How to Structure a Dissertation

How to Structure a Dissertation

What is Meant by Dissertation Structure?

Most likely the dissertation will be the longest piece of academic prose you have as of yet been asked to complete. In order to manage the extended word count here required you will need to think very carefully about dissertation structure. This extends to the structure of the overall dissertation as one contiguous piece of academic prose, which presents a coherent argument, as well as to the individual component parts of the dissertation such as the chapter structure and order in which evidence is presented. All of these individual components need to work together in harmony if the dissertation hopes to be persuasive. This means we need firstly to identify the vital information for our study and then to figure out the most efficacious order in which to present this information. This is the essence of structure: finding an economy of balance between the various contributing parts of a prose work. Without doubt finding this balance will be the result of rewriting. An axiom of the academy is that high quality scholarly work is the achieved by rewriting and revision. Achieving high quality structure will depend upon a considered, strategic engagement with evidence and argumentation, honing away superfluous content, so to finally arrive at the most judicious arrangement of information. In this respect we might consider structure as the scaffolding by which critical tools and methods are engaged, enabling us to mount a convincing case. In most cases the better our structure is the more likely we are to have presented a persuasive argument.

Good Dissertation Structure

A good dissertation structure is the result of good planning. Most probably, you will have around six months to complete your dissertation, though you may well be writing it alongside other commitments. As a consequence, it is important to be realistic about what you can achieve in the available time. Some initial planning should help you to manage your time properly and also to remain motivated. Ensuring that the task is manageable is a top priority. So, work out how many chapters you need to write. Count the number of weeks between now and the deadline. Work out how many weeks you will spend on each chapter, conducting research and doing the write-up. Leave enough time at the end of the proofreading and writing. So, the first step in structuring your dissertation properly is in structuring your time efficiently: the one follows from the other.

The next step is to break the work load down into constituents. This will help you to get a handle on how to approach the task. It is useful to try and see the dissertation as a series of short pieces of work which link together, rather than as one giant piece of prose. So, it is like you are writing a series of distinct but interconnecting essays. Each essay becomes a different chapter. Breaking the task down into even smaller pieces will help you to organise the content at the chapter level. You should make a to-do list for each chapter of your document. Now break these tasks down into yet further smaller component pieces. By continually dividing the work down into smaller fractions, it begins to take the form of a series of linearly arranged discrete tasks. Focusing on one small step at a time is the path to success. If you plot these various objectives and tasks onto a weekly and then a daily planner, you will have a series of small but incremental objectives to follow. Moreover, by ticking these tasks off the list as you go, you will gain a palpable sense of progress. This will help to keep you motivated as well as keeping track of where you are along the road.

Chapter Breakdown

There is very likely to be a set format for the structure of your dissertation. You should always consult your course handbook for exact details because each department has slightly different criteria. Broadly speaking, however, a dissertation of between 8000 to 10,000 words will break down as follows. Start with the introduction which might be between 800 and 1000 words in length. You would then move to the literature review which would typically be 1200 to 2000 words in length. Next write the methodology which might be between 1500 and 2000 words. The next chapter is your data analysis chapter which could be between 2000 and 2200 words. You might then have a chapter about your research findings which would be between 1000 words and 1200 words. Finally you have the conclusion, which is typically between 800 words and 1000 words.

Ask your Supervisor

Your supervisor is likely to be a very useful source of support throughout the dissertation process. He or she is likely to be very knowledgeable about your topic. They are therefore the best person to help you map out your dissertation structure and explain the process. Likely they will have supervised many other students, perhaps even in dissertations similar to your main topic, so they will be able to offer support and provide a dissertation structure example. At the first meeting with the supervisor, take along your list of proposed research questions. These can be fairly basic and proximal at this stage. It will act as a primary point for discussion, enabling your supervisor to see where your key interests lie. This will better equip them to guide you, which will in turn make you more likely to achieve good structure.

So what is the best Dissertation Structure?

There are no hard and fast rules as to how to weight the various sections of the dissertation. Instead, this will depend on what exactly your particular thesis requires as well as the specific word count you have been allotted (which will vary from department to department). That said, some broad overall guidelines may be established. So, for instance we might ask how long should a literature review be in a 15000 word dissertation? Certainly a word count of this length suggests a fairly robust literature review, extending most likely to between 3500 to perhaps 6000 in total. Again, the subject matter will be the determining factor. A thesis which places a heavy emphasis on secondary research and theoretical concerns (in the social sciences, say) is likely to require a more in-depth literature review than a paper which focuses on primary research and empirical investigation (in the “hard” sciences for instance). You need to consider what the most efficient course of action will be for your argument. There is no use in expending half of your overall word count on abstract theorising when the brunt of your thesis should be the statistical analysis of a laboratory experiment. Likewise, an entirely theoretically based thesis would be highly disserviced by a one-page literature review. The objective here is to figure out how best to use all the words you have been given; to deduce what elements of order and arrangement will best facilitate your argument.

Need Help Structuring Your Dissertation?

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