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Structuring a Dissertation
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Tue, 26-Jul-2005
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Structuring a Dissertation. Article by Isis Brook, Lancaster University

There are many ways of structuring a dissertation, below is a classic structure which may or may not be appropriate to your study. Keep in mind the purpose - communication - and set out the material in a rational way which helps the reader to focus on the main issue.

An abstract is a synopsis of the whole dissertation. You could aim at something between 75 and 125 words which explains what the dissertation is about and outlines the findings. The purpose of an abstract is to allow the reader to see if it is going to contain the information they want. Read some abstracts of journal articles to see how they work - they usually contain all the keywords that are relevant to the study.
Not all undergraduate dissertations have an abstract, but writing one is a useful exercise.

Contents Page
Knowing that a dissertation will have a contents page may help with the planning phase. (Try to make one now and keep it in your file and update it with any changes or developments.) The final contents page should list the major sections and possibly subsections with page numbers. Preferably no more than one page.

This is the detailed version of the abstract and it could follow the structure of the whole dissertation. For example, you could outline the scope of the study and what background material will be discussed. The definitions of any complex or technical words should be explained. You could then move on to say something about how your study was conducted, e.g. what data collection methods you used or what theoretical stance you are applying. You might also outline the order of the material and suggest why the reader is going to be taken through it in that order. Major findings should then be given and the conclusion summarised. You could think of the introduction as a map that shows the reader where they are going, what it will be like and what they are going to get from the journey.

Literature Survey
This is the part that essays do not always include and it can seem daunting, but if you are going to write 10,000 words about something it is good practice to summarise for the reader what has been written before. Obviously you will not refer to everything, but you need to demonstrate that your study is a sensible undertaking and that it builds on the work that is being done in the discipline. Your literature review might include a very short outline of one or two classic works (works that define the field or set the trend of questioning) and then a range of current works that are relevant to the question that your dissertation addresses. Look at published sources for examples of how this is done. In general it helps if your review covers a range of positions, not just those in agreement with your findings.

The importance of setting out your method will depend on the type of subject that you are dealing with. In the sciences it is an essential component and would include the equipment and the experimental method used. In the social sciences, if you have done empirical work (questionnaires, interview etc.) this is where you explain and give reasons for the approach that you have adopted. In humanities dissertations the methodology section sometimes disappears completely or it is replaced by a discussion of the particular theoretical approach that has informed your interpretation of the 'texts.'

Again this will depend on the kind of study, but you are bound to have findings of some sort and summarising them ahead of your discussion can be useful. In science/social science work the results section is where you give your results in a purely factual manner. You may well use graphs and diagrams in this section, but should not draw conclusions or give your interpretations here. The idea is to set out the findings in a clear way such that they could be used independent of your interpretation. This science model is not always workable for sociological studies as the awareness of interpretation in even the setting up of the field work will be obvious.

In many dissertations, particularly in the humanities, this is the main body of the work. Here you will be using your findings to structure an argument. This could take the form of setting out and defending a particular position or interpretation. You will be drawing on the preceding sections and presenting the evidence within a discussion. This is where the interpretation of your findings and possibly more detailed examination of, e.g. case studies, takes place. The literature you reviewed will also have a role here.

This must in some way summarise what you have said. If there is a conclusion which can be drawn from what you have said it needs to be stated clearly. You could also include an assessment of how firm or tenuous that conclusion is and perhaps an indication of what further details would be necessary to make it more firm. (Warning! A common error in undergraduate work is to state a conclusion which might seem reasonable given the title, but has not actually been argued for in the dissertation.)

If the dissertation is in the style of a report the findings and discussion could be followed by recommendations. Here you should refer back to the place in the report which justifies each recommendation. Recommendations are not necessary or even usual in a traditional dissertation.

If you have used a system of referencing that puts a number in the text, this is where the details should go. More extended notes can also go here if you have not used footnotes.

You must give an alphabetical list of all the sources you have used, whether quoted from or not. The bibliography should include author, title, place of publication, publisher and date.


These save the main dissertation being cluttered, but allows you to give full information that may be important to the reader. For example you might include an interview transcript, a blank questionnaire. The letter of introduction that you used, diagrams of apparatus, extended case studies etc.

The proportions that these sections take up will depend on the type of study you are conducting, some may not be relevant at all. However, it may be worth asking yourself, e.g. 'if I am not having a methods section how have I come to look at my material in the way I have? And if you think a literature review isn't relevant. 'how am I going to show where this study fits into the knowledge base or ongoing debate in my discipline.'

A dissertation is a good opportunity to develop your own ideas and enjoy your study.

Isis Brook - Effective Learning Programme

Copyright for this article belongs to Isis Brook, Lancaster University

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of Moira Peelo. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/depts/celt/sldc/materials/writing/dissertation.htm

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