If you are a graduate student with a thesis or dissertation to write, the project can be incredibly daunting.
Where and how to begin? What are the component parts? How is a thesis different from a dissertation? What is methodology? How do I write a literature review? What is the analysis section?
These (and many more) may be the types of questions that you have when it comes to writing your thesis or dissertation.
While the details of your thesis or dissertation will differ from institution to institution, and it is up to you to know what your institution, department, committee, and supervisor are expecting from you, I’ve collected a number of common elements that many theses and dissertations will include.
First things first, let’s start with definitions. What is the difference between a dissertation and a thesis?
Broadly speaking, these two projects may refer to the same thing, or they may be two different things. How’s that for confusing?
To clarify further, a thesis generally refers to a research paper at the Master’s degree level, and a dissertation generally refers to a much longer, book-length research project at the Doctoral level.
However, in some countries, a Master’s thesis might be called a dissertation, and a PhD dissertation might be called a thesis. That said, at the Master’s level students writing a thesis/dissertation will write up a shorter research paper, but a doctoral level project will be a multi-year research endeavour.
Given that, each might have the following key sections:
- Introduction & Problem Statement
- Literature Review
- Methodology Section
Depending on your field or whether this is a Master’s or Doctoral level piece of research, these sections may be longer or more sophisticated. That said, it’s helpful to know what each entails just so that you’re familiar with the component parts, and you have some tips for each section.
Introduction & Problem Statement
Your introduction sets out the context and situates the specific problem that your research addresses. It should include:
- Relevant historical, geographical, or technical information that is relevant to your broader field and your problem in particular.
- A clear articulation of the problem(s) that your research seeks to address.
- If your particular problem or query is part of a larger study or a larger academic conversation around a topic, state that clearly in your introduction.
A literature review is NOT an annotated bibliography or a mere summary of the relevant research. Instead it is a section that demonstrates you have done the relevant reading and research and made sense of that external research. Some tips include:
- Try to group related research together. Are there schools of thought or approaches that different scholars share? Try to summarise their work in categories rather than simply listing one by one.
- Organise the scholarship in a roughly chronological order. It does not make sense to put findings from widely varying decades next to each other without a clear rationale.
This portion of your thesis or dissertation offers you the opportunity to say something about the field in which you work. How do researchers in your field do their work? Is it data-intensive, close reading, theoretical, historical, etc? Some things to consider:
- Each discipline has its own way of doing things, and most fields even have differences within their fields. Not all scholars do work the same way. Clearly state the scope of your research, especially if it is informed by a standard or well-known approach.
- If your method or approach to the research is different or unexpected, this is the place to flag that for your reader.
Depending on your field and the required length of your dissertation or thesis, this portion is the most important part of your research. In this section – be it a theoretical analysis or an evaluation of scientific findings or an assertion of causation based on data – you demonstrate how you make sense of your research. In a doctoral level project, this portion is usually multiple chapters. This section is the opportunity for you to showcase why your research matters. Some things to answer as you approach this portion:
- Are you outlining the significance of new research findings?
- Are you clarifying something in the field?
- Are you qualifying or justifying something that is standard in your discipline?
- Have you exposed something that is often overlooked by other researchers?
Often the conclusion to a long research project like a dissertation or thesis seems rather anticlimactic, but it is, in fact, rather important! Not only are you summarising the most important elements of your findings, but you are also demonstrating how your research can be extrapolated further. For example, you might gesture towards:
- What are some areas that your research opens up for further investigation?
- What other disciplines are impacted by your work?
- What other questions do your findings raise?
- What things do you wish you had explored, but didn’t within the scope of this project?
If you already have a rough draft or outline for your thesis or dissertation, then, great, you are set, and you can tweak and refine it with these insights.
If you are just getting started, then you can take this advice and run with it. I’ve also written about how you can write a dissertation and publish along the way, so make sure you think about the broader research and publication potential that your work possesses.
And, of course, good luck and have fun!