Irrespectively of the discipline you study, the dissertation will most likely be the most significant and difficult piece of independent work you perform as a student. It will occupy a fair amount of your time, resources and attention, which means that you should approach the task with all seriousness. This guide will help you get your bearings and be prepared to most challenges this kind of work can throw your way.
Dissertation and Thesis: Are They the Same?
If you have been reading up on the subject, you have probably noticed that there is a great deal of ambiguity concerning the job you are about to do. Sometimes it is called a thesis, sometimes a dissertation; so which is right?
In most cases, dissertation is a part of the undergraduate program, while theses are usually associated with Master’s degrees. However, the difference is vague, and a lot depends on the country and the university in question – in some cases the terms are completely interchangeable, in others they are more fixed.
Research Proposal and How to Write It
Research proposal is a document in which you outline the research project you are about to write, draw a plan of your intended work and in general make an effort to persuade those whom it may concern that your research is valuable and can be successfully completed.
Sometimes research proposal is written as a part of a future dissertation, sometimes as a separate work preceding it, sometimes you may not be required to write it at all. However, even in this case it may be a good idea to write it for yourself, as it will help you organize your thoughts and sketch the plan of your work, which is essential for a project of this size.
Unless you are given different instructions, your research proposal should contain the following:
- Introduction, where you delineate the topic, review the literature covering it and existing theoretical background;
- General objectives (if there are more than three, you are probably spreading it too thin and need to trim some fat);
- Methodology – what information you are going to use and how you are going to obtain and process it;
- Schedule – you should already have a deadline by which you are supposed to complete your dissertation, but here you break your work up into parts and define the milestones you can realistically reach by certain dates;
- Potential outcome of your research;
The process of writing the proposal should go along these lines:
Define the Topic of Research
Think of a topic that interests you and/or you have some groundwork in.
Establish Research a Question(s)
Make sure they weren’t covered in previous research carried by other authors, have some practical value and aren’t too broad or vague. A narrow and focused question is almost always better than a vague and general one.
Formulate the Title
It shouldn’t necessarily be set in stone, although some universities frown upon the practice of changing dissertation titles halfway through.
What approach (qualitative, quantitative, a hybrid one) are you going to take? What tools will you use? Where are you going to get data and in what ways? How will you analyze your results?
Get the Approval of Ethical Board or Its Equivalent in Your University
Usually it includes filling in a specialized questionnaire.
A word of advice: consult the university’s guidelines and ask for an appointment with your supervisor prior to doing any full-blown writing. You should have some groundwork to show, but it is better to check with somebody more experienced before you invest time and resources into the project.
Writing an Introduction
Introduction contains a general outline of your thoughts on the subject, reasons why you’ve started this project and what you intend to achieve by it. Despite being the first part of the dissertation proper, writing it is best left until the very end; although you may write a rough draft and update it from time to time as you progress. The contents of an introduction are rather straightforward:
Along with existing solutions you should mention theoretical background and existing literature on the subject.
If you have already written your research proposal, writing an introduction will be easier – you can use it as a basis, with allowance for the fact that you’ve already completed the dissertation. You may find additional tips on writing an introduction in this video:
Writing a Literature Review
This is written to demonstrate that you don’t start your project blind, that you’re familiar with the research on the topic and understand whether there are any gaps in it. However, it doesn’t mean that you should simply enumerate the books you’ve read; rather you should single out the most important theories and points of view you’ve encountered and how they concern the topic you’ve chosen.
Generally, the structure of this section will be like this:
- A couple of paragraphs outlining the area of study and existing literature in general terms;
- Discussion of existing literature, theories and studies;
- Evaluation and criticism of the most relevant studies.
Also bear in mind that you are more than likely to encounter new sources of information as you go along, so be prepared to write and rewrite this section continuously throughout your work on the dissertation.
The most time-efficient approach would be to summarize and reference sources as you read them, subdividing them into thematic groups. As your research progresses, you will be able to refine these groupings and get a better picture of what the scholar landscape of the topic looks like.
Methodology isn’t just an enumeration of methods you’ve used in your work – it shows this side of your project in a broader sense. It’s not just about the methods per se, but also about the ones you’ve concentrated on (qualitative, quantitative or hybrid methods), why you’ve decided that this issue should be studied using this set of methods, what you’ve used as data sources and so on. In short, the structure of this section would look like this:
Make sure to offer an academic explanation and justification of your choices, grounded in the existing literature and theories. It is not enough to say something like “I’ve decided” or “I was interested if this method would prove effective”. You should give a relevant explanation that would rely on the existing theoretical framework. Why were these particular methods selected to research this particular topic?
Basically, you completed methodology section should contain the following:
- Research overview – where you repeat the topic of research;
- Research design – where you detail your project, describe each part separately, define what each part is going to accomplish;
- Data gathering – what exactly you used for data gathering (surveys, questionnaires, interviews, sampling etc.).
Results and discussion sections are probably the most significant part of any dissertation – after all, the purpose of any research is to get results and learn something new. These two chapters may either go separately or be combined into a single section – both approaches have their own pros and cons, but, in most cases, you won’t have a say as to which of them to choose. Consult the guidelines of your university for further information.
The Results section should include the following:
- Results of experimental research;
- Results of statistical analysis;
- Evaluation of whether the results you’ve got are relevant in the context of the research topic;
- Evaluation of whether the results are conclusive;
- Overview of literature supporting your interpretation.
An important point – each result should stem from a corresponding method described in the Methodology section, and vice versa, each method should have a corresponding result. If a particular research method didn’t lead to any significant findings, it is better to exclude it from being mentioned in the dissertation altogether.
Make sure you organize the results in a particular fashion and keep to it throughout the section. There are many variants:
- Chronologically – in the order you’ve used the methods and received the results;
- In the order of significance – from the most to the least important for your topic;
- By question – grouping them according to the questions they cover.
Finally, even if the Results and Discussion sections in your dissertation are separated from each other, you will most likely have to touch upon some discussion points in this chapter. In this case, don’t overdo it and go into too much detail – you will have an opportunity to do so in the next chapter.
Discussion will probably be one of the longest and most elaborate parts of your dissertation – as a rule, it is responsible for about a fourth of the entire word count. In most cases, it is a focal point of the entire paper.
Discussion chapter consists of the following:
- Explanation and interpretation of the received results;
- Answer to your initial research question;
- Justification of your approach to research;
- Critical evaluation of your work.
No research exists in isolation – that is why the main purpose of the Discussion section is to show your work in the context of existing literature, theories and opinions on the subject of research. It is meant to prove that the findings in your work really bring something new and relevant into your field:
However, don’t exaggerate. To “critically evaluate” your own paper means to understand its limitations and implications for further work and research in the field, and you should make it obvious that you are realistic in how you see your project. Nevertheless, when you come to this, start with implications and don’t overdo limitations in a fit of false humility – “realistic” doesn’t equal “self-deprecatory”.
Normally, conclusion is a small separate chapter in the end of a dissertation that sums up everything you’ve done up to this point. Sometimes you may be allowed (or asked) to make it a part of the Discussion chapter. However, it doesn’t influence its makeup:
- Summary of the main results in relation to the goals that you’ve set initially and that you’ve expected;
- Your conclusions;
- Reasons why your research is important;
- Recommendations on future research and/or practical implementation of your findings (if appropriate);
- Final paragraph concluding your work.
As conclusion mostly repeats what already has been said, it is best to keep it short – no more than 4-5 pages.
Other Parts That May or May not Be Necessary
The aforementioned structure isn’t set in stone; different universities and countries may have their own guidelines as to how a dissertation should be formatted and what parts it should include. In most cases, a dissertation will be broken up in this way:
…or very close to it. However, we will briefly mention other sections you may be asked to include.
Usually it contains the author’s name, dissertation title, your course, the name of your supervisor and the date of submission. The exact requirements to contents and formatting entirely depend on your university.
A one-page summary of your thesis. It may be unstructured – in this case you simply summarize your dissertation in any way you please; or structured – meaning that you should introduce subheadings following the structure of the dissertation.
Table of Contents
All headings and subheadings of your dissertation, with corresponding page numbers.
Table of Figures
It is probably unnecessary unless your dissertation has a lot of figures and greatly depends on them.
Here you thank those who helped you, either with information or financially, those who helped you with the writing process (supervisor, proofreader, anybody who read and commented on your work).
Hopefully, this guide will help you deal with your dissertation. However, we will repeat this again: for the best results, make sure you’ve carefully read the university’s guidelines and consulted your supervisor before you begin to do any actual work – requirements may be wildly different from case to case, and what serves as a good approach in one place is unacceptable in another.