How To Write And Present Your Dissertation/ Thesis
Well, the big day is almost here. D-Day… Dissertation Day. Once upon a time, your University or College program was nicely organized and structured for you. You were told what to do and basically you turned in small-scale essays and that was all pretty manageable. Now, though, that structure is being withdrawn. It’s time for you to stand on your own merits and complete your dissertation. It should be an exciting time but it can be pretty frightening too.
Writing a dissertation doesn’t need to be a daunting prospect. The information in this guide will hopefully help you to see your dissertation as an exciting challenge: a chance to develop your own study in an area that particularly interests you.
So how should you approach your dissertation?
You will have hopefully got a lot of academic interests; there will hopefully be several parts of your course which have stimulated your brain and made you want to find out more. Write them all down. Don’t exclude anything at this stage. Initially, read to explore; you will find as you continue your reading that some ideas occur more often than others and that some ideas seem to offer more potential for further research. Any one of these ideas could potentially be the focus for your dissertation. For each of your basic ideas, try to identify research angles. What projects could each lead to? Be creative and you may well inspire yourself. Writing your ideas down means you can look back on them and develop them.
You should try to approach your dissertation in the right frame of mind; don’t look for fame and fortune from the writing of your dissertation. Try also not to be preoccupied with anyone else’s expectations of you. Your best choice for a dissertation topic is one that will interest you for the months it will take you to write it. Think of the whole process of writing your dissertation as a valuable learning process – and end in itself rather than a means to an end.
What can you get done in the time that is available for your dissertation. Right at your planning stage you should create a timeline for yourself. What do you need to achieve? Put a start and end date for each stage of the process in researching and writing your dissertation. Put this timeline somewhere you will see it often; that will help to keep a sense of urgency about it in your mind.
Don’t panic about your dissertation, though or you will spend more time panicking than working constructively. Just make sure your timeline is sensible and fits around your everyday life. That way you should succeed in getting everything done. Don’t waste holiday time from your job at the planning stage. You may well need it later when you start writing up your dissertation.
This planning is the first stage of completing your dissertation. You should test the feasibility of the argument you intend to make in your dissertation by doing some small-scale research at this stage. This will also help to conform whether or not you have the interest that will sustain you through the whole process of researching and writing up a dissertation on this topic.
Make sure you really have thought out the right topic for your dissertation. Choosing the wrong topic often causes major problems when it comes to preparing your proposal. Before you attempt to write your proposal, you should ensure you know the following things:
Once you’re satisfied you’re doing the right thing, read some other research proposals. You may never have seen one before and it can really help to know what the finished article will look like, even though the subject of your research proposal will be different.
When you read the research proposal, ask yourself:
Your proposal must include a comprehensive review of the literature which already exists in your area of research. You should photocopy relevant articles and book chapters to refer to later. Don’t forget to also photocopy everything that you will need to cite in your bibliography. These photocopied pieces can then be ordered logically when you are ready to write up your dissertation.
From your photocopies, assemble all the figures and main facts that you will use and put them in the order that you would use if you were going to explain your ideas to someone. Once you have your facts and figures in logical order, make a note of the key words you will need to use in your explanation. These key words provide a skeleton for much of your dissertation proposal.
When you have an outline proposal, discuss it with your adviser(s). They will be able to make useful suggestions. Once you and your adviser have agreed on a logical structure for your dissertation, s/he will need a copy of this outline for reference when reading the dissertation chapters which you will probably present out of order. That way they can keep track of where and how everything fits together.
Your proposal should begin with a very clear statement of the problem you will be discussing and the background information to it. Next you should move on to a review of the existing literature on the topic.
Your proposal should be written in the future tense – say what you WILL do in an overview of your research methodology. Make sure everything is very specific to YOUR research. Be as focused as you can. That comes back to being realistic again – what can you reasonably research in depth in the time you have to research and write up your proposal? If you try and cover too much ground you can barely scrape the surface; you won’t learn anything new and neither will anyone reading your dissertation.
You need to include a good title for your dissertation within your proposal. A good title begins to help the reader understand what you will be saying in your dissertation. It is a statement which clearly introduces what you will be discussing in your theses. Use keywords relevant to your topic and you will really help your reader to gain some early understanding of your dissertation’s argument.
It justifies discussion
For your dissertation to be good and useful, it has to be something worthy of discussion. A good strategy for creating a strong thesis is to show that the topic is controversial. Readers will be interested in reading the rest of the essay to see how you support your point. If you don’t have a strong point to make like this, change your idea for your dissertation because you picked a duff one!
It expresses one main idea
Stick to the plot! Readers need to be able to see that your paper has one main point, otherwise they will become confused and lose patience with reading your dissertation.
It is specific
A dissertation statement should express exactly what your dissertation will be about. Writing your title and keeping this in mind will help you to devise a topic for a dissertation which is mangeable within the time you have for research and writing up your dissertation. Make your topic broad enough to address an important issue, but narrow enough to address that issue thoroughly in the time that you will have in which to complete all the research and writing up of your dissertation.
Thereafter, your research proposal should be organized around a set of questions that will guide your research. When selecting these guiding questions you should try to write them so that they frame your research and put it into perspective with other research. You need to establish the link between your research and other research that has preceded you. Start with broad relational questions.
Make sure your research will actually benefit the people you study if you have human research subjects. Don’t just treat them like guinea pigs.
Do you want qualitative or quantitative data, for instance? Sometimes a combined methodology is the best option; in this way, you can combine a qualitative preliminary study (to define your population more clearly, to develop your instrumentation more specifically or to establish hypotheses for investigation) with a quantitative main study to yield a research project that works well.
Where will you conduct the research? Going back home is not always the simple option as then you may well get involved in family responsibilities and expectation and have less time to devote to your dissertation; that’s not helpful. Should you work in conjunction with an agency? This is an exciting possibility for some, but often you trade things such as funding in return for autonomy over your research, including its scheduling, so think very carefully before you do this.
You won’t always be able to choose your advisors, but if you can. Make sure you don’t simply pick experts on your content. You can always access this kind of help from other people outside your advisory committee. Instead of – or at least in addition to – content experts – you should choose people you feel comfortable with. Your motivation will wane in the writing of your dissertation; you will need people you can turn to for advice and whom you can be honest with when your research goes off track. They will help you a lot at times like that.
You should get to know your main advisor well and share your thoughts with him or her. Make them your ally in your research. You should meet prior to meeting with your full advisory committee and don’t ever feel it is you against them in this situation; all your advisors are there to help you and support you. The least you can do, though, is to make sure your well-written dissertation proposal is delivered to your advisory committee well in advance of your preliminary meeting, so that they have time to read it; that way they can give you the most useful advice.
If a graphic presentation is necessary to help the committee to understand your proposed research, make sure you prepare them so they look good. A well planned meeting will help your committee understand that you are prepared to move forward with well planned research.
Now you’re ready; you should be armed with a good, useful proposal to start doing the research itself.
Most people find that the most fun part of doing a dissertation is the practical research by which you collect your data. Just make sure you keep your focused proposal in mind. Stick to researching what you said you would research and keep good records of your finds as you go along.
Put effort and time into a proper analysis of your data so that you will have something really useful in your data. As you analyze your findings, be thinking all the time about how they compare to and contrast with the findings of the earlier research you have read and summarized in your literature review.
This may surprise you to read, but when it comes to writing up your dissertation, I would not suggest that you begin at Chapter One and just keep going until you reach the end of your dissertation; rather, you should begin by writing the sections of your dissertation with which you feel most comfortable. What do you feel you know and understand best? Remember, the whole process of writing a dissertation is about learning; your understanding should develop throughout the project, so you should feel more comfortable with tackling the trickier parts of your dissertation once you have read and thought about some of the other sections.
Once you have written a few sections, you will be able to spread those out in front of you on separate pieces of paper and that should help you to see what information you have missed out. This is where your having written a detailed research proposal will pay off for you. Check with the proposal and ensure that you have covered all the sections that you intended to cover.
Check the methodology you wrote out in your proposal. Change the future tense to past tense and another section of your actual dissertation will appear before your very eyes. You can treat other sections of your proposal in the same way and you should see your dissertation grow quite quickly.
OK, so you know you don’t have to start at Chapter one and end at the end, as it were, but what form should eventual thesis take?
There are no real hard and fast rules about how to structure a dissertation, but the outline that follows will fit many thesis topics. You can decide for yourself, given your specific topic, if some of these sections are irrelevant. For instance, many dissertations combine the Results and Discussion sections. You need to think about what would be best to present your particular topic as clearly as possible. Plan out your chapters and decide the best way to report upon your research. Make a bullet pointed list of what will go in each chapter. Make this bullet point list as detailed as possible, so that you have a list of points that gives you the subsections and maybe even to the paragraphs of your dissertation. This is all a way of evening out the workload, keeping you motivated and generally making it easier to write your dissertation. Make sure your structure of points is logical.
This should be your next section. Your institution may well have a standard format for this copyright waiver.
Many universities require something like: "I hereby declare that this submission is my own work and that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, it contains no material previously published or written by another person nor material which to a substantial extent has been accepted for the award of any other degree or diploma of the university or other institute of higher learning, except where due acknowledgment has been made in the text (signature/ name/ date)". Check with your particular institution for their desired format.
Again, your institution should give you guidelines for the structure of your title page.
This will be the most widely published and most commonly read part of your dissertation so it is really worth writing well – but it should be written at the end of all the writing up of your dissertation, because it is in your abstract that you distil all the main ideas of your dissertation. Make your abstract self-contained and do not include references to other works. You should leave yourself time to write an excellent dissertation abstract because it should go through several drafts. You may well have a word limit for your abstract, so check with your advisor on that.
A good abstract takes only one line to explain why your dissertation is important. Next, summarize your results, preferably presenting statistics together with their margins of statistical error. Finally, you need to explain the main implications of your dissertation’s research findings. Make your abstract concise, quantitative and easy to read.
To summarize, your abstract should:
You should try not to simply re-state the information that is included in your title.
If any of your work is done in collaboration with anyone else, then you should acknowledge it here; otherwise the acknowledgements section of your thesis is a nice place to thank those who have helped you with your research, tuition etc – and many lighten the mood with thanks for food, money and genetic make-up from parents and wider family. It can be friendly and informal and the only rules here are that you acknowledge any collaborative efforts.
The introduction starts on page 1, the earlier pages should have roman numerals. It helps to have the subheadings of each chapter, as well as the chapter titles, listed on the table of contents. A good contents page helps people later refer to your dissertation in their research.
What is the subject of your dissertation and why is it worthy of research and discussion? State the problem(s) as simply as you can. Try to site your research within its wider discipline. You need to write your introduction when you have written the rest of your dissertation so you know what line of argument to present.
Make your introduction interesting so that people want to read on. Imagine an intelligent reader but one who may know little of your particular subject; try to pitch your whole dissertation at that kind of level. The introduction to your dissertation should be logical and short. It should tell your reader where the dissertation is going and this may become clearer during the writing, so leave it until towards the end of your writing up to write your introduction.
The next paragraphs of your introduction should discuss the previous research which has been completed in this area then go on to explain why more work was necessary – hence your dissertation!
State what your own goals are in your research and how this adds to what has been written before. Clearly acknowledge sources and show what their work is and what is yours. Your readers should have good enough references here that they could look up your sources and do their own research.
The scope of your dissertation – what it will and will not discuss – should be made clear. It should provide a road map for what else the reader will find out from reading your dissertation.
A good tip is to get a non-specialist friend to read your introduction and see if they understand it and if it piqued their interest to read more. If the answer to either of these questions is ‘no’, you need to re-draft your introduction.
This part of your dissertation should give the history behind your research question. It should discuss what is already known in this area and what other methods have been tried to answer the question in the past.
You should have already read all the books and papers that you needed to and made your notes etc. You should read around a hundred papers on your particular chosen field. Demonstrate how you are a world expert on this topic.
The exact structure in the middle chapters will vary according to the topic of your dissertation but here are some guidelines:
You may need to describe experimental techniques and report on several different problems or different stages of the problem, and then finally to present a model or a new theory based on the new work. In multi-disciplinary dissertations, there may be more than one such chapter. In this case, the different disciplines should be indicated in the chapter titles.
Your Methods section should allow readers to decide how believable your results are. There should be sufficient information on how you carried out your research in order for the research to be replicated. You should describe your materials and procedures as well as how you carried out your calculations and what equipment was used. Within your methods section you should also discuss your assumptions and limitations of your research and therefore the range of validity.
When you are reporting existing theoretical material you need to include enough of the material to allow the reader to understand the arguments used and their physical bases. Do not include theory that you are not going to relate to the work you have done and be careful to relate all the theoretical material to your particular dissertation question.
When you are reporting your own theoretical work, you must include much more detail, but consider good use of appendices where extra information is needed but would spoil the flow of the main dissertation to include it within the main body.
The results and discussion sections are often combined in theses. This works well where you have many pages of results, as waiting to discuss them, pages later, would make your dissertation confusing.
You should describe the conditions under which each set of results was gathered. Constants and variables etc should be made clear. Make sure that you also use appropriate statistical analyses to add weight to your findings. Where necessary, show the measurement errors and standard errors on the graphs.
Be careful when plotting your graphs. The origin and intercepts are often important so include zeros of one or both scales wherever practicable. Unless the errors are small, include error bars to show the best estimates of statistical error.
Don’t forget to discuss what your results actually mean and how they compare to the existing body of knowledge. Do they offer new insights or suggest new theories? You should start with a few sentences that summarize your most important results.
The discussion section should be like an essay, covering the following issues:
What are the discernible patterns in your results and theories?
What are the exceptions to these patterns?
What is likely to cause these patterns and exceptions?
Are your results in agreement or disagreement with previous research?
What is the relationship of your results to your original research question?
What are the implications of your results for the wider discipline?
There may be several theories to explain these results – include them all, with supporting evidence for each.
What is the significance of your findings – the ‘so what?’ statement.
You might find it helpful to put your conclusions in point form. It is often the case with scientific investigations that more questions than answers are produced. Does your work suggest any interesting further avenues? Are there ways in which your work could be improved by future workers? What are the practical implications of your work?
This chapter should usually be reasonably short – a few pages at the most. As with the introduction, it is a good idea to ask someone who is not a specialist to read this section and see whether they understand it. You shouldn’t repeat verbatim your abstract, results or discussions sections in your conclusion; instead, you should cover:
Use your institution’s standard guidance for referencing all your paper and electronic sources. You should reference all the sources you have used – and now you should see the need for all those photocopies and meticulous documenting of the referencing details whilst you were doing even your preliminary research.
If there is information which is important to your dissertation but which would disrupt the flow of your argument, include it as an appendix.
That’s it! Those are the sections needed for a good dissertation so now let’s look how you might present your dissertation.
Of course, your dissertation will need to be typed, but I mean really USE the computer to its fullest. For example, you will probably change names of your research subjects, town etc. Don‘t do this too early because it can get confusing. Leave in the proper names, which will probably mean more to you, right until the end. Then simply do a ‘find and replace’ operation and these names are simply changed with very little effort – and kept consistent with the minimum effort from you!
A simple, hand-drawn graph is fine until you agree with your advisor how your data should be graphically presented. You should always introduce your tables and graphs in words before you use them and then afterwards discuss their meaning and relevance to your dissertation’s title. If you can’t think of anything to discuss about a particular graph or table then why would you include it?
A dissertation should not be fancy; it should be clear and concise in both its wording and its presentation. Use your keywords throughout your dissertation. Stick with the same short list of keywords and don’t complicate your dissertation with lots of synonyms.
If you are including a Conclusions/Implications section at the end of your dissertation make sure you really present conclusions and implications. Don’t waste your time by merely re-stating the research findings. Your conclusion is meant to be where you help the reader to understand what it all means. This is best done after you have had a couple of days of rest from your dissertation. Come back to it refreshed and read your dissertation again. That can help you put your research and your findings in perspective.
Often, people hate writing this section of the dissertation; they think of it as an ‘OK, so what did you do wrong?’ section; to some extent that is what it is, but you should ensure that your suggestions for further research link your project with future projects and allow your readers to better understand what you have done.
Now you’ve written your whole dissertation, you should go back to Chapter One. Now you know the real direction your dissertation took, does Chapter One serve to signpost your readers in the right direction?
To put together the best possible dissertation that you can before you present it, you should expect to write at least two full versions. Read your whole dissertation through from beginning to end; if you can’t bear to do that, what right have you to expect that anyone else will! As you read, ask yourself the following questions:
This is otherwise more threateningly known as ‘the dissertation defence’. Don’t be nervous; try to remember that the purpose of this meeting is for you to show everyone how well you have done in your research study and in writing your dissertation. Your ideas should be valued and you will be treated as a fellow professional. The committee will be there to help you finish your degree requirements, not sabotage your efforts.
You should practise for your dissertation defence by talking with other people about your research. Get used to explaining it clearly to them; also, their questions and comments will help you to see the parts of your argument on which you need to work. You need to be organised and have a 20-25 minute presentation to offer the committee, after which they can ask questions. You will find that having this prepared helps to soothe your nerves and it also helps to ensure that the dissertation defence proceeds according to your agenda.
In your dissertation defence, you don’t need to be defensive. Take comments on board politely and use them as part of the learning process.
After your dissertation defence, you will have chance to implement any changes which the committee suggest, so you should take on board all they say. You can ask to tape record their feedback or you can take notes. Your committee may also provide you with notes. Try to plan out prior to the dissertation defence how you will record the feedback so that you can make use of it to improve your dissertation.
So, with your dissertation defence, as with researching and writing up your defence, good preparation is the key so make sure you take the time to prepare well. You will benefit a lot more from the whole process and you will find that you will enjoy it more too. If you prepare well, you make the whole process of writing up your dissertation so much easier, more meaningful – and a whole lot more enjoyable! You may never again in your life have an opportunity to spend so long devising your own research questions and finding out exactly what you want to find out, so make the most of it – and good luck!