Your research dissertation may prove to be the longest piece of academic writing you will undertake during your studies, but there are useful methods that will assist you in making the task of writing a dissertation less troublesome. It is important to note that structure is critical along with time management; you should allocate a reasonable amount of time on structuring your dissertation correctly. It will help you gain a better overall grade and having a structured dissertation will keep you on track. This article will outline the typical structure of a dissertation.
The dissertation title is an ideal opportunity to tell the reader and academic supervisor what your research is focused on. You will need it to be explicit, concise, on topic, descriptive, and representative of the research topic you have undertaken. More likely than not, there will be a required format for the title page in your research discipline, it is advisable to check how a title page is constructed at your institution, it may be best to check with your supervisor and locate previously written title pages by fellow students. I have written three dissertations during my time spent in education and the illustration below shows how I constructed my dissertation title page;
This tends to be the shortest and most concise section of your thesis or dissertation, but it is advisable in taking great care to write it well. Fundamentally, the abstract is a brief summary of the research undertaken. It should be able to represent the dissertation aim and objectives, and what the results and implications of the research are. In most cases a dissertation abstract is only one page long and you may have to adhere to a word limit, it is worth checking this with your supervisor and university guidelines. Be mindful that the dissertation abstract is an important section of your dissertation or thesis, it will naturally become a document in its own right, and there is a possibility that your dissertation may become registered on an academic database. Now that prospect sounds exciting. As the abstract comes before the main body of the dissertation, it may be prudent to write the abstract at an early stage when constructing your dissertation or thesis. It may form the framework for your research and will act as an aid in identifying the dissertation rationale and findings. This in turn will help formulate the structure of the dissertation.
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This section is not mandatory and I tend not to include an acknowledgements section in my research. If you decide to include this, it will be an opportunity to mention individuals who have been particularly helpful to you while you have been writing your dissertation. Casting your eye over previously written acknowledgements by fellow students will give you a rough idea of the ways in which different kinds of guidance and support has been appreciated and mentioned. Again, this is not a mandatory section and you will not get downgraded for not including an acknowledge section.
Contents Page and List of Figures
The contents page in its simplest form denotes the structure of the dissertation. Any discrepancy in space devoted to different sections of dissertation content will become noticeable, it is important that the contents outlined in the contents page match the headings and subheadings throughout the document. Be mindful that many universities assess the presentation of a dissertation and the content structure is often seen as a significant contributor towards the final grade of a dissertation. It is recommended that you build a separate contents list for data tables, charts, figures and graphs.
In most cases this is the first section of writing the reader encounters after the abstract or executive summary, it is often best to leave its preparation to last as, until then, you will not be totally sure what you are introducing, it is far easier to write an introduction once your dissertation is near to completion. When writing a dissertation the introduction has two primary roles (1) to expand the material summarized in the abstract section and (2) to indicate the content of the dissertation sections. I strongly advise that you include the following points to your dissertation introduction;
- Research aims and objectives
- Research concepts
- Dissertation rationale
- Methodology employed and scope
- Brief outline of research questions and hypotheses
- How collated data was analyzed and where it originated from
- Structure of the dissertation
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The main purpose of the literature review is to demonstrate that you have painstakingly explored and understand where your dissertation or thesis fits into the research field you have undertaken, have you identified existing theory and how does this relate to your research? You should be able to demonstrate the ability to identify key scholars and theories applicable to your research dissertation and how you have applied, assessed and critiqued this research. To do this you need to;
- Define the current state of research in your chosen subject area
- Assess whether there are any closely related areas that you also need to refer to in your research dissertation
- Identify any gaps in literature where you argue that further research needs to be explored and added
- Explain how you plan to address research gaps
This can lead to a clear statement of the research questions or hypotheses that you will be addressing. Further to the research context, there may be additional research contexts to present in your research. Typically, this would include;
- Theoretical or hypothetical context
- Methodological or operational context
- Practice context
- Political context
Undoubtedly, it may prove a little difficult to identify the optimal sequence for the above contexts as your specific research questions can be complex and there may be a handful of reasons why the research is needed in the field of study. It is worthwhile taking additional time to develop a fluid structure as this will help to convince examiners of the relevance of your research and that you understand its significance to field of study. The literature review should also be a straightforward description of how you conducted the research and how you referenced existing literature and theory.
The literature review reflects on critical points of current knowledge including findings written by prominent scholars, as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic. Remember that a literature review is a secondary research source, and as such, do not report any unpublished, developmental or experimental research. Also, a literature review has a prominence in setting the research undertaken within the body of literature and to provide a clear context for the reader. Never forget that academic literature reviews are an integral element for research in nearly every academic field, regardless of the level of study.
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Results and Findings
Many academics perceive the results and findings as the most fascinating and worthwhile elements of a research study, many scholars unearth significant results that can radically change the way a subject area is perceived. Many see this as a Eureka Moment. As a student, you will need to check which style of academic writing is best suited to your field of study. For example a scientific dissertation will have a clear separation between the results and the discussion of results presented; whereas a social science dissertation will contain a findings section that brings the results and discussion together to formulate a conclusion.
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The discussion section will allow you to evaluate the research in relation to the wider study, this will ascertain if you have kept your research on topic or not, and if you’ve answered the questions you intended or not. You will be able to refer back to the initial dissertation rationale that you gave for your introduction and literature review sections. You will also be able to see how impactful your research is and discuss what your own research study has added in the respective field. It is important to show that you appreciate the limitations of your research (be realistic) and how these may affect the validity and impact of the research findings. If you have acknowledged certain research limitations, you can report on the implications of your findings for theory, research, and practice in general.
Conclusions and Final Thoughts
Normally, this section of the dissertation tends to be much shorter than the aforementioned discussion. It is not a simple summary of your research by any degree, but needs to conclude concisely the main points that have been unearthed and what they mean for your chosen field of study. Be sure to highlight significant contributions and noteworthy outcomes from the research findings.
This critical section of the dissertation needs to be organized, exact and must include all of your references in the required referencing style outlined in your university’s referencing guidelines.
As you add to and edit your dissertation you will probably gain and lose references that you had in earlier document versions. With this in mind, it will be advantageous to version control your documents up until completion (dissertation_v1.1.docx). It is vital to check that all the references contained in your dissertation are referenced accurately within the reference or bibliography section. From my personal experiences, I always checked to see if I could find every reference in the bibliography in the main body of the dissertation this means that you can locate any missing references and add them without running the risk of plagiarism. It is important that you reference all material used, I cannot stress this enough.
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This section of the dissertation is very useful indeed. Items that normally appear in the appendices are those that a reader would want to see, but which would take up too much space and disrupt the flow if placed within the main body of the research. You can add your supporting documentation such as research questionnaires, cover letters, statistics, list of acronyms and photographs. It is worthwhile finding out if the appendices count towards the final word limit for your dissertation, normally the appendices do not. Be sure to reference the appendices within the main body of the research where necessary.
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Dissertation Structure Tips
- Below are some dissertation tips that have proved useful throughout my time spent in education, I am sure that some of the bullet points below will prove useful to you;
- Write your research as you go along, do this on the fly. Inspiration comes when you have information fresh in your mind if you cannot do this; write it down on a piece of paper and revisit it in the future. There is nothing more frustrating than losing an inspirational moment.
- It is advantageous to keep track of how your research ideas are developing and writing helps clarify your thought processes. This negates the need to cram in thousands of words at the end of your dissertation this would lead to an imbalanced research project.
- As previously mentioned, you do not have to start with an introduction; I have always found it easier to write an introduction once I have completed subsequent chapters such as the literature review or methodology. Alternatively, you may prefer to write the introduction first, so you can get your ideas formulated from the outset. There is every chance that you will add to and edit the introduction at some point.
- Think of each chapter as a mini research project in itself. Each chapter should have a clear and concise introduction and conclusion. Use the chapter conclusion to link back to the overall research question and theoretical linkages to previous chapters.
- Imagine the main questions and hypotheses of your dissertation as a river, and each chapter is a stream feeding into this, there should be fluidity from start to finish, you do not want to tie the reader up in knots. The individual chapters will contain their own opinions, and go their own way, but they all contribute to the main flow of the research project. Remember that a good dissertation structure is important.
- Don’t go off on a tangent and don’t create your own bespoke dissertation structure, this will count against you. Always refer to your university guidelines if you are unsure.
Creating a good dissertation structure requires extra time, effort and preparation. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
Do you have any additional points that could be added to this post?