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Dissertations 2: Structure: Standard

Dissertation Structure

Structure

A typical dissertation in the sciences or social sciences is structured in the following way: 

  1. Title page 

  1. Abstract 

  1. Table of contents 

  1. Introduction 

  1. Literature review 

  1. Methodology 

  1. Results/Findings 

  1. Discussion 

  1. Conclusion 

  1. Bibliography  

  1. Appendices 

Table of Contents

The table of contents should list all the items included in your dissertation.  

It is a good idea to use the electronic table of contents feature in Word to automatically link it to your chapter headings and page numbers. Attempting to manually create a table of contents means that you will have to adjust your page numbers every time you edit your work before submission, which may waste valuable time!  

This video will walk you through the formatting of longer documents using the electronic table of contents feature.

Introduction

The introduction explains the how, what, where, when, why and who of the research. It introduces the reader to your dissertation and should act as a clear guide as to what it will cover.  

The introduction may include the following content: 

Introduce the topic of the dissertation

  • State why the topic is of interest 
  • Give background information on the subject. 
  • Refer to the main debates in the field

Identify the scope of your research 

  • Highlight what hasn't already been said by the literature  
  • Demonstrate what you seek to investigate, and why 
  • Present the aim of the dissertation. 
  • Mention your research question or hypothesis 

Indicate your approach  

  • Introduce your main argument (especially if you have a research question, rather than hypothesis). 
  • Mention your methods/research design. 
  • Outline the dissertation structure (introduce the main points that you will discuss in the order they will be presented). 

Normally, the introduction is roughly 10% of a dissertation word count. 

Literature Review

The term “literature” in “literature review” comprises scholarly articles, books, and other sources (e.g. reports) relevant to a particular issue, area of research or theory. In a dissertation, the literature review illustrates what the literature already says on your research subject, providing summary and synthesis of such literature.  

It is generally structured by topic, starting from general background and concepts, and then addressing what can be found - and cannot be found - on the specific focus of your dissertation. Indeed, the literature review should identify gaps in the literature, that your research aims to fill. This requires you to engage critically with the literature, not merely reproduce the critical understanding of others.  

In sum, literature reviews should demonstrate how your research question can be located in a wider field of inquiry. Therefore, a literature review needs to address the connections between your work and the work of others by highlighting links between them. In doing so, you will demonstrate the foundations of your project and show how you are taking the line of inquiry forwards.  

By the end of your literature review, your reader should be able to see: 

  • The gap in knowledge and understanding which you say exists in the field. 

  • How your research question will work within that gap. 

  • The work other researchers have carried out and the issues debated in the field. 

  • That you have a good understanding of the field and that you are critically engaged with the debates (Burnett, 2009). 

For more detailed guidance on how to write literature reviews, check out the Literature Review Guide.  

Methodology

The methodology chapter needs to show how the research design specifically addresses the research question.  

Overall, it should set out: 

  • The reasons for your choice of methods 

  • The how, what, why, when, who, where of your research 

  • The limitations of your approach 

 

For more detailed information on writing the methodology chapter, see the Methodology Guide. 

Results

Use a dedicated Results chapter especially if undertaking a scientific dissertation and/or you are using quantitative research.   

In this chapter you describe what your research has discovered. Follow some tips for an effective Results chapter:   

  • Identify the key findings. You don't need to show everything you have collected or calculated. 

  • Be truthful and honest. Present the data you found - not what you wish you had found! Remember that misrepresenting data has ethical implications.   

  • Be objective. You will have plenty of opportunity to discuss and interpret the data in the Discussion chapter. 

  • Be clear and concise. Include tables, graphs or illustrations to make it easier for the reader to understand the data. 

 

Quantitative Results  

In this section you present the data you have found and say if the data support, or not, your hypothesis. 

  • Quantitative analysis techniques  

Raw numerical data need to be processed and analysed to make them meaningful. Quantitative analysis techniques include tables, graphs and statistics (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill 2015, p496). 

  • Establish patterns and relationships 

The way you present your data will help identify patterns and relationships in your research. These can be (depending on the field/subject) (Cottrell, 2014, p173): 

  • Trends and developmental patterns over time (are there any patterns in the data? Does the data rise, fall, plateau? Where/when? How - gently or sharply?) 

  • Correlations and relationships between sets of data (do they sets of data move in a similar way? Or do they move in an opposite way? Or do they have no relation at all?) 

  • Relationships between events 

  • Cause and effect (can you spot any causality?) 

 

Graphs and Charts with Excel

Watch this Introduction to Charts and Graphs Linkedin Learning video to find out how to make the most of this feature in Excel. 

 

Confidence with Numbers MacMillan Module

Need to brush up on your maths and statistics? This online course will help you overcome your obstacles in working with numbers and will give you the confidence to interpret and understand numerical data.

 

Qualitative Results 

In qualitative research, meanings are derived from words and images - not numbers, as in quantitative research. Words and images can have multiple meanings, and need to be interpreted with care (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill 2015, p568). For more information about qualitative data see the Methodology Guide.

How to undertake qualitative data analysis: 

  • Group the data in themes to make sense of them (summarise, condense, code the data). 

  • Link these themes and categories in a way that can help you answer your research question. 

  • Reflect on whether the data support your original argument. If yes, make sure that when you present your data you emphasise how the data support your argument. If not, you should revise your original argument! 

 

Approaches to analysing qualitative data  

Qualitative data analysis can take place using specific methods such as (there are many more, depending on your field!) thematic analysis, content analysis, grounded theory, narrative analysis, discourse analysis. The most generic approach to qualitative data analysis is thematic analysis with the aim to identify patterns in qualitative data (interviews, observations, documents etc.) (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill 2015, p579). For more information on qualitative analysis, check out this informative video.

 

Slides on methodology by Queen's University, Belfast.

The comprehensive lecture includes bullet points and references on the following qualitative data analysis methods: thematic analysis, content analysis, grounded theory, narrative analysis, discourse analysis.

Discussion

This chapter should explore the meaning of your results and argue for their importance and relevance. In the discussion you could do the following: 

  • Group your findings into themes (synthesise your findings). 

  • Interpret the findings. What patterns do they reveal? Do they shed new light on the subject?  

  • If using a research question state explicitly how your research has answered the research question. Reiterate your argument.  

  • If using a hypothesis state explicitly if your findings support or do not support your research hypothesis. 

  • Present a critique of your research in terms of methodology, limitations etc. If the hypothesis was not supported, consider reasons why this was the case (Cottrell, 2014, p192).  

  • Critically analyse the findings by linking them to the background research. Are the findings consistent with existing research, theories, established practices? Do they present anything unusual?  

  • Assess the importance of your study and how it has filled a gap in your field. 

  • Identify possible implications of your findings for your area and other areas of study. 

  • Recommend future research.  

Conclusion

The conclusion is the final chapter of your dissertation. It should flow logically from the previously presented text; therefore, you should avoid introducing new ideas, new data, or a new direction.  

Ideally, the conclusion should leave the reader with a clear understanding of the discovery or argument you have advanced.  

This can be done by: 

  1. Summarising and synthesising your main findings and how they relate to your research question or hypotheses  

  1. Demonstrating the relevance and importance of your work in the wider context of your field. For example, what recommendations would you make for future research? What do we know now that we didn’t know before? 

Tips 

  • Link your conclusion to your introduction as both frame your dissertation. 

  • A conclusion is roughly five to ten percent of the word count of the dissertation. 

  • Avoid excessive detail. Decide what your reader needs to know. 

  • Don’t introduce any new information such as theories, data or ideas.  

  • Sum up the main points of your research.  

Bibliography

While writing your dissertation, you would have referred to the works and research of many different authors and editors in your field of study. These works should be acknowledged in the bibliography where you will list writers alphabetically by surname. 

For example: 

Poloian, L.R. (2013). Retailing principles: global, multichannel, and managerial viewpoints. New York: Fairchild. 
Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. Maidenhead: Open University Press. 
Ramsay, P., Maier, P. and Price, G. (2010). Study skills for business and management students. Harlow: Longman. 

Unless otherwise specified by your module leader, the University uses the Harvard (author-date) style of citing and referencing. For more guidance and support on how to reference effectively check out the Referencing Guide. You can also book an appointment with an Academic Engagement Librarian for extra help with referencing. 

Appendices

While the main results of your study should be placed in the body of your dissertation, any extra information can be placed in the appendices chapter. This supplementary information, for instance, can consist of graphs, charts, or tables that demonstrate less significant results or interview transcripts that would disrupt the flow of the main text if they were included within it.  

You can create one long appendix section or divide it into smaller sections to make it easier to navigate. For example, you might want to have an appendix for images, an appendix for transcripts, and an appendix for graphs. Each appendix (each graph or chart, etc.) should have its own number and title. Further, the sources for all appendices should be acknowledged through referencing and listed in the bibliography. 

Don’t forget to mention each appendix at least once during your dissertation! This can be done using brackets in the following way: (see appendix 1). 

Resources and bibliography

Burnett, J. (2009). Doing your social sciences dissertation. England: Sage Publications Ltd.

Cottrell, S. (2014). Dissertation and project reports. A step by step guide. England: Red Globe Press.

Saunders, M. N. K., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2015). Research methods for business students. England: Pearson.