Many postgraduate theses include as part of their front matter a List of Figures and a List of Tables, plus lists of various other special environments. Many institutions, including my own, directly require the inclusion of at least those two Lists at the front of the thesis.

However, I have never really understood why a thesis should have those two environments at all; they've mostly just been yet another page to scroll past on the way to the meat of the thesis.

On the other hand, if you have a print copy of the document, I generally find it much easier to flip through the pages, since graphics tend to stick out, and more so if you have a general idea of where the figure is (such as having a figure identifier that gives the chapter) or what it looks like (as when looking for a figure one has seen previously).

What use cases are lists of figures or tables meant to serve? In what situations are they meant to be useful? Do they still work, or are they simply an artifact of pre-pdf days?

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    If you only have a few, distinctive, images, then flicking is fine. But if you have thirty visually-similar organisational charts, as with a book I read yesterday, and you want to find a specific one, it breaks down fast... Mar 19, 2016 at 21:19

3 Answers 3


When I refer back to a thesis to find a piece of information, I find the lists of tables and figures to be extremely useful. I often have a general idea of what I am looking for. Turning that general idea into a simple text search that does not yield hundreds of hits is difficult. By reading the short captions in the list of figures, I can generally find the figure I want.

  • To clarify, this is both with printed and on-screen versions? If the former, isn't thumbing through the thesis looking for a specific graphic easier? Are you looking for a figure you have seen in a previous reading of the thesis, or are you hoping that the thesis will contain a figure with a specific piece of information? If the latter, isn't scrolling and looking at the graphics themselves easier?
    – E.P.
    Mar 18, 2016 at 20:44
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    @E.P. I would rather skim a list of figures that is a couple of pages long than flip through a thesis page by page (either paper or electronic). In my field a PhD thesis is usually 200-500 pages long and might have 50 figures. I use lists of figures both when I am looking for something I have seen before and when I am looking for something new.
    – StrongBad
    Mar 18, 2016 at 21:00

You appear to start from an assumption of reading on screen. If some actually wants to read a thesis (as opposed to looking something up in it) there's a fair chance they're working on paper. An examiner for example. A list of figures/list of tableswill help them track down some of the important material quickly.

If someone has a paper copy, good lists are really useful, but xcost a couple of pages

If someone has a PDF copy, the list costs them nothing. A few bytes of data, and there's no need to scroll past it as any decently-produced thesis PDF will allow you to click on the headings (or "Contents") in any decent PDF reader.

So even with primarily electronic distribution (which is an optimisitic assumption) these lists will benefit some of your readers, including some important ones.

I found them quite useful when checking the print copies -- text was easy to spot-check, but ensuring that the figures came out right was important.


When I go through a thesis (especially a voluminous one) I tend to look for comparison and performance graphs; some of which are not always in the results and discussion section. I feel that the list of figures are pretty much helpful in this aspect.

  • It's a good point that some basic results may be included in a section describing how to analyse them. These figures can say a lot about a thesis.
    – Chris H
    Mar 19, 2016 at 18:22

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