Before you start to wrestle your material into a thesis structure, it’s helpful to consider the work that the thesis has to do, and the moves that ensure the work is done. Once you understand the work and the moves, you can think more strategically about the thesis structure.
The thesis work
The thesis, like any piece of academic writing, has work to do. The thesis has to convince the examiner that you have chosen a do-able and worthwhile research project. It has to satisfy the examiner that you can explain what you did and why. It has to assure the examiner that you know and have accomplished all of the technical research processes required. It has to show the examiner the research results organised in a logical order. It has to persuade the examiner that you have made a contribution.
Just for a minute, consider the verbs that I’ve used above: convince, satisfy, assure, persuade, show. These verbs signal the kind of text that you are writing. An argument. The thesis is an argument – it persuades and convinces – by offering sound evidence organised in a logical reasoned fashion it can assure and satisfy.
Your argument – the rhetorical work of the thesis – is made through four important moves.
The four thesis moves
The first move of the thesis is to establish the focus of the research and its warrant. The examiner must be convinced that the research you have done has not only been worth your effort, but is also likely to say something that is worth saying. This first move requires you to say what you want to research, and why it is important that the research be done. You have to tell the examiner what your research might add to scholarly knowledge, and possibly to policy and/or practice. You have to say why this matters, and to whom.
The second move in the thesis is to tell the examiner all of the things that they need to know about your research in order to fully understand its importance and conduct. This usually involves you
- situating the study in time and/or place and/or culture
- identifying the existing evidence, theories and debates that are relevant to your research, showing where your research will fit and what it builds on
- demonstrating that your research design not only allows you to answer your questions/hypothesis, but is also soundly grounded in current state-of-the-art research practice
- explaining any work you did to focus the research, pilot methods, find texts or conduct your analysis.
The third move in the thesis is the presentation of your research results. The most important bit of the thesis. What you did and ‘found’. Your results need to be presented so that they highlight your key results. You need to show your data and analysis, and also say what they mean. This might involve some heavy-duty theorisation, depending on your discipline. This third thesis move usually consists of three ‘internal’ steps – (1) how the data was produced ( the audit trail), (2) what the data actually looks as an analysed corpus, and (3) how it should be understood.
The fourth move is to make justifiable claims from your research – to state the contribution you have made. You’ll need to remind the examiner of your first move, why the research was needed and its importance, and to pick this up again. You’ll need to crisply state exactly what your results are. Now you spell out what knowing your research results actually means for scholarly understandings and for policy/practice. These are often called the So What and Now What of the thesis.
Now here’s the thing. These three moves can be expressed in and through a variety of structures. They can be mounted on different platforms, analog and digital. They can be made through different combinations of words, images and numbers.
So when you consider your thesis structure, it’s helpful to first of all organise your material into the four moves. ( You could do this through outlines and postits or mind maps.)
Then think about how best to present your very particular set of moves. Consider what is expected in your discipline but also what your material says to you. Think about how you will create the overall narrative thread that allows the examiner to follow your argument. Consider the pieces and sequences within the four moves, as well as between them. How do these moves translate into chapters?
And just to note – while the IMRaD structure dominates the ways in which theses are generally written, it is not the only way to present the four moves in and as text. It may be acceptable in your discipline to play quite a bit with the thesis structure – if you want to and your supervisor agrees that it is a good idea. While most people exercise their textual creativity in the first and third moves, there is no absolute rule that says that there cannot be variation in moves two and four.
A thesis that is clear on its moves and choreographs the structure to fit them, whether it is IMRaD or not, is almost always a better read than one which isn’t clear on the moves and just follows the default structure as a substitute for clarity of argument.