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  • Manuscript Preparation

Know How to Structure Your PhD Thesis

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In your academic career, few projects are more important than your PhD thesis. Unfortunately, many university professors and advisors assume that their students know how to structure a PhD. Books have literally been written on the subject, but there’s no need to read a book in order to know about PhD thesis paper format and structure. With that said, however, it’s important to understand that your PhD thesis format requirement may not be the same as another student’s. The bottom line is that how to structure a PhD thesis often depends on your university and department guidelines.

But, let’s take a look at a general PhD thesis format. We’ll look at the main sections, and how to connect them to each other. We’ll also examine different hints and tips for each of the sections. As you read through this toolkit, compare it to published PhD theses in your area of study to see how a real-life example looks.

Main Sections of a PhD Thesis

In almost every PhD thesis or dissertation, there are standard sections. Of course, some of these may differ, depending on your university or department requirements, as well as your topic of study, but this will give you a good idea of the basic components of a PhD thesis format.

  • Abstract : The abstract is a brief summary that quickly outlines your research, touches on each of the main sections of your thesis, and clearly outlines your contribution to the field by way of your PhD thesis. Even though the abstract is very short, similar to what you’ve seen in published research articles, its impact shouldn’t be underestimated. The abstract is there to answer the most important question to the reviewer. “Why is this important?”
  • Introduction : In this section, you help the reviewer understand your entire dissertation, including what your paper is about, why it’s important to the field, a brief description of your methodology, and how your research and the thesis are laid out. Think of your introduction as an expansion of your abstract.
  • Literature Review : Within the literature review, you are making a case for your new research by telling the story of the work that’s already been done. You’ll cover a bit about the history of the topic at hand, and how your study fits into the present and future.
  • Theory Framework : Here, you explain assumptions related to your study. Here you’re explaining to the review what theoretical concepts you might have used in your research, how it relates to existing knowledge and ideas.
  • Methods : This section of a PhD thesis is typically the most detailed and descriptive, depending of course on your research design. Here you’ll discuss the specific techniques you used to get the information you were looking for, in addition to how those methods are relevant and appropriate, as well as how you specifically used each method described.
  • Results : Here you present your empirical findings. This section is sometimes also called the “empiracles” chapter. This section is usually pretty straightforward and technical, and full of details. Don’t shortcut this chapter.
  • Discussion : This can be a tricky chapter, because it’s where you want to show the reviewer that you know what you’re talking about. You need to speak as a PhD versus a student. The discussion chapter is similar to the empirical/results chapter, but you’re building on those results to push the new information that you learned, prior to making your conclusion.
  • Conclusion : Here, you take a step back and reflect on what your original goals and intentions for the research were. You’ll outline them in context of your new findings and expertise.

Tips for your PhD Thesis Format

As you put together your PhD thesis, it’s easy to get a little overwhelmed. Here are some tips that might keep you on track.

  • Don’t try to write your PhD as a first-draft. Every great masterwork has typically been edited, and edited, and…edited.
  • Work with your thesis supervisor to plan the structure and format of your PhD thesis. Be prepared to rewrite each section, as you work out rough drafts. Don’t get discouraged by this process. It’s typical.
  • Make your writing interesting. Academic writing has a reputation of being very dry.
  • You don’t have to necessarily work on the chapters and sections outlined above in chronological order. Work on each section as things come up, and while your work on that section is relevant to what you’re doing.
  • Don’t rush things. Write a first draft, and leave it for a few days, so you can come back to it with a more critical take. Look at it objectively and carefully grammatical errors, clarity, logic and flow.
  • Know what style your references need to be in, and utilize tools out there to organize them in the required format.
  • It’s easier to accidentally plagiarize than you think. Make sure you’re referencing appropriately, and check your document for inadvertent plagiarism throughout your writing process.

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Want some support during your PhD writing process? Our PhD Thesis Editing Plus service includes extensive and detailed editing of your thesis to improve the flow and quality of your writing. Unlimited editing support for guaranteed results. Learn more here , and get started today!

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Building a Dissertation Conceptual and Theoretical Framework: A Recent Doctoral Graduate Narrates Behind the Curtain Development

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Dr. Jordan Tegtmeyer

This article examines the development of conceptual and theoretical frameworks through the lens of one doctoral student’s qualitative dissertation. Using Ravitch and Carl’s (2021) conceptual framework guide, each key component is explored, using my own dissertation as an example. Breaking down each framework section step-by-step, my journey illustrates the iterative process that conceptual framework development requires. While not every conceptual framework is developed in the same way, this iterative approach allows for the production of a robust and sound conceptual framework.


While progressing on my doctoral journey I struggled to learn, and then navigate, what it meant to do quality academic research. While I had worked in higher education for over 15 years when I entered into my doctoral program in Higher Education at Penn, and had earned multiple master’s degrees, I felt wholly unprepared to complete a dissertation. It felt, at first, beyond my reach. Now that I have completed the dissertation, my hope is to pay it forward by sharing reflections on the process as a guide to help other researchers navigate the development of a robust conceptual and theoretical framework for their own dissertations.

My journey into this doctoral inquiry began before I even realized it. I entered the program with a strong idea of what I wanted to study but no “academic” frameworks to help me chart the journey. Little did I know that that is in fact what conceptual frameworks do, they help guide you from early ideation to a finalized study. The turning point in my own learning, let’s call it an epiphany of sorts, happened in a qualitative research methods course that introduced Ravitch and Carl’s Qualitative Research: Bridging the Conceptual, Theoretical, and Methodological. I was introduced to the basic concepts needed to turn my own research ideas into actionable research questions. While this was not the only source to guide me on this journey, conversations with peers and professionals, other courses and independent studies also moved me along, it was reading this text that gave me the academic terminology and frameworks I needed to build a robust and rigorous dissertation research design.

To guide the development of strong conceptual and theoretical frameworks I use Ravitch and Carl’s (2021) components of a conceptual framework graphic (p. 38) below:

phd thesis framework

Using this visual of the framework as a guide, I share how I developed and used theoretical frameworks in a case study dissertation and how the development of my conceptual framework played out in my study. 

Building a Dissertation Study

For context, I describe my dissertation study to bridge the theoretical with the reality of my dissertation. Seeing these ideas and terms applied in a real-world context should provide some guidance on how to address them in the construction of your own conceptual framework.

My dissertation study examined gender equity in college sports, specifically examining institutional characteristics and their potential impact on Title IX compliance. Using case study research, I examined two institutions and then contrasted them to see if there were particular characteristics about those institutions that made them more likely to comply with Title IX’s three-part test. Overall, the study found that there are some institutional characteristics that impact Title IX compliance.

The evolution of a research idea into a study design is useful for understanding the impact that developing a conceptual framework has on this work. Adding the academic structure required to go from idea to fully realized conceptual framework is integral to a sound study. Going into the doctoral program I had a couple of broad ideas I wanted to bring together in a formal study. I knew I wanted to study college sports for a number of reasons including that I am a huge sports fan working in higher education who wanted to better understand the college sports context. I also wanted to integrate issues of gender disparities into my work to better understand disparities around athletic participation between the sexes as outlined by Title IX legislation. For me, the goal was  to bring these broad topics and interests together. Turning these topics into a problem my study could address was critical. Once I made this shift to problem statement, it became about transitioning from problem to research questions from which I could use to drive the potential study.

Understanding this evolution, from a research idea into a study design, is important as it speaks to the understanding the two are not the same. A researcher has to work through an iterative process in order to take a research idea, and through developing their study’s conceptual framework, turn it into a study. Starting with research interests you are passionate about is important, but it is only the first step in a journey to a high-quality research study. For me this meant understanding what made my ideas important and how they could be studied. Why was gender equity in college sports important and what was causing the inequities in athletic participation between the genders? Say a bit more on this–how did you do this?

Developing Guiding Research Questions        

I began with the Ravitch and Carl (2021) conceptual framework diagram as a guide, starting with the research questions positioned at the top. It's important to note that the development of research questions is an active and iterative process that evolves and changes over time. Looking back at notes I took throughout my dissertation journey, I found at least a dozen different iterations of my own research questions. Looking back at the evolution of my own research question, allowed me to see just how iterative of a process this really is. Second, developing research questions is largely about whittling down your broad ideas and interests into something that is scoped in such a way as to be doable.

For me, I started with these broad areas of interest and whittled them down from there, focusing and iterating. Next, I sought to understand the goals of my study and who the intended audiences were (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). I knew I wanted to develop something that was useful for practitioners. Being a higher education practitioner myself, I wanted something people in the field could use and learn from. Knowing this was extremely important to developing the study’s research questions since it helped me to map them onto the goals and audiences I imagined for the study.

The research questions should address the problem you are trying to solve and why it's important (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). For me, the goal was to explore what was causing gender athletic participation inequities and how that fit into broader gender disparities in higher education and the country .

My final research questions show how far they had come from my topics of interest.

  • What is the relationship between gender and varsity participation opportunities in collegiate sports?
  • What is the relationship of institutional characteristics to gender equity in collegiate sports participation?

Additional questions related to institutional characteristics are:

  • What is the range and variation of institutional characteristics among schools that are in compliance with the three-part test of Title IX?
  • How do contextual factors mediate their compliance?

phd thesis framework

At first these questions focused on understanding gender disparities in regards to athletic participation opportunities in college sports. I sought to understand the extent of the disparities and which institutions had them. From there I wanted to understand potential institutional characteristics that could serve as predictors of Title IX compliance. For this, I wanted to explore the impact general institutional characteristics like, undergraduate gender breakdown, might have on creating potential difficulties with navigating Title IX compliance. It was important to investigate the similarities and differences between the two cases in my study. This would help inform whether there were unique things about each institution that were having an effect on Title IX compliance at that institution. This was about understanding what is happening at each of the cases and the reason I chose the methodological approach I did.

Developing Study Goals

A study’s goals are the central part of the conceptual framework as they help turn an interest or concern into a research study. Goal mapping for a study is this process that maps out, or theoretically frames the key goals of the study (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). The study’s goals come from many different sources including personal and professional goals, prior research, existing theory, and a researcher’s own thoughts, interests, and values (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). In my dissertation study, it was a combination of all of those things, although I didn’t realize it at first. The truth is, I didn’t realize I was building conceptual and theoretical frameworks at the time, but in fact I was incrementally building up to them. I talked with experts, advisors, my professors, mentors, academic peers and practitioners to slowly build my own contextual understanding of the research questions, theory, and methodology along the way.

The study goals for my dissertation emerged from multiple vantage points. I thought it was senseless that after 50 years of Title IX, schools were still ignoring the law (willfully or not). Some of the best athletes I’ve known have been women, including my sister. This gave me an appreciation for women’s sports at an early age. From a practitioner-scholar’s standpoint, I didn’t see anything that was usable in “real life.” At least nothing that didn’t require a law degree or extensive knowledge of the law, something most people do not have. I had also come across Charles Kennedy’s 2007 Gender Equity Scorecard in a prior class that gave me the idea for the compliance model. This study was designed to measure schools’ compliance with various aspects of Title IX, but only examined the proportionality requirement of the three-part test (Kennedy, 2007). This was a good start because it provided a template from which to assess compliance when examining gender equity in college sports but helped me to see the need for an easy-to-understand model that covered all aspects of the three-part test that practitioners could use on their own campuses. As a way to better understand Title IX compliance among institutions I then built the compliance model that addressed the entire three-part test with a lawyer friend and used it to do an almost test run of the sampling.

Lastly, as I refined my topic, there seemed to be something missing from the literature. This missing piece gave me the idea for merging the theoretical and the practical dimensions of Title IX compliance within the context of college athletics. A compliance model, using a legal and statutory approach but also grounded in theory, that could be used by practitioners in real life. This model could then help researchers understand why Title IX non-compliance was still an issue today. For me and my study, applying this model to publicly available data, helped to understand why women athletes are not getting their fair share of athletic participation opportunities guaranteed by a law passed over 50 years ago. This process of having to seek out data, taught me the continued need for a proactive approach to measuring compliance with all the participation aspects of Title IX.

Understanding Contexts of the Work

Understanding the contexts of your intended study is critical as it helps set the stage for your study’s position in the real world. Knowing the actual setting of your study and its context are important as it speaks to the micro contexts. The who and what aspects of that setting are central to your research. It is this context within the context that helps us understand the aspects that influence what we study and how we frame the study (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). At the micro level, my study sought to focus on the institutional structures and workings of two universities. I chose case study research because it allowed me to focus on those two institutions, and that was very intentional, as I wanted to understand their specific institutional structures and their potential impacts on Title IX compliance.

Understanding the macro level contexts impacting my study was also important. It is the combination of social, historical, national, international, and global level contexts that create the conditions in which your study is conducted. As Ravitch and Carl (2021) state it is these broad contexts “that shape society and social interactions, influence the research topic, and affect the structure and conditions of the settings and the lives of the people at the center of your research and you” (p. 52). This has two important implications for conceptual framework development. First, it is important to investigate and thoroughly understand the setting of the study that reflects the conditions as lived by the stakeholders (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). As you design your study it is important to consider what’s happening in that moment and how your study is situated in a specific moment in time which impacts both the context and setting of your study but also how you come to view and approach it (Ravitch & Carl, 2021).

For my dissertation, understanding college sports and higher education in the broadest sense was important when thinking about the macro contexts influencing my study. Things like: how does the NCAA and conferences play a role in this area? How does higher education handle gender equity in college sports as it relates to the missions of the institutions? And even more broadly, how does this study fit into broader societal structures regarding equality? Given everything that was going on in college sports at the time (issues at the NCAA’s women’s basketball tournament, volleyball, softball), the contexts illustrated the broader need for understanding this issue in that moment of time. This illuminates the importance of taking the time to understand the different contexts impacting your study and why they are important.

Researcher Reflexivity

When thinking about social identity and positionality, it is vital to understand that the researcher is viewed as a vital part of the study itself, the primary instrument and filter of interpretation (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). Positionality refers to the researcher’s role and social identity in relationship to the context and setting of the research. I think of this as what we as researchers bring to the table—who we are and what we know and how that impacts what we do and how we do it. Understanding how these aspects of oneself all interact and make me who I am, while also understanding my potential impact on my research is critical to a strong conceptual framework.

For my study, I worried about my positionality in particular: my gender and my fandom. I was worried my various identities would influence my approach negatively in ways I would be unaware of. I, someone who identifies as male, wanted to be taken seriously while addressing a gender equity issue from a privileged gender position. I also didn’t want to overlook or discount anything because of who I am and how I viewed the world of college sports. This illuminates the importance of understanding one’s identities and their potential impact on the study. There were numerous ways I addressed this through the study including engaging my critical inquiry group, drafting memos, and using a researcher interview to elicit self-reflection.

Theoretical Framework Development

When working through the development of a theoretical framework within a conceptual framework, one must account for the integration of formal theory and the use of the literature review. Formal theory is those established theories that come together to create the frame for your research questions. The researcher must seek out formal theories to help understand what they are studying and why they are studying it (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). Ravitch & Carl said this best, “the theoretical framework is how you weave together or integrate existing bodies of literature…to frame the topic, goals, design, and findings of your specific study” (p. 58).

It is important to point out that the process of creating a theoretical framework is separate from a literature review. The theoretical framework does impact the literature review and the literature review impacts it, but they are separate. You may discover theories that strengthen your theoretical framework as you review literature, and you may seek out theories to validate a hypothesis you have related to your study. This is important because your formal theories do not encompass all the theories related to your topic, but the specific theories that bind your study together and give it structure.

For my study, formal theories ended up being an equity-equality framework developed by Espinoza (2007) and a structuralism-subordination framework derived from Chamallas (1994). The equity-equality framework was used to address what I had seen as confusion between the two terms, using them interchangeably, when reviewing literature examining Title IX. I wanted to understand if the confusion about the terms, equity and equality, led to a misunderstanding about the true intent of Title IX and intercollegiate athletics. For the structuralism-subordination framework, I wanted to understand if there were institutional structures that institutions had built that led to the subordination of women. I also wanted to understand if those structures manifest themselves in ways that hinder institutions’ Title IX compliance, leaving women without the participation opportunities required by law.

Both of these formal theories had an impact on and were impacted by my literature review. The structuralism-subordination framework was discovered after my initial review of Title IX literature, while the equity-equality framework was needed to reflect inconsistencies in the use of those terms in texts reviewed for the literature review. These formal theories also helped me refine my research questions and the purpose of my study. The formal theories impact on the different aspects of my conceptual framework then required me to refine and redefine by literature in order to incorporate their impact. This understanding of formal theory as the framework to construct a study is central to constructing a robust theoretical framework.

What helped me arrive at these theories in the great morass of theories was Title IX’s application to college sports, feminist scholar’s work related to college sports, and the use and misuse of the equity and equality in the literature.

Naming Tacit Theories

It is not just your role as the researcher that impacts your study, it is also all the informal ways in which we understand the world. We all have working hypotheses, assumptions, or conceptualizations about why things occur and how they operate (Ravitch & Carl, 2021). This is a result of how we were raised and socialized which has a direct impact on the ways that we see our work and the contexts in which it takes place. For me as the researcher for this study, three tacit theories emerged upon examination through memos and dialogic engagement with peers and advisors, described in the next section. One, was related to what I call, college sports fandom or the ESPN culture. For me, I grew up on ESPN as did many of my friends. We got most of our sports news through these mediums and it greatly impacted how we viewed and thought of college sports. The problem with this is that ESPN has helped propagate many false narratives and misconceptions about college sports. A few examples include: big time college sports and programs make money (most do not), men’s sports are more popular than women’s (men get the majority of airtime), and college sports make a lot of money (where it gets its “money” is not where you think). There was also the continual sexualization and diminishment of women athletes.

Family dynamics also played a major role in my sports fandom and its importance. Sports were big in my family as most members played but we also watched a lot together. It was a bonding mechanism for us. For our family, my sister was our best athlete. This meant attending a lot of her games which led to an appreciation of women’s sports at an early age. Lastly, I had a general lack of knowledge around gender equity in college sports, mostly related to my fandom described above. I didn’t develop a true understanding until graduate school when I went out of my way to do deep dives into the topic whenever I could. This process of self-discovery and reflection with my own tacit theories teaches the importance of examining oneself, our socialization and its impact on your research. The dissertation reflection process was cathartic, it brought together these various strands of my identity, history, and interests and helped me to identify and then reckon with my unconscious biases, assumptions, and drivers.

Structured Reflexivity and Dialogic Engagement

I relied on structured reflexivity and dialogic engagement as my main reflexivity strategy, reflecting on my research through purposeful engagement with others a lot throughout my study. I went back and forth many times between different aspects of my conceptual framework as “new” information was discovered. Sometimes this reflexivity was planned, for example, after completing one part of my conceptual framework I would review other aspects to consider the impact. This would help me to ensure the potential impact of this new information was assessed against all parts of the conceptual framework. Other times it was completely spontaneous such as an illuminating reading or discovery would spark me to think about a piece of conceptual framework differently and adjust. In one particular moment, I came across some conflicting information during one of the cases that required me to rethink aspects of my entire conceptual framework. This conflicting information indicated another approach to measuring Title IX compliance which was at conflict with mine. I met with various members of my critical inquiry group to decide on a path forward and then wrote a memo outlining what happened and the decision made. This incident caused me to not only conduct dialogic engagement but also structured reflexivity as I reviewed all aspects of my conceptual framework to ensure everything still made sense as it was structured given the new information.

The key structured reflexivity mechanisms I used in my study were memos, a critical inquiry group, a researcher interview and case reports. Each of these proved to be an invaluable resource when navigating the construction of my conceptual framework. I used different kinds of memos to highlight key decisions which were useful later when writing my dissertation.

My critical inquiry group, composed of college sports experts, peers, women’s rights advocates, Title IX consultants and lawyers, had multiple functions throughout my study. They challenged me on assumptions and decision making, helped me work through challenges and served as sounding boards to bounce ideas off of. My researcher interview, which is when the researcher is interviewed to pull out tacit knowledge and assumptions, was particularly useful as it allowed for a non-biased critique to focus on process, procedure, and theory (both the theoretical and conceptual). My interviewer also called out my tacit theories and biases which were helpful in structuring that section of my conceptual framework. Lastly, I used case reports as a way to summarize my cases individually in their own distinct process guaranteeing each received a deep dive. This also allowed me to make refinements after the first case and also helped lay the groundwork for a cross-case analysis. The entire process taught me that having these structured mechanisms adds validation points and reflection opportunities from which I could refine my work.

Methodological Approach and Research Methods

For any researcher the methodological approach is guided by the study’s research questions. This section is also partly shaped and derived from the conceptual framework. For some, they will arrive at the methodological approach that best fits their study along the way, picking it up from other pieces of their conceptual framework. For others, the approach is clear from the beginning and drives some of their conceptual framework decision making. For me, I arrived at my methodological approach as it became clear as my conceptual framework developed. As I worked through the interactions of my research questions, informed by my developing conceptual framework, it became clear that case study research was the right methodological approach for my study.

The methodological approach I chose for my dissertation was case study research, which made sense given that the primary goal was to gain a clear understanding of the “how” and “why” of each case, which is especially important when examining the two cases in this study (Yin, 2018). Understanding the complexities and contextual circumstances of Title IX cases is especially crucial given its real-world impact on universities (Yin, 2018). The in-depth focus of case study research allowed for a much richer understanding of the potential impacts of institutional and athletics department characteristics impacting Title IX compliance today (Yin, 2018).

I used a multi-case approach because I wanted to compare and contrast one school that was “good” at Title IX compliance and one that was not. Each case was completed separately for a deep dive and better understanding using thematic analysis for the data analysis. After each case report was completed, themes were reviewed. After both cases were completed a cross-case analysis was done to compare and contrast the cases using the themes derived from each case. For the data collection process, I used the following: archival records and documents including meeting minutes and institutional reports, memos for data collection and data analysis, dialogic engagement, and a researcher interview. My learning throughout the dissertation process illuminates the importance and generative value of using a methodological approach that aligns with the goals of the study and is guided by the research questions.

Key Takeaways

If you remember anything from this, please remember these three things:

  • Developing a conceptual framework is an iterative process. It will feel like you are constantly making changes. That’s ok. That’s what good research is, constantly evolving and getting better. My research questions looked nothing like what they started as. They evolved and were informed by newer and better research over time. That is what this process is meant to do, make your research better as you move along.
  • When you get a new piece of information, use it to inform the next part of your process and refine the last. You should use each new finding or insight to refine your work and inform the next piece.
  • Engage your classmates and professors for guidance. You have access to incredible resources in these two populations, use them to help you along the way. And of course, be a resource to them as well. I can’t remember how many times I sought out a classmate who shared something insightful in class to find out more information. You are surrounded by smart, motivated people, who want you to succeed, actively use that support system.

Parting Wisdom

My last bits of wisdom as you are embarking on this journey are meant to serve as things that I wish I had known at the beginning that I wanted to be sure others knew too.

  • First and foremost, love your topic. I cannot stress this enough. You are going to be spending a lot of time and investing a lot of energy in it, you should love it. That’s not to say you won’t be frustrated, tired and “over it” at times, but at the end of the day you should love it.
  • Second, use your classmates as a resource and be a resource to them. Although they aren’t likely to know your topic as in-depth as you do, they can offer valuable insights, largely because they are not you. You can “stress test” your ideas, research questions, frameworks or just have a fresh set of eyes on your work. You should be the same for them as it only makes your own work stronger as well. Reciprocity is key.
  • Third, don’t be afraid to ask questions. The old adage is true, there are no dumb questions. Ask all of your questions, in whatever manner you are comfortable doing so, just be sure to ask them. You’ll find that once you give them air, they do get answered and the path gets that much more clear.
  • Fourth, don’t be afraid to admit possible mistakes or confusions and ask for help mid-concern. No one is perfect and mistakes happen. Acknowledging those mistakes sooner rather than later can only make your work stronger. I had a setback towards the end of my dissertation that at first froze me and I didn’t know what to do. It was only after I acknowledged the mistake and talked with my advisor and critical inquiry group that I could come up with a path forward. My work was better and stronger because of the help I received, even though in the moment I felt vulnerable fessing up.
  • Fifth, memos are your best friends. I cannot stress this enough. I wish I could go back and tell myself this at the very beginning of my journey to chart more at that stage. Documenting decision making, mistakes, rationales, conversations and anything else of even possible importance to your methods is invaluable when you get to the writing stage. Being able to refer to those documents and reflect on them makes your methods more specific and your dissertation stronger.
  • Sixth, know when to stop. This is especially true during your literature review. There is so much material out there, you will never read it all. Take that in. Knowing when you should stop and move on is extremely important. For me, I read about 2 months too long and it set me behind. I still had huge stacks of reading that I could have done but pulling more and more sources from more and more readings was a never-ending path. Get what you need, cover your ground, trust yourself to call it when it's covered. Ask people if you can stop if you aren’t sure.

Finally, and this may feel challenging, let yourself enjoy the ride! Parts will be smooth, others bumpy. By the end you will be tired, burnt out and just want to be done. But stop along the way and enjoy the moments of learning and connection. Those middle of the night texting sessions with your classmates about some obstacle or interesting article you found do matter. Those coffees with professors discussing your topic (and your passion for it) stay with you. Those classes with other really smart and engaged classmates continue to teach you. I can tell you that, looking back almost a year after defending, I miss it all. You will never have this moment in your life again, try to enjoy it.

phd thesis framework

Chamallas, M. (1994). Structuralist and cultural domination theories meet Title VII: Some contemporary influences. Michigan Law Review , 92(8), 2370–2409.

Espinoza, O. (2007). Solving the equity-equality conceptual dilemma: A new model for analysis of the educational process. Educational Research , 49(4), 343–363.

Kennedy, C. L. (2007). The Gender Equity Scorecard V. York, PA. Retrieved from  http://ininet.org/the-gender-equity-scorecard-v.html .

Ravitch S. M. & Carl, M. N. (2021). Qualitative Research: Bridging the Conceptual, Theoretical, and Methodological. (2nd Ed.). Sage Publications.

Yin, R. K. (2018). Case study research and applications: Design and methods (6th ed.). Sage.

Articles in this Volume

[tid]: building a dissertation conceptual and theoretical framework: a recent doctoral graduate narrates behind the curtain development, [tid]: family income status in early childhood and implications for remote learning, [tid]: the theater of equity, [tid]: including students with emotional and behavioral disorders: case management work protocol, [tid]: loving the questions: encouraging critical practitioner inquiry into reading instruction, [tid]: supporting the future: mentoring pre-service teachers in urban middle schools, [tid]: embracing diversity: immersing culturally responsive pedagogy in our school systems, [tid]: college promise programs: additive to student loan debt cancellation, [tid]: book review: critical race theory in education: a scholar's journey. gloria ladson-billings. teachers college press, 2021, 233 pp., [tid]: inclusion census: how do inclusion rates in american public schools measure up, [tid]: in pursuit of revolutionary rest: liberatory retooling for black women principals, [tid]: “this community is home for me”: retaining highly qualified teachers in marginalized school communities, [tid]: a conceptual proposition to if and how immigrants' volunteering influences their integration into host societies.

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Conceptual and Theoretical Frameworks for Thesis Studies: What you must know

phd thesis framework

A theoretical framework is a conceptual model that provides a systematic and structured way of thinking about a research problem or question. It helps to identify key variables and the relationships between them and to guide the selection and interpretation of data. Theoretical frameworks draw on existing theories and research and can be used to develop new hypotheses or test existing ones. They provide a foundation for research design, data collection, and analysis and can help to ensure that research is relevant, rigorous, and coherent. Theoretical frameworks are common in many disciplines, including social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities, and are essential for building knowledge and advancing understanding in a field.

This article explains the importance of frameworks in a thesis study and the differences between conceptual frameworks and theoretical frameworks. It provides guidelines on how to write a thesis framework, definitions of variable types, and examples of framework types.

What is a research framework and why do I need one?

When planning your thesis study, you need to justify your research and explain its design to your readers. This is called the research framework.

When planning your thesis study, you need to justify your research and explain its design to your readers. This is called the research framework. Think of it as the foundation of a building. A good building needs a strong foundation. Similarly, your research needs to be supported by reviewing and explaining the existing knowledge in the field, describing how your research study will fit within or contribute to the existing literature (e.g., it could challenge or test an existing theory or address a knowledge gap), and informing the reader how your study design aligns with your thesis question or hypothesis.

Important components of the framework are a literature review of recent studies associated with your thesis topic as well as theories/models used in your field of research. The literature review acts as a filtering tool to select appropriate thesis questions and guide data collection, analysis, and interpretation of your findings. Think broadly! Apart from reviewing relevant published papers in your field of research, also explore theories that you have come across in your undergraduate courses, other published thesis studies, encyclopedias, and handbooks.

There are two types of research frameworks: theoretical and conceptual .

What is a conceptual framework?

A conceptual framework is a written or visual representation that explains the study variables and their relationships with each other. The starting point is a literature review of existing studies and theories about your topic.

Steps to develop a conceptual framework

  • Clarify your study topic by identifying and defining key concepts in your thesis problem statement and thesis question. Essentially, your thesis should address a knowledge gap.
  • Perform a literature review to provide a background to interpret and explain the study findings. Also, draw on empirical knowledge that you have gained from personal experience.
  • Identify crucial variables from the literature review and your empirical knowledge, classify them as dependent or independent variables, and define them.
  • Brainstorm all the possible factors that could affect each dependent variable.
  • Propose relationships among the variables and determine any associations that exist between all variables.
  • Use a flowchart or tree diagram to present your conceptual framework.

Types of variables

When developing a conceptual framework, you will need to identify the following:

  • Independent variables
  • Dependent variables
  • Moderating variables
  • Mediating variables
  • Control variables

First, identify the independent (cause) and dependent (effect) variables in your study. Then, identify variables that influence this relationship, such as moderating variables, mediating variables, and control variables. A moderating variable changes the relationship between independent and dependent variables when its value increases or decreases. A mediating variable links independent and dependent variables to better explain the relationship between them. A control variable could potentially impact the cause-and-effect relationship but is kept constant throughout the study so that its effects on the findings/outcomes can be ruled out.

Example of a conceptual framework

You want to investigate the hours spent exercising (cause) on childhood obesity (effect).

phd thesis framework

Now, you need to consider moderating variables that affect the cause-and-effect relationship. In our example, the amount of junk food eaten would affect the level of obesity.

phd thesis framework

Next, you need to consider mediating variables. In our example, the maximum heart rate during exercise would affect the child’s weight.

phd thesis framework

Finally, you need to consider control variables. In this example, because we do not want to investigate the role of age in obesity, we can use this as a control variable. Thus, the study subjects would be children of a specific age (e.g., aged 6–10 years).

phd thesis framework

What is a theoretical framework?

A theoretical framework provides a general framework for data analysis. It defines the concepts used and explains existing theories and models in your field of research.

A theoretical framework provides a general framework for data analysis. It defines the concepts used and explains existing theories and models in your field of research. It also explains any assumptions that were used to inform your approach and your choice of specific rationales. Theoretical frameworks are often used in the fields of social sciences.

Purpose of a theoretical framework

  • Test and challenge existing theories
  • Establish orderly connections between observations and facts
  • Predict and control situations
  • Develop hypotheses

Steps to develop a theoretical framework

  • Identify and define key concepts in your thesis problem statement and thesis question.
  • Explain and evaluate existing theories by writing a literature review that describes the concepts, models, and theories that support your study.
  • Choose the theory that best explains the relationships between the key variables in your study.
  • Explain how your research study fills a knowledge gap or fits into existing studies (e.g., testing if an established theory applies to your thesis context).
  • Discuss the relevance of any theoretical assumptions and limitations.

A thesis topic can be approached from a variety of angles, depending on the theories used.

  • In psychology, a behavioral approach would use different methods and assumptions compared with a cognitive approach when treating anxiety.
  • In literature, a book could be analyzed using different literary theories, such as Marxism or poststructuralism.

Structuring a theoretical framework

The structure of a theoretical framework is fluid, and there are no specific rules that need to be followed, as long as it is clearly and logically presented.

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of your literature review. The literature review should identify gaps in the field of your research, and reviewing existing theories will help to determine how these can be addressed. The structure of a theoretical framework is fluid, and there are no specific rules that need to be followed, as long as it is clearly and logically presented. The theoretical framework is sometimes integrated into the literature review chapter of a thesis, but it can also be included as a separate chapter, depending on the complexity of the theories.

Example of a theoretical framework

The sales staff at Company X are unmotivated and struggling to meet their monthly targets. Some members of the management team believe that this could be achieved by implementing a comprehensive product-training program, but others believe that introducing a sales commission structure will help.

Company X is not achieving their monthly sales targets

To increase monthly sales.

Research question:

How can Company X motivate their sales team to achieve its monthly sales targets?


  • Why do the sales staff feel unmotivated?
  • What is the relationship between motivation and monetary rewards?
  • Do the sales staff feel that they have sufficient product knowledge?

Theoretical framework:

A literature search will need to be performed to understand the background of the many different theories of motivation in psychology. For example, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (basic human needs—physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization—have to be fulfilled before one can live up to their true potential), Vroom’s Theory of Expectancy (people decide upon their actions based on the outcomes they expect), and Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory (goals are a key driver of one’s behavior). These theories would need to be investigated to determine which would be the best approach to increase the motivation of the sales staff in Company X so that the monthly sales targets are met.

A robust conceptual or theoretical framework is crucial when writing a thesis/dissertation. It defines your research gap, identifies your approach, and guides the interpretation of your results.

A thesis is the most important document you will write during your academic studies. For professional thesis editing and thesis proofreading services, check out Enago's Thesis Editing service s for more information.

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What type of framework is used in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) domain? +

Theoretical frameworks are typically used in the HSS domain, while conceptual frameworks are used in the Sciences domain.

What is the difference between mediating versus moderating variables? +

The difference between mediators and moderators can be confusing. A moderating variable is unaffected by the independent variable and can increase or decrease the strength of the relationship between the independent and dependent variables. A mediating variable is affected by the independent variable and can explain the relationship between the independent and dependent variables. T he statistical correlation between the independent and dependent variables is higher when the mediating variable is excluded.

What software should I use to present my conceptual framework? +

The software program Creately provides some useful templates that can help you get started. Other recommended programs are SmartDraw , Inkscape , and diagrams.net .

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Example Theoretical Framework of a Dissertation or Thesis

Published on 8 July 2022 by Sarah Vinz . Revised on 10 October 2022.

Your theoretical framework defines the key concepts in your research, suggests relationships between them, and discusses relevant theories based on your literature review .

A strong theoretical framework gives your research direction, allowing you to convincingly interpret, explain, and generalise from your findings.

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Table of contents

Sample problem statement and research questions, sample theoretical framework, your theoretical framework, frequently asked questions about sample theoretical frameworks.

Your theoretical framework is based on:

  • Your problem statement
  • Your research questions
  • Your literature review

To investigate this problem, you have zeroed in on the following problem statement, objective, and research questions:

  • Problem : Many online customers do not return to make subsequent purchases.
  • Objective : To increase the quantity of return customers.
  • Research question : How can the satisfaction of the boutique’s online customers be improved in order to increase the quantity of return customers?

The concepts of ‘customer loyalty’ and ‘customer satisfaction’ are clearly central to this study, along with their relationship to the likelihood that a customer will return. Your theoretical framework should define these concepts and discuss theories about the relationship between these variables.

Some sub-questions could include:

  • What is the relationship between customer loyalty and customer satisfaction?
  • How satisfied and loyal are the boutique’s online customers currently?
  • What factors affect the satisfaction and loyalty of the boutique’s online customers?

As the concepts of ‘loyalty’ and ‘customer satisfaction’ play a major role in the investigation and will later be measured, they are essential concepts to define within your theoretical framework .

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Below is a simplified example showing how you can describe and compare theories. In this example, we focus on the concept of customer satisfaction introduced above.

Customer satisfaction

Thomassen (2003, p. 69) defines customer satisfaction as ‘the perception of the customer as a result of consciously or unconsciously comparing their experiences with their expectations’. Kotler and Keller (2008, p. 80) build on this definition, stating that customer satisfaction is determined by ‘the degree to which someone is happy or disappointed with the observed performance of a product in relation to his or her expectations’.

Performance that is below expectations leads to a dissatisfied customer, while performance that satisfies expectations produces satisfied customers (Kotler & Keller, 2003, p. 80).

The definition of Zeithaml and Bitner (2003, p. 86) is slightly different from that of Thomassen. They posit that ‘satisfaction is the consumer fulfillment response. It is a judgement that a product or service feature, or the product of service itself, provides a pleasurable level of consumption-related fulfillment.’ Zeithaml and Bitner’s emphasis is thus on obtaining a certain satisfaction in relation to purchasing.

Thomassen’s definition is the most relevant to the aims of this study, given the emphasis it places on unconscious perception. Although Zeithaml and Bitner, like Thomassen, say that customer satisfaction is a reaction to the experience gained, there is no distinction between conscious and unconscious comparisons in their definition.

The boutique claims in its mission statement that it wants to sell not only a product, but also a feeling. As a result, unconscious comparison will play an important role in the satisfaction of its customers. Thomassen’s definition is therefore more relevant.

Thomassen’s Customer Satisfaction Model

According to Thomassen, both the so-called ‘value proposition’ and other influences have an impact on final customer satisfaction. In his satisfaction model (Fig. 1), Thomassen shows that word-of-mouth, personal needs, past experiences, and marketing and public relations determine customers’ needs and expectations.

These factors are compared to their experiences, with the interplay between expectations and experiences determining a customer’s satisfaction level. Thomassen’s model is important for this study as it allows us to determine both the extent to which the boutique’s customers are satisfied, as well as where improvements can be made.

Figure 1 Customer satisfaction creation 

Framework Thomassen

Of course, you could analyse the concepts more thoroughly and compare additional definitions to each other. You could also discuss the theories and ideas of key authors in greater detail and provide several models to illustrate different concepts.

A theoretical framework can sometimes be integrated into a  literature review chapter , but it can also be included as its own chapter or section in your dissertation . As a rule of thumb, if your research involves dealing with a lot of complex theories, it’s a good idea to include a separate theoretical framework chapter.

While a theoretical framework describes the theoretical underpinnings of your work based on existing research, a conceptual framework allows you to draw your own conclusions, mapping out the variables you may use in your study and the interplay between them.

A literature review and a theoretical framework are not the same thing and cannot be used interchangeably. While a theoretical framework describes the theoretical underpinnings of your work, a literature review critically evaluates existing research relating to your topic. You’ll likely need both in your dissertation .

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Sarah's academic background includes a Master of Arts in English, a Master of International Affairs degree, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She loves the challenge of finding the perfect formulation or wording and derives much satisfaction from helping students take their academic writing up a notch.

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What is a theoretical framework | a step-by-step guide, dissertation & thesis outline | example & free templates, what is a research methodology | steps & tips.

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6 Steps to Mastering the Theoretical Framework of a Dissertation

Tonya Thompson

As the pivotal section of your dissertation, the theoretical framework will be the lens through which your readers should evaluate your research. It's also a necessary part of your writing and research processes from which every written section will be built.

In their journal article titled Understanding, selecting, and integrating a theoretical framework in dissertation research: Creating the blueprint for your "house" , authors Cynthia Grant and Azadeh Osanloo write:

The theoretical framework is one of the most important aspects in the research process, yet is often misunderstood by doctoral candidates as they prepare their dissertation research study. The importance of theory-driven thinking and acting is emphasized in relation to the selection of a topic, the development of research questions, the conceptualization of the literature review, the design approach, and the analysis plan for the dissertation study. Using a metaphor of the "blueprint" of a house, this article explains the application of a theoretical framework in a dissertation. Administrative Issues Journal

They continue in their paper to discuss how architects and contractors understand that prior to building a house, there must be a blueprint created. This blueprint will then serve as a guide for everyone involved in the construction of the home, including those building the foundation, installing the plumbing and electrical systems, etc. They then state, We believe the blueprint is an appropriate analogy of the theoretical framework of the dissertation.

As with drawing and creating any blueprint, it is often the most difficult part of the building process. Many potential conflicts must be considered and mitigated, and much thought must be put into how the foundation will support the rest of the home. Without proper consideration on the front end, the entire structure could be at risk.

Your theoretical framework is the blueprint for your entire dissertation.

With this in mind, I'm going to discuss six steps to mastering the theoretical framework section—the "blueprint" for your dissertation. If you follow these steps and complete the checklist included, your blueprint is guaranteed to be a solid one.

Complete your review of literature first

In order to identify the scope of your theoretical framework, you'll need to address research that has already been completed by others, as well as gaps in the research. Understanding this, it's clear why you'll need to complete your review of literature before you can adequately write a theoretical framework for your dissertation or thesis.

Simply put, before conducting any extensive research on a topic or hypothesis, you need to understand where the gaps are and how they can be filled. As will be mentioned in a later step, it's important to note within your theoretical framework if you have closed any gaps in the literature through your research. It's also important to know the research that has laid a foundation for the current knowledge, including any theories, assumptions, or studies that have been done that you can draw on for your own. Without performing this necessary step, you're likely to produce research that is redundant, and therefore not likely to be published.

Understand the purpose of a theoretical framework

When you present a research problem, an important step in doing so is to provide context and background to that specific problem. This allows your reader to understand both the scope and the purpose of your research, while giving you a direction in your writing. Just as a blueprint for a home needs to provide needed context to all of the builders and professionals involved in the building process, so does the theoretical framework of your dissertation.

So, in building your theoretical framework, there are several details that need to be considered and explained, including:

  • The definition of any concepts or theories you're building on or exploring (this is especially important if it is a theory that is taken from another discipline or is relatively new).
  • The context in which this concept has been explored in the past.
  • The important literature that has already been published on the concept or theory, including citations.
  • The context in which you plan to explore the concept or theory. You can briefly mention your intended methods used, along with methods that have been used in the past—but keep in mind that there will be a separate section of your dissertation to present these in detail.
  • Any gaps that you hope to fill in the research
  • Any limitations encountered by past researchers and any that you encountered in your own exploration of the topic.
  • Basically, your theoretical framework helps to give your reader a general understanding of the research problem, how it has already been explored, and where your research falls in the scope of it. In such, be sure to keep it written in present tense, since it is research that is presently being done. When you refer to past research by others, you can do so in past tense, but anything related to your own research should be written in the present.

Use your theoretical framework to justify your research

In your literature review, you'll focus on finding research that has been conducted that is pertinent to your own study. This could be literature that establishes theories connected with your research, or provides pertinent analytic models. You will then mention these theories or models in your own theoretical framework and justify why they are the basis of—or relevant to—your research.

Basically, think of your theoretical framework as a quick, powerful way to justify to your reader why this research is important. If you are expanding upon past research by other scholars, your theoretical framework should mention the foundation they've laid and why it is important to build on that, or how it needs to be applied to a more modern concept. If there are gaps in the research on certain topics or theories, and your research fills these gaps, mention that in your theoretical framework, as well. It is your opportunity to justify the work you've done in a scientific context—both to your dissertation committee and to any publications interested in publishing your work.

Keep it within three to five pages

While there are usually no hard and fast rules related to the length of your theoretical framework, it is most common to keep it within three to five pages. This length should be enough to provide all of the relevant information to your reader without going into depth about the theories or assumptions mentioned. If you find yourself needing many more pages to write your theoretical framework, it is likely that you've failed to provide a succinct explanation for a theory, concept, or past study. Remember—you'll have ample opportunity throughout the course of writing your dissertation to expand and expound on these concepts, past studies, methods, and hypotheses. Your theoretical framework is not the place for these details.

If you've written an abstract, consider your theoretical framework to be somewhat of an extended abstract. It should offer a glimpse of the entirety of your research without going into a detailed explanation of the methods or background of it. In many cases, chiseling the theoretical framework down to the three to five-page length is a process of determining whether detail is needed in establishing understanding for your reader.

Reducing your theoretical framework to three to five pages is a process of chiseling down the excess details that should be included in the separate sections of your dissertation

Use models and other graphics

Since your theoretical framework should clarify complicated theories or assumptions related to your research, it's often a good idea to include models and other helpful graphics to achieve this aim. If space is an issue, most formats allow you to include these illustrations or models in the appendix of your paper and refer to them within the main text.

Use a checklist after completing your first draft

You should consider the following questions as you draft your theoretical framework and check them off as a checklist after completing your first draft:

  • Have the main theories and models related to your research been presented and briefly explained? In other words, does it offer an explicit statement of assumptions and/or theories that allows the reader to make a critical evaluation of them?
  • Have you correctly cited the main scientific articles on the subject?
  • Does it tell the reader about current knowledge related to the assumptions/theories and any gaps in that knowledge?
  • Does it offer information related to notable connections between concepts?
  • Does it include a relevant theory that forms the basis of your hypotheses and methods?
  • Does it answer the question of "why" your research is valid and important? In other words, does it provide scientific justification for your research?
  • If your research fills a gap in the literature, does your theoretical framework state this explicitly?
  • Does it include the constructs and variables (both independent and dependent) that are relevant to your study?
  • Does it state assumptions and propositions that are relevant to your research (along with the guiding theories related to these)?
  • Does it "frame" your entire research, giving it direction and a backbone to support your hypotheses?
  • Are your research questions answered?
  • Is it logical?
  • Is it free of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntax errors?

A final note

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a quote from Grant and Osanloo:

The importance of utilizing a theoretical framework in a dissertation study cannot be stressed enough. The theoretical framework is the foundation from which all knowledge is constructed (metaphorically and literally) for a research study. It serves as the structure and support for the rationale for the study, the problem statement, the purpose, the significance, and the research questions. The theoretical framework provides a grounding base, or an anchor, for the literature review, and most importantly, the methods and analysis. Administrative Issues Journal

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How To Structure A PhD Thesis

Nov 21, 2019

How To Structure A PhD Thesis


Universities and supervisors often assume that PhD students know how to structure their PhD theses. But often this assumption is false, which can cause considerable headache and uncertainty.  It can also waste a lot of time and money as you engage in a process of trial and error working out what goes where.

If you go to your university’s library, you’ll find whole shelves of   books on how to structure or write your PhD . Many of these are great, and I highly recommend you check them out, but here I want to present to you a thesis structure 101 lesson.

I’ve read those books,   proofread hundreds of PhDs   and   coached   dozens of students and want to take what I know and run you through a basic introduction to structuring your PhD   thesis .

In what follows, I’ll talk you through the basic outline of a typical thesis. This mirrors and expands upon the   PhD Writing Template   I’ve created. If you haven’t already downloaded it, you can find it   here .  

Now, I want to make an important observation: what I present below is an outline of the   typical   thesis. Yours may differ, whether considerably or just a little. That’s fine. The purpose is to give you an overarching summary so that when you do approach the books and guides that exist, you’ve already got a basic understanding of what goes where and why.

So, in what follows, I’ll walk you through each of the main sections and talk about what the purpose of each is, offer some tips for planning and writing them, and show you how they relate to one another.

At the end, I’ll tell you about an   email based course   I’ve put together that will teach you how to plan, structure and write your thesis. It goes into a lot more detail than I’ve presented here, so check it out if you’d like to learn more. 

How to Structure an Abstract

Your abstract should be a short summary at the beginning of the thesis that sums up the research, summarises the separate sections of the thesis and outlines the contribution.

Above all, your PhD abstract should answer the question: ‘So what?’ In other words, what is the contribution of your thesis to the field?

  • What is the reason for writing the thesis?
  • What are the current approaches and gaps in the literature?
  • What are your research question(s) and aims?
  • Which methodology have you used?
  • What are the main findings?
  • What are the main conclusions and implications?

One thing that should be obvious is that you can’t write your abstract until the study itself has been written. It’ll typically be the last thing you write (alongside the acknowledgements).

The tricky thing about writing a great PhD abstract is that you haven’t got much space to answer the six questions above. There are a few things to consider though that will help to elevate your writing and make your abstract as efficient as possible:

  • Give a good first impression by writing in short clear sentences.
  • Don’t repeat the title in the abstract.
  • Don’t cite references.
  • Use keywords from the document.
  • Respect the word limit.
  • Don’t be vague – the abstract should be a self-contained summary of the research, so don’t introduce ambiguous words or complex terms.
  • Focus on just four or five essential points, concepts, or findings. Don’t, for example, try to explain your entire theoretical framework.
  • Edit it carefully. Make sure every word is relevant (you haven’t got room for wasted words) and that each sentence has maximum impact.
  • Avoid lengthy background information.
  • Don’t mention anything that isn’t discussed in the thesis.
  • Avoid overstatements.
  • Don’t spin your findings, contribution or significance to make your research sound grander or more influential that it actually is.

How to Structure an Introduction

The introduction serves three purposes:

  • Establish your territory.
  • Establish and justify your niche.
  • Explain the significance of your research.

The reader should be able to understand the whole thesis just by reading the introduction. It should tell them all they need to know about:

  • What your thesis is about
  • Why it is important
  • How it was conducted
  • How it is laid out

How to Structure a Literature Review

Imagine you’re making a new model of mobile phone. You’d need to look at old models to see how other people are designing them (and so you know how yours will differ) and to see how they are made. You’ll need to look for their flaws, and get an idea of where they can be improved.

That’s because you can’t make something new if you don’t know what the old one looks like.

The literature review is the same. You use it to make the case for your research by surveying the work that’s already been done in your discipline (and sometimes beyond). It’s a bit like a family tree. You use it to trace the lineage of your study. Putting it in its place.

A literature review has three objectives:

  • Summarise what has already been discussed in your field, both to demonstrate that you understand your field and to show how your study relates to it.
  • Highlight gaps, problems or shortcomings in existing research to show the original contribution that your thesis makes.
  • Identify important studies, theories, methods or theoretical frameworks that can be applied in your research.
  • Pick a broad topic
  • Find the way in
  • Who’s saying what and when
  • Narrow down the field
  • Narrow does the sources
  • Think about questions that haven’t been asked
  • Write early, write quickly and write relevantly

phd thesis framework

Your PhD Thesis. On one page.

Use our free PhD Structure Template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.

How to Structure a Theory Framework Chapter

The theory framework is the scaffolding upon which your thesis is built. When you’re done writing your theory framework chapter or section, your reader should be able to answer these questions:

  • What theoretical concepts are used in the research? What hypotheses, if any, are you using?
  • Why have you chosen this theory?
  • What are the implications of using this theory?
  • How does the theory relate to the existing literature, your problem statement and your epistemological and ontological positions? How has this theory has been applied by others in similar contexts? What can you learn from them and how do you differ?
  • How do you apply the theory and measure the concepts (with reference to the literature review/problem statement)?
  • What is the relationship between the various elements and concepts within the model? Can you depict this visually?

That means that a theory framework can take different forms: 

It can state the theoretical assumptions underpinning the study.

  • It can connect the empirical data to existing knowledge.
  • It can allow you to come up with propositions, concepts or hypotheses that you can use to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.

Broadly speaking, a theory framework can be used to either derive certain testable assumptions or as a way of making sense of your data. In both cases, it structures your data collection by focusing your attention on a small subset of concepts.

You can, therefore, think of it as a toolbox. In your literature review, you outlined the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theory framework is a toolbox stuffed full of concepts, variables, or hypotheses (your tools) that you’ll then use to address the problem and do the fixing.

You can find an   extended guide on creating your theory framework . Check it out if you’re still struggling.

When you discuss theory, you are seeking to provide a background examination of what other researchers think about a phenomenon and how they have conceptualised it. You should discuss the relevance of particular theoretical approaches for your study, and you should take care to consider the dominant theoretical schools in your field. This shows the examiner you have understood the state of the art.

But, you should do so critically, and question the suitability of any theories that exist or that you are creating to your particular study. That means that you should discuss previous applications of theory in order to discuss what implications they have for your own research.

The reason you do this is that your discipline likely has accepted and ’tried and tested’ ways of doing things. In many cases, this is an advantage, because it can serve as inspiration for your choice of concepts, hypotheses or variables, and can influence your choice of methods.

In other cases, it may be that the existing theory is ill-equipped to account for your particular phenomenon. In either case, you need to demonstrate a good understanding of what that theory is discussing, both to demonstrate your skills as a researcher and scholar, but also to justify your own theoretical and methodological position. 

How to Structure a Methods Chapter

The job of a methods chapter is:

  • To summarise, explain and recount how you answered your research questions and to explain how this relates to the methods used by other scholars in similar contexts and similar studies
  • To discuss – in detail – the techniques you used to collect the data used to answer your research questions 
  • To discuss why the techniques are relevant to the study’s aims and objectives
  • To explain how you used them

Your reader should be able to answer the following questions when they’re done reading it:

  • What did you did do to achieve the research aims?
  • Why did you choose this particular approach over others?
  • How does it relate to your epistemological and ontological positions?
  • What tools did you use to collect data and why? What are the implications?
  • When did you collect data, and from whom?
  • What tools have you used to analyze the data and why? What are the implications? Are there ethical considerations to take into account?

How to Structure an Empirical Chapter

  • What are the results of your investigations?  
  • How do the findings relate to previous studies?  
  • Was there anything surprising or that didn’t work out as planned?  
  • Are there any themes or categories that emerge from the data?   
  • Have you explained to the reader why you have reached particular conclusions?
  • Have you explained the results?

Having your PhD proofread will save you time and money

Our top-rated PhD proofreaders check your writing, formatting, references and readability. The goal? To make sure your research is written and presented in the most compelling manner possible. 

That way, you’ll have complete peace of mind prior to submission and save yourself months of costly revisions. 

How to Structure a Discussion Chapter 

The discussion chapter is the place in which you discuss your empirics. Many people find it the hardest chapter, primarily because it’s the stage at which you start to flex your academic muscles and speak like a doctor. It is here that you start to push the boundaries of knowledge.

That’s a hard thing to do, largely because you’ve probably never had to do it before. All through your masters and undergraduate work you’ve learnt what other people have found. Now you’re finding out things that no-one else knows.

The difference between a discussion and an empirical chapter is subtle, but I’ve written   a detailed guide   that will clear up any confusion you’ve got.

How to Structure a Conclusion

The job of the conclusion is to:

  • Fully and clearly articulate the answer to your research questions
  • Discuss how the research is related to your aims and objectives
  • Explain the significance of the work
  • Outline its shortcomings
  • Suggest avenues for future research

It is not the place to introduce new ideas and concepts, or to present new findings.

Your job is to reflect back on your original aims and intentions and discuss them in terms of your findings and new expertise.

Three things to do in a conclusion:

  • Own your research by speaking with authority! You’ve earned the right to do that by the time you reach your conclusion 
  • See the thesis and not the detail. Drive home the contribution that the thesis has made. Whatever it is, you need to shout about it. Loudly. Like an expert.
  • Each chapter is a piece of the puzzle and only when they are all slotted together do you have an entire thesis. That means that a great conclusion is one that shows that the thesis is bigger than the sum of its individual chapters. 
  • By the time the reader has finished reading the conclusion, they should be able to answer the following questions:
  • Have you briefly recapped the research questions and objectives?
  • Have you provided a brief recount of the answer to those questions?
  • Have you clearly discussed the significance and implications of those findings?
  • Have you discussed the contribution that the study has made?
  • Do the claims you are making align with the content of the results and discussion chapters?

Wrapping Up 

There’s clearly a lot more that can be said about how to structure each of these sections. Go to your university library and you’ll find dozens of books on how to write a PhD. Google it and you’ll find thousands of posts. It’s hard to know where to start.

That’s why  I’ve put together an  email based course on How To Write Your Thesis . Over twelve emails you’ll get detailed chapter guides that expand on the above, a ton of templates, checklist and worksheets, and lots of curated videos and external resources to really cement your learning. By the end, you’ll understand what goes where and why and would have saved yourself a bunch of time and energy sifting through all those books and posts.

That way, you can write more, worry less and graduate sooner.

To sign up,   click here . 

Hello, Doctor…

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Be able to call yourself Doctor sooner with our five-star rated How to Write A PhD email-course. Learn everything your supervisor should have taught you about planning and completing a PhD.

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This is seriously and absolutely helpful but some terminologies used may not be understood by most beginners in research methodology. Beginners would better understand the use of chapter1, etc. Thank you.

Dr. Max Lempriere

Thanks for the useful feedback. Enjoy the rest of your day.

Lallé M. ZOUBA

Wonderful…. It is really practical to have such tips… Many thanks….

You’re welcome!

Ahmed aldhafeeri

Well done Max, very informative post.

Great. Thanks for the kind words.

Dean -

Cheers Max! Sent it on to many friends starting the journey

Great. Thanks Dean!


Hi Dr Lumpriere,

Thanks for creating this website, it is really helpful to situate oneself – I am really new to this. In your experience, how many hours does one (roughly. – of course depending on the scope of the project) have to dedicate to a PhD weekly on average?

Thanks again, Maureen

Hi Maureen – it really depends on so many factors, including how much familiarity you already have with research and how quickly you want to finish. It’s hard to say! I devoted around 3/4 of full time to mine per week – so roughly 30 hours. But then I had never conducted research before, didn’t have any caregiving responsibilities, and wanted to complete quickly.


Thanks a lot for dedicating your time and effort to helping those who are still struggling with writing up their PhD!

Best, Felix

You’re welcome Felix.

Adebayo Adeleye

Good job. Thanks for the information here.

You’re welcome! Glad you found it useful.


This is great, I am impressed by the guideline. I shall consult these steps as I work on my Thesis for my PhD.


Thanks for this information keep it up.

Carlo Butera

Very interesting and useful job!

Stephen Ubah

Well done Dr Max. Quite helpful, thanks

Adebanjo Babawale

I am really grateful for this tip. God bless the writer in Jesus’ name

Iyua Mbah

Thank you for this guide.

Salin Gurung

Thank you very much for the information. It’s very useful.


This article is insanely helpful. Especially the questions that should be answered in each part. Even though I was aware of most of it, seeing it all put together so neatly helps a lot. Thank you!

Wow. Such great praise. Thanks!

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Developing the PhD thesis project in relation to individual contexts: a multiple case study of five doctoral researchers

  • Open access
  • Published: 17 June 2022
  • Volume 85 , pages 1143–1160, ( 2023 )

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The early phase of doctoral education is a critical yet under-researched period in PhD programs, when doctoral researchers must solidify their thesis projects prior to embarking on data collection. What makes this time particularly challenging is that new doctoral researchers synthesize their research thinking while they are still learning the expectations and nature of PhD research. This study draws on Emirbayer and Mische’s ( 1998 ) chordal triad of agency to explore how PhD researchers’ goals and experiences (individual contexts) influence how they approach doctoral research and develop their thesis projects during the first year of the PhD. The results of this small-scale longitudinal multiple case study of five first-year UK PhD social science researchers suggest that there are at least three approaches PhD researchers may adopt in developing their research projects, influenced by personal histories and post-PhD goals—pragmatic/strategic, idealistic, and realistic. In turn, these approaches may change over time as PhD researchers acquire experience and encounter critical events. Implications include the need for attention to a diversity of PhD researchers’ needs and goals, which may necessitate additional support or training in tailored areas, and a call for questioning the capacity of PhD researchers to contribute to/stretch the structures surrounding thesis writing.

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This study focuses on the individual experiences of five first-year social science PhD researchers at a UK university. In the UK as elsewhere, doctoral education has been recognized as central to the growing knowledge economy (Department for Education, 2017 ). The structure of UK doctoral programs has moved on from the apprenticeship model predominant in the 1980s to address concerns about attrition and career preparedness. It now includes integrated research training courses, graduate schools, research training courses, graduate schools, doctoral colleges, and doctoral training centers or partnerships (UK Council for Graduate Education, 2015 ). Alongside changes in training, the doctoral degree has diversified to include professional doctorates and thesis formats other than the traditional monograph—for instance, thesis by publication or integration. Current UK policy outlined in the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) Characteristics Statement declares that “All UK doctorates, regardless of their form, continue to require the main focus of the candidate's work to demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge” (QAA, 2020 , p. 3) and that doctoral graduates should be able to “think critically about problems to produce innovative solutions” as well as synthesize large bodies of information and communicate with diverse audiences (QAA, 2020 , p. 3). This policy statement sets the backdrop against which all UK doctorates should be assessed.

Transitioning into a doctoral program can be challenging, as PhD researchers must make the shift from consuming and analyzing knowledge to producing it (Lovitts, 2005 ; McPherson, et al., 2018 ). For those in the humanities and social sciences, engaging in a substantial piece of research also means a level of self-direction and isolation for which many PhD researchers do not feel prepared (Gardner, 2008 ). As such, doctoral education is often described as a transition from dependence to independence, associated with developing and taking on a new identity as a researcher (e.g., Green, 2005 ) and becoming part of the academic and disciplinary discourse community.

Existing research on the early stages of doctoral programs, meaning the phases prior to thesis data collection and writing, suggest that challenges of transitioning into the PhD include establishing a sense of belonging, learning the expectations of the disciplinary field, developing research and writing skills, gaining ownership over the work, and understanding the nature of the doctorate (Chatterjee-Padmanabhan & Nielson, 2018 ; Creely & Laletas, 2019 ; Fisher et al., 2020 ). At the same time, PhD researchers do not have identical experiences; variations in PhD researcher transitions can be attributed to diversity in prior educational and cultural experiences and ways of thinking (see analytical vs. practical intelligence, Lovitts, 2008 ), highlighting the importance of individual/personal factors in understanding how new doctoral researchers adapt to the PhD.

Given the often challenging and individual nature of PhD researcher transitions, this study aimed to explore how personal contexts and goals influence the experiences of five first-year PhD researchers in the UK, as they designed their social science thesis projects over the course of 1 year. At the institution in which this study took place, plans for the PhD research project are synthesized in a document (hereafter “Upgrade document”) that is submitted alongside institutional documents (e.g., ethics forms) and orally examined by two internal assessors in a process referred to as Upgrade, which typically takes place at the end of the first year. The content of the Upgrade document varies slightly by department but generally includes the questions, theoretical framework, literature, and methods guiding the thesis research.

It is important to note that in the UK, doctoral programs vary in structure across institutions and departments. The goal of this study is therefore to provide insight into the individual experiences of the participants at a single university and disciplinary cluster as they conceived of and composed their Upgrade documents in the first year of the doctorate. The research question guiding this study was:

How do first-year PhD researchers in the social sciences (at a single UK institution) shape and negotiate their Upgrade documents over time and in relation to their prior experiences and goals?

Doctoral writing and supervisor feedback

Research suggests that writing is a challenge for many doctoral researchers (Aitchison & Lee, 2007 ; Cameron, et al., 2009 ; Cotterall, 2011 ; Lee & Aitchison, 2009 ), particularly in the early stages of the PhD (Caffarella & Barnett, 2000 ). What makes PhD writing difficult is that it not only requires an understanding of the expectations and nuances of the thesis and other academic genres, but also necessitates the synthesis of disciplinary and methodological knowledge; writing is both an expression of and tool for thinking (Bazerman & Prior, 2004 ; Klein, 1999 ; Yore, et al., 2004 , 2006 ).

Although variation in writing practices and writing structures exist across disciplines (Carter, 2007 ), in general, research writing requires the writer to draw from and analyze multiple sources and concepts to create new knowledge in a process of meaning-making (Ivanic, 1998 ) that extends from the literature review through the writing up of results (Kamler & Thomson, 2014 ). In many ways, the writing process and the research process are intimately related, suggesting that researchers use writing to construct and present knowledge, vacillating between data collection, writing, analysis, and inquiry (Yore, et al., 2006 , p. 116). At the same time, many doctoral writers struggle to articulate—or legitimize—their personal voices within the web of academic writing structures (Naomi, 2021 ).

Supervisors support the doctoral researcher’s thesis research and writing, ideally guiding them towards becoming independent researchers and experts in their relevant fields (Pearson & Brew, 2002 ). Although PhD researcher experience is influenced by a network of personal and professional relationships (Hopwood, 2010 ), the supervisory relationship is perhaps the most critical in the PhD context, often influencing the overall experience of the program (Cotterall, 2015 ; Pyhalto et al., 2015 ).

The primary pedagogical approach utilized in supervision is that of feedback, a dialogic process providing information about disciplinary and institutional expectations and facilitating critical discussion (Anderson, et al., 2008 ; McAlpine & McKinnon, 2012 ). Argument, logic, language, and genre are common foci of supervisor comments (Basturkmen, et al., 2014 ; Can & Walker, 2014 ; Xu, 2017 ). Several studies focused primarily on international graduate students have examined how doctoral students interpret and respond to supervisor feedback (e.g., Wang & Li, 2011 ; Xu, 2017 ; Xu & Hu, 2020 ), finding that PhD researchers’ prior experience is linked to supervision needs and feedback responses. For instance, PhD researchers in the early stages of their research tend to require more support, preferring “directive, specific and consistent feedback” and are more likely to respond negatively to criticism (Wang & Li, 2011 ). In contrast, PhD researchers with greater confidence and stronger ownership of their work exhibit more positive attitudes towards challenging or critical feedback (Wang & Li, 2011 ). Graduate students may also resist feedback out of a desire to promote their “own agendas” (Vehviläinen, 2009 , p. 197) or a belief that changes are unnecessary (Xu, 2017 ), suggesting that responses to feedback may be linked to individual goals and provide evidence of agency.

PhD contexts and goals

Doctoral researchers bring their individual histories and goals for the future to their PhD study. Understanding how prior experience and goals influence perspectives of and approaches to doctoral research is important, and existing studies suggests that biographical factors may affect the extent to which PhD researchers can access disciplinary and research training cultures (Deem & Brehony, 2000 ), as well as how they cope with challenges (Hockey, 1994 ) and respond to supervisor feedback (Inouye & McAlpine, 2017 ). International PhD researchers, in particular, may have more difficulty accessing academic research cultures due to differences in language, cultural norms, higher education systems, and expectations for doctoral study (Deem & Brehony, 2000 ). For instance, case studies and self-studies on international PhD researchers suggest that doctoral researchers from non-Anglophone contexts (e.g., China/East Asia) may experience disparities between their earlier education experiences and the expectations of their PhD programs in English-speaking countries (Li, 2018 ; Soong, et al., 2015 ). Challenges may include taking ownership over the thesis and displaying typically Eurocentric “critical thinking” (Wu & Hu, 2020 ; Xu & Grant, 2017 ). Further, PhD researchers from Confucian-influenced cultures may be more reluctant to disagree with or “push” their supervisors for additional feedback due to differing expectations of supervisory relationships (Nguyen & Robertson, 2020 ). Likewise, they may focus on gaining deep understanding of expert texts rather than critiquing them (Chang & Strauss, 2010 ; Xu & Grant, 2017 ), reflecting differences in academic practices and varying forms of critical thought (see Chang & Strauss, 2010 ; Paton, 2005 ).

Motivations for undertaking PhD work and career goals may also influence how PhD researchers experience doctoral research. Interview-based research on motivations for undertaking PhD work (Brailsford, 2010 ; Gill & Hoppe, 2009 ; Guerin, et al., 2015 ; Leonard, et al., 2005 ; Skakni, 2018 ; Taylor, 2007 ) indicate that preconceived notions of the PhD and goals/motivations may fall into several categories, including career considerations, professional development, and personal and intellectual fulfillment. Evidence suggests that motivation influences the strategies used to approach the PhD as well as supervision preferences (Skakni, 2018 ; Taylor, 2007 ). For example, PhD researchers motivated by career aspirations were strategic and pragmatic about the PhD, concerned with quick progress and desiring supervisors who could guide them through the institutional requirements and facilitate work opportunities (Skakni, 2018 ).

PhD researcher agency: individual goals and contexts

This study draws on Emirbayer and Mische’s chordal triad of agency (1988) to examine how PhD researchers make decisions about how to develop their Upgrade documents in relation to the personal, institutional, and disciplinary contexts that influence their experiences of early-stage doctoral research and, more specifically, the Upgrade document. In social science, agency is typically understood as the capacity of individuals to act independently and has been theorized in different ways depending on the extent to which social structure is believed to facilitate or constrain that capacity. Aldrich ( 1999 ) succinctly described the problem of agency as “how much scope…people have for independence and creativity in the face of social structural constraints on their understanding and behavior” (p. 23). Research on PhD researchers’ agency has explored how PhD researchers exercise agency to develop their scholarly identity-trajectories (McAlpine, et al., 2014 ) and address academic and cultural hurdles through establishing and drawing on relationships (Cotterall, 2015 ; Hopwood, 2010 ), sharing their research (Nguyen & Robertson, 2020 ), and negotiating supervisory relationships and supervisor feedback (Inouye & McAlpine, 2017 ). Such studies provide a counter-narrative to traditional framings of PhD education that position doctoral researchers as undergoing a one-way socialization process into the institution and relevant discipline (see Hopwood, 2010 ).

The chordal triad of agency developed by Emirbayer and Mische ( 1998 ) builds upon the work of Mead ( 1932 ), defining agency as:

...the temporally constructed engagement by actors of different structural environments—the temporal-relational contexts of action—which, through the interplay of habit, imagination, and judgment, both reproduces and transforms those structures in interactive response to the problems posed by changing historical situations. (1998, p. 970)

Agency is thus expressed through human action in response to a given temporal-relational context. In each act of agency, three elements are at play: iteration, projectivity, and practical-evaluation. Iteration represents the past and is characterized by habitual acts in response to similar situations—schemas for action developed over time. Projectivity represents the future: the person’s plans and desires. As people encounter new situations, they adapt existing schemas in relation to their goals and imagine possible outcomes. Practical-evaluation represents the present, acknowledging the ways in which actions are embedded in the current evolving situation, representing “the capacity of actors to make practical and normative judgments among alternative possible trajectories of action” (p. 971). Most importantly, practical-evaluation provides for reflection, insight into one’s particular circumstances in relation to past and future, which may lead to changes in behavior.

Applied to PhD researchers, the chordal triad lends two key things. First, the iteration and projectivity elements draw attention to how prior experience and imagined futures/goals influence individual PhD researchers’ actions as they shape their plans for their thesis projects. Second, the practical-evaluation element allows for consideration of how PhD researchers’ temporal-relational contexts (e.g., new knowledge, additional feedback, and upcoming deadlines) change over time and influence how they evaluate and gain insight into their particular circumstances, which may potentially lead to changes in behavior: exercising agency to alter one’s contexts. In other words, as PhD researchers learn over time the expectations for the thesis project through supervisor feedback and other relevant interactions and experiences (the temporal-relational context), they adjust their actions in response to the new knowledge and in relation to prior experiences and goals.

This paper draws from a longitudinal (Ployhart & Vandenberg, 2010 ) multiple-case study in which each participant constituted a case. The study involved five participants from three social science departments at a large research-intensive university in the UK. At this institution, social science departments require first-year PhD researchers to submit a written document (“Upgrade document”) for oral assessment by two examiners, usually from the same department. Successful completion of this milestone—hereafter referred to as “Upgrade”—marks the PhD researcher’s transition into the data collection phase of research and confers full doctoral status. Although all academic departments require an Upgrade examination, the specific timings and requirements vary across disciplinary areas—for instance, the Upgrade document in natural science departments tends to be much shorter. In the three social science departments in which this study took place—Education, Geography, and Sociology—Upgrade typically occurs between 8 and 12 months after commencement of the PhD program. The submitted Upgrade document is a lengthy document of roughly 10,000 words, containing a literature review, conceptual framework, research questions, and methodology/research design. Upgrade can result in three possible outcomes, pass, minor corrections, and resubmit, and a PhD researcher has two opportunities to successfully complete Upgrade.

Data collection took place from October 2018 through December 2019. The participants were first-year PhD researchers. Four participants were recruited through email solicitation and one via snowball sampling. This study received ethical approval from the institution. Demographic characteristics of the participants are displayed in Table 1 .

Data included (1) a five-item demographic questionnaire, (2) semi-structured interviews, (3) drafts of the Upgrade document and other related writings, (4) written feedback from supervisors and, if relevant, peers, and (5) recordings of supervision meetings. However, for the purpose of this paper, the results will focus primarily on findings from the participant interviews.

Three types of interviews were conducted: (1) background interviews, (2) Upgrade document process interviews, and (3) concluding interviews. Background interviews, which took place shortly after each participant joined the study, focused on the participant’s prior experiences with writing, feedback, and social science research, as well as their reasons for doing a PhD, perceived challenges, and post-PhD career goals. The purpose of these interviews was to establish each participant’s individual historical context.

Upgrade document process interviews comprised most interview data in this study. These interviews were scheduled every 2 months at a mutually convenient time and place and focused on the participant’s ongoing work in relation to the Upgrade document, using written drafts of the Upgrade document and if relevant, other notes and documents, to provide examples of specific feedback and revisions. Finally, concluding interviews took place following each participant’s successful completion of the Upgrade examination. These interviews focused on the participants’ experience of Upgrade and reflections on the first year of the PhD.

Drafts and supervision recordings

In addition to the interviews, I collected drafts of the participants’ Upgrade documents and recorded supervision meetings with supervisor consent. Each participant was given the option to self-record their supervisions or to have me attend and record the supervisions. All interviews and supervision recordings were manually transcribed. Using MaxQDA 12 software, I created five separate folders, one for each participant. Each folder served to store the collected data, which were chronologically organized. The data were analyzed via a combination of a priori and emergent coding, situated within an overall narrative analysis. Data were analyzed first within-cases to capture variation in individual experience and then across cases to detect emerging patterns.

A priori coding

A priori codes (Saldana, 2013 ) were based on relevant department guidelines for a successful Upgrade and Emirbayer and Mische’s ( 1998 ) chordal triad conceptualization of agency: iteration, projectivity, and practical-evaluation to identify evidence of past, future, and present factors in participants’ decision-making. These codes were applied throughout the dataset for each individual participant.

Emergent coding

Following a priori coding, I analyzed the interview and supervision transcripts via emergent (open) coding. Using the “spiral” approach (Creswell, 2013 ), I began by reading through the entire dataset for each participant, taking notes. I wrote case summaries for each participant 3, 5, and 8 months into the data collection process. To develop codes, I reviewed case summaries and notes to identify possible codes and analyzed the dataset of the individual participant using initial codes and definitions. These codes were refined over several iterations. I repeated this process for each participant, resulting in five sets of emergent codes, one for each participant. Example codes included explanation/justification (for responses to feedback), supervisor feedback (with subcodes including direction, confirmation, suggestion/guidance), and strategies (feedback-seeking, questioning, networking), and Upgrade experience. Throughout the analysis process, the definitions of each code and examples were discussed and verified with colleagues familiar with both qualitative analysis and the topics of writing and doctoral education.

Narrative analysis

The patterns that emerged through coding alongside relevant excerpts from the documents were situated within a narrative analysis that allowed each case to be presented as a linear whole, rich with “thick description” (Riessman, 2008 ). The narrative was supported by the results of the coding and specific examples from the transcripts and documents. Because this study is concerned with what participants say rather than how they say it, in constructing the narratives, I formatted participant quotes by excluding stutters and pauses for clarity.

Cross-case analysis

Having completed within-cases analyses of each participant’s experience, I conducted a cross-case analysis to identify any patterns. I began by re-reading my notes and all five case summaries, taking note of similarities and differences (Eisenhardt, 2002 ). From this process, I identified three key themes: approach to the PhD, compliance with and resistance to supervisor feedback, and the Upgrade exam as significant event. These themes reflected larger patterns in agency characterized by the individual’s considerations of past, present, and future action in relation to their changing contexts.

Participant feedback

Participant feedback, also known as member checking, was used to provide participants with an opportunity to express concerns about anonymity (see Thomas, 2017 ) and identify factual errors. Following their participation in this study, each participant was sent a copy of their draft case summary for feedback on (1) factual accuracy, (2) concerns about identifiability, and (3) opinions on how their experiences were interpreted. Participants were also the given the option of changing their assigned pseudonyms.

The analysis gave rise to two key findings. First, the participants adopted three approaches to navigating the construction of the Upgrade document—pragmatic/strategic, idealistic, and realistic/compromising, each reflecting agentive decision-making influenced by prior educational experiences and perceptions of doctoral education, as well as post-PhD career goals. These approaches were primarily conveyed in how the participants drew upon feedback to create research proposals for Upgrade. Second, the oral Upgrade exam was a critical structuring event that led participants to reassess their practices and, in some cases, alter their approaches to their thesis research. This section begins with brief descriptions of the participants’ relevant individual contexts followed by a discussion of the approaches adopted by each, ending with an exploration of whose approaches shifted over time.

Ben was a first-year doctoral researcher in Education. Prior to the PhD, he completed a Master’s in the USA and worked at a think tank. Although English was his second language—he was born in a non-Anglophone European country—Ben was comfortable writing in English given his experience studying in the USA. In his previous work at the think tank, Ben developed the practice of reaching out to his colleagues for substantive feedback, though he always critically assessed received comments, based in part on the expertise of the person providing the feedback. Following the PhD, Ben planned to pursue a career in policy at an international organization. Ben had three supervisors.

Charlie was a first-year doctoral researcher in Sociology. Prior to the PhD, he did a Master’s in the UK. Charlie was originally from China but had been in the UK since high school and thus felt comfortable writing in English, though he sometimes struggled with reading complex texts. Charlie viewed feedback as generally helpful but viewed “abstract” comments such as “the research question is too broad” as less helpful when not accompanied by details on how to improve. He did not have concrete career plans when he began the PhD but hoped the degree would broaden his employment opportunities and allow him to explore academia. Charlie had two supervisors.

Natalie was a first-year doctoral researcher in Geography from the UK. Prior to the PhD, Natalie completed Master’s degrees in related fields and had worked in several sectors. One of her careers involved writing, and thus Natalie had experience in certain genres of writing but viewed herself as a novice in academic writing. She valued feedback, including criticism, from a range of sources and was concerned that her work involved public outreach. Following the PhD, Natalie hoped to teach at a university and write a book based on her doctoral research. Natalie had one supervisor (an anomaly, as most social science PhD researchers at the institution had two or more supervisors).

Shankar was a first-year doctoral researcher in Education from India. The PhD was Shankar’s first educational experience outside of India, having completed his undergraduate study and a Master’s there. He also spent several years teaching in rural areas of India prior to the doctorate. Shankar considered English his first language as his parents spoke it at home. He had little experience receiving feedback on his work, because his previous Master’s research was largely independent. Following the PhD, Shankar planned to return to India and teach at a university. Shankar had two supervisors.

Ethan was a first-year doctoral researcher in Education from the UK. Prior to the PhD, Ethan taught in primary schools and completed a Master’s degree. He enjoyed writing and viewed himself as a “perfectionist” when he wrote. Ethan embraced critical feedback so long as it was constructive and believed that his positive response to criticism was related to the nature of his supervisory relationships. For instance, he had a good relationship with his Master’s supervisor who “valued the good bits” but would also “happily tear a piece of work to shreds” (November 2018, Interview). Following the PhD, Ethan hoped to work in academia or at a think tank. Ethan had two supervisors.


The pragmatic/strategic approach to the PhD, adopted by Ben and Charlie, was characterized by an orientation towards the feasibility or practicality of the research in terms of time to completion, financial constraints, or whatever would most facilitate quick and effective success: the PhD as a means to an end. Both Ben and Charlie expressed their pragmatic/strategic approach through (1) pursuing learning opportunities during the PhD in relation to career objectives and (2) and their assessment and use of feedback.

Ben and Charlie pursued PhDs to further career goals. Ben, who had a clear objective—work at an international organization—believed that doctorate would assist him in developing research skills that would increase his employability. Ben thus framed the PhD as a vehicle for advancing his career. While he wanted to produce a quality thesis, he was not emotionally attached to the work and noted, unlike some of his op-eds and reports, the thesis would not be read by a wide audience. As such, Ben made sure to attend conferences, find research assistant work, and expand his networks: “I think I need to be part of a broader policy debate because that's my aim overall…so I need to go [to conferences]. Everything is part of [an] overall design of me getting better [as a researcher]” (February 2019, Interview). Further, because he was only partially funded, Ben was determined to finish within 3 years and designed his research timeline accordingly.

Like Ben, Charlie viewed the PhD as improving his career opportunities. However, Charlie was uncertain about his future and hoped the PhD would allow him to explore possibilities. Charlie was also self-funding and therefore applied for various scholarships and internships alongside his PhD work. New to sociology, Charlie spent the first few months of the PhD program gathering information towards the goal of understanding what was expected of him:

[W]hen I [am] doing my PhD how do I structure my research, how do I progress...how do I develop my ideas? And...in general, how [do] we develop theory, [and] use the theory to explain things in data?...I try to find out the answer by auditing lectures…[and reading] books. (December 2018, Interview)

Charlie thus focused on understanding his discipline and the nature of PhD research while figuring out what “can be asked and answered in a PhD thesis” (October 2018, Email to supervisor). At the same time, he consulted peers for emotional support and enrolled in additional research training courses to further his learning and improve his employment prospects.

Ben and Charlie also expressed their pragmatic/strategic approach to the PhD in how they assessed and used feedback on their Upgrade documents. Ben, who had a clear vision for his project and prior knowledge of the topic, maintained the critical stance towards feedback developed before the PhD:

You need to be really convincing for me to change what I’ve written because in the end it’s going to be my name. But I will say that I’m quite open to accept feedback from people who know [more] than me about a topic. (November 2018, Interview)

Because Ben viewed his supervisors as knowledgeable in their fields but lacking expertise in his specific topic, he relied on them for literature recommendations and to discuss his overall research design and the Upgrade process, using only suggestions that he believed furthered his goal of successful Upgrade and timely thesis completion. However, for substantive feedback on his methods and subject matter, he approached others, including post-docs in relevant departments, and often went long stretches without seeing his supervisors, preferring to work on his own and receive feedback on complete drafts of his work.

In contrast, because of his lack of experience in sociology, Charlie positioned his supervisors as experts who were best placed to guide him through the thesis and, specifically, the Upgrade phase of the PhD. Charlie thus tended to adopt all feedback his supervisors offered. Upon reflection, Charlie noted that he always agreed with his supervisors’ suggestions (“we think similarly”—July 2019, Interview), explaining the intent behind his choices to implement feedback; he believed adopting feedback benefitted the project or Upgrade document. Thus, both Ben and Charlie assessed and used feedback in ways they believed furthered their Upgrade documents—and ultimately their PhDs—in most efficient ways.

This approach was characterized by a romanticized, optimistic framing of the research process, including a preoccupation with “big” ideas and the desire to create a deeply impactful or meaningful project, closely tied to personal passions or philosophies. Shankar and Natalie, who adopted an idealistic approach, expressed this orientation through (1) their perceptions of research/the PhD and (2) tendencies to resist traditional genre conventions of the Upgrade document.

Both Shankar’s and Natalie’s research projects grew from personal experience, and it was apparent in supervisions and interviews that they were passionate and intellectually engaged with their topics to the extent that narrowing the scope of their interests to a feasible doctorate was a significant challenge—both participants had a tendency to think and talk about their projects in broad ways, exploring avenues of inquiry that connected elements of history, philosophy, language, and politics. Natalie also insisted that her project take an ethnographic approach in which research questions emerge from the fieldwork and thus was hesitant to narrow her topic too early—a desire supported by her supervisor (but cautioned against by her course instructors). As a compromise, Natalie constructed three broad research questions that indicated her areas of interest. For example, “Are cities the agrarian worlds of the future?” (Upgrade document draft).

Shankar and Natalie were creative in how they structured their Upgrade documents; Natalie’s Upgrade document was organized by themes rather than discrete sections for literature review, method, etc., and Shankar used “metaphorical signposting,” adding subtitles to each of his sections that corresponded to parts of a tree—for instance, the literature review was called “the seeds” (Upgrade document draft). Although he appreciated critical comments, Shankar struggled to implement supervisor feedback on defining terms in relation to existing literature and following citation practices. He tried to negotiate comments on his Upgrade document and incorporate aspects of feedback towards the goal of finding his own writing style. Shankar acknowledged that his writing was a “little bit of this, little bit of that,” an “amalgam of the kind of quality of writing which would be appreciated in India” that included anecdotal evidence (April 2019, Interview). These writing and research choices stretched the boundaries of the expected Upgrade document genre and reflected Natalie and Shankar’s personal preferences for writing and self-expression, indicative of an idealistic view of doctoral writing. However, both needed to re-evaluate their practices when they were asked to resubmit their Upgrade document after the initial Upgrade exam. This is elaborated upon later.


The realistic approach lay between the pragmatic/strategic and idealistic approaches, characterized by compromise and accommodation: passion for the topic and desire for it to be impactful on a larger scale, while also being cognizant of institutional expectations and willing to shape the project accordingly. Ethan adopted the realistic approach, which was evident in his assessment and use of feedback.

Ethan worked to strike a balance between creating a project he was passionate about and crafting a document that satisfied his supervisors:

There’s been varying points this year where I thought, am I doing the right thing? Would I be better off doing other research?...I think it’s the first time where, I’m very cognizant of this is all mine [so] that’s been quite a big defining feature of it. The independence. (November 2019, Interview)

Ethan’s understanding of the need to manage his goals with supervisor approval may be linked to his previous Master’s experience, specifically his familiarity with the research process and supervisor feedback. Indeed, though Shankar and Natalie had completed Master’s in their fields, both described the experience as involving little supervisory contact.

What Ethan most appreciated about his supervisors was their shared interest in school policy and their shared experiences as teachers, which allowed him to speak openly about his concerns about education and engage in critical discussion. In such supervisory discussions—and in early drafts of his Upgrade document—Ethan expressed political views that were tied to his teaching experience and the inception of his thesis, revealing Ethan’s desire for impact and change. At the same time, he acknowledged the “authority” of his supervisors and gladly incorporated their feedback, which helped him to define a feasible research topic and demonstrated an understanding of the PhD as requiring negotiation between the desire to shape a large and important study and the need to meet institutional standards. Further, both of Ethan’s supervisors were careful to explain the reasoning behind their feedback while also being explicit about examiner expectations, which may have contributed to his willingness to compromise.

Ethan’s greatest struggle was his self-described “flowery” writing style. His supervisors referred to his writing as “journalistic” and “rhetorically beautiful” but not appropriate for the Upgrade document genre. Beautiful writing was of personal value to Ethan, and he initially hoped to reach a compromise and find “the line” defining the extent to which he could write descriptively—though, he acknowledged, “[my supervisors and I] may or may not agree where that line is” (June 2019, Interview). For Ethan, writing became a matter of “trial and error” (June 2019, Interview) in which he continually refined his style over several drafts, a process facilitated by the pruning down of his document prior to Upgrade. Later, Ethan noted that the improvement in his writing was the most concrete change from the first year of his PhD. The realistic/compromising approach therefore reflects an understanding of genre, disciplinary, and institutional requirements and the need to negotiate and adapt for the purposes of the Upgrade document.

Changes in approach over time

The approaches discussed above were not clear-cut categories; rather, each given approach reflected the general overarching way in which the participants structured their actions and communicated their thinking about their research, writing, and the PhD. These approaches were driven primarily by the iterative element of agency—patterns of behavior acquired over time from prior education and work experience, particularly in regard to responses to feedback. At the same time, participant approaches were not static; success or lack thereof at the Upgrade milestone either reinforced successful participants’ approaches or significantly changed the approaches of those who were unsuccessful.

For Natalie and Shankar, who were asked to revise and resubmit their Upgrade documents, Upgrade prompted reflection on PhD expectations and the research process, which led them to move from an idealistic to a pragmatic/strategic approach. Natalie, for instance, remarked that she had been “naïve” about doctoral work and following the Upgrade exam began to view the PhD as a “box-ticking exercise” she needed to work through in order to pass (pragmatic approach). Similarly, Shankar noted that the Upgrade exam highlighted gaps between his former schooling and the expectations of his PhD university, leading him to alter his Upgrade document in accordance with examiner feedback and conform to institutional expectations, which he described as putting on “clothes in a wardrobe”:

...it seems to me that the, what this whole program is about, or at least my experience of it [is] a particular way of...relating to knowledge. It’s a particular way of...looking at it and interpreting it and presenting it. (June 2019, Interview)

For Shankar, the way the examiners expected his literature review to be presented and the depth of detail required in the methods section conflicted with his prior experiences of writing and structuring arguments. Despite prior conversations with his supervisors about the purpose of the Upgrade document, the high-stakes nature of the Upgrade exam was a significant experience that catalyzed a shift in his approach to the Upgrade document—and his thesis research generally.

In contrast, for Charlie and Ethan, passing the Upgrade exam reinforced their preexisting pragmatic/strategic and realistic approaches, as success indicated that their previous strategies were effective. Ben, the outlier, did not alter his view of the PhD or approach to research and writing despite a revise and resubmit result; rather, he attributed this outcome to ineffective or late supervisor feedback, consistent with his belief that his supervisors were not experts in his particular field and methodology. Further, Ben was not emotionally affected by the result, viewing it as an inconvenience and choosing to comply with examiner feedback and resubmit quickly; he did not want to alter his timeline for data collection, in keeping with his pragmatic outlook.

Thus, the Upgrade exam was a critical structuring event capable of transforming or reinforcing how the participants understood PhD research and writing expectations, demonstrating how evolving temporal-relational contexts (Upgrade results) may affect agentive decision-making. Importantly, successful Upgrade required participants to negotiate their prior expectations and experiences and future goals with institutional and disciplinary conventions, showing the need for clarity around genre-based expectations for doctoral education and the extent to which PhD researchers can work within those boundaries.

This longitudinal multiple case study employed Emirbayer and Mische’s ( 1998 ) chordal triad of agency to examine how five first-year social science PhD researchers created their Upgrade documents towards the goal of successful Upgrade. According to the chordal triad, the individual, as agent, (re)acts in a temporal-relational context, with three elements at play: the past (acting in response to similar situations developed over time), the future (adapting existing schemas in relation to goals and imagined outcomes), and the present (making judgments among alternative possible actions in light of the current evolving situation). The approaches the participants used to create their Upgrade documents—pragmatic/strategic, idealistic, and realistic—represent three possible ways in which PhD researchers may navigate the doctoral thesis in relation to individual contexts. What this research contributes is (1) new insight into the role of agency in PhD researchers’ behaviors, (2) the importance of significant milestones (like Upgrade) in influencing/altering thinking and behaviors, and (3) the value of a longitudinal perspective in examining PhD researcher development.

Results suggest that a projective (future) orientation motivated participants to think about larger PhD and post-PhD goals, contributing to how they initially conceptualized the PhD and approached their research (and Upgrade documents), consistent with prior interview-based studies (Brailsford, 2010 ; Gill & Hoppe, 2009 ; Guerin et al., 2015 ; Leonard, et al., 2005 ; Skakni, 2018 ). What this study adds is an empirical account of how both goals (projectivity), prior contexts and experience (iteration), and the present situation (practical-evaluation) influence how doctoral researchers view the PhD and subsequently tackle the Upgrade documents, respond to feedback, and employ strategies in relation to their overarching purposes and perceptions of the doctorate.

Concurrently, the iterative (past) element provided the underlying writing, feedback, and disciplinary knowledge drawn upon to do the work. For instance, Shankar’s educational history influenced his writing choices, echoing studies finding disparities between international PhD researchers’ prior educational contexts and PhD expectations (Li, 2018 ; Soong, et al., 2015 ; Wu & Hu, 2020 ; Xu & Grant, 2017 ). Further, in preparing their Upgrade documents, all five participants used previously developed strategies to respond to feedback. Ben, for example, continued to seek feedback from a range of sources and critically assessed the usefulness of comments, while Charlie and Natalie accepted all supervisor feedback in line with their self-positioning as novices in the field and previous practices.

As in other work on supervision and supervisor feedback, the results suggested that PhD researchers with greater ownership over their work (e.g., Ben) were more likely to resist critical comments that conflicted with their goals (see Vehviläinen, 2009 ). Yet, the participants did not express negative emotional reactions to criticism—they accepted, evaluated, and at times rejected suggestions (see Wang & Li, 2011 ). Where the results diverge from Wang and Li ( 2011 ) is that the participants in this study were in the earliest stages of the PhD, conflicting with Wang and Li’s suggestion that new, less experienced PhD researchers are more likely to respond negatively to critical feedback. This discrepancy reinforces the finding that responses to feedback and ownership over the thesis may be linked not only to research and writing experience, but perhaps more powerfully to individual contexts/goals (see also Inouye & McAlpine, 2017 ).

Practical-evaluation, the element of agency representing the present, was perhaps the most complex but important aspect of agency captured in the participants’ decision-making. Given the nature of the PhD as an ongoing process fraught with information, particularly during the first year, participants were continually assessing their research goals and practices in relation to the new knowledge and feedback they received from texts, instructors, and supervisors—“the demands and contingencies of the present” (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998 , p. 994). For example, assessment of supervisor and other feedback often invoked a combination of practical-evaluation and projectivity as students evaluated comments within the evolving supervisory relationship and stage of their Upgrade documents, choosing to accept or reject changes in relation to what they believed would lead to the best outcome. At the same time, practical-evaluation and iteration co-occurred as students assessed feedback and their own writing and chose to continue accepting supervisor comments or write in a certain way. Importantly, the Upgrade exam, a new context, was the only event that led to substantial changes in the participants’ actions and approaches. These results suggest that experience contributes to a pattern of action that is less likely to change significantly unless the actor encounters a critical incident.

Finally, to revisit Emirbayer and Mische’s definition of agency, agency “both reproduces and transforms those structures in interactive response to the problems posed by changing historical situations” (1998, p. 970). As reflected in the results, Natalie’s and Shankar’s desire to create Upgrade documents that did not strictly conform to typical conventions was unsuccessful in transforming the structure of Upgrade; the examiners failed to recognize their initial documents as fulfilling Upgrade requirements (cf., Naomi, 2021 ). Thus, while the participants developed their Upgrade documents in creative ways, ultimately, the documents they produced—the documents that were eventually approved—reproduced the existing Upgrade document genre. Their experiences raise questions about the extent to which PhD researchers are able to bring creative approaches to their research and research writing and what counts as acceptable doctoral writing.


First, this was a small-scale study of five first-year doctoral researchers at one UK university. Therefore, the results are specific to the particular institutional and disciplinary circumstances surrounding their experiences. Given the variation in milestone procedures and expectations across departments and institutions, the findings cannot be generalized to the wider UK PhD population, nor to the social sciences as a whole, or even to the population of PhD researchers within the participants’ specific departments. Rather, the study provides detailed insight into the individual experiences of the participants, providing examples of how agency may manifest in relation to personal contexts. Second, I was unable to capture the full range of data involved in the participants’ creation of the Upgrade document and focused primarily on supervisor feedback, meaning that additional sources of influence—e.g., readings, peer feedback, blogs, and social media—were not explored. Finally, the choice of the chordal triad of agency, while useful in exploring temporal changes in behavior, offered a limited discussion of how agency is developed within one’s larger personal trajectories, which may preclude exploration of how approaches to the doctoral Upgrade document are situated within the participants’ broader lives.


This study has shown the value of micro-level longitudinal research that encourages us to think biographically through time in relation to the individual’s specific context. Future longitudinal studies on doctoral writing and education, perhaps across disciplines, may be useful in enhancing our knowledge of the relationships between personal factors, disciplinary cultures, supervision, and examination processes and expectations. Studies covering the entire doctoral program would also be helpful in better understanding how PhD researchers’ conceptions of the doctoral research and writing change over time.

Further, academic research cultures are not accessed equally by all doctoral students (Deem & Brehony, 2000 ), and doctoral training does not always address research culture as an additional challenge for PhD researchers entering programs from different contexts. More studies on international and intercultural PhD education are required to better understand the needs and contributions of PhD researchers with diverse experiences.

Doctoral experience varies across individuals. Recognizing the role of personal contexts and goals in shaping doctoral researchers’ perspectives and practices is important, particularly during the early stages of the PhD when they are still developing their understanding of the PhD and their capacity for agency in shaping the research.


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The author would like to thank Professor Lynn McAlpine and Dr. Velda Elliott for their support and feedback.

This research was supported by a Clarendon Scholarship from the University of Oxford.

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Inouye, K. Developing the PhD thesis project in relation to individual contexts: a multiple case study of five doctoral researchers. High Educ 85 , 1143–1160 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-022-00882-0

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Published : 17 June 2022

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How to Write a Thesis or Dissertation Introduction

Published on September 7, 2022 by Tegan George and Shona McCombes. Revised on November 21, 2023.

The introduction is the first section of your thesis or dissertation , appearing right after the table of contents . Your introduction draws your reader in, setting the stage for your research with a clear focus, purpose, and direction on a relevant topic .

Your introduction should include:

  • Your topic, in context: what does your reader need to know to understand your thesis dissertation?
  • Your focus and scope: what specific aspect of the topic will you address?
  • The relevance of your research: how does your work fit into existing studies on your topic?
  • Your questions and objectives: what does your research aim to find out, and how?
  • An overview of your structure: what does each section contribute to the overall aim?

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Table of contents

How to start your introduction, topic and context, focus and scope, relevance and importance, questions and objectives, overview of the structure, thesis introduction example, introduction checklist, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about introductions.

Although your introduction kicks off your dissertation, it doesn’t have to be the first thing you write — in fact, it’s often one of the very last parts to be completed (just before your abstract ).

It’s a good idea to write a rough draft of your introduction as you begin your research, to help guide you. If you wrote a research proposal , consider using this as a template, as it contains many of the same elements. However, be sure to revise your introduction throughout the writing process, making sure it matches the content of your ensuing sections.

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phd thesis framework

Begin by introducing your dissertation topic and giving any necessary background information. It’s important to contextualize your research and generate interest. Aim to show why your topic is timely or important. You may want to mention a relevant news item, academic debate, or practical problem.

After a brief introduction to your general area of interest, narrow your focus and define the scope of your research.

You can narrow this down in many ways, such as by:

  • Geographical area
  • Time period
  • Demographics or communities
  • Themes or aspects of the topic

It’s essential to share your motivation for doing this research, as well as how it relates to existing work on your topic. Further, you should also mention what new insights you expect it will contribute.

Start by giving a brief overview of the current state of research. You should definitely cite the most relevant literature, but remember that you will conduct a more in-depth survey of relevant sources in the literature review section, so there’s no need to go too in-depth in the introduction.

Depending on your field, the importance of your research might focus on its practical application (e.g., in policy or management) or on advancing scholarly understanding of the topic (e.g., by developing theories or adding new empirical data). In many cases, it will do both.

Ultimately, your introduction should explain how your thesis or dissertation:

  • Helps solve a practical or theoretical problem
  • Addresses a gap in the literature
  • Builds on existing research
  • Proposes a new understanding of your topic

Perhaps the most important part of your introduction is your questions and objectives, as it sets up the expectations for the rest of your thesis or dissertation. How you formulate your research questions and research objectives will depend on your discipline, topic, and focus, but you should always clearly state the central aim of your research.

If your research aims to test hypotheses , you can formulate them here. Your introduction is also a good place for a conceptual framework that suggests relationships between variables .

  • Conduct surveys to collect data on students’ levels of knowledge, understanding, and positive/negative perceptions of government policy.
  • Determine whether attitudes to climate policy are associated with variables such as age, gender, region, and social class.
  • Conduct interviews to gain qualitative insights into students’ perspectives and actions in relation to climate policy.

To help guide your reader, end your introduction with an outline  of the structure of the thesis or dissertation to follow. Share a brief summary of each chapter, clearly showing how each contributes to your central aims. However, be careful to keep this overview concise: 1-2 sentences should be enough.

I. Introduction

Human language consists of a set of vowels and consonants which are combined to form words. During the speech production process, thoughts are converted into spoken utterances to convey a message. The appropriate words and their meanings are selected in the mental lexicon (Dell & Burger, 1997). This pre-verbal message is then grammatically coded, during which a syntactic representation of the utterance is built.

Speech, language, and voice disorders affect the vocal cords, nerves, muscles, and brain structures, which result in a distorted language reception or speech production (Sataloff & Hawkshaw, 2014). The symptoms vary from adding superfluous words and taking pauses to hoarseness of the voice, depending on the type of disorder (Dodd, 2005). However, distortions of the speech may also occur as a result of a disease that seems unrelated to speech, such as multiple sclerosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

This study aims to determine which acoustic parameters are suitable for the automatic detection of exacerbations in patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by investigating which aspects of speech differ between COPD patients and healthy speakers and which aspects differ between COPD patients in exacerbation and stable COPD patients.

Checklist: Introduction

I have introduced my research topic in an engaging way.

I have provided necessary context to help the reader understand my topic.

I have clearly specified the focus of my research.

I have shown the relevance and importance of the dissertation topic .

I have clearly stated the problem or question that my research addresses.

I have outlined the specific objectives of the research .

I have provided an overview of the dissertation’s structure .

You've written a strong introduction for your thesis or dissertation. Use the other checklists to continue improving your dissertation.

If you want to know more about AI for academic writing, AI tools, or research bias, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

Research bias

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The introduction of a research paper includes several key elements:

  • A hook to catch the reader’s interest
  • Relevant background on the topic
  • Details of your research problem

and your problem statement

  • A thesis statement or research question
  • Sometimes an overview of the paper

Don’t feel that you have to write the introduction first. The introduction is often one of the last parts of the research paper you’ll write, along with the conclusion.

This is because it can be easier to introduce your paper once you’ve already written the body ; you may not have the clearest idea of your arguments until you’ve written them, and things can change during the writing process .

Research objectives describe what you intend your research project to accomplish.

They summarize the approach and purpose of the project and help to focus your research.

Your objectives should appear in the introduction of your research paper , at the end of your problem statement .

Scope of research is determined at the beginning of your research process , prior to the data collection stage. Sometimes called “scope of study,” your scope delineates what will and will not be covered in your project. It helps you focus your work and your time, ensuring that you’ll be able to achieve your goals and outcomes.

Defining a scope can be very useful in any research project, from a research proposal to a thesis or dissertation . A scope is needed for all types of research: quantitative , qualitative , and mixed methods .

To define your scope of research, consider the following:

  • Budget constraints or any specifics of grant funding
  • Your proposed timeline and duration
  • Specifics about your population of study, your proposed sample size , and the research methodology you’ll pursue
  • Any inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • Any anticipated control , extraneous , or confounding variables that could bias your research if not accounted for properly.

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