So far, grad school has been very hard work. But there’s one last ordeal: writing your dissertation.
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There are more types of great dissertations than fields of study. There are more interdisciplinary dissertations than ever too. Hence, it’s important to learn what all good dissertations share. Afterwards, sound dissertation structure can be explained.
What’s a dissertation, really? What’s the point? PhD dissertations have changed markedly over the years. But it’s still the finale of years study and research. Dissertations are written works detailing substantial research projects. And without one, your PhD will never end. (A PhD length can be as short as 3 years in Europe. But it can be over a decade in fields like philosophy. By the way, there are many other reasons not to get a PhD!)
Master’s students typically write master’s theses before being awarded their degrees. However, different countries use the terms thesis and dissertation differently.The typical thesis length is less than the typical dissertation length. Still, this article’s tips apply to both dissertations and theses. Thus, this article uses both terms. Don’t worry about the differences. (Differences between master’s theses and doctoral dissertations are often defined by your graduate program.)
And of course:
This leads to the second tip. Read the guidelines for your graduate program! Your university has important rules too. But most university guidelines focus on formatting. Aspects like margins, fonts, tables of contents, and other specifics affect book binding. But these can be addressed after you finish writing. Remember, graduate program guidelines will most directly impact the content of your dissertation. Read these before, during, and after your writing. Maybe make a checklist. (This video shows how to quickly make a checklist in MS Word.)
But most of all, your writing must meet the standards of your field!
Here’s a shortcut for that:
Skim through an excellent dissertation example or two. There are many internet dissertation and thesis databases. Most universities host these works on searchable databases. (Hint: these are great sources of free sample dissertations!) Or you could get a sample dissertation by asking your advisor for his or hers. This also gives you insight into your PhD advisor’s idea of a good dissertation. (By the way, your advisor should be a key source of dissertation help.) Or borrow a dissertation from any PhD. (Most have a copy of theirs!)
In short, find a dissertation that exemplifies an excellent dissertation in your field. Because standards differ widely among fields, you should find your own dissertation template. (And this is the closest thing.)
The last section described the extent to which dissertations differ. But all dissertations share some components. All have a title page, table of contents, dissertation acknowledgement, dissertation abstract, and introduction. But they differ in the other dissertation chapters. Understanding the goals of these sections is important to writing them well. (These later chapters of a dissertation differ among fields, so they’re described later.)
The title page is simple. It should contain your title, name, university, department, graduate program, and submission date. This is like any other title page. Just follow your university guidelines. Make sure that you’ve formatted this correctly. It must contain the right information. Stick to the rules.
The table of contents is also easy. It lists each of the chapters of your dissertation. It might list figures as well. And it must be in the format required by your university. Obviously, you should write this section last. Can anyone figure out page numbers before finishing writing? (Probably not. But MS Word can make a table of contents that updates on its own!)
The dissertation acknowledgement is a special part of every dissertation. In the acknowledgement, PhD students thank the people that made everything possible. This includes research, education, and even life. Here, you thank advisors and professors as well as peers, family, and friends. Your acknowledgement can be warm and personal. But it should be formal, like those in the beginnings of books. The typical length of a dissertation acknowledgement is fewer than 2 pages. And you should write your dedication second to last.
The dissertation abstract summarizes years of work. And it usually does so in fewer than 500 words. Obviously, it should indicate your findings and conclusions. It should also summarize your research methods and any literature reviews in your text. This is a section that is highly regulated by university guidelines. This is because many universities upload dissertations to online databases. Without uniformly formatted dissertation abstracts, these databases wouldn’t be searchable. And again, you should write your dissertation abstract after you’ve written most text. Only the table of contents and dissertation acknowledgement should be written later. You can’t summarize your work in an abstract until it’s nearly done. (This should be obvious.)
The remaining chapters differ based on your subject. Later, this article discusses common chapters of a dissertation. (Typically, only humanities have dissertation results sections and dissertation discussion sections. Science dissertation structures differ.)
Again, there are huge differences among fields in what constitutes a great dissertation. Still, here are some tips to get you started on any dissertation.
- Find the dissertation help before you start. Some people only need a dissertation support group. Others need a dissertation coach. Many need custom dissertation writing services. (But remember that many universities require you only use an editing service. Many prohibit using any dissertation writing service.) Whatever dissertation writing assistance you need, find your dissertation help services now. Do this before you’re in trouble. You won’t have time to find good dissertation helpers if you are struggling. Don’t wait!
- Review your proposal. Don’t just check your dissertation proposal abstract. Read the whole thing fully. Do this even if your dissertation proposal length is 100 pages. You should make sure you executed your dissertation as your proposal proposed. Otherwise, you’ll have upset committee members.
- Review your graduate program and university guidelines. It’s hard enough to write and defend a dissertation once. Imagine repeating the process because you didn’t meet these guidelines. Get it right on the first try.
- Talk to your graduate advisor. This hopefully sounds like obvious advice. But too many graduate students feel ignored by their own dissertation advisors. But you must insist upon getting dissertation or thesis help from them. That doesn’t mean you should scream “write my dissertation!” or “write my thesis!” at your advisor. (That’s a bad idea!) But it does mean you should ask if they can review a draft. At minimum, ask for their thoughts before you start writing your dissertation. In general, contact with PhD advisors is the key to grad school success. (Remember this!)
- Ask your peers for help. Do this before you start writing. Ask other graduate students if they can read your chapters as you finish them. Find someone to read your dissertation discussion. Find someone else to read your dissertation results. Get scrutiny and help from peers now. Then, you’ll be way more confident about your completed text. (Remember, new grad students love to help. It’s how they learn.)
- Stay calm! This sounds dumb. But it’s vital to your success! Try meditation. Take up yoga. Exercise daily. These things help!
These tips work for all fields. But it’s also useful to consider some of the big differences among fields. Expectations and writing processes differ a lot from one field to another. The biggest split is between the sciences and the humanities.
A dissertation or thesis always explains years of research. But how it achieves that goal depends on what you are studying. The process for writing science and humanities dissertations are distinct.
Is your PhDprogram in biology or chemistry? If so, you may have published your research during your studies. This is considered great training for becoming a real scientist. (And it’s a way for your graduate advisor to get more work from you. Spending more time producing published research for your advisor is considered superior to just learning.)
There’s one nice side effect of this style of science PhD training. Many universities allow PhD students to submit dissertations composed of published scholarly articles. Some PhD students even submit so-called “paperclip dissertations.” These consist only of published articles. In this case, dissertation writing began when the students wrote their first articles. The final writing process then becomes much easier. These students only have to write an introduction, abstract, acknowledgement, table of contents, and title page. All the hard work was already done! These lucky students may finish writing in just two weeks.
Life is harder for humanities graduate students. (Sadly, this is always true.) Is your PhD in history, literature, or even a more quantitative humanity like the social sciences? If so, you will probably write your dissertation within a single block of time. Perhaps you will have a summer. Or maybe you will have an entire semester. But the humanities don’t produce many peer-reviewed publications. Thus, humanities students don’t often submit “paperclip dissertations.”
Thus, it’s important for humanities students to secure a final semester scholarship. Such funding sources can ensure sufficient free time to write. (Just imagine trying to teach while writing a dissertation!) It’s also important that humanities PhD students master time management. Here’s one approach that works well. Set realistic deadlines for each of the chapters of a dissertation.
Science dissertations are collections of highly related studies. Thus, they don’t contain distinct results and discussions as chapters. Rather, each chapter has its own results and discussion sections. Hence, humanities students should read the next four sections of this article. (But science students may want to read about intros and then skip ahead.)
The introduction should obviously introduce your subject. A strong introduction motivates your research. It frames the PhD student’s work as an obvious extension of previous work. Or it indicates how the work fills a gap in the field. A dissertation introduction has the same role as an introduction in a standard 5-paragraph essay. Simply put, it makes your work sound clear and important! Don’t forget this!
Typically, a dissertation introduction is a literature review. Using previous research to motivate your own work is the goal of these introductions. But a strong introduction may also be adapted into a review paper. (Never waste a chance for a publication.)
In this same vein, you should look for other sources of text for your introduction. Dig up your dissertation proposal! Have you already written a great introduction? Then use it! Or, more likely, use parts of it! Reusing your proposal can save you tons of time. (But check your university guidelines to see if students are allowed to do this.) If you do this, you’ll also probably have crisper text. Each revision makes text better.
But here’s the kicker:
Your introduction should end by teasing readers with your main findings. Consider the thesis statement of an essay. Similarly, your introduction should end by indicating your key findings. If you’re a science student, indicate if you rejected your general hypothesis or hypotheses. If you’re a liberal arts student, provide a broad summary of your results.
Scholarly works aren’t novels! You won’t spoil the ending if you indicate your findings in your introduction. Rather, you will actually engage your readers more fully.
Next comes the meat of your dissertation: the methods, results, and discussion sections. (Again, skip this if you’re a science student.)
Many humanities students won’t need to write lengthy methods sections. But dissertations in the social sciences or quantitative fields like statistics need methods sections. It’s always important to describe any quantitative or statistical techniques in a scholarly work. This info should be precise enough to let researchers in your field duplicate your work.
You should also indicate the source of your data. Data from a third party should be explained as though you collected it yourself.
You should also cite other studies or dissertations that used similar techniques or data. But you should not discuss their findings or conclusions. (You can break this rule if a previous result directly shaped your experiments. But this is much more appropriate in the introduction or discussion sections.)
What if you’re a PhD student in the liberal arts? In this case, your research likely involved visiting libraries and archives. As such, you should indicate which libraries and archives you visited! You should also describe any other unique efforts you made to better understand your subject.
Liberal arts PhD students should also provide methods sections. But they may benefit from combining their results and discussion section. (Again, this is a situation where you should base your decision on a dissertation example. Use these as a results and discussion sample to see what is normal in your field.)
The results chapter provides summaries of the data you collected or analyzed. It should also contain any analyses of those data sets. For sciences and social sciences, this makes results chapters distinct. There should be many, many graphs and statistical analyses in these dissertation results chapters.
There should be far fewer citations. Most will have no citations.
Check any good results and discussion dissertation example. You’ll see they contain almost all the figures. Moreover, most figures should be in the dissertation results. For most students, this is where all the figures are. Figures in your introduction should only present previous research.They should never give your own findings.
In the discussion section, you place your research in its scholarly context. Like the introduction, the dissertation discussion should cite many previous studies. But here, you don’t use them to motivate your study. Instead, you use previous research to assess your study—and vice versa.
As such, any good example of a discussion considers weaknesses in the research. This might be mentioning flaws that were unclear before research began. Or this may be a great chance to determine current weaknesses in a field. This is the mark of a dissertation that has truly impacted its field.
You might be thinking:
“This is all nice. But how do I end this thing!?” You may have written so much that it’s difficult to stop. But you must! Thus, here are a few dissertation conclusion tips:
- Revisit your hypothesis (or hypotheses) from your introduction. Did your findings match your expectations? This must be crystal clear for every reader.
- Identify any new questions raised by your findings. The best research raises more questions than it answers. Don’t let your committee point out these new questions to you at your defense. Show that you understand the field enough to define these new questions. (And give your best hypotheses and guesses to these questions.)
- Explain what needs to be done to move the field forward. Your discussion should suggest follow-up studies to resolve new questions. This is the most vital way to engage in a field. This pushes fields forward.
- When in doubt, ask your advisor for help. They should understand your findings as well as you. Thus, they may help focus your conclusion.
After you write your discussion, continue on to writing your abstract, acknowledgement, and table of contents. (Remember those sections from earlier?) But wait a second. You’re still not done then! (But you’re close!)
Do you think you are done writing? Use this checklist to ensure you’re actually done!
- Proofread, proofread, and then proofread again! A well-written dissertation does not have any spelling errors or typos. Maybe 200 pages of perfect text sounds But if your whole dissertation length has perfect grammar, it shows you care about your writing. (This can make your committee happier during your dissertation defense.) You may even want to use an editing service to proofread your text. (At least one recent PhD student ignored all punctuation. But this caused a lot of trouble. Don’t do this!)
- Ask yourself, “Will this please my committee?” Think about your committee members. Consider their previous concerns. Ponder their research programs. And cite their research! Making your committee happy is vital to a successful defense. Your committee probably has some big egos. Don’t offend them now! Flatter them, but not too much.
- Check your table of contents. Do the pages listed in your table of contents match your sections? This is a common error. But it’s easy to fix. So fix it!
- Make sure your dissertation is properly formatted. University dissertation guidelines can be very strict. Few students meet all the formatting guidelines on the first submission. Many universities have checklists for this. Use them! They’ll save you some trouble.
Did this article help you? Did you make it through the checklist? If so, that’s excellent! Take a break! You deserve it. Then submit your writing. If not, read the article again. Take notes even!
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