Although the way in which you format the many elements of your thesis might not seem as important as the intellectual content (the research, results and argument) that goes into the thesis or the accuracy and clarity of the language in which you express that content, formatting nonetheless matters a great deal. Your university or department may present you with specific guidelines that include instructions for formatting a variety of elements in your thesis; if so, these guidelines must be followed with precision to meet the requirements of your doctoral degree. Formatting tends to be a highly visible aspect of scholarly writing, so it will stand out for your readers, especially if it is ineffective and inconsistent, in which case the result will be both sloppy and confusing. Effective and consistent methods of formatting, on the other hand, can significantly increase the clarity of what you are attempting to communicate in your thesis. In addition, a thesis that is carefully formatted in a thoughtful and orderly fashion often indicates (and still more often is understood as indicating) carefully ordered patterns of thought. The assumption that there is a correlation between the quality of scholarship in a thesis and the quality of its presentation is not always correct – sound scholarship can be hidden in poorly prepared theses and beautifully presented work can contain poor scholarship – but there is nonetheless truth in the idea that a candidate who can accurately and consistently follow instructions and format his or her thesis according to guidelines and good sense is also an academic or scientist who reads and refers to sources and reports methods and results in accurate and meaningful ways. Exactitude and precision are, after all, not just requirements of effective formatting, but also elements of quality scholarship, so they should be applied to the formatting and presentation of all doctoral theses whether there are guidelines to follow or not. In the following sections, I describe sound scholarly approaches for formatting and presenting various elements of a thesis, but they should be used in conjunction with any guidelines provided by your university and/or department, which should always take precedence.

6.1 Titles, Headings and Subheadings: Not Just Fancy Words

Titles, headings and subheadings are among the most immediately visible aspects of a thesis or indeed any piece of academic or scientific writing, so they are certainly what one may call fancy words. However, these fancy words should also outline the overall structure and content of a thesis and indicate the specific contents of any given chapter, section or subsection, so it is essential that they achieve these goals both effectively and accurately. Since I have already discussed the main title of the thesis in Sections 3.5.1 and 4.2, I focus here on the headings and subheadings within a thesis, but the principles I outline for lower-level headings can apply also to the main title, which often uses a slightly larger font than other headings in a thesis do and perhaps a different pattern of capitalisation as well (block capitals, for instance, when other headings use capitals only on the initial letters of words). The advice I offer here should not replace any guidelines or templates for headings and structure provided by your university, department or thesis committee, but it can certainly be used along with or in the absence of such guidance to ensure a clear, attractive and orderly layout for your thesis. The discussion of capitalisation and special fonts in Section 6.2 may also prove helpful.

University or department guidelines for doctoral theses often indicate standard topics and therefore standard headings for the chapters of a thesis, at least in general terms. Such guidelines will usually require chapter titles that begin with or include words such as ‘Introduction,’ ‘Background,’ ‘Literature Review,’ ‘Methodology,’ ‘Results,’ ‘Discussion’ and ‘Conclusions.’ This standard pattern is assumed in the list of basic thesis components in Chapter 1 of this book and also in the advice offered on drafting the chapters of a proposal and thesis in Chapters 3 and 4; in the absence of guidelines specifying the order and content of individual chapters for your thesis, chapter headings that focus on these basic concepts are usually appropriate. Whether you are following guidelines or not in using such headings for your chapters, however, there is almost always room for additional information that points more specifically to the precise content of your thesis. A colon and subtitle can, for instance, be added to any one of these words to individualise the heading for a chapter: an introductory chapter might be called ‘Background: Previous Trials and Literature’ or a chapter on methods might be entitled ‘Methodology: Participants and Questionnaires.’ Such subtitles can then become elements of section headings within the chapters and these headings can also contain further information that specifies the exact content of each section: ‘Participants Who Received Chemotherapy,’ for instance, and ‘Participants Who Did Not Receive Chemotherapy.’

The chapters of a thesis are always numbered (usually with Arabic numerals), but the sections and subsections within chapters need not be unless your university or department requires numbered sections. Numbering the sections and subsections within thesis chapters can be very effective for some material and topics, however, and extremely useful if you happen to use a large number of cross references in your thesis. When sections and subsections are numbered, generally using Arabic numerals because Roman numerals can quickly become unwieldy if there are many sections, the numbering itself distinguishes the different levels of headings and sections. For instance, each main section in a chapter should bear a first-level heading using two numbers (indicating the chapter and section number, as in ‘1.3’ for the third section of the first chapter and ‘2.4’ for the fourth section of the second chapter); each subsection within a main section should bear a second-level heading using three numbers (with the third number indicating the subsection number, as in ‘1.3.1’ for the first subsection within the third section in the first chapter); each secondary subsection within a subsection should bear a third-level heading using four numbers (with the fourth number indicating the secondary subsection number, as in ‘2.4.3.3’ for the third secondary subsection within the third subsection in the fourth section of the second chapter); and each tertiary subsection within a secondary subsection should bear a fourth-level heading using five numbers (with the fifth number indicating the tertiary subsection number, as in ‘1.3.4.3.1’ for the first tertiary subsection within the third secondary subsection in the fourth subsection of the third section of the first chapter).

The pattern of numbering required might be clarified by examining the table of contents for this book or the example below, which outlines the structure of a hypothetical chapter on Romantic English literature:

Chapter 3

Expect the Unexpected: The Results of Rereading Romantic Literature

               3.1 The Literature

                    3.1.1 Poetry

                    3.1.2 Prose

                        3.1.2.1 Novels and Short Stories

                        3.1.2.2 Other Prose Genres

               3.2 The Literary History

                    3.2.1 Publication: Who, What, When and How Often?

                        3.2.1.1 The Most Respected Authors and Texts

                        3.2.1.2 The Most Popular Authors and Texts

                        3.2.1.3 Comparing the Publication of Men and Women

                    3.2.2 Reception and Influence: Who Was Reading Whom?

                        3.2.2.1 The Most Quoted and Copied Authors and Texts

                        3.2.2.2 The Most Criticised Authors and Texts

                            3.2.2.2.1 An Example from Nature: Smith and Darwin

                        3.2.2.3 Comparing the Reception of Men and Women

All headings in a numbered system generally appear in the same position on the page: flush to the left margin in most cases, which will be adjusted to a slight indentation if you use Word’s automatic numbering system (see the PRS Tip below), but centred headings, though less common in numbered than in unnumbered systems, would work as an alternative. In the example headings I provide above, I have indented each level slightly more than the one above it, but only to highlight the different levels for readers.

A numbered system of headings works well for any number of levels (down to numbered paragraphs if required, though they may not be included in the table of contents as other sections are: see Sections 3.5.2, 4.1 and 5.5.1, as well as Section 6.1), but keep in mind that heading levels bearing numbers consisting of more than five digits are unusual and are also discouraged in some style guides. Numbered headings can use different patterns of capitalisation as well as different sizes and styles of font to indicate different heading levels, but they do not need to do so because each heading already bears a unique number and the numbering system alone does all the work of differentiating levels. For this reason, the capitalisation and size and style of font used for the numbered headings in thesis chapters tend to remain consistent across levels (do be sure to check university or department guidelines for advice on the use of these elements, however). The numerical distinction of levels allows an author to use the same or very similar headings for different sections in a thesis: the rather general headings ‘Poetry’ and ‘Prose’ in my example above, for instance, could be used again in a different chapter to return to the same texts from a different angle if necessary, because the headings would use different numbers in that context and therefore be unique in each case.

PRS Tip: Authors will often make use of Word’s automatic numbering function when constructing numbered headings simply because Word imposes this system if something like ‘3.’ or ‘3.1’ followed by a space and a heading or title is typed on a new line. If you are using this automatic function in your thesis, you should pay special attention to the numbering to ensure that no errors have been introduced by the program. In many cases, especially for chapters with a simple structure (five sections, for instance, without subsections), the automatic numbering will prove successful and not introduce any problems. However, Word’s automatic numbering can miss sections if material is typed in differently, resulting in all subsequent sections being misnumbered. This can create considerable disorder if the chapter has several sections and subsections of various levels, and the problem will be magnified if you include cross references to misnumbered sections and subsections. Numbering all sections and subsections in your thesis manually can therefore be a wise practice. To do this, type a space against the left margin on the relevant line, type the heading immediately after the space and then return to the beginning of the line to add the correct number before the space. Since it is when you add a space or hit the return key after typing a number that Word’s automatic numbering kicks in, it will not apply if you enter the information in this way, and the same practice can be used to avoid automatic numbering in numbered lists (on which, see Section 5.5.2). If you have used automatic numbering for sections and subsections and something has gone awry, simply delete the incorrect numbering (and the automatic indentation Word adds with the number) for each affected heading, add the space before the heading and then return to the beginning of the line to add the correct number; in some instances, you may have to retype the heading as a whole, but this is rare.

You may, however, not wish to use numbered sections in your chapters, or your university or department may request that heading levels in theses be differentiated in ways other than through the use of numbers. In an unnumbered system of headings, the position, capitalisation and font style (sometimes the font size as well) of the headings distinguish one level from another, so such a system should only be used if the guidelines you are following allow such variations in the headings of your thesis. APA style, which is used extensively in the social sciences and other fields of study, provides a clear example of this method (see the Publication Manual of the APA, 2010, pp.62–63). To conform to APA requirements, first-level headings are centred on the page and set in bold font with the initial letter of the first and all other main words capitalised:

The Literary History

Second-level headings in this system use the same bold font and capitalisation, but appear flush against the left margin:

Reception and Influence: Who Was Reading Whom?

Third-level APA headings are paragraph headings. They appear at the beginning of paragraphs (which are indented in APA style), and they, too, use bold font (on the full stop that appears at the end of each heading as well), but only the initial letter of the first word and any proper nouns is uppercase:

The most criticised authors and texts. Fourth-level headings are also paragraph headings in APA style and use only an initial capital, but the font for the heading and the following stop should be both bold and italic:

An example from nature: Smith and Darwin. Fifth-level APA headings appear at the beginning of paragraphs as well, with the same pattern of capitalisation as the third- and fourth-level headings, but the font should be italic (without bold) for both words and the final stop:

The nature poetry of Charlotte Smith. This system of headings is as effective as a numbered system for differentiating section levels, but at this point the author is forced to alternate between bold italics and italics, so the potential for further levels of heading is somewhat limited.

The APA system is suitable for most theses, however, which generally do not use more than five heading levels within a single chapter (department guidelines will sometimes indicate exactly how many levels should be used, so do be careful not to exceed the limit), and it can, of course, be adjusted to work more effectively for additional levels, or you can devise your own similar system for differentiating headings. Using different font sizes could, for instance, enable you to add further levels, and so could using different font colours and different spacing patterns around headings, but remember that all elements used to distinguish headings (capitalisation, position, spacing and font style, size and colour) should always enhance rather than hinder or confuse a system of headings and thus the overall structure of a thesis. Keep in mind that an ineffective system of sections and headings can force the reader to conjecture about the structure of a chapter (and a thesis) and can even promote misinterpretation of your writing and argument, especially if the material is complex, as the information reported in theses often is. Therefore, whatever methods you choose to use to structure and divide your thesis chapters, be sure that they create uniformity within a single heading level and clear distinction between different levels, and once you have established the formats for your system, be consistent and stick to them precisely.

Several other important details also require careful attention when designing titles, headings and subheadings. Generally speaking, for instance, abbreviations should be avoided in titles and headings (with the exception of those used more frequently and better known than their full versions, such as ‘CD,’ ‘IQ’ and ‘AIDS’). Abbreviations should therefore be introduced and defined in the main text rather than in headings, and the full versions of terms should be used in headings whether they have already been defined in the thesis (or chapter) or are about to be defined in one of the sentences appearing beneath the relevant heading (for more information on abbreviations, see Section 6.3). The phrasing of titles and headings should be not only correct, concise and informative, but also (and especially in the case of the main title of your thesis) engaging and not overly burdened with technical information or language, while also observing any word limits on titles and headings set by your university or department guidelines. Punctuation should be as consistent as possible within each level of heading and, as appropriate, throughout the headings in a chapter or thesis, and although headings generally do not feature closing punctuation unless they are paragraph headings (which can use a full stop or a colon), a question mark or exclamation mark can usually be added at the end of any heading if required (e.g., ‘Publication: Who, What, When and How Often?’). Full stops are used to separate the individual numerals in numbered headings (as in ‘3.2.1.3 Comparing the Publication of Men and Women’), but a full stop normally does not appear after the final number: if you wish, an extra space can be added after the full number to separate it from the rest of the heading.

It is, of course, essential that the heading for each section and subsection of a thesis accurately reflects the material that appears beneath it, so the wording of headings should always be given careful thought in relation to the sections they label. Finally, it is also essential that all sections and subsections as well as all chapters in a thesis are accurately listed in the table of contents (see Sections 1.1.5, 3.5.2 and 4.1). If you used a system of headings within your chapters that distinguishes different section levels by numbers alone, both the numbers and the other content of all headings, including punctuation and usually capitalisation, should appear in the table of contents exactly as they do in the thesis chapters. Retaining in the table of contents the capitalisation used in each heading in the thesis itself is especially important if capitalisation is used as one of the ways in which heading levels are differentiated, but if you used other methods of distinction for your headings (font sizes, styles and colours, for instance) either instead of or along with numbering and capitalisation, you may or may not want to retain those elements of distinction in your table of contents. In the table of contents for this book, for instance, I use a larger font only for the titles of the three main parts of the book, although in the book itself I use a larger font for chapter titles as well; I also do not retain the bold font used for first-level headings in the book itself, but I have added some indentation before section and subsection headings to distinguish them. Stylistic details of this kind should be determined by the need to represent the structure of the thesis accurately in the table of contents while also achieving an attractive appearance for the table of contents itself, which can begin to look disorganised or cluttered if too many different font sizes, styles and colours are used (for formatting automatic tables of contents, see also Section 6.1.1). However you choose to lay out your thesis and table of contents, however, the content (including numbers, punctuation and usually capitalisation) and order of your titles and headings should in all cases be exactly the same in both the body of the thesis and its table of contents.

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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