What is the Structure of a Dissertation?

Recommended Dissertation Structure

One of the first questions that probably occurs to a student when it comes to writing a dissertation is “how?” This means how should they go about the process and what is the structure of such a paper?

The structure of an excellently written dissertation should set out the paper’s objectives, the research method(s) the writer has used, and the results, or some of these. A dissertation does have a predefined structure, which you should use unless your professor or academic institution states otherwise.  

When it comes to knowing how to write a dissertation, the following structure is most commonly recommended by academic institutions:

Begin by Writing a Research or Dissertation Proposal (if one is needed)

A research or dissertation proposal is a paper you write before embarking on a significant research project with a view to seeking approval for the work you are planning to do. It is in the proposal you set out what work you would like to do and what objectives you will aim to achieve.

Dissertation Title

Please note the information in the example below is fictional and is used for illustration purposes only.

The title page should include:

  • The Paper’s Title: How Much Sodium Humans Require Daily
  • The full name of the student: Jane Greene BSc (Hons)
  • The dissertation is submitted  towards the completion of a Bachelor of Science degree
  • Academic Institution:  University of California
  • Submission Date: 3 October 2016
  • Name of Supervisor: Peter Johnson

Abstract

As a key component in any dissertation structure, an abstract is a one-paragraph synopsis or overview of what the dissertation is about. This paragraph should set out the question(s) or problem(s) that you have been researching, the methods you used for your research, and why you selected these particular methods. What did you find i.e. what results did you get and what conclusion(s) have you reached?

Acknowledgements Page

If you need to include an acknowledgments page, it is here you should mention or acknowledge any individual or organization that helped in any way to complete your paper. This could mean a professor or lecturer, librarian, or any other person who contributed by interview or gave their time in some way.

How Dissertation Chapters Should Be Structured

The preliminary pages or chapters of a dissertation usually are:

  • Title or Cover Page
  • A Summary or Abstract
  • Acknowledgements Page
  • Declaration by the Author
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Tables
  • List of Figures
  • List of any accompanying materials e.g. software on a CD, USB stick, etc.

Definition of Terms

A dissertation is made up of a number of different sections, chapters, figures, tables, etc. It is not possible to predict the right or exact number of chapters. Furthermore, it is not possible to predict the minimum or maximum number that may be required. In any case, a dissertation usually comprises of:

Introduction

Within a dissertation structure, the introduction should be written so that it instantly gets the reader’s attention. Therefore, you should not present the actual results of your study in this opening section. Even towards the end, when you are further describing and enhancing the nature of your study, you should write in a manner that indicates the research has yet to be undertaken.

An examiner’s initial focus is generally in the introductory chapter, and more specifically on the objectives, and on the concluding chapter. Hence, you should pay particular attention to these sections in the course of writing your paper. It is usual practice for a writer or researcher to do several revisions, where they often need to add or remove various chunks of text or even whole chapters. These revisions make the final paper more concise, accurate and meaningful. So, essentially, an introductory chapter might undergo several rounds of polishing until it is as close to perfect as possible. A dissertation’s introduction should include:

  1. A comprehensive overview of the entire paper. Your aim here should be to emphasize the importance of your dissertation to your readers and to the world at large.
  2. A justification of the study in respect of the overview you have provided. Here, you should state how and why your study will contribute to its field. In essence, you are attempting to justify your research project’s purpose.
  3. A roadmap to the subsequent sections. This means writing a few (three or four) paragraphs elaborating on the content and the reasons for the chapters you have included, rather than listing the actual chapters.

In a dissertation structure, the introduction should reveal your dissertation topic, your aim(s) and/or objective(s), and to provide a brief outline of your entire paper. This chapter is an opportunity to demonstrate you have a sufficient command of the standard of grammar, style, and language needed to produce an important scholarly text.

Review of Literature

It is likely your paper will require you to collect a certain amount of primary source material or data, which upon analysis may alter the focus or course of your work. It may mean going back to look at other sources to find relevant texts that either agree or disagree with the results or findings from your research. Therefore, you might think it advisable to wait until the rest of your dissertation is complete to write this section. However, this is not recommended for a number of reasons:

  • Making notes on academic source materials as you study them is the only reliable way to understand the texts you are reading and absorb the most important points. Therefore, for this reason, it is very important to read and review all relevant literature.
  • In the case of MSc-level dissertations, examiners allocate marks according to the student’s progress, which may be calculated as the individual chapters are compiled. So, the literature review you do may be the only proof of how well your dissertation is progressing. Knowing this, you can probably see how important it is to review all available literature and write this chapter as soon as possible. This is even more critical if you want to upgrade from a Ph.D. to an MSc. In this case, your course supervisor may be able to help but only if they are convinced you are making good progress as shown by how well you have reviewed existing literature.
  • Is this particular book or journal in any way related to the objectives of your dissertation and could you use it to advance any theories? You should then explain how the book or journal helped you progress your research.
  • How does a given book or journal contribute to your existing knowledge of the topic and in what way can it be compared to the scholarly materials produced by various other subject matter experts? You should additionally make clear how this information is similar or different to other works in similar fields.

Do your best to compare, contrast, and/or combine the views and ideas of various other authors. However, you should not simply repeat what any given author has said and follow this with a summary of the work of some other author.

You will find a range of online resources offering more information on how to do a literature review.

You should use this chapter to undertake a critical review of any previous research that has been done in your field of interest. An effective and current review of literature means critically analyzing material, and writing about any sources you identified in a thorough and informative manner. It should additionally show how your research contributes to existing work in this field.   

Research Method(s)

Defending the Research Method(s) You Chose

The dissertation structure allows this section to be included either in the actual introduction chapter or as a separate chapter (with much dependent on the nature of the literature review chapter). The main purpose of a methodology chapter is to help readers understand how your study was conducted. Here, you should attempt to provide answers to the following important questions:

  1. What is/was the fundamental philosophy in your study?
  2. What methods of the investigation did you use?
  3. What method(s) did you use for collecting data?
  4. How did you analyze collected data?

You should describe the method(s) you selected for your study in this chapter and provide justification for your choice. 

This is what you need to do for interviews and survey sheets:

  1. Decide the rationale for individual questions – the reasons why the data is required and how it will be used.  
  2. Justify your reasons for selecting particular survey respondents or interviewees – what makes you think they would provide reliable, unbiased and truthful data? 

The above points represent how the structure of your research should progress and stand up to evaluation. It is in this section you explain the methods used to conduct your research, collect data, and assess the data you used, and why you think these particular methods are the most suitable for your study.

Results/Findings Chapter

Where a research project gathers large volumes of quantitative data, it is most likely the paper’s results chapter will be a straightforward and simple representation of this data. It is recommended you start with a description of the unit and model under evaluation, and data would most probably be best represented in a number of charts.

Where a piece of research has one or more phenomenological elements it can be difficult to separate the analysis and results sections. Therefore, in this chapter, you should attempt to justify and explain any data you used. You might find diagrams and illustrations useful here to provide readers with a clear and concise picture.

Data Analysis Section

The process of analyzing data is one that involves interpreting and accurately representing the data concerned. Usually, qualitative-type data i.e. that of (mostly) the non-numerical variety, is obtained by minimizing targeted data and putting a structure to it. Analyzing quantitative data generally involves mathematical-type interpretation and uses standard statistical analysis methods.

Analyzing Data of a Quantitative Nature

Descriptive Statistical Analysis

This would typically involve a 30-question questionnaire with the potential to general large volumes of research data. One hundred participants will complete this questionnaire, resulting in 3,000 items of raw data, which will need to be transformed into a readable version. This format will allow readers to better understand the collected data. The resulting descriptive or summary statistics can be used to demonstrate and present an overview of the analyzed data.

Analyzing Statistics of an Inferential Nature

Here, it is necessary to draw assumptions regarding the population’s view – i.e. from sample data – since it would not be possible to speak individually to or collect data from every single person.

To record the statistics in a dissertation structure - any sample taken will merely be a representation of the population viewpoint - you will need to provide a comprehensive justification regarding your choice of sample. In any case, the data sample is not likely to provide an exact picture of every item or characteristic. A number of statistic analysis methods exist to measure unknowns or uncertainties. You should document these in your dissertation.

Discussion Section

It is always a good idea to get into the habit of discussing the reason(s) for your research project for the benefit of readers. It is also imperative to provide some type of introduction to the research question(s) and a discussion section on the research method(s) used for investigating any unanswered or unresolved questions. One thing you should keep in mind is that the discussion chapter is a great opportunity to demonstrate your academic skills. You will have the chance to act as your own critic when measuring the validity and reliability of your research findings. Think about what you have learned in the course of undertaking this piece of research, and think also how you could improve your efforts and/or do things differently if you were to do it again. From the research results you obtained, do you truly believe you have achieved the required outcome, with specific reference to the sample data available to you? How probing or challenging are your claims and statements regarding your research results, with particular reference to your oral presentation?

  1. A summary of the most significant findings as derived from the investigative work you did.
  2. A reflection on the findings as evidenced in this particular study.
  3. Careful analysis of all results, which may fail to fully support your hypothesis or might only do so in a partial way.
  4. Any limitations that apply to the work you did, which can have an impact on the legitimacy and/or accuracy of the results.

Within this chapter, you should discuss any strong or weak points related to your research and identify any limitations.

Concluding Chapter

In most cases, the first thing examiners do is read the introduction chapter and then make their way through the subsequent chapters. Consequently, you should re-check your conclusion paragraph very carefully to establish if you have or have not achieved your objectives. If you have failed to achieve any objectives, you should explain why. As a matter of best practice and in the interests of consistency, it is recommended you use similar language to that used in the objectives section. Your first focus should be on the study and then you can widen your horizon to include discussion or suggestions about other sections, and additionally on any future work that may be necessary for this field. The most challenging part of this type of study is possibly summarizing it. It is important to avoid repetition and a good idea to present individual points in a bulletted format for greater clarity. In any case, the section covering analysis will provide an option for additional studies in the future. However, in the conclusion chapter, you should mention the possible research methods that may be used/implemented. 

In terms of dissertation structure and the concluding chapter, the following are a few additional suggestions:

Refer where appropriate to objectives 

  1. Provide a synopsis of key points showing the method(s) used to address/answer the research question(s).  
  2. Show readers the proposition directions of the undertaken study; say who might be able to impact the results and what the influences on these may be.
  3. Bear in mind that you should not introduce any fresh information or opinions in the conclusion. These should be presented in the analysis and discussion chapters.
  4. Identify any weaknesses in your research and any limitations that might have affected the work and the outcome.
  5. Suggest any further research that should or could be undertaken in the future and how the work you have done might help.
  6. It is possible that the time you spend creating an effective introduction could prove valuable in creating a convincing and compelling end to your dissertation. 

The concluding chapter should include and integrate every aspect of your main argument to arrive at a convincing answer to the question presented at the outset. The answer you provide should additionally provide justification for the conclusion. It is also beneficial to envisage any ways the research topic could be further developed in the future. Furthermore, you should indicate whether or not the research findings can be practically implemented or if they can be applied in real-life situations. 

References Section

Do not forget to include – once only - the titles of any articles or books when using the numbering or the Vancouver referencing system. Otherwise, this section will get too long and an overly-long list may harm you if checking the legitimacy of your work proves extremely tedious for an examiner. That person will be forced to comb through a really long list and they may get confused or overlook one or more important references.

In fact, the Harvard referencing system is the best option. The format in this system is a lot shorter and it is obligatory to list references in alphabetic order by author name. This helps prevent repetition and confusion and will consequently reduce the bibliography requirements. Additionally, the bibliography can be used to include sources that are not necessarily cited in the actual paper and, therefore, not entered in the reference list. The Harvard referencing system is the preferred system in most UK colleges and universities. 

Bibliography (if needed)

A dissertation’s bibliography is a list of every source used in the preparation of such a paper. Entries are placed in alphabetic order under the surname of the author and include sources that are not cited in the actual paper.

It is important to mention every resource that information was collected from. If sources are not cited correctly, you may be accused of plagiarism and/or get a failed grade. Therefore, accurate source citation is critical.

Appendices (if needed)

To prevent any oversight in respect of your dissertation topic, it is essential to clearly refer to appendices in your dissertation’s main body. You may view this last section as a place for dumping any materials you refer to in your paper where these cannot fit neatly in other parts. As always, quality is better rewarded than quantity. Therefore, any reference materials provided here should be useful. These may be short or quite detailed but fully relevant to the main paper’s topic. For instance, if your study includes surveys or questionnaires, copies of these can be placed in Appendices as proof of their existence and validity, and to show the different methods used for collecting data.

Rule of Thumb for the Structure of a 10,000 Word Dissertation

Writing a Dissertation is an art form. Here is a piece of priceless advice: It has taken twelve (12) years of experiment to create a successful formula for scoring marks in a dissertation.  

Percentage score for the total number of words in correctly completed dissertation structure:

Chapter Name                                               % Score

Introductory Chapter:                                          10%

Review of Literature                                            40%

Research Method(s)                                            20%

Data Analysis                                                     20%

Conclusion Chapter and Recommendations           10%

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