ARTICLE 11: The Table of Contents of your Thesis or dissertation

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I discuss the layout of a table of contents for a thesis or dissertation in this article. In the beginning, the table of contents will be more a structure for a table of contents than a final one.

You will probably have decided which chapters to include in your report, but you will have only one or two lower-level headings. Also, you might need to add a small number of chapters as you progress with your research.

The table of contents should follow directly after the authentication of your work.

Once you have written your thesis or dissertation, you will probably delete the provisional structure for a table of content and replace it with the chapters, headings and sub-headings of your final thesis or dissertation. Keep in mind that your table of contents must not differ from the chapters, headings and sub-headings in your thesis or dissertation.

At the end of your table of contents, you should also have the references that you consulted, a list of figures and a list of tables.

Universities are mostly flexible about the structure of a table of contents for a thesis on the master’s degree level. There are certain chapters and topics that you must cover in the dissertation for a Ph. D.

Also, keep in mind that the thesis for a master’s degree is a good opportunity to practice for when you will write the dissertation for a Ph. D. It will not be wrong to follow the structure of a dissertation when writing the report on the master’s degree level.

Here is a list of the most basic headings that most universities will expect you to discuss in your dissertation:

  1. Title page.
  2. Confirmation of authenticity.
  3. Acknowledgments.
  4. Abstract.
  5. Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study.
  6. Chapter 2: Research Methodology.
  7. Chapter 3: Theoretical Background.
  8. Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis.
  9. Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study.
  10. References.
  11. List of Figures.
  12. List of Tables.

The title page. I already discussed the title page, sometimes also called the cover page, in a previous article (article 5). Just take note that this is where it will fit into your thesis or dissertation.

Confirmation of authenticity. You will be required by the university to confirm that the contents of your thesis or dissertation are your own. Most universities, if not all, use a standard format for such confirmation.

Here is an example:

“I, (your full names and surname) declare that (the title of your thesis or dissertation) is my own work and that all the sources that I have used or quoted have been indicated and acknowledged by means of complete references.

(Your signature)


Acknowledgments. Acknowledgments are a matter of choice.

However, it is only good manners to thank people who helped you with your research.

The acknowledgment has real value for your research, though.

  1. It shows the readers of your report that you conducted your research in a systematic, ethical and disciplined manner.
  2. It shows that you understand that research should not be done by one person only.

Abstract. The abstract is a mandatory summary of your thesis or dissertation. Not all universities will require you to write an abstract for a thesis. The abstract must be short – you will be required to summarise your thesis or dissertation in three or four pages.

Some readers, for example, your sponsors, might read only the abstract. Therefore, you will need to ensure that you cover all the questions that they might have.

Chapter 1: Contextualising the Study. Researchers making use of technicist research methods often claim that their findings and the principles and concepts that they develop are timeless and that it applies independently of context.

Even they, however, need to define the range and scope of their research – they will not be able to include the entire world, let alone the entire universe, in their research projects.

Chapter 2: Research Methodology. In this chapter you will discuss:

  1. The research approach that you will use.
  2. The research methods that you will use.
  3. The paradigmatic approaches that you will follow.
  4. The data collection methods that you will use.
  5. How you will analyse the data that you collect.

Chapter 3: Theoretical Background. You will probably need to do a literature study as a foundation for your research. It would be rather difficult to jump into data collection and the analysis of data if you do not know what you should be looking for.

Chapter 4: Data Collection and Analysis. You already discussed the data collection and analysis methods that you will use in Chapter 2 of your dissertation. Here you will need to discuss the actual processes of data collection and analysis. This is a critically important chapter and might even be broken down into two or three separate chapters. It is from the contents of this chapter that you will come to conclusions and findings from which to develop a solution to the problem that you investigated.

Chapter 5: Synthesis and Evaluation of the Study. Chapter 5 will normally be your final chapter. This is where you will describe your solution. Depending on the purpose of your research and the research approach and methods that you used, you might develop a model, new knowledge, new methods to combat oil pollution at sea, new medication, and many more.

References. All sources that you consulted must be acknowledged in your thesis or dissertation.

Universities invariably have prescriptions in this regard, and you should abide by them.

I will discuss referencing formats in a future article.

List of Figures and List of Tables. The lists of figures and tables follow directly after the table of contents.

One can regard it as part of the table of contents.

The figure and table numbers in the lists must be the same as in the content of the thesis or dissertation.

Different universities have different requirements for the layout and format of the lists of figures and tables, although most are flexible in this respect.


Your provisional table of contents will probably be just a structure, consisting of chapters with no lower-level headings.

Your actual and final table of contents must align exactly with the contents of your thesis or dissertation.

I will discuss the abstract, chapters, references, lists of figures and tables in more detail in separate articles following on this one.

Good luck with your studies and stay healthy and safe.

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