There are certain conventions that you will have to follow in your dissertation structure, but there is also a need to make sure that your structure works for your particular topic and argument. The general rule of thumb is that the top-level structure (Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, etc.) should be the same for everyone, both in the Chapter headings and their order, however the structure below this (Section 2.1, Section 2.2, Section 2.3, etc.) is unique to every dissertation and should take the form and order best suited to your work.
The basic top-level structure is below
- Title Page
- Table of Contents
- List of abbreviations (if needed)
- List of images and figures (if needed)
- Chapter 1: Introduction
- Chapter 2: Literature Review
- Chapter 3: Methodology
- Chapter 4: Findings/Results
- Chapter 5: Discussion/Analysis
- Chapter 6: Conclusion and Recommendations
Title page, Abstract, Acknowledgments and Table of Contents
These pages will be the first four pages of your dissertation.
The University will typically provide either a template title page or details of what information you are required to include.
The abstract should be left until near the end of the writing process, it is not usually wise to try and write the abstract at the beginning since you need to indicate your findings or results. The abstract is designed to give the reader a very concise summary of your research, touching upon (1) the issues that you have researched (2) the research methods chosen (3) an overview of your findings or results and (4) a summary of your main conclusion. Your abstract is a very concise piece of writing, you should aim to keep it around 150 words.
You can choose to include an acknowledgments page after your abstract. It is widespread convention to do this but not strictly necessary.
You must include a clear Table of Contents page, this should include relevant sections and sub-sections (i.e. 2.1 and 2.1.1 as well as Chapter 2) and include accurate page numbers. If you choose to use Microsoft's built-in Table of Contents tool, please make sure that there are no mistakes or errors in the final table.
List of abbreviations/List of images and figures
These should only be included if needed, check with your supervisor if you are unsure.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Your first chapter needs to include three major areas.
- You need to explain your question, including explaining the reasons behind your dissertation choice, defining any key-terms in your dissertation title and listing your research objectives and/or sub-questions.
- You need to give brief contextual/background information. You should write your dissertation for an imagined "intelligent but uninformed" reader, as such you may wish to give brief contextual or background information if it is needed to understand the dissertation itself.
- You need to signpost the rest of the dissertation, this is done by explaining how you are going to tackle your dissertation question, the research conducted and the chapter structure.
It may be useful to write your introduction after you have finished your research and written the rest of your dissertation. A good introduction should be strongly tied to your work and especially your conclusion. If you choose to write your introduction at the begining of the writing process, then remember to check that it is
Chapter 2: Literature Review
The Literature Review is placed directly after the introduction and is intended to give an overview of relevant research and work already published in your field, providing an academic context for your work. Only academic material can be included in the Literature Review, this means only peer-reviewed journal articles (print or online), peer-reviewed books (check the publisher to make sure it is an academic, rather than general, publisher) and conference proceedings.
The Literature Review should not simply be a series of summaries of articles and books nor should it be an attempt to answer your dissertation question. The purpose is to survey the academic literature for relevant material, demonstrating that you have understood and are building on relevant work already done in your field and that your own research and analysis is taking place within this academic context.
The first step in writing a good Literature Review is to identify major themes and areas in your chosen research topic. These will include theoretical frameworks or perspectives that you are using and relevant topics areas of academic study. Using our previous example dissertation idea, we can sketch out a rough list:
General Topic: Looking at the Arab Spring, in particular Tunisia, with an interest in the post-revolution political dynamics
Lit. Review Sections
- Democratic Transition Theories
- Post-revolution politics
- The Arab Spring
- Post-Revolution Tunisia
Remember that if you come across new areas during your research or writing phases then you should add sections to your Literature Review when needed.
Once you have your sections, you need to start reviewing the literature in these areas. This does not necessarily mean reading and writing about every single piece of academic work published on these topics, but you do want to make sure you have covered the major and landmark articles and books as far as possible. Refer to Chapter 2 of this guide for help in identifying major academic works for your sections.
Your Literature Review must be written in a neutral academic writing style but this does not mean you should write simple summaries of the work that you have read. Instead you will want to focus on the three points below.
Be informative: Do not include large amounts of irrelevant material simply because the article or book covers other areas. Write an overview of the entire work if needed but give details only about the parts that are relevant to your study, you should be demonstrating your academic judgement instead of summarising entire texts.
Be critical: While you should not directly critique work in the first-person (i.e. writing "I don't agree with this study because...") you still need to demonstrate criticality in your Literature Review. This should be done through bringing in other work that is critiquing the main article or book and/or comparing and contrasting different authors views on the same issues.
Be purposeful: You should not use your Literature Review to "pad out" or extend your word-count, keep focused on your topic and relevant areas. Include an introduction and conclusion to tie together your various strands and use the Chapter as a whole to define and limit your area of research and study.
Your Literature Review should roughly come to 30%-50% of your total word-count (or between 6,000 and 10,000 words for a 20,000 word dissertation) but every dissertation is unique and you should not worry if you are outside these bounds if you have covered the material required in a comprehensive fashion.
Chapter 3: Methodology
The Methodology chapter is used to explain and justify your research methods (remember that only reading academic journal articles and books cannot be the extent of your research). The length and complexity of this chapter depends heavily upon your individual dissertation, a straightforward secondary research project using qualitative methods will likely result in a shorter Methodology chapter than a primary research study using quantitative analysis. Nonetheless, there are some common features that all Methodology chapters should share.
You will need to identify and justify:
- your research philosophy
- your research methods
- your data collection
- your data analysis methods
- relevant ethical considerations
Chapter 4: Findings/Findings and Analysis
This chapter is commonly called either Findings or Findings and Analysis. 'Findings' is usually used for interpretive and qualitative studies, while 'Findings and Analysis' is used for empirical and quantitative studies (this is because quantitative studies will typically present the research data along with statistical/quantitative analysis in the same chapter).
You will include your research findings in this chapter, this is the data you have collected from non-academic sources (all academic sources should be included in the Literature Review instead). You should have multiple data types (in order to triangulate your findings).
You do not need to include the entire results of your primary research if you have conducted questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, etc. You should include all of your results in an Appendix to the dissertation but only include key themes and important parts in your Findings chapters itself.
For example, if you have conducted 6 interviews you will want to include transcripts in an Appendix but your relevant Findings section may have a layout similar below.
- 4.1: Interview results - concise summary of key points from interviews
- 4.1.1: Key theme 1 - complete with selected quotes from interviews
- 4.1.2: Key theme 2 - complete with selected quotes from interviews
- 4.1.3: Key theme 3 - complete with selected quotes from interviews
- 4.2, 4.3, etc. - Other Findings
If you are conducting a secondary research study with official statistics, NGO reports and newspaper articles, your layout may be similar to the one below instead.
- 4.1: Key topic area 1
- 4.1.1: Official statistics relevant to area 1
- 4.1.2: NGO reports relevant to area 1
- 4.1.3: Newspaper report relevant to area 1
- 4.1: Key topic area 2
- 4.1.1: Official statistics relevant to area 2
- 4.1.2: NGO reports relevant to area 2
- 4.1.3: Newspaper report relevant to area 2
You may wish to organise your Findings chapter differently, it may be more appropriate to structure it according to data source or another method depending on your dissertation topic and approach. Remember that your structure for this chapter should help to display and highlight key findings in an organised manner.
Chapter 5: Discussion
This chapter is concerned with discussing your Findings in the light of the academic literature, and should involve the construction of an argument that substantially answers the dissertation title itself.
Your Findings, whether from primary or secondary research, qualitative or quantitative, need to be understood, interpreted and evaluated in the context of the academic literature covered in your Literature Review. The more connections you make with the literature, by noting if your Findings support a previous study or academic or doesn't support a particular view, the stronger your argument will be.
A good way to structure this chapter may be to use your (usually) three Research Objectives or Research Questions as sub-headings, splitting the chapter into three distinct sections with an introduction and conclusion to tie everything together, as below.
- 5.1 - Discussion Introduction
- 5.2 - Research Objective 1: Discussion of Findings and Literature with an eventual answer to the research objective
- 5.3 - Research Objective 2: Discussion of Findings and Literature with an eventual answer to the research objective
- 5.4 - Research Objective 3: Discussion of Findings and Literature with an eventual answer to the research objective
- 5.5 - Discussion Conclusion
Chapter 6: Conclusion and Recommendations
Your conclusion should aim to summarise the key points/themes discussed during your dissertation and come to a clear, concise answer to the original research question that you posed. You need to be able to justify your conclusion through the evidence you've gathered and should be able to refer back to clear stages of reasoning through your work.
You should also include recommendations for further study, these should be based on either a logical continuation of your work (ask yourself what you would like to research if you had to write a "sequel" to your dissertation) or should highlight gaps that you left in your dissertation as a result of time/budget/practicality issues.
If appropriate, you may also wish to include policy recommendations that deal with the practical applications of your research findings for governments, business or other actors.
Bibliography and Appendices
Your bibliography will take longer to create by hand than you might expect, it is an important part of your dissertation and cannot be left until the last minute. The next chapter will cover bibliography and citation managers that can help produce a comprehensive and high-quality bibliography.
Appendices (singular is Appendix, i.e. Appendix A, Appendix B, etc.) allow you to include supporting material without pushing your word-count up or having to change your structure. You can simply refer to the appendices in-text by writing (see Appendix A for details) or something similar. Appendices should never contain material that forms the core of the dissertation (i.e. anything discussed in the Structure section of this guide) but rather supporting material, such as full primary research results, relevant reports and other documents. If you place anything in the appendices that shouldn't belong, part of your Literature Review for example, it will not be marked.