What constitutes a thesis?

A D.Phil thesis requires, according to the Examination Regulations, ‘That the candidate has made a significant and substantial contribution in the particular field of learning within which the thesis falls’, taking into account ‘what may reasonably be expected of a capable and diligent student after three, or at most four, years of full-time study’. These notes are intended to give a little more information about what constitutes a D.Phil thesis.
The criteria discussed below, within their narrower remit, will also be of use to those writing a master's dissertation.

Research question   The thesis should be driven by a question or problem suitable for original historical enquiry. This is not the same as a ‘subject’ or ‘topic’ which simply stakes out a field of enquiry; the research question is the means by which that field is interrogated. While not having the terms ‘how’ or ‘why’ in the title, it may often imply them.

Historiography    A research question emerges from critical engagement with the literature in a particular field. The Regulations say that a thesis should show ‘a good general knowledge of the particular field of learning within which the thesis falls’, that is familiarity with the important scholarly literature in the subject area. The thesis will not just ‘fill a gap’ but often arise out of a historical debate and seek to contribute to it using a new approach or new evidence.

Sources    A candidate is expected to make considered and effective use of the appropriate sources, which should be consulted in the original so far as appropriate and practical. This may entail travel to consult sources held in scattered collections. It is ‘not essential that a thesis exploit hitherto unused primary sources’, say the Regulations, but the thesis must be based on primary sources, including archival, printed sources and/or oral testimony. The candidate should demonstrate a good understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the sources being used.

Approach or method    A thesis is not an arbitrary or intuitive processing of primary material. It must have a coherent approach or method – one that is thought out and intellectually sustainable. This may be a case study or sample, a regional, local or microhistorical study, a comparative or transnational analysis. It may adopt a qualitative or quantitative approach, draw on allied disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, sociology or literary theory, or combine elements from more than one of these. Whatever the approach or method adopted, the candidate should be able to demonstrate the relevance and effectiveness of the approach for the purpose of the thesis. Engagement with any kind of theory should be developed and critical; mere name-dropping must be avoided.

Presentation    Candidates are required to present their thesis ‘in a lucid and scholarly manner’. This means that the thesis must be clearly structured, with an introduction, conclusion and two abstracts. It must develop a sustained argument and be written in fluent, accurate and scholarly prose. It should present quotations, footnotes/references and bibliography in the form described in ‘Conventions for the presentation of essays, dissertations and theses’ All reference to other authorities must be footnoted in order to avoid the charge of plagiarism. Careful proof-reading is essential to avoid receiving a long list of ‘minor corrections’ from the examiners or criticism of an ‘incomplete’ submission.


For further information on the submission of dissertations and theses for examination please consult the 'Instructions to Candidates' relevant for your master's programme, or in the case of a research programme the information about the thesis examination process.

If, after successful examination, you wish to submit (candidates on one-year programmes) or are required to submit (M.Phil., M.Litt., and D.Phil. candidates) a finalised copy of your piece of individual research then please consult our guidance on depositing a dissertation or thesis.