Although there may be exceptions in some disciplines, in general there is no set requirement that the body of the thesis be structured in any particular way. However, in practice there are three or four basic structures that are commonly used, with a variety of minor variations on these (see Paltridge, 2002). Consequently, it is up to the student to determine which structure best suits the telling of their story.

Theses by previous students can be useful sources of ideas, but should not be mindlessly imitated. It only takes one student in a research group to mindlessly imitate what a previous student has done and suddenly there are two theses which have done things in a certain way. Subsequent students then start thinking that that is the way things must be done rather than it being a choice that might help or hinder the reader's understanding of the text. To write well, think about what you find makes understanding easier or harder in the articles you read. Avoid the things you don't like and use the things you do like.

Actual examples can be found in the appendices of Paltridge's (2002) article, but in general terms, the main types of structures found in theses are the following.

Possible thesis structures
Traditional (Simple)
  • Introduction
  • Literature review
  • Methods
  • Results or findings
  • Discussion and conclusion
Topic-based
  • Introduction
  • Topic 1
    • Introduction
    • Sub-topic 1
    • Sub-topic 2
    • Sub-conclusion
  • Topic 2
    • Introduction
    • Analysis
    • Sub-conclusion
  • Overall conclusion
Traditional (Complex)
  • Introduction
  • (Literature review)*
  • (Background theory)
  • (General methods)
  • Study 1 (Could basically be a paper for publication)
    • Introduction
    • Methods
    • Results
    • Discussion and conclusions
  • Study 2
    • Introduction
    • Methods
    • Results
    • Discussion and conclusions
* Bracketed chapters may be dealt with in each individual study chapter. One reason for separating them would be to reduce repetition. Conversely, if the methods, theory and background literature for each study are largely different, then this suggests they might be better dealt with in each study chapter.