How to Structure a Dissertation?

A dissertation refers to the long piece of academic writing usually based on original research submitted as part of a postgraduate degree. As a graduate student, your dissertation is most likely the longest piece of work you have ever written and knowing where to start or how to go about it can be a little intimidating.

The structure of a dissertation is typically dependent on your field and university. However, your dissertation will most likely be divided into at least four or five chapters with preliminary and supplementary pages.

To be able to write a winning dissertation, the very first thing you need to understand is how to structure a dissertation. This article will walk you through what exactly is to be included in your dissertation and where to include them.

Common dissertation structure

Dissertation Structure

All dissertations are not usually structured in the same way. The structure of your dissertation is usually dependent on your location, discipline, topic, and approach.

However, your dissertation should generally contain all of the following elements:

  • Title page
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstracts
  • Table of contents
  • List of figures and tables
  • List of abbreviations
  • Glossary
  • Introduction
  • Literature review and theoretical framework
  • Methodology
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Reference list
  • Appendices

The order of these sections may vary between fields and countries. Therefore, if you are in doubt about how your dissertation should be structured, you can check your department’s guidelines or consult with your supervisor.

check markTitle Page

The title page is usually the first page of your dissertation. The title page typically contains your dissertation’s title, your name, department, institution, degree program, and submission date. There are also instances where you will be required to include your student number, your supervisor’s name, and the university’s logo.

There are usually strict rules on how to format your dissertation title page, usually depending on your field of study and writing format. Additionally, your title page is the first impression the marker will get from your work. This is why you need to invest time to come up with a title that is succinct, specific, and representative of your entire research.

check markAcknowledgments

For some, the acknowledgment section is usually optional. It is a space reserved for you to thank everyone who helped you in writing your dissertation. The people you thank generally include supervisors, friends, or family who supported you and participants in your research.

check markAbstract

The abstract or executive summary (for some fields) provides the reader with a big picture view of your research work. The abstract should give the readers an understanding of the key insights and findings from your research, without them needing to read the whole dissertation.

The abstract is usually about 150-300 words long and should be written at the end after completing the rest of the dissertation.

check markTable of Contents

The table of contents is a straightforward list that contains all chapters and subheadings and their page numbers. The table of contents page gives the reader an overview of the structure of your dissertation, which helps them easily navigate the document.

The table of contents should contain all the significant parts of your dissertation, including the preliminary and supplementary pages. Also, an automatic table of contents can be generated using Microsoft words to ensure no heading is missing in your table of contents.

check markList of Figures and Tables

A list of figures and tables is a numbered list that contains the tables and figures in your dissertation. If you have several tables and figures in your dissertation, it is compulsory to add a list of figures and tables. Plus, you can automatically generate your list of figures and tables using the Insert Caption feature in Microsoft Word.

check markList of Abbreviations

If your dissertation contains several abbreviations, then you can include them in an alphabetized list of abbreviations. This is done to help the reader to look up the meanings of those abbreviations easily.

check markGlossary

The glossary section acts like a dictionary for your dissertation. If your dissertation is filled with specialized terms that will not be familiar to your reader, then you need to include a glossary. The glossary typically lists the specialized terms in alphabetical order giving a brief description or definition for each term.

check markIntroduction

The introduction is usually the first chapter of your dissertation. Plus, it contains the set up to the purpose and relevance of the research as well as tell the reader what to expect in the rest of the dissertation. Your introduction should be written in such a way that it addresses the following questions:

  • What your research hopes to investigate.
  • What is the reason for the research and how important the research is to academia
  • What are the aims of the research as well as the research questions
  • What methods do you hope to use to carry out your research

check markLiterature Review and Theoretical Framework

Before the commencement of your research, you are expected to conduct a thorough literature review to help you gain an in-depth understanding of the academic work that already exists on your topic. A literature review is usually done by collecting sources, selecting the most relevant ones, critically evaluating and analyzing each source, and drawing connections between them to make an overall point.

Most times, the literature reviews become the basis for a theoretical framework. The theoretical framework helps you define and analyze the key theories, concepts, and models that frame your research.

check markMethodology

The methodology chapter usually describes how your research was conducted for the reader to assess its validity. The methodology aims to report how the research was carried out accurately. Also, it a way to convince the reader that the method you chose is the best approach to answering your research questions or achieving the objectives of the research.

check markResults

The next chapter, after the methodology, is where you report the result of your research. This chapter can be structured around sub-questions, hypotheses, or topics. For the result section, you expected only to report the results that are relevant to your objectives and research questions.

This section mostly includes tables, graphs, and charts. These help to provide extra information as well as serves as a way to usefully visualize the results in a way that adds value to the text.

check markDiscussion

For some fields of study, the discussion section is usually together with the result section, while for some, it is separated. The discussion section is where the meaning and implications of your results in relation to your research questions are explored.

The interpretation of the result is done in the discussion section. Also, it is in this section that the results are analyzed to know if they meet the expectation or fit with the research framework.

check markConclusion

The conclusion section of your dissertation is where you should concisely answer the main research question, thereby leaving the reader with a clear understanding of your central argument. Also, the conclusion is usually the final chapter of your dissertation, where you wrap up your research with a final reflection on what you did and how you did it.

Additionally, the conclusion section is where you explain how your findings contribute to knowledge in the field and why your research matters.

check markReference list

The reference list is a section of your dissertation that includes the full details of all sources that you have cited in your work. Also, the reference list must follow a consistent citation style.

check markAppendices

The appendices contain the documents that you have used in the course of writing your dissertation that does not fit into the main body of the text. These documents may include questionnaires, survey questions, interview transcripts, or tables with full figures.

(Also read “Do not squeeze your PhD dissertation into a research paper“)


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By Bizhan Romani

Dr. Bizhan Romani has a PhD in medical virology. When it comes to writing an article about science and research, he is one of our best writers. He is also an expert in blogging about writing styles, proofreading methods, and literature.

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