future research
For future practice
Report issues which were beyond the scope of this study

E: British Standard BS 4821: Presentation of Theses and Dissertations (1990) gives the following main elements for the presentation of thesem dissertations and similar documents.

Front Matter

1 Title page

2 Abstract

3 List of contents

4 List of illustrations and tables

5 List of accompanying material

6 Preface, Acknowledgements

7 Author's declaration

8 Definitions

Main Body

Text, divided in chapters, sections, etc.

End Matter

1 Appendidces

2 Glossary

3 List of references

4 Bibliography

5 Index

F: Perry (1998,p. 65) suggests the following broad structure:

Chapter 1Introduction
Chapter 2Model & hypotheses
Chapter 3Methodology of data collection
Chapter 4Analysis of collected data
Chapter 5Contribution to body of knowledge

or in more detail, for marketing:

  Title page
  Abstract (with keywords)
  Table of contents
  List of tables
  List of figures
  Statement of original authorship
1.1Background to the research
1.2Research problem and hypotheses
1.3Justification for the research
1.5Outline of the report
1.7Definitions of scope and key assumptions
Research Issues2Research issues (sections 2.3 & 2.4 might be allotted a chapter to themselves in a PhD thesis)
2.2(Parent disciplines/fields and classification models)
2.3(Immediate discipline analysis models and research question or hypotheses)
Methodology3Methodology (there may be separate chapters for the methodologies of stages one and two of a PhD thesis)
3.2Justification for the paradigm and methodology
3.3(Research procedure)
3.4Ethical considerations)
Data Analysis4Analysis of data (this section usually refers to the analysis of the major stages of the research project)
4.2Brief description of subjects
4.3(Patterns of data for each research question or hypothesis)
Conclusions5Conclusions and implications
5.2Conclusions about each research question or hypothesis
5.3Conclusions about the research problem
5.4Implications for theory
5.5Implications for policy and practice
5.5.1Private sector managers
5.5.2Public sector policy analysts and managers
5.6Limitations (if this section is necessary)

Further research


G: Naoum (1998) gives the following overall structure for construction students:

1Title page
2Summary of figures
3Summary of tables
7Literature review
8Research design and method of analysis
9Analysis of results
10Summary and conclusions


H. Mackey & Gass (2005) propose the following structure for a research report in second language acquistion:

Typical Research Paper Format




I. Introduction

A. Statement of topic area

B. Statement of general issues

C. General goal of paper

D. Literature review

1. Historical overview

2. Major contributions to this research area

3. Statement of purpose, including identification of gaps

4. Hypotheses

II. Method

A. Participants

1. How many?

2. Characteristics (male/female, proficiency level, native language, etc.)

B. Materials

1. What instruments?

2. What sort of test? What sort of task?

C. Procedures

1. How is the treatment to be administered?

2. How/when is the testing to be conducted?

D. Analysis How will the results be analyzed?

III. Results

Charts, tables, and/or figures accompanied by verbal descriptions

IV. Discussion /conclusion (often two separate sections)

Common features:

• Restatement of the main idea of the study

• Summary of the findings

• Interpretation of the findings in light of the research questions

• Proposed explanation of the findings, usually including information about any findings that were contrary to expectations

• Limitations of the study

• Suggestions for future research




I. Holliday (2002, p. 48) suggests the following broad outline for qualitative reseach, where the results and discussion may not be clearly distinct.


the essential message


setting the scene

Discussion of Issues

position with regard to current theory and literature

I - related to research subjects

II - related to research methodology

Explanation of Research Procedure

Data Analysis

what has been found


what it all means


summing up and recommendations

J. Similarly, Silverman (2000, part 5) suggests the following outline for qualitative reseach.

The First Few Pages


The Literature Review Chapter

(if necessary)

The Methodology Chapter

The Data Chapters

The Final Chapter

Variations across disciplines

Gardner & Holmes (2009) show the following variations in the main body according to discipline.

Biological Science Computer Science Engineering Food Science Physics Psychology
Introduction1. IntroductionIntroductionIntroduction1. IntroductionIntroduction
-2. TheoryTheory --
Materials and method3. DesignApparatus and methodsMethod2. Experimental detailsMethod
Results4. ImplementationObservation and resultsResults3. ResultsResults
Discussion5. Results and analysisAnalysis of resultsCalculation4. DiscussionDiscussion
(Conclusion)6. ConclusionDiscussionDiscussion  
(Future work) Conclusion   

How long should each section be?

Thomas (2011) suggests the following rough proportions for a 10,000 word dissertation:

ChaptersProportion of the whole
Number of words
(1000 word dissertation)
1 Introduction5500
2 Literature Review252500
3 Methodology151500
4 Findings202000
5 Analysis and discussion303000
6 Conclusion5500

Dunleavy (2003, pp. 46-52) argues strongly that - apart from the Introduction and Conclusion - all chapters should be the same length, and recommends between 8,000 and 12,000 words for each chapter in a PhD thesis of 80,000 words. He recommends that there should be 8 chapters, with 5 of these - more than half - dealing with the core - those sections with high research value-added - of the thesis. These are preceded by two lead-in chapters and followed by a conclusion.

Lead-In Materials
(Introduction, Literature Review & Methods)
2 chapters at most

(Results & Discussion)
5/8ths of the words and 5 chapters

Lead-Out Materials
(Conclusions, Implications & Recommendations)
1 or 2 chapters


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