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What Is a Dissertation? | Guide, Examples, & Template
A dissertation is a long-form piece of academic writing based on original research conducted by you. It is usually submitted as the final step in order to finish a PhD program.
Your dissertation is probably the longest piece of writing you’ve ever completed. It requires solid research, writing, and analysis skills, and it can be intimidating to know where to begin.
Your department likely has guidelines related to how your dissertation should be structured. When in doubt, consult with your supervisor.
You can also download our full dissertation template in the format of your choice below. The template includes a ready-made table of contents with notes on what to include in each chapter, easily adaptable to your department’s requirements.
Download Word template Download Google Docs template
- In the US, a dissertation generally refers to the collection of research you conducted to obtain a PhD.
- In other countries (such as the UK), a dissertation often refers to the research you conduct to obtain your bachelor’s or master’s degree.
Table of contents
Dissertation committee and prospectus process, how to write and structure a dissertation, acknowledgements or preface, list of figures and tables, list of abbreviations, introduction, literature review, methodology, reference list, proofreading and editing, defending your dissertation, free checklist and lecture slides.
When you’ve finished your coursework, as well as any comprehensive exams or other requirements, you advance to “ABD” (All But Dissertation) status. This means you’ve completed everything except your dissertation.
Prior to starting to write, you must form your committee and write your prospectus or proposal . Your committee comprises your adviser and a few other faculty members. They can be from your own department, or, if your work is more interdisciplinary, from other departments. Your committee will guide you through the dissertation process, and ultimately decide whether you pass your dissertation defense and receive your PhD.
Your prospectus is a formal document presented to your committee, usually orally in a defense, outlining your research aims and objectives and showing why your topic is relevant . After passing your prospectus defense, you’re ready to start your research and writing.
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The structure of your dissertation depends on a variety of factors, such as your discipline, topic, and approach. Dissertations in the humanities are often structured more like a long essay , building an overall argument to support a central thesis , with chapters organized around different themes or case studies.
However, hard science and social science dissertations typically include a review of existing works, a methodology section, an analysis of your original research, and a presentation of your results , presented in different chapters.
We’ve compiled a list of dissertation examples to help you get started.
- Example dissertation #1: Heat, Wildfire and Energy Demand: An Examination of Residential Buildings and Community Equity (a dissertation by C. A. Antonopoulos about the impact of extreme heat and wildfire on residential buildings and occupant exposure risks).
- Example dissertation #2: Exploring Income Volatility and Financial Health Among Middle-Income Households (a dissertation by M. Addo about income volatility and declining economic security among middle-income households).
- Example dissertation #3: The Use of Mindfulness Meditation to Increase the Efficacy of Mirror Visual Feedback for Reducing Phantom Limb Pain in Amputees (a dissertation by N. S. Mills about the effect of mindfulness-based interventions on the relationship between mirror visual feedback and the pain level in amputees with phantom limb pain).
The very first page of your document contains your dissertation title, your name, department, institution, degree program, and submission date. Sometimes it also includes your student number, your supervisor’s name, and the university’s logo.
Read more about title pages
The acknowledgements section is usually optional and gives space for you to thank everyone who helped you in writing your dissertation. This might include your supervisors, participants in your research, and friends or family who supported you. In some cases, your acknowledgements are part of a preface.
Read more about acknowledgements Read more about prefaces
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The abstract is a short summary of your dissertation, usually about 150 to 300 words long. Though this may seem very short, it’s one of the most important parts of your dissertation, because it introduces your work to your audience.
Your abstract should:
- State your main topic and the aims of your research
- Describe your methods
- Summarize your main results
- State your conclusions
Read more about abstracts
The table of contents lists all of your chapters, along with corresponding subheadings and page numbers. This gives your reader an overview of your structure and helps them easily navigate your document.
Remember to include all main parts of your dissertation in your table of contents, even the appendices. It’s easy to generate a table automatically in Word if you used heading styles. Generally speaking, you only include level 2 and level 3 headings, not every subheading you included in your finished work.
Read more about tables of contents
While not usually mandatory, it’s nice to include a list of figures and tables to help guide your reader if you have used a lot of these in your dissertation. It’s easy to generate one of these in Word using the Insert Caption feature.
Read more about lists of figures and tables
Similarly, if you have used a lot of abbreviations (especially industry-specific ones) in your dissertation, you can include them in an alphabetized list of abbreviations so that the reader can easily look up their meanings.
Read more about lists of abbreviations
In addition to the list of abbreviations, if you find yourself using a lot of highly specialized terms that you worry will not be familiar to your reader, consider including a glossary. Here, alphabetize the terms and include a brief description or definition.
Read more about glossaries
The introduction serves to set up your dissertation’s topic, purpose, and relevance. It tells the reader what to expect in the rest of your dissertation. The introduction should:
- Establish your research topic , giving the background information needed to contextualize your work
- Narrow down the focus and define the scope of your research
- Discuss the state of existing research on the topic, showing your work’s relevance to a broader problem or debate
- Clearly state your research questions and objectives
- Outline the flow of the rest of your work
Everything in the introduction should be clear, engaging, and relevant. By the end, the reader should understand the what, why, and how of your research.
Read more about introductions
A formative part of your research is your literature review . This helps you gain a thorough understanding of the academic work that already exists on your topic.
Literature reviews encompass:
- Finding relevant sources (e.g., books and journal articles)
- Assessing the credibility of your sources
- Critically analyzing and evaluating each source
- Drawing connections between them (e.g., themes, patterns, conflicts, or gaps) to strengthen your overall point
A literature review is not merely a summary of existing sources. Your literature review should have a coherent structure and argument that leads to a clear justification for your own research. It may aim to:
- Address a gap in the literature or build on existing knowledge
- Take a new theoretical or methodological approach to your topic
- Propose a solution to an unresolved problem or advance one side of a theoretical debate
Read more about literature reviews
Your literature review can often form the basis for your theoretical framework. Here, you define and analyze the key theories, concepts, and models that frame your research.
Read more about theoretical frameworks
Your methodology chapter describes how you conducted your research, allowing your reader to critically assess its credibility. Your methodology section should accurately report what you did, as well as convince your reader that this was the best way to answer your research question.
A methodology section should generally include:
- The overall research approach ( quantitative vs. qualitative ) and research methods (e.g., a longitudinal study )
- Your data collection methods (e.g., interviews or a controlled experiment )
- Details of where, when, and with whom the research took place
- Any tools and materials you used (e.g., computer programs, lab equipment)
- Your data analysis methods (e.g., statistical analysis , discourse analysis )
- An evaluation or justification of your methods
Read more about methodology sections
Your results section should highlight what your methodology discovered. You can structure this section around sub-questions, hypotheses , or themes, but avoid including any subjective or speculative interpretation here.
Your results section should:
- Concisely state each relevant result together with relevant descriptive statistics (e.g., mean , standard deviation ) and inferential statistics (e.g., test statistics , p values )
- Briefly state how the result relates to the question or whether the hypothesis was supported
- Report all results that are relevant to your research questions , including any that did not meet your expectations.
Additional data (including raw numbers, full questionnaires, or interview transcripts) can be included as an appendix. You can include tables and figures, but only if they help the reader better understand your results. Read more about results sections
Your discussion section is your opportunity to explore the meaning and implications of your results in relation to your research question. Here, interpret your results in detail, discussing whether they met your expectations and how well they fit with the framework that you built in earlier chapters. Refer back to relevant source material to show how your results fit within existing research in your field.
Some guiding questions include:
- What do your results mean?
- Why do your results matter?
- What limitations do the results have?
If any of the results were unexpected, offer explanations for why this might be. It’s a good idea to consider alternative interpretations of your data.
Read more about discussion sections
Your dissertation’s conclusion should concisely answer your main research question, leaving your reader with a clear understanding of your central argument and emphasizing what your research has contributed to the field.
In some disciplines, the conclusion is just a short section preceding the discussion section, but in other contexts, it is the final chapter of your work. Here, you wrap up your dissertation with a final reflection on what you found, with recommendations for future research and concluding remarks.
It’s important to leave the reader with a clear impression of why your research matters. What have you added to what was already known? Why is your research necessary for the future of your field?
Read more about conclusions
It is crucial to include a reference list or list of works cited with the full details of all the sources that you used, in order to avoid plagiarism. Be sure to choose one citation style and follow it consistently throughout your dissertation. Each style has strict and specific formatting requirements.
Common styles include MLA , Chicago , and APA , but which style you use is often set by your department or your field.
Create APA citations Create MLA citations
Your dissertation should contain only essential information that directly contributes to answering your research question. Documents such as interview transcripts or survey questions can be added as appendices, rather than adding them to the main body.
Read more about appendices
Making sure that all of your sections are in the right place is only the first step to a well-written dissertation. Don’t forget to leave plenty of time for editing and proofreading, as grammar mistakes and sloppy spelling errors can really negatively impact your work.
Dissertations can take up to five years to write, so you will definitely want to make sure that everything is perfect before submitting. You may want to consider using a professional dissertation editing service , AI proofreader or grammar checker to make sure your final project is perfect prior to submitting.
After your written dissertation is approved, your committee will schedule a defense. Similarly to defending your prospectus, dissertation defenses are oral presentations of your work. You’ll present your dissertation, and your committee will ask you questions. Many departments allow family members, friends, and other people who are interested to join as well.
After your defense, your committee will meet, and then inform you whether you have passed. Keep in mind that defenses are usually just a formality; most committees will have resolved any serious issues with your work with you far prior to your defense, giving you ample time to fix any problems.
As you write your dissertation, you can use this simple checklist to make sure you’ve included all the essentials.
My title page includes all information required by my university.
I have included acknowledgements thanking those who helped me.
My abstract provides a concise summary of the dissertation, giving the reader a clear idea of my key results or arguments.
I have created a table of contents to help the reader navigate my dissertation. It includes all chapter titles, but excludes the title page, acknowledgements, and abstract.
My introduction leads into my topic in an engaging way and shows the relevance of my research.
My introduction clearly defines the focus of my research, stating my research questions and research objectives .
My introduction includes an overview of the dissertation’s structure (reading guide).
I have conducted a literature review in which I (1) critically engage with sources, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of existing research, (2) discuss patterns, themes, and debates in the literature, and (3) address a gap or show how my research contributes to existing research.
I have clearly outlined the theoretical framework of my research, explaining the theories and models that support my approach.
I have thoroughly described my methodology , explaining how I collected data and analyzed data.
I have concisely and objectively reported all relevant results .
I have (1) evaluated and interpreted the meaning of the results and (2) acknowledged any important limitations of the results in my discussion .
I have clearly stated the answer to my main research question in the conclusion .
I have clearly explained the implications of my conclusion, emphasizing what new insight my research has contributed.
I have provided relevant recommendations for further research or practice.
If relevant, I have included appendices with supplemental information.
I have included an in-text citation every time I use words, ideas, or information from a source.
I have listed every source in a reference list at the end of my dissertation.
I have consistently followed the rules of my chosen citation style .
I have followed all formatting guidelines provided by my university.
The end is in sight—your dissertation is nearly ready to submit! Make sure it's perfectly polished with the help of a Scribbr editor.
If you’re an educator, feel free to download and adapt these slides to teach your students about structuring a dissertation.
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What Exactly Is A Dissertation (Or Thesis)?
If you’ve landed on this article, chances are you’ve got a dissertation or thesis project coming up (hopefully it’s not due next week!), and you’re now asking yourself the classic question, “what the #%#%^ is a dissertation?”…
In this post, I’ll break down the basics of exactly what a dissertation is, in plain language. No ivory tower academia.
So, let’s get to the pressing question – what is a dissertation?
A dissertation (or thesis) = a research project
Simply put, a dissertation (or thesis – depending on which country you’re studying in) is a research project . In other words, your task is to ask a research question (or set of questions) and then set about finding the answer(s). Simple enough, right?
Well, the catch is that you’ve got to undertake this research project in an academic fashion , and there’s a wealth of academic language that makes it all (look) rather confusing (thanks, academia). However, at its core, a dissertation is about undertaking research (investigating something). This is really important to understand, because the key skill that your university is trying to develop in you (and will be testing you on) is your ability to undertake research in a well-structured structured, critical and academically rigorous way.
This research-centric focus is significantly different from assignments or essays, where the main concern is whether you can understand and apply the prescribed module theory. I’ll explain some other key differences between dissertations or theses and assignments a bit later in this article, but for now, let’s dig a little deeper into what a dissertation is.
A dissertation (or thesis) is a process.
Okay, so now that you understand that a dissertation is a research project (which is testing your ability to undertake quality research), let’s go a little deeper into what that means in practical terms.
The best way to understand a dissertation is to view it as a process – more specifically a research process (it is a research project, after all). This process involves four essential steps, which I’ll discuss below.
Step 1 – You identify a worthy research question
The very first step of the research process is to find a meaningful research question, or a set of questions. In other words, you need to find a suitable topic for investigation. Since a dissertation is all about research, identifying the key question(s) is the critical first step. Here’s an example of a well-defined research question:
“Which factors cultivate or erode customer trust in UK-based life insurance brokers?”
This clearly defined question sets the direction of the research . From the question alone, you can understand exactly what the outcome of the research might look like – i.e. a set of findings about which factors help brokers develop customer trust, and which factors negatively impact trust.
But how on earth do I find a suitable research question, you ask? Don’t worry about this right now – when you’re ready, you can read our article about finding a dissertation topic . However, right now, the important thing to understand is that the first step in the dissertation process is identifying the key research question(s). Without a clear question, you cannot move forward.
Step 2 – You review the existing research
Once the research question is clearly established, the next step is to review the existing research/literature (both academic and professional/industry) to understand what has already been said with regard to the question. In academic speak, this is called a literature review .
This step is critically important as, in all likelihood, someone else has asked a similar question to yours, and therefore you can build on the work of others . Good academic research is not about reinventing the wheel or starting from scratch – it’s about familiarising yourself with the current state of knowledge, and then using that as your basis for further research.
Simply put, the first step to answering your research question is to look at what other researchers have to say about it. Sometimes this will lead you to change your research question or direction slightly (for example, if the existing research already provides a comprehensive answer). Don’t stress – this is completely acceptable and a normal part of the research process.
Step 3 – You carry out your own research
Once you’ve got a decent understanding of the existing state of knowledge, you will carry out your own research by collecting and analysing the relevant data. This could take to form of primary research (collecting your own fresh data), secondary research (synthesising existing data) or both, depending on the nature of your degree, research question(s) and even your university’s specific requirements.
Exactly what data you collect and how you go about analysing it depends largely on the research question(s) you are asking, but very often you will take either a qualitative approach (e.g. interviews or focus groups) or a quantitative approach (e.g. online surveys). In other words, your research approach can be words-based, numbers-based, or both . Don’t let the terminology scare you and don’t worry about these technical details for now – we’ll explain research methodology in later posts .
Step 4 – You develop answers to your research question(s)
Combining your understanding of the existing research (Step 2) with the findings from your own original research (Step 3), you then (attempt to) answer your original research question (s). The process of asking, investigating and then answering has gone full circle.
Of course, your research won’t always provide rock-solid answers to your original questions, and indeed you might find that your findings spur new questions altogether. Don’t worry – this is completely acceptable and is a natural part of the research process.
So, to recap, a dissertation is best understood as a research process, where you are:
- Ask a meaningful research question(s)
- Carry out the research (both existing research and your own)
- Analyse the results to develop an answer to your original research question(s).
Depending on your specific degree and the way your university designs its coursework, you might be asking yourself “but isn’t this just a longer version of a normal assignment?”. Well, it’s quite possible that your previous assignments required a similar research process, but there are some key differences you need to be aware of, which I’ll explain next.
Same same, but different…
While there are, naturally, similarities between dissertations/theses and assignments, its important to understand the differences so that you approach your dissertation with the right mindset and focus your energy on the right things. Here, I’ll discuss four ways in which writing a dissertation differs substantially from assignments and essays, and why this matters.
Difference #1 – You must decide (and live with) the direction.
Unlike assignments or essays, where the general topic is determined for you, for your dissertation, you will (typically) be the one who decides on your research questions and overall direction. This means that you will need to:
- Find a suitable research question (or set of questions)
- Justify why its worth investigating (in the form of a research proposal )
- Find all the relevant existing research and familiarise yourself with the theory
This is very different from assignments, where the theory is given to you on a platter, and the direction is largely pre-defined. Therefore, before you start the dissertation process, you need to understand the basics of academic research, how to find a suitable research topic and how to source the relevant literature.
Difference #2 – It’s a long project, and you’re on your own.
A dissertation is a long journey, at least compared to assignments. Typically, you will spend 3 – 6 months writing around 15,000 – 25,000 words (for Masters-level, much more for PhD) on just one subject. Therefore, successfully completing your dissertation requires a substantial amount of stamina .
To make it even more challenging, your classmates will not be researching the same thing as you are, so you have limited support, other than your supervisor (who may be very busy). This can make it quite a lonely journey . Therefore, you need a lot of self-discipline and self-direction in order to see it through to the end. You should also try to build a support network of people who can help you through the process (perhaps alumni, faculty or a private coach ).
Difference #3 – They’re testing research skills.
We touched on this earlier. Unlike assignments or essays, where the markers are assessing your ability to understand and apply the theories, models and frameworks that they provide you with, your dissertation will be is assessing your ability to undertake high-quality research in an academically rigorous manner.
Of course, your ability to understand the relevant theory (i.e. within your literature review) is still very important, but this is only one piece of the research skills puzzle. You need to demonstrate the full spectrum of research skills.
It’s important to note that your research does not need to be ground-breaking, revolutionary or world-changing – that is not what the markers are assessing. They are assessing whether you can apply well-established research principles and skills to a worthwhile topic of enquiry. Don’t feel like you need to solve the world’s major problems. It’s simply not going to happen (you’re a first-time researcher, after all) – and doesn’t need to happen in order to earn good marks.
Difference #4 – Your focus needs to be narrow and deep.
In your assignments, you were likely encouraged to take a broad, interconnected, high-level view of the theory and connect as many different ideas and concepts as possible. In your dissertation, however, you typically need to narrow your focus and go deep into one particular topic. Think about the research question we looked at earlier:
The focus is intentionally very narrow – specifically the focus is on:
- The UK only – no other countries are being considered.
- Life insurance brokers only – not financial services, not vehicle insurance, not medical insurance, etc.
- Customer trust only – not reputation, not customer loyalty, not employee trust, supplier trust, etc.
By keeping the focus narrow, you enable yourself to deeply probe whichever topic you choose – and this depth is essential for earning good marks. Importantly, ringfencing your focus doesn’t mean ignoring the connections to other topics – you should still acknowledge all the linkages, but don’t get distracted – stay focused on the research question(s).
So, as you can see, a dissertation is more than just an extended assignment or essay. It’s a unique research project that you (and only you) must lead from start to finish. The good news is that, if done right, completing your dissertation will equip you with strong research skills, which you will most certainly use in the future, regardless of whether you follow an academic or professional path.
Hopefully in this post, I’ve answered your key question, “what is a dissertation?”, at least at a big picture-level. To recap on the key points:
- A dissertation is simply a structured research project .
- It’s useful to view a dissertation as a process involving asking a question, undertaking research and then answering that question.
- First and foremost, your marker(s) will be assessing your research skills , so its essential that you focus on producing a rigorous, academically sound piece of work (as opposed to changing the world or making a scientific breakthrough).
- While there are similarities, a dissertation is different from assignments and essays in multiple ways. It’s important to understand these differences if you want to produce a quality dissertation.
In this post, I’ve gently touched on some of the intricacies of the dissertation, including research questions, data types and research methodologies. Be sure to check out the Grad Coach Blog for more detailed discussion of these areas.
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Yes, I struggle with literature review and am highly frustrated (with myself).
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Great to hear that, Michael. All the best with your research!
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That’s great, Pheladi. Good luck!
Thank you so much for your videos and writing research proposal and dissertation. These videos are useful. I was struggling, but now I am starting to write. I hope to watch your more videos to learn more about the dissertation.
Before this post, I didn’t know where to start my research, today I have some light and do certain % of my research. I may need for direction on literature review. Big thanks to you.
Very very good Derek
Thanks immensely Derek
You’re welcome 🙂 Good luck with your dissertation/thesis.
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I got stuck in the concept paper because I changed my topic. Now I don’t know where to pick up the pieces again. How can I focus and stay on track. I am getting scared.
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I got stuck in my writing because I need to change my topic. I am getting scared as I have a semester left 🙁
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What Is a Dissertation? | 5 Essential Questions to Get Started
Published on 26 March 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on 5 May 2022.
A dissertation is a large research project undertaken at the end of a degree. It involves in-depth consideration of a problem or question chosen by the student. It is usually the largest (and final) piece of written work produced during a degree.
The length and structure of a dissertation vary widely depending on the level and field of study. However, there are some key questions that can help you understand the requirements and get started on your dissertation project.
Table of contents
When and why do you have to write a dissertation, who will supervise your dissertation, what type of research will you do, how should your dissertation be structured, what formatting and referencing rules do you have to follow, frequently asked questions about dissertations.
A dissertation, sometimes called a thesis, comes at the end of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree. It is a larger project than the other essays you’ve written, requiring a higher word count and a greater depth of research.
You’ll generally work on your dissertation during the final year of your degree, over a longer period than you would take for a standard essay . For example, the dissertation might be your main focus for the last six months of your degree.
Why is the dissertation important?
The dissertation is a test of your capacity for independent research. You are given a lot of autonomy in writing your dissertation: you come up with your own ideas, conduct your own research, and write and structure the text by yourself.
This means that it is an important preparation for your future, whether you continue in academia or not: it teaches you to manage your own time, generate original ideas, and work independently.
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During the planning and writing of your dissertation, you’ll work with a supervisor from your department. The supervisor’s job is to give you feedback and advice throughout the process.
The dissertation supervisor is often assigned by the department, but you might be allowed to indicate preferences or approach potential supervisors. If so, try to pick someone who is familiar with your chosen topic, whom you get along with on a personal level, and whose feedback you’ve found useful in the past.
How will your supervisor help you?
Your supervisor is there to guide you through the dissertation project, but you’re still working independently. They can give feedback on your ideas, but not come up with ideas for you.
You may need to take the initiative to request an initial meeting with your supervisor. Then you can plan out your future meetings and set reasonable deadlines for things like completion of data collection, a structure outline, a first chapter, a first draft, and so on.
Make sure to prepare in advance for your meetings. Formulate your ideas as fully as you can, and determine where exactly you’re having difficulties so you can ask your supervisor for specific advice.
Your approach to your dissertation will vary depending on your field of study. The first thing to consider is whether you will do empirical research , which involves collecting original data, or non-empirical research , which involves analysing sources.
Empirical dissertations (sciences)
An empirical dissertation focuses on collecting and analysing original data. You’ll usually write this type of dissertation if you are studying a subject in the sciences or social sciences.
- What are airline workers’ attitudes towards the challenges posed for their industry by climate change?
- How effective is cognitive behavioural therapy in treating depression in young adults?
- What are the short-term health effects of switching from smoking cigarettes to e-cigarettes?
There are many different empirical research methods you can use to answer these questions – for example, experiments , observations, surveys , and interviews.
When doing empirical research, you need to consider things like the variables you will investigate, the reliability and validity of your measurements, and your sampling method . The aim is to produce robust, reproducible scientific knowledge.
Non-empirical dissertations (arts and humanities)
A non-empirical dissertation works with existing research or other texts, presenting original analysis, critique and argumentation, but no original data. This approach is typical of arts and humanities subjects.
- What attitudes did commentators in the British press take towards the French Revolution in 1789–1792?
- How do the themes of gender and inheritance intersect in Shakespeare’s Macbeth ?
- How did Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia influence nineteenth century utopian socialist thought?
The first steps in this type of dissertation are to decide on your topic and begin collecting your primary and secondary sources .
Primary sources are the direct objects of your research. They give you first-hand evidence about your subject. Examples of primary sources include novels, artworks and historical documents.
Secondary sources provide information that informs your analysis. They describe, interpret, or evaluate information from primary sources. For example, you might consider previous analyses of the novel or author you are working on, or theoretical texts that you plan to apply to your primary sources.
Dissertations are divided into chapters and sections. Empirical dissertations usually follow a standard structure, while non-empirical dissertations are more flexible.
Structure of an empirical dissertation
Empirical dissertations generally include these chapters:
- Introduction : An explanation of your topic and the research question(s) you want to answer.
- Literature review : A survey and evaluation of previous research on your topic.
- Methodology : An explanation of how you collected and analysed your data.
- Results : A brief description of what you found.
- Discussion : Interpretation of what these results reveal.
- Conclusion : Answers to your research question(s) and summary of what your findings contribute to knowledge in your field.
Sometimes the order or naming of chapters might be slightly different, but all of the above information must be included in order to produce thorough, valid scientific research.
Other dissertation structures
If your dissertation doesn’t involve data collection, your structure is more flexible. You can think of it like an extended essay – the text should be logically organised in a way that serves your argument:
- Introduction: An explanation of your topic and the question(s) you want to answer.
- Main body: The development of your analysis, usually divided into 2–4 chapters.
- Conclusion: Answers to your research question(s) and summary of what your analysis contributes to knowledge in your field.
The chapters of the main body can be organised around different themes, time periods, or texts. Below you can see some example structures for dissertations in different subjects.
- Political philosophy
This example, on the topic of the British press’s coverage of the French Revolution, shows how you might structure each chapter around a specific theme.
This example, on the topic of Plato’s and More’s influences on utopian socialist thought, shows a different approach to dividing the chapters by theme.
This example, a master’s dissertation on the topic of how writers respond to persecution, shows how you can also use section headings within each chapter. Each of the three chapters deals with a specific text, while the sections are organised thematically.
Like other academic texts, it’s important that your dissertation follows the formatting guidelines set out by your university. You can lose marks unnecessarily over mistakes, so it’s worth taking the time to get all these elements right.
Formatting guidelines concern things like:
- line spacing
- page numbers
- title pages
- presentation of tables and figures
If you’re unsure about the formatting requirements, check with your supervisor or department. You can lose marks unnecessarily over mistakes, so it’s worth taking the time to get all these elements right.
How will you reference your sources?
Referencing means properly listing the sources you cite and refer to in your dissertation, so that the reader can find them. This avoids plagiarism by acknowledging where you’ve used the work of others.
Keep track of everything you read as you prepare your dissertation. The key information to note down for a reference is:
- The publication date
- Page numbers for the parts you refer to (especially when using direct quotes)
Different referencing styles each have their own specific rules for how to reference. The most commonly used styles in UK universities are listed below.
You can use the free APA Reference Generator to automatically create and store your references.
APA Reference Generator
The words ‘ dissertation ’ and ‘thesis’ both refer to a large written research project undertaken to complete a degree, but they are used differently depending on the country:
- In the UK, you write a dissertation at the end of a bachelor’s or master’s degree, and you write a thesis to complete a PhD.
- In the US, it’s the other way around: you may write a thesis at the end of a bachelor’s or master’s degree, and you write a dissertation to complete a PhD.
The main difference is in terms of scale – a dissertation is usually much longer than the other essays you complete during your degree.
Another key difference is that you are given much more independence when working on a dissertation. You choose your own dissertation topic , and you have to conduct the research and write the dissertation yourself (with some assistance from your supervisor).
Dissertation word counts vary widely across different fields, institutions, and levels of education:
- An undergraduate dissertation is typically 8,000–15,000 words
- A master’s dissertation is typically 12,000–50,000 words
- A PhD thesis is typically book-length: 70,000–100,000 words
However, none of these are strict guidelines – your word count may be lower or higher than the numbers stated here. Always check the guidelines provided by your university to determine how long your own dissertation should be.
At the bachelor’s and master’s levels, the dissertation is usually the main focus of your final year. You might work on it (alongside other classes) for the entirety of the final year, or for the last six months. This includes formulating an idea, doing the research, and writing up.
A PhD thesis takes a longer time, as the thesis is the main focus of the degree. A PhD thesis might be being formulated and worked on for the whole four years of the degree program. The writing process alone can take around 18 months.
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