How to Write a Dissertation or Thesis

Writing your dissertation or thesis introduction, body, conclusion, and abstract.

When a student is writing their first thesis or dissertation, it can seem extremely overwhelming! Your thesis or dissertation may be the most important composition a student will ever write. Well, fear not: I am here to help you every step of the way with your thesis dissertation. Incidentally, I will be referencing both ‘thesis’ and ‘dissertation’ when referring to graduate-level essays, and with good reason. In North America, a ‘thesis’ typically refers to a Masters-level essay, while a ‘dissertation’ refers to a Ph.D. essay. In the United Kingdom, however, the terms are reversed, making it necessary to refer to both terms.

The first step in planning your thesis or dissertation is to create a plan. Many students begin their thesis or dissertation by jumping straight into the introduction. I will suggest that instead, your focus at this point should be on writing the outline for your thesis or dissertation (for more information on writing an outline, please see <hyperlink> to “How to Write a College Essay”).  

Now that you have your general outline written for your thesis or dissertation, should can you begin the introduction? Nope, not yet! I am going to walk you step-by-step through the thesis or dissertation process, beginning with the body of your thesis or dissertation. Does this seem counter-intuitive, writing the body before the introduction? It is not. There are many reasons to focus on the body of your thesis or dissertation first. To begin with, if you write your introduction first, you will be mentally restricting yourself to the ideas you’ve put down. You may find yourself trying to fit your thesis or dissertation to your introduction, rather than the other way around. Instead, writing the body of your thesis or dissertation first allows for ‘cyclical editing,’ i.e., continually returning to your thesis statement, revising it against the material you’ve written in your thesis or dissertation body, and returning to the thesis again. By continually checking your body text against your thesis, you will be certain to stay on track. Given that ideas are certain to change during your thesis or dissertation process, consistently reviewing your new ideas against your thesis statement will ensure that your work is on track and not going off on a tangent. Perhaps you will find that after writing some of the body of your thesis or dissertation, you will discover your research will go in a different direction—rendering a time-consuming, well-written introduction or abstract obsolete.

The five major chapters of a thesis or dissertation include the introduction, review of related literature, design and methodology, findings, and conclusion. This guide will walk you step-by-step through the five major chapters of your thesis/dissertation process. Mistakes common to thesis or dissertation writers will also be addressed.

Chapter 1: The Introduction

Thesis or dissertation introductions are extremely important and must contain the following: Background/context; General Statement of the Problem; Significance of the Thesis; Research Questions; Limitations, Assumptions, and Definition of Terms.    

  • Context: the contextual information you provide is a summary of the state of the knowledge on your subject in academic literature. Given that your thesis or dissertation will attempt to address a ‘gap’ in the literature, outlining this carefully for your reader is crucial. Typically, this contextual material for your thesis/ dissertation will be at the beginning of your introduction. Your background section will identify the key research you will be using in your thesis or dissertation and will come from your literature review. Briefly review why this research is particularly important, and most importantly, identify how this research ties to your thesis or dissertation. This can be your first opportunity to check this material against the thesis of your dissertation.
  • General Statement of the Problem: just as it says, at this step in your thesis or dissertation is this general statement, leading immediately from your contextual material.
  • Significance of the Thesis: When outlining your thesis statement, it should be perfectly clear to your reader why this thesis or dissertation is important. Do not leave out this step—this is where you can highlight what value, what importance your thesis or dissertation has to the discourse community in your subject. Those who are reading your thesis dissertation must understand the importance of your research within the domain of knowledge of your area.   Given the complexity of a thesis or dissertation, it is critical that your reader will able to comprehend the contribution your thesis dissertation makes to the entire research area. Please do not be overwhelmed! A couple of paragraphs about the importance of this work and its contribution to the field is great. Would a different perspective on the topic lend value? Why is this ‘knowledge gap’ important? To whom will it be helpful?
  • Research Questions: State your research questions in your thesis or dissertation introduction so that the reader is not only exposed to the aims and objectives but also has a concrete framework for where the thesis or dissertation is headed. Here is the opportunity to address the ‘gap’ in the research mentioned above. It is not enough to just outline the gap—you want your readers to understand WHY you are writing about this subject: what is at stake? Why is this important? What would happen if this research were not performed? To begin, start with “My research focus is”; this will help orient yourself and your reader. Does your thesis statement make sense according to your background information? Could your reader flip to the Literature Review section and say, ah, yes, I can see that this is an important topic in the literature, and the chosen material does indeed show the knowledge gap focus of study. Next, set out your research objectives.
  • Research Objectives
    • What do you hope to accomplish with your thesis or dissertation project? Overall, what is the main objective? State this first. Next, break down these objectives into workable units, which you will want to organize numerically in your thesis or dissertation.
    • Next, review the order of the units in your thesis or dissertation. Are they arranged in the order that seems logical?    
    • Ask yourself: Are my research objectives appropriate? Focused? Clear? Achievable?
    • When writing your research objectives, it is good to start each objective statement with active verbs, including ‘determine’; ‘explore’; ‘assess’; ‘examine,’ and ‘evaluate,’ among others. Address each specific objective in the order you have outlined above when you get to the body of your work. The objectives presented here in the introduction will be referenced to in the ‘findings,’ ‘discussion,’ and ‘conclusion,’; clearly, this is the scaffolding upon which your thesis or dissertation will be hung.
  •  Limitations: thesis or dissertation what were the constraints placed upon you during the period of your research for your thesis or dissertation?
  • Assumptions: Following the completion of the research in your thesis or dissertation, what you anticipate will happen?
  • Definition of Terms: here you list any keywords that apply to your thesis or dissertation.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

The Literature Review is your first body chapter of your thesis or dissertation and is extremely important. Quite simply, it outlines the subject of your research and explains why you have chosen this subject for your thesis or dissertation. The main purpose is to identify the current state of knowledge on your subject in the discourse community. When writing a thesis or dissertation, it is important that any literature you provide here ties back to the context section of your introduction. Here is where you get to show exactly how this topic was identified, and to help your reader understand why you have chosen the topic for your thesis or dissertation.

 Chapter 3: Design and Methodology

The design and methodology section of your thesis dissertation includes Subjects, Instrumentation, Data Collection, and Data Treatment Procedures. In your thesis or dissertation, this section should detail enough information about your experiment so that the reader can evaluate the rigor of your study—even replicate it, should they so wish. Remember, your reader will evaluate the research in your thesis or dissertation and make conclusions about just how valid your research procedures actually are.   

Chapter 4: Findings/Discussion

This may be the most critical section of your thesis or dissertation. Here, you will report on your results from your experiment. Sometimes this section is referred to as the “Discussion,” as that is essentially the purpose of this chapter of your thesis or dissertation. Discuss results; employ your tables and charts, and indicate what you believe to be the most important information for your thesis or dissertation.  Address the potential implications of your research, which should include how your Findings agree or disagree with the conclusions of prior researchers. 

Chapter 5: The Conclusion

 The goal of your conclusion is to formulate one final outline of your thesis or dissertation’s importance: objectives, findings, and recommendations. Keep the discussion to just these points in your thesis or dissertation—now is not the time to introduce anything new. Summarize your thesis or dissertation’s importance, objectives and findings, then make recommendations: detail what future directions your research could take. What do you suggest? Remember: your conclusion is the last chance to bring your message home: follow the steps I’ve outlined for you, and you are well on your way!

The Abstract

The abstract, of course, must be the final section written in your thesis dissertation. It is the first thing your reader’s eye will see—like the cover letter of a job application. While short, it should detail for your reader a summary of your research, and also excite or tease the reader into pursuing your thesis or dissertation further.

Here is what is required of an Abstract:

  • Statement of purpose: identify the issue you are researching for your thesis or dissertation, and why this research is important.
  • Research methods: How did you go about your research for your thesis or dissertation?  
  • Findings: What were the findings in your thesis or dissertation?
  • Conclusions and recommendations: Now that the research project is over, what can you conclude, and which direction can you point future researchers to do?

You will find it very helpful, during composition, to continually review:  have I identified my research objectives, and why the research is important? Are my methods clear? Have I summarized my major findings? Finally, does my abstract finish with my conclusions and recommendations?

Proofreading.

Having an error-free thesis dissertation is particularly important—especially if you are planning to submit your thesis or dissertation to a journal. Proofreading is every bit as important to your thesis or dissertation as any other stage of the process. If you turn in a thesis or dissertation with errors, spelling, or awkward phrasing, it will not only inhibit the understanding of your thesis or dissertation, but will also result in much lower marks. Proofreading should be the final stage of your project. Hopefully, you already have downloaded citation software and have been employing it. Your citations must be proofread against your style guide: if unsure what style guide you are to use for your thesis or dissertation, ask your professor (or check in with the Journal).

When it comes down to proofreading your thesis or dissertation, the first items you will want to review are as follows:  

  • Proofread word choice
  • Proofread for wordiness
  • Proofread for punctuation
  • Proofread for jargon
  • Proofread for repetition
  • Proofread for clarity
  • Proofread for sentence structure
  • Proofread for flow

During your final proofread (you should proofread several times), focus on mechanics:

  • Proofread for capitalization
  • Proofread for spelling
  • Proofread for article usage
  • Proofread for spacing
  • Proofread for hyphens
  • Proofread for parallel structure
  • Proofread for split infinitives
  • Proofread for dangling modifiers
  • Proofread for spelling mistakes,
  • Proofread for usage mistakes (i.e., their, there, they’re).

Many students, especially those for whom English is a second language, prefer to send their thesis dissertation to a professional editing and proofreading service like Edit My Paper. Not only is a second set of eyes preferable for a full review, professional proofreaders have the education, skill set, and experience to ensure your thesis dissertation is error-free, readable, and publication-ready. Good luck with your thesis dissertation—and don’t forget, for peace of mind, send your work to the professionals at Edit My Paper for proofreading.  

This article was written by Katie S. Would you like to consult with Katie about your dissertation or thesis? You can request Katie by initiating a live chat at the bottom right of your screen.

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