How to structure a dissertation
A dissertation or thesis is a long piece of academic writing based on original research, submitted as part of a doctoral, master’s, or bachelor’s degree.
Your dissertation is probably the longest piece of writing you’ve ever done, and it can be intimidating to know where to start. This article helps you work out exactly what you should include and where to include it.
Table of contents
Deciding on your dissertation’s structure
Not all dissertations are structured exactly the same – the form your research takes will depend on your location, discipline, topic and approach.
For example, 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.
But if you’re doing empirical research in the sciences or social sciences, your dissertation should generally contain all of the following elements. In many cases, each will be a separate chapter, but sometimes you might combine them. For example, in certain kinds of qualitative social science, the results and discussion will be woven together rather than separated.
The order of sections can also vary between fields and countries. For example, some universities advise that the conclusion should always come before the discussion.
If in doubt about how your thesis or dissertation should be structured, always check your department’s guidelines and consult with your supervisor.
The very first page of your document contains your dissertation’s 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. Many programs have strict requirements for formatting the dissertation title page.
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.
The abstract is a short summary of your dissertation, usually about 150-300 words long. You should write it at the very end, when you’ve completed the rest of the dissertation. In the abstract, make sure to:
- State the main topic and aims of your research
- Describe the methods you used
- Summarize the main results
- State your conclusions
Although the abstract is very short, it’s the first part (and sometimes the only part) of your dissertation that people will read, so it’s important that you get it right. If you’re struggling to write a strong abstract, read our guide on how to write an abstract.
Table of Contents
In the table of contents, list all of your chapters and subheadings and their page numbers. The dissertation contents page gives the reader an overview of your structure and helps easily navigate the document.
All parts of your dissertation should be included in the table of contents, including the appendices. You can generate a table of contents automatically in Word if you used heading styles.
List of Figures and Tables
If you have used a lot of tables and figures in your dissertation, you should itemize them in a numbered list. You can automatically generate this list using the Insert Caption feature in Word.
List of Abbreviations
If you have used a lot of abbreviations in your dissertation, you can include them in an alphabetized list of abbreviations so that the reader can easily look up their meanings.
If you have used a lot of highly specialized terms that will not be familiar to your reader, it might be a good idea to include a glossary. List the terms alphabetically and explain each term with a brief description or definition.
In the introduction, you set up your dissertation’s topic, purpose, and relevance, and tell the reader what to expect in the rest of the dissertation. The introduction should:
- Establish your research topic, giving necessary background information to contextualize your work
- Narrow down the focus and define the scope of the 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
- Give an overview of your dissertation’s structure
Everything in the introduction should be clear, engaging, and relevant to your research. By the end, the reader should understand the what, why and how of your research. If you need more help, read our guide on how to write a dissertation introduction.
Literature review / Theoretical framework
Before you start on your research, you should have conducted a literature review to gain a thorough understanding of the academic work that already exists on your topic. This means:
- Collecting sources (e.g. books and journal articles) and selecting the most relevant ones
- Critically evaluating and analyzing each source
- Drawing connections between them (e.g. themes, patterns, conflicts, gaps) to make an overall point
In the dissertation literature review chapter or section, you shouldn’t just summarize existing studies, but develop a coherent structure and argument that leads to a clear basis or justification for your own research. For example, it might aim to show how your research:
- Addresses a gap in the literature
- Takes a new theoretical or methodological approach to the topic
- Proposes a solution to an unresolved problem
- Advances a theoretical debate
- Builds on and strengthens existing knowledge with new data
The literature review often becomes the basis for a theoretical framework, in which you define and analyze the key theories, concepts and models that frame your research. In this section you can answer descriptive research questions about the relationship between concepts or variables.
The methodology chapter or section describes how you conducted your research, allowing your reader to assess its validity. You should generally include:
- The overall approach and type of research (e.g. qualitative, quantitative, experimental, ethnographic)
- Your methods of collecting data (e.g. interviews, surveys, archives)
- Details of where, when, and with whom the research took place
- Your methods of analyzing data (e.g. statistical analysis, discourse analysis)
- Tools and materials you used (e.g. computer programs, lab equipment)
- A discussion of any obstacles you faced in conducting the research and how you overcame them
- An evaluation or justification of your methods
Your aim in the methodology is to accurately report what you did, as well as convincing the reader that this was the best approach to answering your research questions or objectives.
Next, you report the results of your research. You can structure this section around sub-questions, hypotheses, or topics. Only report results that are relevant to your objectives and research questions. In some disciplines, the results section is strictly separated from the discussion, while in others the two are combined.
For example, for qualitative methods like in-depth interviews, the presentation of the data will often be woven together with discussion and analysis, while in quantitative and experimental research, the results should be presented separately before you discuss their meaning. If you’re unsure, consult with your supervisor and look at sample dissertations to find out the best structure for your research.
In the results section it can often be helpful to include tables, graphs and charts. Think carefully about how best to present your data, and don’t include tables or figures that just repeat what you have written – they should provide extra information or usefully visualize the results in a way that adds value to your text.
Full versions of your data (such as interview transcripts) can be included as an appendix.
The discussion is where you explore the meaning and implications of your results in relation to your research questions. Here you should interpret the results in detail, discussing whether they met your expectations and how well they fit with the framework that you built in earlier chapters. 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 and discuss any limitations that might have influenced the results.
The discussion should reference other scholarly work to show how your results fit with existing knowledge. You can also make recommendations for future research or practical action.
The dissertation conclusion should concisely answer the main research question, leaving the reader with a clear understanding of your central argument.
In some academic conventions, the conclusion refers to a short section that comes before the discussion: first you directly state your overall conclusions, then you discuss and interpret their meaning.
In other contexts, however, the conclusion refers to the final chapter, where you wrap up your dissertation with a final reflection on what you did and how you did it. This type of conclusion often also includes recommendations for research or practice.
In this section, it’s important to show how your findings contribute to knowledge in the field and why your research matters. What have you added to what was already known?
You must include full details of all sources that you have cited in a reference list (sometimes also called a works cited list or bibliography). It’s important to follow a consistent citation style. Each style has strict and specific requirements for how to format your sources in the reference list.
To save time creating the reference list and make sure your citations are correctly and consistently formatted, you can use our free APA Citation Generator.
Your dissertation itself should contain only essential information that directly contributes to answering your research question. Documents you have used that do not fit into the main body of your dissertation (such as interview transcripts, survey questions or tables with full figures) can be added as appendices.
Editing and proofreading
Making sure all the sections are in the right place is only the first step to a well-written dissertation. Leave plenty of time for editing and proofreading. Grammar mistakes and sloppy formatting errors can drag down the quality of your hard work.
You should plan to write and revise several drafts of your thesis or dissertation before focusing on language mistakes, typos and inconsistencies.