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How to Structure a Dissertation or Thesis

Structure of a dissertation

A dissertation or a thesis a longer piece of academic writing based on comprehensive research. A milestone no matter what your academic subject and academic level is, a dissertation must be submitted by Master’s and PhD students to pass their degree programme. Undergraduate students, on the other hand, may or may not be required to write a dissertation paper. This generally depends on the requirements of their school. Here is all you need to know about how to structure a dissertation or thesis.

A dissertation is regarded as the most significant form of writing in academia and it is perhaps the longest of piece of academic writing you will ever have to complete. If you are unsure about how to structure your dissertation or thesis then this article will serve as guidelines to help you work out exactly what are the most important segments of a dissertation paper, and what or what not to include in it.

Here is another detailed article on how to write a dissertation – step by step guide

How to Structure a Dissertation or Thesis

It should be noted that the exact structure of your dissertation will depend on several factors including the chosen research approach, research title and academic discipline. If you are student of humanities then you will need to develop your dissertation on the same pattern as any long essay. This will including developing an overall argument to support the thesis statement and organizing chapters around theories or questions.

However, if you are basing your dissertation on primary or empirical research then you will be required to include each of the below components. In most cases, each of the below elements will have to be written as a separate chapter. But depending on the word count limitation and academic subject, you may choose to combine some of these elements. For example, sciences and engineering students often present results and discussion together in one chapter rather than making two different chapters for the same.

If you have any sort of doubts about how to structure your dissertation or thesis then it will make sense to consult with your academic supervisor and check your department’s rules.

Title page

Your dissertation will start with a Title page which will contain details of the author/researcher, research topic, degree programme (the paper is to be submitted for) and research supervisor. The name of your university, its logo, student number, and submission date should can also be presented on the title page. Many academic programmes have stringent rules for formatting the dissertation title page.

Acknowledgements

The acknowledgements section gives you the opportunity to thank those who helped you with your dissertation project. You might want to mention names of your academic supervisor, family members, friends, God and participants in your study whose contribution and support enabled you to complete your work. However, the acknowledgements section is usually optional.

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Abstract

Depending on your area of study, you will be asked to provide abstract or executive summary of your research study. This usually provides you with the opportunity to write a digest or a short summary of your paper. The abstract or executive summary section should introduce the topic of discussion and research problem you aim to address before providing brief information about research methodology, key findings and conclusion.

Tips
Make sure that you highlight the key points to help readers figure out the scope and findings of your research study without having to read the entire dissertation.
Abstract is your first chance to impress your readers, and so it is important to make sure you get it right. Here are detailed guidelines on how to write abstract for dissertation.

Table of Contents

Table of contents is the section of a dissertation that provides guidance about the contents of each section of the dissertation paper. Depending on the level of detail in a table of contents, the most useful headings are listed in order to provide the reader with a reference to page the said information may be found at. Table of contents can be auto-inserted using the Microsoft Word table of contents of feature.

List of Figures and Tables

If your dissertation paper uses several illustrations, tables and figures then you might want to present them in a numbered list in a separate section. Again, this list of tables and figures can be auto created and auto inserted using the Microsoft Word built-in feature.

List of Abbreviations

Dissertations that include several abbreviations can also have an independent and separate alphabetised list of abbreviations so the audience can easily figure out their meanings.

Glossary

If you think that you have used terms and phrases in your dissertation that readers might not be familiar with then you can create a glossary that list important phrases and terms with their meanings explained.

Introduction

Introduction chapter briefly introduces the purpose and relevance of your research topic. Here you will be expected to list the aim and key objectives of research so your readers can easily understand what the following chapters of dissertation will cover. A good dissertation introduction section incorporates the following information;

  • It provides background information to give context to your research
  • Clearly specify the research problem you wish to address with your research. When creating research questions, it is important to make sure the focus and scope of your research is neither too broad nor too narrow.
  • Demonstrating how your research is relevant and how it would contribute to the existing knowledge.
  • Provide an overview of the structure of your dissertation

All information presented under this section should be relevant, clear and engaging. The readers should be able to figure out the what, why, when and how of your study once they have read the introduction. Here are comprehensive guidelines on how to structure introduction for dissertation.

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Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

The literature review chapter presents previous research performed on the topic, and helps to improve your understanding of the existing literature on your chosen topic. This is usually organized so as to compliment your primary research work which is completed at a later stage. Make sure that your chosen academic sources are authentic and up to date. The Literature Review chapter must be comprehensive in nature and address the aims and objectives as defined in the Introduction chapter. Here is what your literature research chapter should aim to achieve;

  • Data collection from authentic and relevant academic sources such as books, journal articles and research paper
  • Analytical assessment of the information collected from those sources
  • Identifying key research gaps, conflicts, patterns and theories to effectively get your point across to the reader.

While your literature review should provide a summary of previous literature, it is equally important to make sure that you develop a comprehensible argument or structure to justify your research topic. You should consider keeping the following questions in mind when writing the literature review;

  • How your research work fills a certain gap in exiting literature?
  • Did you adopt a new research approach to investigate the topic?
  • Does your research solve an unresolved problem?
  • Is your research taking forward an existing theoretical discussion?
  • Does your research strengths and builds on current knowledge within your area of study?

In most cases, your theoretical framework will be developed out of the literature review. In the theoretical framework, you will be expected to define and evaluate relevant models, ideas and theories that will put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Tip
You might want to establish relationships between variables and concepts to provide descriptive answers to some or all of your research questions.

Methodology

The methods and techniques (secondary and/or primary) employed to collect the research data are discussed in detail in the Methodology chapter. The most commonly used methods of primary data collection include questionnaires, interviews, surveys, focus groups, observation etc.

Essentially, the methodology chapter allows the researcher to explain how he/she achieved the findings, why they are reliable, and how they helped him/her to test the research hypotheses or address the research problem.

You might want to consider the following when writing methodology for dissertation;

  • Type of research and approach your work is based on. Some of the most widely used types of research include experimental, quantitative and qualitative
  • Data collection techniques employed such as questionnaires, surveys, focus groups, observation etc.
  • Details of how, when, where and what for the research was conducted?
  • Data analysis strategies employed (regression analysis etc)
  • Software and tools used for data analysis (Excel, STATA, SPSS, lab equipment, etc)
  • Research limitations to highlight any hurdles you had to overcome when carrying our research
  • Justification of your selection of research approach and research methodology

Here is a comprehensive article on how to structure a dissertation methodology.

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Findings

In the next section, you present your research findings. The dissertation findings chapter is built around the research questions as outlined in the introduction chapter. Report findings that are directly relevant to your research questions. Any information that is not directly relevant to research questions or hypothesis but could be useful for the readers can be placed under the Appendixes.

As indicated above, you can either develop a standalone chapter to present your findings or combine them with the discussion chapter. This choice depends on the type of research involved and the academic subject. For example, it is common to have both findings and discussion grouped together under a same section particularly if the dissertation is based on qualitative research data.

On the other hand, dissertations that use quantitative or experimental data should present findings and analysis/discussion in two separate chapters. Here are some sample dissertations to help you figure out the best structure for your own project.

Sample Dissertation

Tip;
Try to present as many charts, graphs, illustrations and tales in the findings chapter to improve your data presentation. However, refrain from explaining the information that is already evident from figures and tables.

Discussion

The findings are followed by the Discussion chapter which is considered the heart of any dissertation paper. The discussion section is an opportunity for you to tie the knots together to address the research questions, and to present arguments, models and key themes. Discussion chapter does not require any new data or information, because it is more about the interpretation/meaning of the data you have already collected and presented. Here are some questions for you to think over when writing the discussion chapter;

  • Did your work answer all the research questions or tested the hypothesis?
  • Did you come up with some unexpected results for which you have to provide an additional explanation or justification?
  • Are there any limitations that could have influenced your research findings?

Here is an article on how to structure a dissertation discussion.

Conclusion

Conclusions corresponding to each research objective are provided in the Conclusion section. This is usually done by revisiting the research questions to finally close the dissertation loop. Some universities may specifically ask for Recommendations in order to evaluate your critical thinking.

By the end, the readers should have a clear apprehension of your fundamental case with a focus on what methods of research were employed and what you achieved from this research.

Quick Question:

Does the conclusion chapter reflect on the contributions your research work will make to existing knowledge?

Reference list

All academic sources that you collected information from should be cited in-text and also presented in a reference list (also known as bibliography) so the readers can easily locate the source of information when/if needed. At most UK universities, Harvard referencing is the recommended style of referencing, and it has strict and specific requirements on how to format a reference resource. Other common styles of referencing include MLA, APA, Footnotes etc.

Appendices

Each chapter of the dissertation should have relevant information. Any information that is not directly relevant to your research topic but your readers might be interested in (interview transcripts etc) should be moved under the Appendixes section.

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