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I'm a 1st year PhD student in environmental science and policy. The expectation at my institution is generally to do three substantive chapters in our dissertations. I'm set up well and have the first two chapters pretty much entirely scoped and am feeling really good about my progression this early on.

I've noticed some academics volunteer that they did 4 chapters almost as a point of pride. And I'm wondering if this is something that is considered "better" or higher quality or more competitive amongst academics and when thinking about future employment?

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    Can't comment on US PhD dissertations nor environmental science and policy in specific, but in my neck of the woods if someone can't even count to three, well... Brevity is a skill too! Commented Mar 4 at 14:36
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    My PhD thesis had around five substantive chapters and lots of appendices. However, it is not the number of chapters or the length that counts. I can imagine a one-page thesis having more impact than mine.
    – Jake
    Commented Mar 4 at 23:33
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    @Jake exactly my thoughts. With rather little effort you can always turn 3 chapters into 5-6 chapters. They're just half as substantive
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Mar 6 at 15:58

5 Answers 5

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Your overall research output is important; your dissertation is not, neither its length, nor its "quality", just that it's done.

If having more chapters means more research output, yeah that looks good when you are up for jobs where you are being hired to produce research, but the impact of the work matters, too, as long as someone is looking closely (which they should be if they are deciding whom to hire). Someone can stretch out what they've done into however many chapters they want for organizational purposes.

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Hard to imagine that it could. Your thesis is read by your examiners, and your examiners evaluate it depending on the content of what you've written. The number of chapters doesn't really count for much. Here's a little thought experiment: think of a couple of books that you've just read. Some questions: firstly, which one is better? Secondly, why? And, after you've answered these, ask yourself (without looking) how many chapters each of them has? I would guess that you would have forgotten (if you even knew) the number of chapters.

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Don't compare yourself to others!!!!! Focus on publishing and presenting your work. Try to make each chapter of your dissertation a published manuscript. Your lit review can be an actual published review and the subsequent chapters can be original works. Do that and the final length won't matter. Your dissertation can be 10 chapters long but if none of it is published it provides minimal scientific currency.

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    Strongly depends on the field and its specific culture.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Mar 4 at 18:16
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The correct number of chapters depends on your material: the number of logical parts into which your ideas and arguments naturally divide, the stages in testing them, and so on.

You can cram it into fewer than the natural number of chapters, or spread it out over more, if you want to, but the best way is whatever explains it most clearly to your target audience. That's basic writing technique.

If your field has conventions for the number of chapters, does this imply that there's an expected structure for your research and the material coming out of it? If so, conforming to that during your research, rather than forcing your material into it afterwards may be a good idea, but that's not certain. If the results of your research lead you to a different structure, talk to your supervisor: you're either making good progress, or you've gone astray, and your supervisor is the one who can tell the difference.

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Nowadays the details of thesis and the number of chapters are not that critical. I would say which was not the case 10 15 years ago. I tell my students publish 4 first author papers in journals with IF greater than 4. Then it is more valuable than a thesis. Thesis contains more details but the SI can be used to include details in the journal papers also.

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