Frank Rennie & Keith Smyth

Chapter 15 – The structure of the dissertation

All the content relating to the chapter above is below

At its simplest, each research dissertation has an almost identical structure. There is normally a short abstract, followed by an introduction (which may or may not include a review of current literature) then the methodology is explained, the results are presented, and finally some discussion, analysis, and conclusions are attempted. Beyond this basic structure, there may be slightly different rules for how the dissertation is formatted (font size and style; headings and numbering) as well as what should (and should not) be contained in appendices. The book chapter explains the logic of the standard dissertation structure which students can adopt, or adapt to suit their needs after discussions with their supervisor(s). The companion website illustrates some examples of how this structure is put into practice.

Ok, well, there are some easy rules to follow. Like any story, it’s a beginning, a middle and an end. You have to tell the story logically, in a clear way, so you don’t want to overcomplicate the sentences, you don’t want to overcomplicate the structure. You don’t want to have people flipping back and forward trying to find various things, so you have to have it in a logical structured manner. That does not mean that it has to be written in a linear manner. You’re not writing a novel, you don’t start at page one and write through to the conclusion at the end. You can write it in different places, a bit here, a bit there, and look back, revise, add in things, move conclusions around. But by and large, you’re going to have an introduction, you’re going to have the methodology – how you approach this, what methods you’re going to use. You’re then going to have a results section and then you’re going to have a section with conclusions and discussions. After that, you’re going to have references – there’ll be in a standard format for your particular discipline, and you may want to have things like appendices, for things that are not so burning in the main text, but do shed light upon what you’re talking about. They don’t want to be just put in the drawer or consigned to the bin of history. So there’s a logical structure to that as it goes through. The purpose of a research dissertation is to demonstrate that you understand how to structure systematic robust research. To get “the answer” is the icing on the cake. What you’re doing is demonstrating to the reader that you know how to organise a piece of research, in an area that you know nothing about – or little about, and build it up by looking at what other people have done in the past, other literature, other experiments or other pieces of information that you can find, identify what are the key issues, the common issues, the issues that are less well-known, and you then want to look further, and then, identify that and move on to how you’re going to gather new data – how you’re going to present your results, what tools you’re going to use for your analysis, and so on and so forth. It’s a step-by-step process. But there are only two things in a dissertation that most dissertation readers expect. One is, this has to be your work, and secondly, it has to be a new contribution to the subject – an original contribution. It might be a study that’s been done elsewhere, and you’re repeating it in a different geographical area and then comparing the two and seeing how they pan out. It has to be something new, not something that’s been done before or been done to death. Apart from that, anything else – the originality, the style you use, presentation, there’s a fairly standard formula for the production of a dissertation, and it’s not a case of actually having to reinvent the wheel. You can just slot into these bits and put your own information in those chapter headings. Number it through, it’s a good idea to have your sections numbered – 1.1 for paragraph one, and so forth, all the way through. You can cross-refer throughout the text. You want to start writing very early on; i think you don’t have to have the finished article, in fact it would be very suspicious if you did produce the perfect article the first time you do it – the perfect chapter. What you want to do is like anything else; if you’re running, your muscles get used to running, they develop and it gets easier and easier. It’s the same with writing – you want to write at any early stage, even if you don’t want to use that in your final dissertation. So keep a research notebook. Keep a blog that you share with your supervisor. A really good tip is to start with the contents pages – right at the start of the project, and say that you have a beginning, a middle, results, an end, and so on. Then you have subsections within that. That will change undoubtedly during the course of your project, but that gives you some scaffolding to work though, that goes through. Write questions to yourself, open a file on the computer and write a question. Simple questions, hard questions, some of them will be left at the end unanswered – but at least it gets you in the habit of expressing your thoughts in writing. You can then write small snippets on key papers that you’ve read. A critical review of the paper – just in one paragraph, and perhaps you can string these paragraphs together as part of a literature review. So getting into the habit of writing and getting your words coming out is an valuable skill which you can say “you know what, I don’t need this section, I can rip it out” It’s better to rip out too much and cut it back, than to cut corners and make assumptions, and by doing so, not actually write enough to convince the student, the reader that you’ve thought of all the angles, but these ones are not relevant, they won’t be discussed. It’s better to actually write as much as possible, describe the overall picture to show you’re aware of the whole systematic research process.

Coverall – intro, design, data, presenting… An online handbook produced by the University of Surrey to give students an introduction to research.

A link to an extensive set of notes from the University of Surrey dealing with the whole process of documenting research. It starts with a consideration of why we do research, works through a range of planning issues that need to be considered, and concludes with a section on how research result might be utilised. Contains some embedded links.

The contents are well-defined and easy to read, in short, informative sub-sections. Not all of the sections will be appropriate to every research project, so students will need to use their own judegement, but taken as a whole, the document gives a good overview of the kinds of issues which students need to consider when preparing a research dissertation.

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university of surrey importance pilot studies - Introduction to research - handbook

A set of short dissertation writing videos from Massey University with resources for students.

These are helpfully broken-up into separate tasks, such as preparing a proposal, writing a report, editing, and so on. Each video clip gives a general overview and some guidance for students to help manage the selected task.

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massey university dissertation videos - Dissertation videos from Massey University

This links to an assemblage of video clips relating to various aspects of research and the preparation of research reports.

Individual videos deal with different forms of research, evaluation, and project planning. The clips range from 30 minutes to an hour each, so you may wish to watch them in stages, or allow time to watch, pause, and take notes. Different videos will be appropriate to different subject matter, so you may want to discuss your initial options with your supervisor before you invest time learning a research method which is not suitable for the topic of your study.

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Educational Videos YouTube - Research and the preparation of research reports (by Dr Sam Fiala)

Dissertation Question Time – A series of videos that answer the questions and concerns when aproaching a dissertation.

This is a link to a video clip featuring a question-and-answer session between graduate students. The clip raises pertinent issues, such as how to structure a dissertation, planning, writing, and referencing a dissertation, and how the final text will be marked. There are several related videos which can be viewed as appropriate and will help the student to establish a vision of what their dissertation should look like. This is probably worth watching at an early stage in the dissertation process, taking notes of relevant suggestions and re-visiting the appropriate video clips as you begin to bring together your dissertation.

universty of derby structuring a dissertation - Dissertation question time - Structuring a dissertation

A link to a couple of prodcasts produced by the University of Leicester which are specifically targeted to help students make sense of the quantitative data that they have gathered.

The commentary is aimed at Masters level, but the mp3 files can be downloaded to play on the student’s own device and provide a good grounding for the interpretation of quantitative data. A good introduction for students using this methodology.

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university of leicester research methods - Dissertation: Making Sense out of all that Quantitative Data

One of the most difficult parts of writing a research dissertation is to produce a short effective summary of the total work.

Writing an abstract or an executive summary needs to strike a balance between being informative in sufficient detail, yet being brief to enable a quick appraisal of the work. This short podcast gives an overview on how to produce an executive summary for a report.

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Writing a concise abstract of a complex piece of work is quite an art.

It is the first, and possibly the only, piece of your work which will be read by a stranger who plucks your dissertation from the archives. This short podcast gives some guidance on how to produce an effective abstract, the shortest section of the dissertation, but a section which needs to have a high impact.

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university of leicester research methods 150x150 - Dissertation: Writing a Good Abstract

This guide covers how to get your dissertation successfully written up in the time you have. It includes advice on:

  • Managing your time
  • Structuring your dissertation
  • Writing up
  • Keeping going
  • Finishing off and checking through

A simple guide from the University of Reading assisting the student to plan the writing of the dissertation. Time management is a key isue, whateverthe size of the research project, and this guide provides some useful tips.

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university of reading personal data research 150x150 - Writing up your dissertation