How to Write a Dissertation

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There may be no academic project quite as involved or career-defining as the dissertation. Finishing this project should result in a great sense of accomplishment, especially because half of Ph.D. candidates leave graduate school before they obtain their degree. Many of these students are referred to as ABD's, which stands for all but dissertation, meaning they have completed their coursework but did not complete their dissertation.

There's no doubt that writing a dissertation is a huge challenge. However, when you tackle this project with a right understanding of how to maintain your momentum and how to write a Ph.D. dissertation, you can succeed and enter the next chapter of your career with confidence.

What Is a Dissertation?

Before we discuss how to write a dissertation, let's establish what a dissertation is. A dissertation is an in-depth research paper that serves as the culmination of a person's academic degree program, typically a Ph.D. program. This research should demonstrate that the writer has a thorough understanding of the discipline and should contribute unique insights that enrich the field.

Dissertations will look drastically different depending on the area of study, but they will always involve a great deal of research. This could be primary or secondary research. Let's take a look at the difference:

 

  • Primary: Primary research involves generating and analyzing your own data. For example, you might conduct interviews, record observations or measure responses to experimental factors.
  • Secondary: Secondary research does not involve generating your own data. Instead, you draw on previously conducted research, synthesizing and examining various sources to come up with your own analysis.

 

Typically, students work on their dissertation under the oversight of an advisor or committee of readers who check in on the student's progress periodically and read over drafts to provide feedback. When a student has completed their dissertation, they will defend it in front of a panel of experts.

A dissertation defense sometimes involves a public lecture first and then a private examination, or the whole process may be kept private. The degree candidate must be prepared to present their work and answer in-depth questions about their research over the course of multiple hours. The panel will decide if the student deserves to pass and receive their degree. In some cases, they may pass the student with conditions, meaning the student will have to make some alterations or additions to their dissertation.

Dissertations are commonly associated with doctoral programs. However, some graduate programs and even undergraduate may also include a dissertation component. The undergraduate or master's equivalent to a dissertation is typically called a thesis, but it shares many similarities with the doctoral dissertation. The main difference is that you may only dedicate a semester or two to an undergraduate or master's thesis while a Ph.D. dissertation takes much longer.

Doctoral candidates typically spend two to three years on their dissertation after having spent the same amount of time on coursework. With so much time dedicated to a single paper, it is evident that this is not like a research paper most college students are used to. They may resemble books more than essays.

How to Structure a Dissertation

A dissertation involves a great deal of up-front work before you ever start writing. However, it's helpful to understand what the final product should look like in the early stages of your project. You'll likely have to submit a research proposal with an outline of plans for your dissertation, so you should start with an overarching vision for your project, though it may evolve as your research progresses.

Your department will likely specify how to write the dissertation proposal. For example, the outline of your dissertation proposal may include an introduction, research questions, literature review, theoretical framework, methodology and expected findings.

The shape your dissertation takes will largely depend on the discipline you're working in and whether you're mainly employing primary or secondary research to form your argument. Since the majority of dissertations include primary research, let's look at a dissertation format sample that would work for this type of paper:

 

  1. Title page: As with any written work, your dissertation must have a title. Dissertation titles are typically pretty technical and give a concise description of the dissertation's focus. Typically, your university or department will have a specific template you'll follow for your title page. This template will always include the title of your dissertation along with your name, but it may also include things like the names of your university and department as well as your advisory committee.
  1. Abstract: The abstract is a brief summary of your paper. Though you'll be the one to write it, it should be written in the third person. It should include the highlights of your paper, including the main purpose of the paper, the most significant research findings and the main point you want someone to take away from the paper. An abstract may also include a list of keywords that are relevant to your paper. These keywords can help online searchers find your paper once it is published.
  2. Acknowledgments: Typically, students also have the option to include an acknowledgments or dedication page, as well. You may even include both. An acknowledgments page gives you the opportunity to thank certain professors, advisors or other people who helped you conduct your research or helped you formulate your dissertation. A dedication page gives you the opportunity to dedicate your hard work to a special person, which may be one of the aforementioned individuals, or it could be a supportive partner or family member.
  3. Table of contents: You're probably not used to including a table of contents for papers you've written in the past, but dissertations are long enough that readers deserve some help with navigating them. The table of contents is like a roadmap that includes page numbers for every section, including those that have come before, such as the abstract and dedication, all the way to through the appendices.
  4. Lists and keys: The final sections before you get to the text of the dissertation itself consist of lists and keys to help the reader. If you have figures or tables in your paper, you'll need to include a list of these figures with a page number for each figure. You may also need a list of abbreviations or a glossary if you use technical jargon that you want to define up-front. Some writers choose to define terms in their introduction instead.
  5. Introduction: The introduction is where you finally begin to write the dissertation itself. Your introduction gives you a chance to set the tone of the paper, provide necessary background information, define terms and more. Most importantly, the introduction should establish for the reader what your thesis is and should preview the remainder of the dissertation. If you struggle with how to write a dissertation introduction, try leaving it for the end, since you need a complete view of your project to write it effectively.
  6. Literature Review: Even when you conduct your own primary research, it's important to situate this research within a body of work that has come before. Your literature review is where you'll summarize and synthesize the work of previous researchers and scholars that is relevant to your project. The literature review should bring the reader up to speed on the existing body of research related to your topic and should begin to show how your project adds to the discussion.
  7. Theoretical Framework: Some papers also include a theoretical framework. This section allows you to further contextualize your research before getting into the facts of how you conducted your research and what you found. In this section, you explicitly identify existing theories that provide support for your study.
  8. Methodology: Your methodology section should explain and justify your methodological approach to your research. You should cover every aspect of how you went about gathering and analyzing your data. For example, you may say that you collected qualitative data via interviews with 20 people and made notes on patterns or key concepts, and you collected quantitative data via surveys from 200 people. However you gathered your data, you want to be detailed about that process and about how you made sense of the data you gathered.
  9. Results: Your results section is where you share the raw data you gathered. You may want to include tables or charts to help summarize and present this data. You may not include every single data point here. You have appendices for that. Instead, this section may serve as a thorough summary of your results, especially the results that turned out to be significant to your project. The results section should focus only on sharing the facts. Your next section is where you'll comment on these facts.
  10. Discussion: The discussion section is where you'll discuss and analyze the results of your study to make sense of them. In other words, you'll interpret your results for the reader. You can make connections between data points and discuss the significance of your results. You may also reflect on what your results should mean for the field or for future researchers. In addition to discussing the significance and implications of your research, you should also acknowledge any limitations of your research.
  11. Conclusion: The conclusion is where you'll draw your dissertation to a close. Your conclusion should not introduce new information. Instead, you should use it to summarize the highlights of your project. Remind the reader of the answer(s) you arrived at to your research question(s). Summarize the significance of these findings. Your reader should have a sense of completeness when they finish your conclusion, though you can keep the conversation going by making recommendations for future research in the field.
  12. Bibliography: After your conclusion, you'll include your bibliography. Also known as a works cited list or a references list, your bibliography includes citations for every source you reference in your paper. Most of these sources will likely be from your literature review. Depending on your discipline, you'll be expected to use a certain citation style for your references, such as MLA, APA or Chicago.
  13. Appendices: The last section in your dissertation is the appendix or appendices. Since this is not part of the main body of your paper, it's the perfect place for you to share detailed information that may otherwise bog down your paper. What you include will largely depend on the type of research you conducted. You should always include all of your primary research results as an appendix. If you conducted interviews, you'll include the transcripts as an appendix.

Dissertation Tips and Tricks

Writing a dissertation will likely an involved project. Let's take a moment to discuss a few do's and don'ts that can help you turn this long and difficult process into a positive experience that ends in success and launches you into the next stage of your career. Let's start with three dissertation writing tips you should follow:

 

  • Do Set Deadlines: One of the most challenging things about writing a dissertation is that it is a largely independent project which can last for years. This can be especially problematic for people who rely on deadlines to push them to get work done. You can provide yourself with the structure you need by setting deadlines for various stages of your project. Share these deadlines with someone who can hold you accountable.
  • Do Work Consistently: Because dissertations are such long, in-depth projects, it can be all too easy for students to get overwhelmed. Combat this feeling by working consistently so you continually chip away at the mountain before you. Set a structured plan that includes a certain amount of time you plan to work every day or every week. Even if you feel uninspired, do your best to plow ahead during these times.
  • Do Get Frequent Feedback: When you work on a project long enough, you can lose the ability to view it objectively. This is why getting outside feedback from professors, advisors and tutors is so important. Even in the early stages, when you're designing your research project, seek feedback to see if you need to adjust the scope. As you write, ask for feedback on your clarity and other aspects of your document.

Now, let's talk about a few pitfalls to avoid when writing your dissertation:

  • Don't Fall Down the Rabbit Hole: When you read books and articles, you'll notice scholars citing other scholars whose work you feel you should also read. Following these connections is a great way to research, but it can also turn into a never-ending rabbit hole. Make sure to keep your footing and determine when you've read enough. You can't possibly read everything out there, so stick to the most relevant works.
  • Don't Stay Stuck: There are bound to be times when you feel stuck on a project and don't know how to move forward. These times can turn into major setbacks if you allow yourself to stay stuck. So, how can you keep moving forward? Try freewriting. Set a timer and type or write continuously for the duration you set. Try to work out your frustrations and ideas on paper. This keeps you writing and can help you determine a way forward.
  • Don't Overwork Yourself: Though it's important to work consistently, you should also give yourself breaks. Overworking yourself can lead to burn-out and ultimately derail your project rather than help you move forward. Try to schedule weekends and vacations with friends and family so you can give your mind a rest and return to your project with a renewed sense of motivation and a fresh perspective.

Contact 24HourAnswers for Help With Writing Your Dissertation

Writing a dissertation may be a largely independent project, but that doesn't mean you have to go it alone. Any time you feel stuck or need some feedback from someone on the outside, reach out to a tutor through 24HourAnswers. We'll pair you with someone who can provide the feedback you need to enhance your project and keep the ball rolling so you never lose momentum. Submit your questions and your draft, outline or whatever documents you have to share, and you'll receive the valuable assistance you need. Get started today!

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