The thesis outline – so much more than just a chapter list

It’s about time for another blog post. I’ve not been able to do much PhD work lately due to a range of on-going computer problems plus a lot of time spent teaching and marking. The computer issues have limited my ability to do the more technical aspects of my PhD work, so I’ve been doing as much as I can of the less technical work. This has included writing a new thesis outline.

A thesis outline is a funny thing – it all seems a bit unnecessary at first. I mean it should be pretty clear what sections your thesis will have. Shouldn’t the outline be obvious? So you might think but I can assure you that this is not the case. Just like you were told at school: always plan your answer before you write anything. The thesis can almost be thought of as a really long essay and, as such, it should be properly planned before any writing takes place. I suspect failure to do this can cause a lot of trouble later on when it transpires that major restructuring is required!

I wanted to avoid getting caught in this trap so I have had a thesis plan on the back burner almost since the word go. I initially wrote my first thesis outline as part of preparing my research timetable. Things have massively changed since those heady days as a first year PhD student and my current thesis outline bears little resemblance to the original. But comparing the two is a quick way of summarising the way that my project has developed and evolved, which is kind of nice in itself.

Producing thesis outlines at various points in my PhD has also helped me to keep on-track and to work out what I should be focusing my efforts on. This was true even before I started doing any writing but is particularly true now I am getting words down on paper. At this late stage I have worked up the thesis outline into a contents page format, whereas before it was more of a list of chapters. Now it includes a better idea of the subsections within each chapter as I start to define exactly what work will go where. At the same time I’m trying to work out a figure list, which is proving really helpful in guiding my final data analysis. By knowing what figures are required to make my key points, I am able to be more focused with my data processing and generate only the results I need, without too much surplus.

This is why I think thesis outlines are so vital – at every stage they save you time by keeping you tightly focused and on track. Any PhD will include a bit of speculative work but the issues come when too much of what you’re doing is pursuing tangents, some of which will inevitably be red herrings. That’s the sort of thing that will prevent you finishing on time and this is where a thesis outline can be very helpful, whether you’re in first year, second year, third year, and especially beyond!