Dissertations are fairly large written pieces that contain from dozens to a couple of hundred pages and have a fairly rigid structure. Becoming familiar with a dissertation structure is indispensable and inevitable when starting to write. However, it is beneficial to understand its structure even before commencing your project since it allows visualizing your future thesis and all its sections in advance, which brings clarity and allows you to approach research more systematically, while also preparing you for the writing stage.
Basic Structure of a Dissertation
A typical layout consists of these sections or structural elements:
- The cover page or title page – mentions the title, subtitle, author’s name, supervisor’s name, department, faculty, college/ university, city, degree, date, etc. Your university might provide templates, otherwise, just check the websites of leading universities for example.
- Acknowledgments – a page where authors thank everybody who supported or assisted them while doing research and writing up.
- The abstract is a short and comprehensive summary/ synopsis of the entire paper and is also the first thing anyone would read when confronted with your dissertation.
- Table of contents – lists chapters, subchapters and all other paper sections along with corresponding page numbers.
- List of figures and tables – mentions all figures and tables used, along with which pages they occur on.
- Glossary. Glossaries are alphabetical lists of terms along with their explanations. These facilitate reading since evaluators/ readers don’t have to search throughout the text every time they forget what a term means.
- List of abbreviations – conveniently gathers all abbreviations on a single page for easy access.
- Introduction – a dissertation introduction has multiple functions: declares the topic; introduces key conceptual and theoretical background; defines key terminology; outlines the current knowledge in a given field and particularly, current gaps in knowledge; defines the scope and boundaries of current research; explains why it is important and how it should complement existing knowledge; states research questions, problems, goals, and objectives; formulate hypotheses; provides a brief content outline.
- Literature review – it is an in-depth analysis of existing subject-related literature - peer-reviewed journals, books, conference proceedings. It should not only summarize these sources but should analyse them, synthesize contained information in order to draw general conclusions regarding the current state of knowledge, potential limitations, areas of intense study. This section typically contains most citations.
- Methodology – it is where all methods are described - data collection, analysis, materials and equipment used, experimental subject selection, sampling. These methods may be qualitative, quantitative, experimental, observational, etc. Importantly, the methods section must explain exactly what was done, how it was done, and why it was done the way it was – all by employing an appropriate amount of detail. Consequently, other readers can not only assess how reliable or valid your research is but can also reproduce it.
- Results – it is where findings are reported, oftentimes by using highly informational graphs, charts, tables. This section may summarize and integrate data, may highlight data patterns but normally, contains only superficial data analysis.
- Discussion – contains a detailed analysis and interpretation of results, especially in the light of previous research as described in your literature review. It evaluates the importance of these findings and their implications, validates or rejects original hypotheses, etc. It also provides explanations for unexpected results, builds arguments, and forwards new models explaining certain phenomena, observations, or even recommendations for future investigation. A good discussion also addresses the potential limitations of this research and questions left open.
- Conclusion – here, the main research question is answered, key findings are restated in the context of the original hypotheses, goals, and objectives, the contribution of this research is evaluated, future recommendations are made.
- Bibliography – it is where all references are listed: books, journals, printed and online publications, databases, websites, online tools, software, etc. This is done according to specific citation styles – in universities, the most common are APA, MLA, Chicago.
- Appendices/ supplementary material. Many figures, tables, or other bulky pieces of data have the tendency to disrupt normal content flow while being somewhat less important. Hence, they may be provided in this last, sometimes fairly voluminous section.
Example of a Dissertation Structure
Below is a concise dissertation structure example of a molecular biology project.
- Introduction. Aim: improving the biosynthetic efficiency of the violacein biochemical pathway in bacteria by bringing this pathway’s enzymes in physical proximity to each other using DNA as an assembly platform. Hypothesis: biosynthetic efficiency will improve.
Objectives: 1) Fuse each enzyme to a unique DNA binding domain; 2) Test fused protein binding to DNA; 3) Test biochemical productivity in a range of scenarios (different arrangements of enzymes).
- Literature review.
1) Strategies used currently to improve biosynthetic efficiency and their limitations; 2) Theoretical aspects supporting project feasibility
- Methodology – surface plasmon resonance, mobility shift analysis, and β-galactosidase reporter assay to test the interaction between fused proteins and DNA; FRET – to test simultaneous binding of proteins on the DNA platform; colorimetry – for violacein detection
- Results. Binding of fused proteins to DNA and simultaneous assembly – confirmed. The DNA assembly platform determined a 5-fold increase in violacein production, but only when enzymes were arranged in the same order as the reactions they catalyse.
- Discussion. Increased synthetic efficiency is likely due to an increase in local concentrations of reactants. Such a platform opens the path for the more efficient production of a huge range of biochemical compounds.
- Conclusion. The assembly platform is confirmed to function. The technology is fully transferable.
5 Things to do Before Creating a Dissertation Structure
In order to be as efficient as possible, you might consider following a certain succession of steps before detailing dissertation layout and structure:
- Define a topic precisely – although it sounds obvious, dissertations are typically very narrowly focussed simply because the amount of research one can do as part of a single project is very limited when compared to previous and ongoing research in a particular field. Hence, one needs to be keenly aware of a subject’s boundaries. Oftentimes, it is only possible after doing some preliminary reading.
- Gain a good understanding of your topic by reading subject-related literature – your dissertation structure will be dictated to a great extent by the topic itself, especially for the literature review section. While knowing the topic very well when commencing hands-on research might not always be vital, knowing your subject when commencing your writing is simply indispensable.
- Approve content with your supervisor– discuss what content, topics, subtopics, academic sources should be ideally covered in the literature review section and how it should be structured.
- Sketch a most likely structure for each section - literature review, results, discussion, chapters, subchapters - and then reflect on how these sections would connect mutually – if certain elements are out of context, think about how to integrate them in advance. Overall, such a bottom-up approach should bring more coherence and save time.
- Review a few highly-rated dissertations, preferably in a similar subject and from some top-rated universities, depending on which is stronger in your discipline. Compare the structure, content flow, information presentation strategies, etc. and borrow what you like from any of them.
Now that you know how to structure a dissertation you should approach writing it more confidently. As scary and bulky as it may seem, any dissertation results from sustained daily work over months and years. If you are doing your research well, there is little chance to suffer from writer's block.