How to structure a dissertation

How do you start when you have to write a dissertation or a thesis? You can save yourself some headaches by first typing each element of the structure of your dissertation in Microsoft Word. This simple exercise provides an overview of everything that you still have to do, and it functions as an outline that you can later fill in with the parts of your dissertation.

Structure of a dissertation

Each educational program places slightly different demands on the structure of a dissertation. That’s why it is always a good idea to investigate the requirements of your program. However, the structures of all theses have many common elements.

Title page

The title page is the front page and therefore the eye catcher of your dissertation. The title page contains the title (and subtitle) and perhaps a nice illustration that fits with the study. You can also place your name, educational program and student administration number here.

Information page

The information page gives more information than what can be found on the title page. Here you note again the title (and subtitle), information about your supervisors, information about yourself (name, student administration number and email address) and information about your educational program. Finally, end this page with the date on which the dissertation is submitted.


The preface is a personal note within your dissertation. Here you can give the reader information about the personal background of your dissertation.

In addition, the preface is also used to thank everyone who helped with the production of your dissertation.


As with the preface, the acknowledgements section allows space to thank everyone who helped you in writing your dissertation. In this aspect, the acknowledgement section seems much like the preface, but the difference is that there is no mention of any other information in the acknowledgements section, such as the personal background of your dissertation.

We advise you to use only a preface and to add your words of thanks to it. Only when you want to use a lot of space to thank many people can an acknowledgements section come in handy.

Abstract (Summary)

One of the functions of an abstract is to help the reader decide whether the content of your dissertation is interesting enough to read in more detail. In the summary, you answer four questions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What was done?
  3. What was discovered?
  4. What do the findings mean?

Table of Contents

In the table of contents, list all of your chapters and their page numbers. The table of contents ensures that the reader of your dissertation has an overview and can see on which page a certain chapter begins, navigating the document with more ease. Put all parts of your dissertation in the table of contents, including the appendices. You can easily generate a table of contents automatically in Word.

List of Figures and Tables

All tables and figures that you use in your dissertation are itemized in the list of figures and tables. When you use the ‘insert Caption…’ feature in Word, you can automatically generate this list.

List of Abbreviations

In the list of abbreviations, include all abbreviations of key terms used in your dissertation. By alphabetizing this list, the reader can easily look up an abbreviation. It is a matter of personal preference as to whether the list of abbreviations is placed at the beginning or end of your dissertation, after the list of references.


The glossary is a list of all terms used in your dissertation that require a short explanation. In the glossary, you list the terms alphabetically and explain each term with a brief description or definition.


In the introduction, you introduce the topic and the problem statement, and you describe how your dissertation is constructed. A strong and clear introduction ensures that you win over the reader so that he or she will more eagerly read the rest of your dissertation. You can even use our tips for writing an overview of your dissertation to make sure readers go through your text more easily.

Theoretical framework / Literature review

In the theoretical framework chapter, try to answer all descriptive research questions (the questions that help you define your variables). You can almost always answer these descriptive research questions by conducting a literature study. Use a separate section for each research question.

If you are conducting empirical research and are drafting hypotheses or have already done so, you can use the literature to reject or support a hypothesis. You can also use the literature review to formulate a hypothesis. Later, while conducting qualitative or quantitative research, you will test the hypothesis.

Research design

In this section, you describe the study design, which is part of the research plan. In the study or research design, you explain where, when, how and with whom you are going to do the research. The question of ‘how’ will determine your research method. Are you going to conduct research using a survey or perhaps with an experiment? Another term for the ‘how’ question is ‘research methodology’.

Research results

In the research chapter, you actually carry out the research design that you described in the previous chapter. Thus, here you apply the specified methods. You describe how the research went and you analyze the results.

Conclusion and discussion

In the conclusion, you finally provide an answer corresponding to your problem statement. Often, the results are open to multiple interpretations. That’s why this chapter is called conclusion and discussion.

In the discussion section, you provide the various possible interpretations and views, and you give suggestions for follow-up research.

Recommendations / Advisory plan

The recommendations for follow-up research are always described in the dissertation discussion section. However, many students who are doing a final internship at a company must also write an advisory plan.

In this advisory plan, they make recommendations to the company in response to the conclusions of their study.

Afterword / Evaluation / Reflection

As with the preface, the afterword is often used to thank people. Thus, when you have already written a preface, an afterword is often unnecessary. Another function of the afterword is reflection. That is why the afterword is also referred to as evaluation or reflection.

When you have written the dissertation with another person, you can use the afterword to indicate how the collaboration went and what you have learned. Many students are also required to write a reflection report. The reflection report is often written separately and not added to the dissertation.

Reference list

You list all sources that you have used in the reference list. Your educational program will often specify which style you must use for the acknowledgement of sources. The most prevalent style is APA style.

We have created a free APA Generator for APA style, so that you can easily generate all your sources. When you are following an educational program that uses a different style (e.g. Law), you will have to use appropriate style for that program (e.g. OSCOLA).


Your dissertation itself contains only core issues. Many documents that you have used but which do not actually need to be in your dissertation are added as appendices. If documents contribute to your research, then you must include them in the appendix so that others can check how your research has been conducted and on what it is based.

Common appendix items are interview (questions), tables and analyses.

The structure described above is very handy while writing your dissertation, but you may deviate from this format. How other students have structured their theses can be seen in the dissertation examples.

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