Day 3: Is your thesis story clear enough? Examination and the PhD

Story in the Table of Contents

One of the first things an examiner will read (after they’ve seen your abstract and made the decision to take on the task of examining your thesis) is the Table of Contents. This is an important tool to help them navigate your work and see how the overall project fits together. Chances are they will already have a checklist in their head about what they are expecting to see in terms of the sections of the thesis; you can value-add at this point by clearly mapping out the story. If someone were to read only your ToC, you’d want them to know what your project is all about and the overall message you are communicating.

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The Table of Contents is an important opportunity to tell the story of your thesis. By ‘story’, I mean an indication of the various parts of the project and how they fit together, why they are in this particular order, and how they inform each other.

Stories in their simplest form have a beginning, a middle and an end. Translating this into research terms, we might ask: What is the starting point to enter this research project (the beginning, the Introduction)? What did you find out while doing the research (the middle, all the content chapters)? What is the resolution of that work (the end, the Conclusion)? (More on Introductions and Conclusions on Friday).

For more on narrative structures for research, read this blog from DoctoralWriting.

Headings and subheadings are your storytellers here. Make sure that chapter titles, headings and subheadings are informative. Some disciplines allow for little choice about the main structure and require set chapters: Introduction; Literature Review; Materials and Methods; Results; Analysis; Discussion; Conclusions. However, within this you can use subheadings to reveal the focus of the content.

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As you finalise any writing, check the headings and subheadings are still an accurate representation of the key ideas in that particular section; remember that the emphasis and focus of a section can change over time as you add and delete while developing the writing.

The ToC is also extremely useful to examiners to find their way through the research story as they come and go from the task of reading and assessing your thesis. You can make it easy for readers to return to previous sections to see that their memory of what they saw is correct. There might be something they want to check on – did you actually say that, or did they imagine it? Did you get to the point eventually, or leave the outcome dangling? This is not always easy to discover via a ‘Find’ function on a PDF, as the overall impression of an idea can be slightly different from the actual words used on the page.

The challenge to demonstrate the unity of the PhD project can be even more pressing if you have chosen to present a thesis by compilation rather than a conventional monograph. Again, headings become a very useful way to show how all the smaller parts fit together to create one coherent project. (Another hint here is to format published chapters in the same template as the unpublished sections. It’s not necessary – you can simply include the journal PDFs of articles  – but some people feel that making the whole thesis look the same plays a role in unifying a reader’s perception of the overall project. The words and content are identical to the published version; just the layout is altered.)

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ACTIVITY: Use only your ToC to explain your thesis story to someone else. Did it work? Could you make the headings and subheadings more informative so they communicate the focus of the section? If you don’t have someone to test it on, pets can be useful listeners for thesis writers!


The layout of the ToC can also have an important role in telling the story of your thesis. What are your own preferences? Do you like to read ALL CAPS FOR THE CHAPTER TITLES? How much should you use bold to highlight? Is indentation more effective than italics to differentiate between subheadings, sub-subheadings and sub-sub-subheadings? Is it useful to have dotted line to direct your eye to the page number……………?

The template you use for the thesis chapters will do a lot of this formatting for you when automatically producing the ToC, but I still urge you to check that it is in fact accurate! Sometimes an accidental space or mistake in the heading levels can result in confusing layout. And our main aim in all of this is to ensure that the examiner is never confused about where the argument is going and what you are trying to communicate.

ACTIVITY: Check out thesis examples on the library website (you can go back to the same theses you looked at yesterday) and identify an effective Table of Contents. Look for one that is approachable, that tells us the overall story and is elegantly laid out. Please send us the link via the Comments and explain what it is that you like about the one you’ve chosen.


  1. Today I’m looking at the thesis here:

    In this TOC I like that I can see reviews preceding the new work. There are clearly several ‘parts’ to the thesis, with chapters in each part. There’s enough detail in the subheadings that I can see what the authors is likely going to talk about. I don’t really like the formatting though. The text is so big that it makes it hard to get an overview of the thesis on one page or so.

    1. Aahh, interesting, Chiara! It is useful to be able to see the whole picture at once so you know where the story is heading.
      But helpful to see that some projects do split up into parts – the straight forward IMRAD structure doesn’t always work easily through the middle sections where results are reported.
      (IMRAD = Intro, Methods, Results, Analysis, Discussion)

  2. The thesis I am looking at is that of Charles Massy:

    As an epic document—at a whopping 480 pages—the Table of Contents is understandably long, however I think it does a great job of stepping the reader through the chapters and sections. I like that it only has one level of sub-heading in the chapters and that these are numbered, as I find the simplicity helps avoid getting too distracted in the 4-page Table of Contents. I find the chapter and section headings to be useful in getting a sense of the narrative and what to expect in terms of content and purpose. I don’t love to read ‘ALL CAPS’ for chapter titles and I find bold title-case easier to make the visual distinction, but the slight indent and numerical section numbers helps make a distinction here. I also don’t love Times New Roman, and find most serif fonts taxing to read, especially on-screen…but I guess everyone is different with these sorts of things.

    The other thing I like about this Table of Contents is its location in the document: it is the first thing after the title page. Many other theses I have read have all sorts of other things before the Table of Contents, which I find a bit frustrating having to wade through Abstracts, Acknowledgements, Candidate Declarations, etc. before getting to what should help me navigate through those things and all the other contents.

    1. This one sounds like a good example for demonstrating how useful this mapping can be for readers to navigate such a huge document!
      And great to notice what makes the ToC easy to approach (lots of people say that ALL CAPS is very hard to read, and I’d agree!).

    2. Bronwyn I really love this contents. It is so clear: everything is what it says it is, and it makes it both easy to see where the thesis is going, as well as get a general idea of the kind of sense the thesis makes, already. It’s so sensible. I really like it – thanks for sharing!

  3. I’m looking at Anna Garretson’s thesis – it’s a bit different to the very practical and clear approach of Charles Massey’s masterpiece, but what I like about her contents page, is that it does the thing Cally was talking about re: providing clean sections and divisions in the thesis that might make it easy to take a break from and return to. It doesn’t have a very clear story compared to Massey, but there is a general ‘story’ alluded to.

    Garretson’s thesis involves the analysis of many different works of literature, so she’s broken up the thesis according to the issue she explores in each novel she is discussing. She has also divided each novel into a section that highlights the key concern she is addressing through the novel she is engaging with in that particular chapter. Conceptually the thesis is really clear, and I have found that as a product of this division it’s been a really easy thesis to dip in and out of.

    1. Examiners do tend to read theses over a few days/weeks, so the ability to come and go from the document is really important. The ToC can be invaluable in aiding this process of reminding and locating the reader in your thinking.

  4. So interesting. I didn’t expect to have such strong reactions to the ToC formatting, but many of the theses I looked at yesterday had formatting that wasn’t that easy to follow, or that didn’t provide enough detail to get a good idea of the story.
    My favourite was this:
    I liked the use of numbering, subheadings, and indents to make the ToC layout the story clearly. The chapter titles are also an important element of defining the different sections of the thesis.

    1. Those first impressions of the thesis can help examiners understand what you are doing (and also help them feel good about the task!).

  5. I am looking at Anthony Bartlett’s thesis. It’s a thesis by a compilation of six publications. I think he provided a clear ToC that make a reader easy to understand his works in Vietnam, Indonesia and PNG – and put them back together into the last paper by synthesizing all lesson learnt from those three countries. Even though, I noticed a bit error in ToC in Chapter 6 and 7. The title of Chapter 6 was supposed to be the case of PNG and the title of Chapter 7 was supposed to be a lesson learnt from three countries. However, he put the right title in his Declaration on page i-ii. Indeed, a ToC is very important to be double-checked before submission even though the mistake is about typo or misplaced.

    Thanks, Cally, for this exercise. I had a plan to see his thesis, yet I haven’t done it – and good thing I am doing it now! He is a good friend of mine because one of his supervisory panel members is my main supervisor (Peter Kanowski). So, it is great to see his thesis as a good example for me as his 6th paper is the one that I am planning to do for my 4th paper.

    1. Whoops! Using Styles in Word can help generate more accurate ToCs, but you should never trust the automation in my opinion! It pays to check manually. Lots of little errors can start to make it look rushed, inaccurate and unscholarly – and we definitely don’t want examiners getting that impression of the work!

  6. I deliberately looked for a history theses after looking at other theses for this exercise that might interest me, but the non-history theses had the ToC numbered like a report which made them difficult to read because the numbers made it difficult to read the Chapter headings and the subheadings at a glance.

    So I looked at this one which doesn’t really give an idea of the story.

    1. It’s useful to see what is usual in your own area, so that examiners get what they are expecting. But it’s also really useful to get ideas from other areas about what seems to work well and what doesn’t – sounds like the numbering system (and maybe also the actual layout on the page?) doesn’t do the trick for the kind of research you are writing.

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