From your earliest assignments in essay writing and, if so instructed, composing book reports, you have been in training for your most challenging academic ordeal: writing a dissertation.
Far more goes into this work than reading a lone book and discussing its finer points or engaging in bouts of critical thinking and committing those ideas to paper.
Writing a dissertation requires you to find a gap in the body of knowledge of your chosen academic subject, devise ways to explore and fill that gap and then, write about every facet of your discovery in meticulous detail while adhering to word count limits, time constraints and structure guidelines.
If writing a dissertation were an emoji, it would be ‘confounded face’ – if not ‘exploding head’.
How should students go about writing a dissertation? What does this work entail and how much research is involved? How do you select a topic for research and prove your hypothesis? How do you establish a hypothesis, to begin with?
Superprof answers all of these questions and more and provides some helpful tips to guide you through the process.
What Are the Steps in Writing a Dissertation?
If you are a particularly enterprising student, you may have wandered into your campus library to check out past students’ dissertations. Perhaps you were dismayed to find that they resemble actual books, complete with chapters, appendices, a title page and a table of contents.
A dissertation may be as long as 30.000 words and include graphs, tables and other visuals.
Undergraduate and graduate dissertations may not need to be quite as long or ponderous as those dissertations by PhD candidates but the format and structure will remain pretty much the same:
- Title page
- Abstract and/or introduction
- Table of Contents
- Literature Review
- Research Methodology
- Reference List
Much like film-making, dissertation-writing is not a sequential process, meaning that your chapters will not be written in the order they are presented, and for a very good reason.
You cannot write an abstract unless you know what your research proves, nor should you write your introduction before you do any research.
To make the matter more complex, your dissertation proposal, a 15- to 20-page document that you submit to the dissertation committee for approval won’t be included in your final work even though you have to disclose your research methodology, indicate the scope of your proposed work and any anticipated constraints and create a timetable for when you project the work to be completed.
Learn more about dissertation proposal particulars and the steps to writing your dissertation in our full-length article.
Choosing Your Dissertation Topic
Dissertation writing would be so much simpler if you could simply pick a topic associated with your field of study and write at length about it, wouldn’t it? But then, you would miss out on some major collateral benefits if that were all there was to the writing process.
Completing your dissertation proves that you can work independently, can maintain focus on a single topic for an extended period and have the tenacity to see a lengthy project to its completion.
These are all qualities that boost your employability once you complete your doctoral thesis, and it all starts with a literature review.
In the planning stages – when you don’t yet know what you will research and write about, you will have to get some idea of which topics remain unexplored or under-explored within your field of study.
Reading through journals, papers and other literature relevant to your field of study, documents recently published – say, within the last seven to ten years will reveal as-yet unexplored areas that you might investigate.
Another way to find possible topics is by reading through past students’ dissertations.
Skimming through those works, you may find a section marked ‘Further Research’ or, embedded throughout the chapters the acronym FRIN, which stands for ‘Further Research Is Needed’.
Consider FRINs gifts from previous doctoral students.
Once you have found three to five topics worthy of exploration, discuss them with your dissertation adviser or committee. They will help you winnow your choices down to the one you will devote yourself to.
Tip: as you conduct your initial search to choose your dissertation topic, take copious notes: the author, the scope of their work, their methodology and conclusions.
You will need this information later, first as you draft your research proposal and later, for your own work.
What Is a Literature Review?
While there is no set rule for what a literature review should consist of, there is a rule for what it shouldn’t be: a listing of what you’ve read, when you read it and how it’s relevant to your research.
Earlier we alluded to a book report – a writing exercise you likely were assigned in primary and secondary school; a dissertation literature review is nothing like that.
You may employ any one of four common strategies or, if your review is longer than average, combine strategies.
If you decide on the theoretical approach to writing about the literature you reviewed, you will discuss important theories, concepts and models you found or you might expound on the significance of a certain theoretical framework common to the literature you read through.
You may consider the thematic approach if you’ve found key themes and/or patterns repeated across several works.
For instance, if your topic addresses unequal access to healthcare, you might designate age groups, gender, geographical areas and types of diseases as key themes, building your literature review around them.
The methodological strategy entails relating findings discovered through different methods of research, namely that results obtained through qualitative research don’t quite match those gained through quantitative research.
Keeping with our healthcare topic: you’ve discovered that the number of people suffering unequal access to healthcare (quantitative) doesn’t match other dissertations' (qualitative) conclusions.
Perhaps the easiest way to write a literature review is to track the topic’s development – from the earliest journal you read to the most recent but remember: this chapter is neither a book report nor a chronological list of sources.
Your literature review is meant to show how you arrived at your topic, the conclusions you’ve drawn from past works and how they spurred you forward.
How to Write the Research Methodology Section
This section of your dissertation serves as a guideline for how you will conduct your research, especially if you need to present your research methodology before your work is green-lighted.
Your literature review plays a large role in how you will collect data and analyse it so be sure that your methodology chapter details why you chose that data and those processes of analysis.
A dissertation’s methodology section typically starts by detailing your research strategy and design, after which you should expound on your philosophical approach to research.
How you will collect and analyse data should make up a significant portion of this chapter, followed by any ethical considerations you’ve taken, the reliability of your data and its limitations, and how generalised your research could be.
The main consideration for an outstanding methodology section is to be as concise as possible – and not just to keep control over your allotted word count.
While you will certainly mention others’ work while laying out your methodology, a long discussion about previous researchers’ methods has no place in your research methodology chapter; such information more rightly belongs in your literature review segment.
Likewise, while you will present and discuss ethical considerations, you should not include tangential considerations that only remotely touch on your topic.
Many dissertation writers contend that the research methodology section is the most difficult to write but, once you know what goes and what doesn’t, you’ll find writing it is not hard at all!
Research Analysis and Presenting Your Findings
You might think that your most strenuous exercise in academic writing is near-complete as you present your findings; still, care must be taken to uphold this section’s requirements.
The findings chapter does not imply you must discuss, debate or justify what your research revealed. It conveys only facts and, at that, only those that support your hypothesis.
Findings that don’t tally with your premise are written up in the Appendix section.
In the Findings chapter, you will give context for the results you’ve obtained by reiterating your research question and your research goals. Chronology is important in this section, as is cohesion.
Each paragraph should yield one result (with explanation) and lead into the next paragraph, which discloses another finding, and so on until you have related every relevant result, closing the chapter out with a concluding paragraph that summarises your findings.
You should keep your tone impartial throughout. Remember: this is not where you discuss your findings or justify your results. Also, you shouldn’t interpret your results nor add any opinions, nor should you include results from any research other than your own.
Writing a PhD dissertation is a marathon of academic writing and the findings section is only the halfway point.
To make sure your work progresses apace and that you won’t have to backtrack, consult with your dissertation supervisor any time you have a question and whenever you finish writing a section so that s/he can point out any shortcomings.
And don’t forget to proofread and edit your work. Happy writing!
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