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How to Structure a Dissertation

Following on from our last post on how to write a dissertation, we are now going to cover how to structure your work in your final dissertation.

Whilst every dissertation should have an introduction, one or more substantive chapters and a conclusion, other content can vary by subject and/or degree level.

We will set out a full structure, including elements that may not be required for your individual dissertation, and a summary of what each section should contain. Just leave out any part that is not required by your department.

Title Page

The title page usually includes your name, your student ID, department, degree level, title of the dissertation, and submission date.

See How to Write a Dissertation Title for advice on the title of the dissertation.

Your department should advise you on the required formatting.

Abstract

An abstract is a summary of the whole dissertation and should be written in future tense. The abstract should be somewhere between 250–750 words.

An abstract is not always required. You should check with your department if they have not already informed you as to whether an abstract should be included.

For writing tips see Writing a Dissertation Abstract.

If required, check with your department for the required length and format.

Contents

The contents page comes after the title, or abstract if you have one, and like any contents page just lists the starting pages of each section.

The contents page should be written last to ensure all sections are included and the correct page numbers used.

Introduction

The introduction should explain what is covered in the dissertation, why you have chosen the topic and how the dissertation is structured.

Close the introduction with a paragraph that leads smoothly into the main content.

You can write the introduction after you have written the substantive chapters if it helps.

Methodology

The methodology section should set out which research method is being used and why you have chosen that method over others.

If your dissertation includes primary quantitative or qualitative research, a methodology section will be mandatory.

If your dissertation focuses on secondary research or is in a theory subject a methodology may not be required.

See How to Write a Methodology for writing advice and a selection of methodology reference books.

Literature Review

A literature review is an evaluation of existing research and should develop an in-depth discussion and attempt to identify a gap in knowledge.

A literature review is usually mandatory if your dissertation includes primary research.

For dissertations focusing on secondary research or in theory subjects, there may be an ongoing dialogue with existing literature throughout the body of your work so a separate literature review might not be required.

For writing advice, see How to Write a Literature Review.

Substantive Chapters

Sequential substantive chapters make up the main body of the dissertation.

Think of the chapter structure like paragraphs in an essay. Each chapter should address a different aspect of the dissertation.

The number of chapters varies but the average is three to five.

For quantitative research you should present your hypothesis, its operationalisation, and the outcomes. One or more chapters should then follow with your interpretation of the outcomes.

For other dissertations, each chapter usually covers a different sub-topic within the main topic.

Many departments require a specific style to be used for citations, such as Harvard or Oxford Referencing.

Conclusion

The conclusion should summarise the arguments you made in the substantive chapters.

Acknowledge any limitations or gaps in the dissertation and pre-empt any counter arguments.

Give an indication of where future research in the topic might lead.

Bibliography

Although placed after the conclusion, you should begin compiling the bibliography the day you start your research.

The bibliography will evolve over the course of your research. Remember to take note of any sources you use.

Double check your dissertation when finished to make sure that any source cited is included in the bibliography.

Check with your department as to which referencing style should be used. You can generate references in various styles using these referencing tools.

Appendices

Some dissertations will require an appendix or appendices.

This is especially true of dissertations with primary research in which appendices might contain graphical sources consulted such as maps, charts, photos etc.

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