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.
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.
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.)
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.