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There are various ways you can help your reader make sense of what you're trying to say in your thesis. One of the easiest ways to do this is through the use of an appropriately named and structured system of headings. Headings and subheadings in your thesis serve a similar purpose to road signs in a foreign city. The best signage systems can not only prevent you from getting lost on the route from Point A to Point B, but they can also help you find your way back on track if you do get disoriented. In the same way, headings can not only tell your readers where they are now, but where they have been, and also where they are going.

Similarly, you can also provide your reader with some valuable directions in the text of your thesis itself. Instead of telling your reader to 'go left at Chapter Three', your reader directions will let them know what to expect once they get there.


Headings serve to reveal the organisation of a text. They can help readers understand the organisational hierarchy of a text by indicating the coordination and subordination of its parts. If you choose to go beyond three levels (e.g. 2.3.2), make sure you have very good reasons for doing so.

The most frequently encountered headings either state the main idea of the segment, or use a key word or phrase. Initial "The" is usually omitted in headings.

The following Table of Contents gives the headings of a Masters thesis. What do you think of it? What could be improved?










These headings for this thesis are not very effective.

  • The headings give the reader little or no idea of what the thesis is about.
  • It is acceptable to have some structural headings, e.g. "Introduction" or "Conclusion", but generally the purpose of a heading is to be informative about the contents.
  • There is also no numbering and no subheadings to give any detailed information.
  • Acknowledgements are conventionally placed at the beginning.
  • Using capitals throughout also makes it more difficult to read.

The following Table of Contents gives the headings of a PhD thesis in Medicine. What do you think of it? What could be improved?


List of Abbreviations

1. Introduction

1.1 Content of Dissertation
1.2 Aims and Hypothesis of the Study

2. The Concept of OCD

2.1 Diagnosis, Classification and Formulation
2.2 The Development of the Disorder
2.3 Subtypes of OCD
[There are then 7 sub-types listed at the next level]
2.4 Other Possibilities
2.5 Discussion and Subclassification of OCD

3. Aspects of BiologicalNeurotransmitters and OCD

[There are then 6 sub-categories listed at this level]

4. Discussion of Methodological Considerations

4.1 The Ethics of Clinical Research in Psychosis
4.2 Approach to Psychopathological Analysis in this Study
4.3 Neuroendocrine Strategy in this Study
[There are then 6 sub-categories listed at the next level]

5. Results

5.1 Refusals to Consent
5.2 Comparison of Patients and Controls
5.3 Within Patient-Group Analysis

6. Discussion

6.1 Elaboration of Results
6.2 Possible Confounding Factors
6.3 Significance of the Results

7. Further Research

7.1 The Planned Study

8. Concluding Remarks



The headings for this thesis are more effective.

  • The headings give the reader a clear idea of the contents without going into overwhelming detail.
  • As it is a medical thesis it needs to be specific, and you will note that the major headings largely follow the conventional scientific pattern.
  • In a non-scientific thesis, you have more latitude to include informational headings.

Reader directions

A thesis is a very long piece of writing. Whatever signposts or reader directions you can give your reader will help her follow your thought patterns at the macro level. This kind of language has been termed 'metadiscourse'. Metadiscourse has been defined as "overt commentary on the text in the text: writing about the evolving text rather than referring to subject matter". It signals where the author is going, where precisely she has got to, and what she has achieved so far (Swales 1990, pp. 188-9). Some students are very expert at this: there is an art to using just enough metadiscourse, i.e. without predicting to a tiresome degree exactly what is going to happen next or rehearsing tediously what has just happened.

At the different levels of the thesis and starting with the top level this can apply to:

  • The whole thesis ("The focus of this thesis is...")
  • Another chapter ("The physical properties are presented and analysed in Chapter 5.")
  • The current chapter ("The rest of this chapter will examine...")
  • Another section ("In the previous section, it was demonstrated that...")
  • The current section ("The following case study will illuminate...")
  • Passage immediately preceeding or following ("The objectives are as follows:...")

More specifically, these reader directions can function to serve the following three purposes:

  1. To provide forecasting statements which give the reader in advance the structure of what is to follow, so the argument is easier to follow and the detail easier to absorb.
  2. To recapitulate or review, which enables the reader to make explicit links between what has just been read and what is to come.
  3. To give an overview or purpose (pointing forward and/or back).

An effective way of helping the reader through the thesis is to provide short introductions and conclusions to each chapter.

In the introduction to each chapter, you can forecast by stating the aims(s) of the chapter, outline its structure and provide any background information which will provide the reader with a "road map" for reading the rest of the chapter.

In the conclusion to each chapter, you can review the chapter by giving a brief summary of the main information. You can provide a more general overview of the chapter, drawing conclusions from the research presented, and linking the work of this chapter to the next or later chapters. This concluding section can also be used to highlight important achievements reported in the chapter.


Example: "In this chapter, all the experimental results from the phenomenological experiments are presented and examined in detail."

Although a topic statement at the beginning of a paragraph tells readers what a paragraph is about, it does not tell them how the segment is organised. A forecasting statement tells the reader in advance about the organisation of the whole thesis, a chapter, a section, or a passage. Forecasting statements may vary greatly in the level of detail they provide. When deciding how much detail to include in a forecasting statement, concentrate on forecasting only one level of information at a time. List only the major divisions. If those divisions are themselves divided, provide each with its own forecasting statement. Do not provide more detail than readers can easily remember: for example, if you are introducing the three main characteristics of a system, you might want to name them before explaining them. However, if there are seven characteristics, it would be better stating the number without naming them.

Read the extract below and select the phrases where forecasting statements have been used.

The aim of this chapter is to provide, through selective reference to some of the literature, a clearer understanding of the different microbiological, chemical and physical processes that occur within trickling filters. Experimental observations of various trickling filter phenomena are reviewed, and there is discussion of the sometimes conflicting conclusions about the mechanisms of trickling filtration that have been drawn from the empirical evidence.

The chapter is divided into two parts. The subject of the first is the biological film which is the site of the biological oxidation of organic matter from the wastewater, and is thus the heart of the process of trickling filtration. The formation and structure of the biofilm (or slime layer) is outlined, and the different processes which occur within it are discussed. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to a consideration of the operating variables which determine trickling filter performance.

From a PhD thesis, Department of Chemical Engineering, Monash University


Example: "In the preceding section, the results of tests performed on interfaces comprising concrete and either Johnstone or Gambier Limestone were outlined."


Example: "Before I describe and discuss the family rating scales, I believe it is important to give a brief account of the theoretical basis from which they were derived."

Example: "It is now appropriate to consolidate these ideas and to examine POSTGRES in greater detail in relation to its support for rules and objects."

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