A thesis template in Word

It’s been *checks calendar* over four years since I started my PhD, which means it is time for me to start writing up my thesis. Don’t get me wrong, I really like this part. I had a great time writing and putting the figures together for my MSc thesis. And one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most besides getting beautiful recordings from tiny midbrain neurons has been to write, edit, and revise abstracts and manuscripts before publication.

But here’s the thing. I am the kind of person that keeps pointing out how that figure is not *perfectly* aligned. I’m also the kind of person that takes courses on “Designing Academic Presentations” and “Writing Compelling Abstracts” and takes notes on how great and effective the slides and figures of that seminar were. So one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted my thesis to look good. To have a nice-looking typographical style. And this inevitably took me to LaTeX. So yes, I ended up taking a course on “Using LaTeX for Academic Writing” too.

The good thing about LaTeX is that there are plenty of nice templates out there (the classicthesis by André Miede is one that has been repeatedly recommended to me) and Overleaf has made it significantly easier to get started and quickly test different templates (I’ve drawn inspiration from Clean Thesis, Classic Thesis, UCL Thesis, or Basic Thesis). However, it is still a bit of a steep learning curve and I found that, similar to any programming language, you won’t really learn it unless you absolutely need it for the project at hand. Sure, the end product looks great, but I’ve always felt it is a bit of a pain to write and proof-read long pieces of text in plain text and markup, with too many typos escaping notice for my liking. And let’s face it, I’ve been using Word all my life and quite like the “What You See Is What You Get” approach. Plus pretty much any document that goes around (be it a manuscript draft, a potential abstract, or a motivation letter for a summer school) and needs revising will most likely start as a Word file.

So instead of spending time working out how to properly use LaTeX to create a beautiful template for my thesis I spent it on reading about typographical styles, browsing fonts, and looking at a bunch of thesis from friends and University repositories. And at the end of the day I ended up learning a few tricks in Word and used them to create my own thesis template using a software I’m already familiar with. So here we are: a thesis template in Word. If you want to get straight to it and start using the template, you can download the latest version from GitHub. To have a quick look at the template, follow this link. And to learn more about the template itself and how I created it, keep on reading.


Download the Template

If you go to this GitHub repository you’ll find several documents. All of them were made using Microsoft Word for Microsoft 365 MSO (Version 2008, Build 13127.21064, 64-bit). The documents are:

  • Thesis_and_Cover_Template.docx – An example DOCX document formatted with styles and ready to use.
  • Thesis_and_Cover_Template.pdf – A PDF version of the document to browse an example of the end result.
  • Thesis_and_Cover_Template.dotx – A DOTX template document (opening it will create a new DOCX document based on the styles of the template).
  • Thesis_Style.dotx – The style of the template.
  • Thesis_Theme.thmx – The theme of the template.

Sections included in the template: Cover, Preface, Acknowledgements, Dedication, Quote, Abstract, Impact Statement, Statement of Contributions, Contents, List of Figures, List of Tables, Abbreviations, Introduction, Methods, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Discussion, References, Appendix.

Anyone is free to use and share this template. If I’ve done my job right, it hopefully serves as a good starting point for your PhD or MSc thesis and you find it easy to use. If you use the template please let me know by leaving a comment here or on twitter. It’s always nice to get feedback!


The following sections contain a few useful things to bear in mind, some explanations of how the template was made, and a few tricks I learned about Word when preparing it. Similar templates can be found here and here.

University Guidelines

The first thing I did was to check my University’s regulations on thesis formatting. University College London has a section on their website with general guidelines for the formatting of your thesis, as well as a separate section with further recommendations for the preparation of word processed documents. These were very handy and gave me a sense of the things that should be in the template. Of course the specifics will vary depending on your Department and University, so make sure to check them and tweak the template before submitting!

The other really useful thing to do is to browse recent thesis from your Department and University. Most University libraries have a public repository (check here and here to browse UCL theses). I also recommend checking out the theses from friends and colleagues that graduated before you, every thesis has its own personality and you will get a ton of inspiration from each one.

Styles and Multilevel Lists

The idea of a template like this one is to hopefully help the user save a lot of the time that would otherwise be spent in formatting. One of the main things I did to give you (and myself) a head start was to create and format styles for things like the main text (e.g. “Thesis Body” and “Thesis Body Indent”), different levels of headings (e.g. “Thesis Section”, “Thesis Heading”, “Thesis Subheading”, etc.), and other things like figure captions, the footer and header, and the table of contents. The advantage of starting from such a document where most styles are already defined is that you can easily tweak them to your liking. For instance, even if you don’t like the fonts I chose or wish to customise it a bit more (by changing the indent, color, or font size of a particular style), it is pretty straight forward to do. For example, you can change the default to your preferred fonts (go to “Design/Fonts/Customize Fonts” and then save your changes as a new Theme on “Design/Themes/Save Current Theme” and apply it to the document) or modify any given style (open the Styles tab and click on “Manage Styles” or simply modify the style of your choice).

A really useful trick I learned was to define a Multilevel List so that the style of each heading level was linked to the correct list level. By doing this you ensure that the numbering of the headings automatically follows the logical order across chapters, without you having to worry about it. The way I did this was to open the “Multilevel List” menu and click on “Define new Multilevel list“. Then I linked each level to a style (e.g. “Level 1” to “Thesis Section”) and formatted the numbering to my liking (font, alignment, indent, etc.). For the lower levels, I also made sure that the numbering automatically included the number of the upper levels (e.g. for Level 3 – “Thesis Subheading”, select “Include level number from: Level 1 and Level 2”, so that you are left with something like “2.3.1. Subheading” that gets automatically populated) and that the count restarted when it should by selecting “Restart list after: level X” (e.g. for Level 2 – “Thesis Heading”, set “Restart list after: Level 1”).

Finally, styles come in really handy to populate the Table of Contents. The template I made already includes a Table of Contents based on the defined styles. To create it I went to “References/Table of Contents/Custom Table of Contents“, selected “Formats: From template” and “Show levels: 4” and then opened the “Options” menu to link the right style to the right TOC level (e.g. “Thesis Section” to level 1, “Thesis Heading” to level 2, etc.). To tweak the formatting to my liking I went to the styles for TOC1, TOC2, TOC3, and TOC4 and modified them accordingly.

Resources: “Understanding Styles in Microsoft Word“, “Word Styles from the beginning“, “How to create multilevel numbered headings in Word 2016“, “How to link multilevel list headings to custom styles“.

Figure Captions and Cross-references

To add a title and number for a figure or table, I went to “References/Insert Caption“. In the menu that opens you can select “New Label” and type the figure or table number (e.g. “Figure 1.”). What I did was to create a different Label for each Chapter, so that the first number of the Figure/Table matches that of the Chapter. Therefore, for the first chapter (i.e. “1. Introduction”) the template has two labels: “Figure 1.” and “Table 1.”. Once the new label has been created, you are back on the “Caption” menu. You can now add the title of the figure in the “Caption” field (e.g. “Figure 1.1. A circle”). Note that the second number will now be automatically updated (“Figure 1.1”, “Figure 1.2”, etc.) and by having different labels for each chapter the first of the numbers will match the relevant chapter (“Figure 2.1”, “Figure 3.1”, etc.), whereas the second will reflect the number of figures on that chapter (“Figure 2.1”, “Figure 2.2”, etc.). You can then press “OK” to insert the caption.

Once you have your caption, you can select it and format it by applying the “Thesis Figure Caption” or the “Thesis Table Caption” style. You will notice I added a style for the caption (“Thesis Table Caption”) and a style for the legend (“Thesis Table Legend”), which will allow us to do the Table of Contents using only the Captions style. To get both the caption and legend in the same line/paragraph you will need to insert a “Style Separator”. To do that, first start a new paragraph after the inserted caption and type your legend text. Format the legend by applying the “Thesis Table Legend” style. Once done, place the cursor at the end of the caption (e.g. “Table 1.1. Stats for experiment A”) and press “Ctrl+Alt+Enter”. This will add a style separator and bring the “Thesis Table Legend” right next to the “Thesis Table Caption”.

Once you have successfully inserted a caption you should be able to insert a cross-reference in the main text to point to the right figure or table by going to “References/Cross-reference” and selecting the appropriate label (e.g. “Figure 1.” or “Table 2.”) from the drop-down menu in “Reference type“. You can choose to insert the entire caption or only the label and number (i.e. “Figure 1.1”) and then select the caption you are trying to cross-reference from the options shown. Once inserted, the text will now act as an hyperlink that takes you to the right figure, and will get updated if you change the caption or shuffle around the figures and the number changes. You can quickly update all the cross-references and tables by selecting all (Ctrl+A) and pressing F9.

Finally, although the template already provides a List of Figures and a List of Tables, it is easy enough to add one yourself using our custom styles. The way to do this is to go to “References/Insert Table of Figures” and click on the “Options” menu. This allows you to build the Table of Figures from a specific Style instead of one single Label (remember we have different labels for each chapter, so this option would entail creating one Table of Contents for each label we created, and no one really wants to do that). Make sure you select “Style” and then select “Figure Thesis Caption” or “Thesis Table Caption” from the drop-down menu. Once you press “OK” you are back to the “Table of Figures” menu and you can further customise the format or leave it as it is by selecting “From Template” in the Formats field. Note that the drop-down menu for “Caption label” will say “(none)” – this is expected as we decided to base our table of figures on a Style instead of a Label. After clicking OK your Table of Figures/Tables should have been correctly inserted.

Resources: “Using Cross References” , “Style Separators in Word“, “Insert a Caption” and “Create a Cross-reference“.

Master Documents

Word is not famous for handling really large files. In fact, one of the major complaints I keep hearing about Word is how it just crashes when the document is really long (such as a thesis) or how much of a pain it is to format and move figures or tables around. So I was of course worried about this too. Until I learned about what a master document was and how you could create one in Word. I had absolutely no idea that master documents were a thing until a couple of months ago, but I have to say it makes a whole lot of sense that they exist. You should totally invest some time in reading about them and learning how to create and use a master document with sub-documents for each chapter. The good thing is that it is pretty easy to create a master document from the template I made: open the Template.DOTX file, save it as a .DOCX, and then go to “View/Outline/Show Document“. This will take you to a view mode that will allow you to create different subdocuments based on the pre-defined styles. For instance, select “1. Introduction” and click on “Create”. If you then “Save” the file and click on “Collapse Subdocuments”, Word will automatically create a separate document for that section, and replace the text in the Master Document for a link to the directory containing the new file itself. You may need to apply the “Thesis_Style” and “Thesis_Theme” to the new subdocument once you open it, but it should then adopt the same format that the template has.

Alright! I’m leaving some more links about Master Documents below, but that’d be all from me now. I may update both the template and this post with further tips as I learn them. After all, this is work in progress and I’ve just started writing the thesis, so it is very likely I’ll be finding bugs and things I don’t like or could be better along the way (I already found a couple while writing this post!). Hope you find it useful, and please leave a comment with any feedback or just to say you’ve used it, and if you have read this far, hey, thanks!

Resources: “Working with Master Documents“, “Create a Master Document in Word 2010 from Multiple Documents“, “Using Multiple Documents to Create a Master Document in Word“, “How to use a Master document in Microsoft Word“, “The Master Document View“, “Creating subdocuments“, “Modifying subdocuments“, and “Importing data for subdocuments“.

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