how to write a doctoral dissertation

A doctoral dissertation is an in-depth piece of academic writing that is grounded in original research and that is usually required to obtain a PhD.

If you’ve already completed your Masters Degree, you’re probably familiar with the ins and outs of academic research.

However, if you’ve only just started your academic journey and are wondering where you’d like to go next or if are looking for more practical guidance during your PhD, you’ve come to the right place.

Here’s how to write a doctoral dissertation from start to finish.

The ABCs of a Doctoral Dissertation

Before we dive into the concrete steps of writing a PhD dissertation, keep these basics in mind:

The words “dissertation” and “thesis” are sometimes used interchangeably depending on the country and university. In the UK, for example, a dissertation is usually written in order to complete an undergraduate or a postgraduate degree while a thesis relates to a PhD. In the US, it is often the opposite. In this article, we’ll use the US term “dissertation”.

Your dissertation may look slightly different and have different requirements than that of a PhD student in another academic field. A doctoral dissertation in English Literature might be structured like an elaborate essay that revolves around multiple supporting arguments and themes for the central question while a doctoral dissertation in Chemistry may have to include methodology, results, and analysis sections that map out your research.

Therefore, strive to check the format with your supervisor and make use of your university materials to ensure you’re following the right template.

Establish open and honest communication with your doctoral supervisor. It’s always better to ask a question than to pretend you know what you’re talking about and then spend hours working on something you won’t be able to use. Your doctoral advisor is there to offer help, guidance, and direction – don’t be afraid to reach out when in doubt.

There are certain differences between a master’s thesis and a doctoral dissertation, such as the length (PhD dissertations are much longer), the type of research (PhD dissertations are usually based on original research conducted by the student – this can include an expansion of or an addition to an existing argument – while bachelor’s and master’s thesis can comment on existing research in the field), and the language (a doctoral piece of work is to be read and understood by academics whilst a bachelor’s thesis, for example, contains language that can be easily grasped by non-academics as well).

RELATED READ: Discussion vs Conclusion: Everything You Need to Know

How to Write a Doctoral Dissertation in 4 Steps

It’s time to break it all down.

Before we begin, however, do remember that what follows is but a general template. While it offers practical guidance that may help you understand what a doctoral dissertation comprises, it is vital that you consult this with your doctoral advisor and check your own university materials.

1) Conduct a thorough literature review

Similarly to a bachelor’s and master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation is based on existing knowledge in the field – or the lack thereof.

When reading through academic papers, books, and journals, it is important that you try to locate a gap that invites new and original research or an argument that could be expanded upon or disproved through your own unique study.

As all experienced academics know, a proper literature review is absolutely crucial when it comes to creating one’s own research question and hypothesis.

2) Write and submit a research proposal

Whether or not you need to submit a research proposal depends on your university and field.

While some research proposals need to be submitted as part of a PhD application, some PhDs are “advertised”, which means the central question is already pre-established. There are also PhD programmes where students are encouraged to develop their research question during their studies.

If you do need to write a research proposal, these are the sections it typically includes:

  • Title
  • Overview (an explanation of what your research question is and how it can contribute to the field)
  • Literature review (the context of your research and an analysis of existing studies and texts on the topic)
  • Methodology (a summary of how you will go about collecting and analysing your data and which type of research you will conduct, e.g., quantitative or qualitative)
  • Potential outcomes (you don’t need to know exactly how your research will be used, however, do try to identify potential outcomes and how your results could be possibly applied)

3) Begin your original research

Once you know what it is you would like to explore, it is time to get to work.

Of course, things aren’t as easy as that.

Oftentimes, it takes PhD students months or years to research and analyze everything they need to know about the topic in question, and if you are conducting an experiment, practical measures (such as facility and equipment use or ethical considerations) must be taken into account.

Here’s a basic overview of the different types of research that can be conducted:

  • Qualitative research (the main focus is on understanding experiences and behaviors through interviews or observations; it prioritizes context and deep understanding)
  • Quantitative research (aims to collect and analyze data on a large scale in order to understand themes, patterns, or relationships; common methods include surveys, experiments, longitudinal studies, secondary data analysis, statistical models, and more)

And here is another way to categorize the various types of studies out there:

  • Experimental (is used to determine relationships between variables in a controlled environment)
    Observational (observes participants or subjects in their natural environment)
  • Exploratory (where very little is known about the topic at hand, this type of research tries to gain a deeper insight through literature reviews, interviews, or focus groups)

… and more.

4) Write up your dissertation

In science-related fields, a doctoral dissertation serves to explain and map out your research. In humanities, the dissertation essentially is the research since it deals with ideas that are dissected and analyzed in the text itself.

The general template for a doctoral dissertation follows a very similar style to a bachelor’s or master’s thesis. The main difference is that a PhD dissertation is much longer, more complex, and on a higher linguistic level.

  1. Introduction (states the main research question and objectives, presents contextual information to help understand the purpose and scope of the research)
  2. Literature review (offers a critical insight into the existing knowledge in the field – analyzes, doesn’t summarize)
  3. Methodology (reports how you went about conducting your research: categorizes the type of research you have done, describes your data collection and analysis methods, details where and when your research took place, and evaluates the efficacy of these methods)
  4. Results (states which results you obtained, how they relate to the main research question, and informs of any additional data)
  5. Discussion (dives into the meaning behind your results and what the potential outcomes and implications are, explains which limitations there have been and the role these limitations play)
  6. Conclusion (wraps up the dissertation as a whole, answers the main research question, explains how the research may contribute to the field)
  7. Bibliography (a list of all references)
  8. Appendices (any additional materials that do not belong in the body of the dissertation, such as interview transcripts, ethical approval documents, technical details, and more)

RELATED READ: 4 Key Steps for Better Academic Editing

3 Things to Remember

Doctoral dissertations take years to write. This is why high-quality editing and proofreading are of the utmost importance. Make sure your draft goes through multiple stages of self-editing, and if you want additional help, don’t forget that there are various AI grammar checkers (such as Grammarly) and professional editing services such as ours.

Make sure your format adheres to your university standards. This includes the title page, the table of contents, font and spacing, citation style, and anything else your university requires.

Again, consult your supervisor when in doubt. They should be able to provide you with a better understanding of what’s expected of you and stir you in the right direction.


Writing a doctoral dissertation is a daunting and complex task. However, it helps to break the process down into manageable steps and to establish regular and honest communication with your doctoral advisor.

If you’re looking for more help when it comes to editing and proofreading your academic work, feel free to reach out to the First Editing team.


Enter your email to subscribe to our newsletter, get free advice and connect with other authors.
I am an author of:  
My email: