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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.
This Study Guide addresses the task of writing a dissertation.
It aims to help you to feel confident in the construction of this extended piece of writing, and to support you in its successful completion.
A link to a study guide produced by the University of Leicester giving advice on the various stages of writing your dissertation. The webpages are well laid out and are concise but informative. The guide covers each stage of writting the dissertation from planning to the consideration of referencing. The pages contain links to many other resources, some of which will mirror the regulations and recommendations of your own university.
Editorial feature from International Journal for Quality in Health Care 2004; Volume 16, Number 3: pp. 191–192. Particuarly useful in addressing both how to structure a research paper, and the common mistakes that are often made and which you should seek to avoid.