How to Write Your Best Dissertation: Step-by-Step Guide
When you get to the point of writing a dissertation, you're clearly near the end of an important stage of your educational journey. The point of this paper is to showcase your skills and capacity to conduct research in your chosen discipline, and present the results through an original piece of content that will provide value for the academic and scientific community.
Before we get any further, let's clarify one main thing: what is a dissertation?
This term is usually used to present the final result of independent work and research for an undergraduate program. A thesis, on the other hand, is crafted for the completion of a Master's degree.
Dissertation - the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree.
However, the term dissertation is also used for the final project that PhD candidates present before gaining their doctoral degree. It doesn't matter whether we are talking about an undergraduate or PhD dissertation; the form of the assignment is very similar, although the PhD project is much more serious.
This guide will be useful both for undergraduate and PhD students, who are working on their dissertation projects, as well as for students developing theses for MA programs.
It's not easy to write the best dissertation.
Most candidates usually start with great enthusiasm, but this intimidating project can throw them to despair. The process of planning, research, and writing will be the longest and most complex challenge you've ever committed to. The end result will be very rewarding, but you might go through several obstacles to get to that point. These are some of the most common problems students have when writing their dissertations:
- Procrastination. They think there is plenty of time to work on the project, and they keep delaying the starting point. This is a big problem, since these students usually find themselves in frantic stress when the deadline approaches. Check out article ”7 Signs You Might Need Academic Writing Help” and find the best solution
- Lack of research skills. Students who don't have enough experience with academic writing think they just need to collect few relevant resources and extract relevant quotes from them. That's far from the truth. You need to analyze those materials thoroughly and discuss them in the paper.
- Lack of writing skills. The dissertation paper should follow the strict rules of academic writing. You should write in proper form, style, and language; and you should make sure to implement the correct citation guidelines.
Although the challenge seems overwhelming, the important thing is to start from the beginning and complete each stage step by step. We have a guide that will show you the right direction.
Step 1: Write a winning dissertation proposal
We already explained what a dissertation paper is, but what is a dissertation proposal?
As the term itself suggests, this is a proposal for the final dissertation project, which should persuade the committee members that you're going to commit to a valuable, interesting, and complex questions. This is a shorter paper than the final dissertation, but it's equally as important because this is the point when you'll think of a significant question and you'll set up a plan for assembling information and writing the paper. Even if the proposal is not mandatory in your university, you should still write it and discuss the points with your mentor.
These are the main points to pay attention to when wondering how to write a dissertation proposal:
Choose the theme, question, and title
- What problem is your dissertation going to tackle?
- Why is it a problem for the research, academic, and scientific community you'll belong to?
- Why is it important for you to find a solution?
- How are you going to search for the answers?
Do you want to find out more about choosing your dissertation topic? Check out our article.
“How to Come up with a Topic for Your Dissertation”
All these questions are important for making the final commitment. Make sure to brainstorm and choose a theme that will be valuable, unique, and reasonable. You don't want to end up with a too complex question that would trick you in a dead end. The question you choose should lead you to a testable hypothesis that you can prove with strong arguments.
Discuss few alternatives of the dissertation title with your mentor before you start writing the proposal.
Structure of the dissertation proposal
If you want to make the proposal convincing, its format has to be clean and easy to follow. Here are the points you should include in the proposal:
- Dissertation title
- Objectives - Aim for up to three objectives. If you're too extensive at this point, it will seem like your plan doesn't have a focus, so you'll need to narrow it down.
- Literature - Ask your mentor if you're expected to list some specific references in this section. If that's not the case, you'll at least need to mention the areas of study, schools of thought, and other sources of information you're going to use during the research stage.
- Research - This is the main section, where you'll elaborate the ideas of your research question. You will clearly outline the area of research.
- Methodology - The dissertation project can be non-empirical (if the resources come from previously published projects) or empirical (if you collect data through questionnaires or other methods). In this section, you need to explain the methods of collecting data.
- Potential outcomes - Where do you think you'll end up after all the research and analyzing? Explain the outcome you expect to come down to.
- Timeframe - Create a schedule that explains how you will manage all stages of dissertation writing within a specific timeframe.
- List of references - Ask your mentor if you're supposed to include this part, and he'll provide you with the instructions.
Step 2: Conduct an effective research
The dissertation research stage is going to determine the overall development of your project. It has to be methodical and effective, since you don't want to waste your time reading and analyzing irrelevant resources. Here are a few tips that will help you go through it:
- Make a timeline for the research stage
- Find the right places to look for sources
- Organize your resources
It's important to find enough resources to fully understand the phenomenon you're focused on, but you'll need to stop researching at one point or another.
Many students fall into a trap: they think they have to read everything that was ever written regarding the dissertation question they are about to elaborate. How much time do you plan to spend in the research stage? Make a timeline and stay committed to it.
The point of the research stage is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but you've also understood its limitations.
The Internet is a good starting place during the research stage. However, you have to realize that not everything you read on the Internet is absolutely true. Double-check the information you find and make sure it comes from a trustworthy resource. Use Google Scholar to locate reliable academic sources. Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can take you to some great publication if you check out the list of references on the pages of your interest.
Librarians are really helpful at this point of the project development. Don't avoid the actual library and ask the librarian to provide you with some interesting publications.
You have to take notes; otherwise you'll end up seriously confused and you won't know where you located a certain important argument that you plan to use. Use Evernote, Penzu, or another online tool to write down notes about your impressions, as well as the sources you plan to reference.
The point of the research stage is to show you have read around the topic and you understand the previous research that has been conducted, but you've also understood its limitations.
Step 3: Write a mind-blowing dissertation
Now, you're left with the most important stage of the dissertation writing process: composing the actual project, which will be the final product of all your efforts.
It's surprising to see that many students have some level of confidence during the previous two stages of the process, but they crack when they realize they don't really know how to write a dissertation. Remember: you already did a great job up to this point, so you have to proceed. Everything is easier when you have a plan.
- Make an outline
- Literature Review
- Manage your time
- Write the first draft
You already have the dissertation proposal, which is a preliminary outline for the actual dissertation. However, you still need a more detailed outline for the large project. Did the research stage lead you in an unexpected direction? Make sure to include the new points in your outline.
This is a basic outline that will make it easier for you to write the dissertation:
The first chapter should include a background of the problem, and a statement of the issue. Then, you'll clarify the purpose of the study, as well as the research question. Next, you'll need to provide clear definitions of the terms related to the project. You will also expose your assumptions and expectations of the final results.
In this chapter of the dissertation, you will review the research process and the most important acknowledgements you've come down to.
This part of the dissertation is focused on the way you located the resources and the methods of implementation of the results. If you're writing a qualitative dissertation, you will expose the research questions, setting, participants, data collection, and data analysis processes. If, on the other hand, you're writing a quantitative dissertation, you will focus this chapter on the research questions and hypotheses, information about the population and sample, instrumentation, collection of data, and analysis of data.
This is the most important stage in the whole process of dissertation writing, since it showcases your intellectual capacity. At this point, you'll restate the research questions and you will discuss the results you found, explaining the direction they led you to. In other words, you'll answer those questions.
In the final chapter of the dissertation, you will summarize the study and you'll briefly report the results. Don't forget that you have to explain how your findings make a difference in the academic community and how they are implied in practice.
At the end of this chapter, include a "Recommendations for future research" section, where you'll propose future research that will clarify the issue further. Explain why you suggest this research and what form it should take.
Use the recommended citation style for your field of study, and make sure to include all sources you used during the research and writing stages.
You'll need another timeline, but this one will be focused on the writing process. Plan how to complete your dissertation chapter by chapter. When you have attainable goals, it will be easier for you to write the project without getting overwhelmed by its length and complexity.
There is no life-changing advice to give at this point. You just need to stay away from distractions, stick to your timeline, follow the outline, and complete the first draft. You already have what it takes; now you're ready to do the real work.
Findings stage is the most important in the whole process of dissertation writing, since it showcases your intellectual capacity.
Step 4: Edit and Proofread the Dissertation like a Pro
Now that you've completed the first draft of the paper, you can relax. Don't even think about dissertation editing as soon as you finish writing the last sentence. You need to take some time away from the project, so make sure to leave space of at least few days between the writing and editing stage. When you come back to it, you'll be able to notice most of its flaws.
- Start editing
There is a substantial difference between editing and proofreading: editing is focused on the essence, and proofreading is focused on the form of the paper. You need to deal with the essence first, since it would be silly to proofread the dissertation to perfection and then start getting rid of unnecessary parts and adding more details.
Pay attention to the logical connection between each argument. Are there any gaps in information? Fill them in with more details you collected through the research stage. Maybe you got carried away with the explanations at some point? Make sure to reduce the volume of those parts and clarify them as much as possible. The point is not in quantity; it's in quality and clarity.
Finally, it's time to do the final few readings and catch all spelling, grammar, and style errors you made. Read word by word, sentence by sentence, and consult a dictionary or thesaurus if you have any doubts.
If you notice that you're struggling through the stages of editing and proofreading, you should know you're not the only one with such problem. You are too attached to this project and it's difficult for you to see the flaws in it. That's why it's recommended for students to use an editing service that will bring their projects to perfection. This is a smart investment that will save you from embarrassment after all that effort and stress you went through.
Editing is focused on the essence, and proofreading is focused on the form of the paper.
Step 5: Get feedback
Before you can submit the dissertation project to the committee, you need to get some feedback.
Start with a friend or colleague who has knowledge in this discipline. You need to trust this person, since the dissertation is your unique intellectual property. Ask about their opinions and suggestions for improvement.
Then, discuss the project with your mentor. He/she will point out any possible weak points, and you'll get instructions on how to finalize the process before getting ready for the presentation.
The dissertation writing process is a great challenge, which not all students are capable to cope with. You need to keep in mind that you've come this far in your studies, so there is no other way to go but forward. Tackle the project stage by stage, and you'll soon complete the most important paper in your whole educational journey.
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Notes for dissertation prospectus writers
Spring 2005, updated 2010
A dissertation prospectus should set out three things: the sources (primary and secondary) that you think will shape your work; the issue (or issues) that will drive your project; and the structure of the dissertation (ie, a chapter outline) that you think will be the result of your labors. Obviously at the prospectus writing stage this is all subject to change, the archive you thought would have everything you needed might have very little, your understanding of the issues that you are investigating will probably (hopefully, in fact) change dramatically over the course of your work on your dissertation, and few chapter outlines survive writing the initial chapter. But while a prospectus’ shelf life is often not very long, its value lies in helping you and your committee get an initial handle on your project and its place in the historical literature.
While that is the formal explanation of a prospectus’ purpose, a cruder, but no less accurate way of thinking about the prospectus is to realize that ultimately it should provide answers to two questions (and even here, the answers it gives must be tentative): Why should anyone care about this project? Can it be done?
Preparing to write a prospectus:
Presumably by this point you have identified (and discussed with your dissertation advisor) a general research problem that you hope will be the focus of your dissertation. Getting from that problem (which presumably interests you to the extent you are willing to spend several years researching and writing about it) to a prospectus is a matter of refining your project by expanding your understanding of what is out there, in terms of secondary literature in the relevant field (or fields) and the available historical sources. It is often easiest to this by thinking in terms of the elements of a prospectus (see below), since those elements relate fairly precisely to the work that needs to be done in preparing a prospectus.
Element of a prospectus:
A variation of a prospectus often reappears as the introduction to your dissertation (and ultimately the book manuscript that derives from the dissertation) so a good place to start in terms of thinking about structure is to read a number of introductions to historical monographs. You will see that there is no single organizing principle, some introductions begin with a thesis statement, others begin with an historical anecdote, a few begin by posing a question, still others leap into an examination of the historical literature. The beginning of the introduction then, typically, dictates the order in which it proceeds. That having been said, there are basic elements of most introductions and those elements are also found in the dissertation prospectus.
- Thesis statement: Given the difference in size between a 15-20 page seminar paper and a 300 plus page dissertation, it should come as no surprise that your thesis statement for a dissertation prospectus should be more complicated than the single sentence or so that forms the basis of most papers. It is best, perhaps, to think of this statement as having several parts: it is a statement of the historical problem you are researching, the tentative conclusion about that problem you hope your research will support, and an explanation of why this problem, and your solution, are historically significant.
While this section should not be a sentence long, it should also not be 10 pages long. Brevity and clarity are key, for two reasons. If you can state your thesis in a succinct fashion you probably have a clear understanding of what it is, if, in contrast, you talk around it for pages, you probably are not sure what you are getting at. Likewise, if you can set your thesis statement out clearly and concisely you increase the likelihood that your committee will understand what you are hoping to do.
At this stage, a reasonable model for your thesis statement is the abstract found at the beginning of some journal articles. Think in terms of trying to set out the parts of your thesis statement in a page, or in 100 words. If it takes a bit more that’s not the end of the world; nor is it a disaster if it takes slightly less. But if your thesis statement is two sentences, or five or more pages, you need to reassess. For discussions of how to write an abstract, look here and here.
(NOTE: When you are further along in your project, giving papers at conferences and applying for jobs, you will need to be able to state your thesis in a sentence or two.)
- Literature review/historiographical essay: Here, you are demonstrating two different things, and the length of this typically fairly long section should be driven by those two concerns. First, you are showing that you are familiar with the relevant literature. Second, you are establishing that your work will not duplicate something that is already done, but instead will advance the field(s).
As that suggests, you may have to think in terms of several different fields of history, depending a bit on your project. A prospectus for a project intending to be a legal history of women in the 19th century west would have to engage, at the very least, the legal history of the nineteenth century generally, legal history of women, histories of women in the west, and the relationship between all those fields. Ideally, this section is a good historiographical essay that ties the literature review to your project and does not simply summarize book after book after book in mind numbing and, to your project, at least, irrelevant detail.
What you should do is read the relevant journal and monograph literature, focusing on recent works, of course, but you also need to pay attention to older studies (as far back as you can find them). Look at works that cover the same time period, or region, or general field of inquiry, to see what they can tell you about the subject of your research.While you should concentrate on becoming expert on the literature related to your project, you should also think comparatively. If your interest is in the 20th century South, look at work in the 19th century South as well, and also at studies of the 20th century North. You need to do this to make sure you don’t make the error of concluding a phenomenon was unique to your time or place, when a quick check would reveal it was far more widespread, or long lasting. (Likewise, it is often wise to consider non-US historiography, sometimes there are interesting approaches or ideas set out in these works. Alternatively, you might want to focus on US literature in your prospectus, but glance at non works as your research progresses, to get a larger perspective on your work.)
Think in terms of three things when considering the literature: What does it tell you about the time or place or phenomenon you are interested in studying? What archival sources that might be relevant to your project does it reveal? What method or methodologies does it utilize? Then, when positioning your project in the literature, make use of all this information.
There is one other thing to consider in writing this section on the relationship of your work to the other works in the relevant field(s). The temptation, particularly as you become more comfortable with (and enthused about) your own project is to treat the works of the historians who preceded you dismissively. And of course there is always the chance that your predecessors were fools who missed an obvious thing. But even in such a case, a bit of tact is not misplaced. For one thing, it may be that as you do more work in the field you see that the idiots that you dismissed took the positions that they took because they knew about things that you were unaware of until you began your research.And, even if that is not the case, and your research reveals to you the folly of your predecessors was even graver than you imagined, tact in this and later stages is not a bad thing. If nothing else, it offers you excellent practice preparing for grading papers.
- Statement of primary sources: Obviously as you do your research you will expand and contract your plans relating to primary sources. Often initial plans are wildly unrealistic, reading all the cases from a particular court system may be the work of a lifetime, not a couple of years, conversely an historical society’s collection of papers may include two documents, not the twenty year diary you hoped would appear. This section must be, as a result, tentative.
At the same time, it is the core of your prospectus. A brilliant thesis, set off by a stunning literature review, is worthless if there is no evidence that will enable you to back up your claims. In this section you must show that it is at least more likely than not that there are sources out there that you expect to be able to use and you must offer some sense of how you will use them. If you hope to study ideas of justice in early seventeenth century Florida, you need to talk about what you expect will reveal those ideas—legal sources, literary sources, letters and reports, even structural remnants might be plausible bits of evidence to support your theory. So here is where you need to set those different sources out, indicate where they are (or where you think they are), how you hope to use them, and that you can use them (ie, prove that you can make good use of an archive full of Spanish language texts).
This is the section that will convince your committee there is something to your project, so be sure you spend time making it as strong as you can. That does not mean that you need to go to every archive before you present your prospectus, but it does mean you need to have some fairly coherent idea of what archives are relevant, what they contain, and how you hope to use the materials in them.
- Methodology:Often this section will have considerable overlap with the section on primary sources, and so it might make sense to collapse the two sections together (though see below). In contrast to some fields (for example, sociology), most of the time history is not concerned with your precise methodology. That said,one methodological issue, perhaps the only one, you need to address is how you will use the materials that are the basis of your research, but this may involve answering several questions. Some are basic: Can you understand the language that the materials are in? (Comparable questions arise in relation to non-literary sources: How do you plan to interpret the artwork, or music, or literary materials that you plan to use? How will you interpret that buildings and structures that give rise to your geographic theory of justice?)
There are some other questions that you should consider that are more complicated variations on that theme:How do you plan to test for or adjust for the bias of your sources? If you are studying the place of women in the criminal justice system and your only sources are written by the male officers of that system, what do you need to take into account in weighing that evidence and how do you plan to do so?
Finally, you may want to address the relations between the various types of sources you plan to use: How will you weigh a literary source against a legal record, or use one to illuminate the other?
Again, much of this will have to be refined as you go along. At this stage, you need to consider these questions both to make sure they are on your radar screen and to be able to prove to your committee that you understand that there are issues about the reliability of historical evidence that you need to consider.
A discussion of methodology may also involve a discussion of the theory or theories that influence your work. If you propose a Marxist interpretation of tort law, you need to discuss that methodology and show it is appropriate to your inquiry. In this respect, your methodology may be closely related to your literature review, and you may want to put your discussion of it in that section. (You need not, of course, do so.)
- Research plan:Do you expect to spend a year in the archives and another writing? If so, this is the section in which to outline those goals. Do you think it makes more sense to research two chapters, write for a while, and then research some more? If so, set that out. Are you applying for a fellowship or grant to do research with? If so, say so here, and also explain what you will do about your research if the grant falls through. While no one wants to be discouraging, the nature of fellowships and grants is such that a dissertation that depends on a $35,000 a year grant that is awarded to one person every decade may be a dissertation that needs to be reconsidered, on the remote chance that you are not the person who wins that coveted grant.
- Chapter outline: This is another bit of the prospectus that has value for a limited time only. No one expects that the final organization of your dissertation will resemble this outline. But at this stage, even the roughest outline helps you think through your project and helps your committee evaluate its balance. An outline can help catch issues of overreach and narrowness. Why are you claiming to write a history of criminal law in when your chapters focus only on the nineteenth century? Why are you claiming to plan a study of tort law in Alachua County Florida when your chapters suggest you will look at the southeast ? Why are you talking in terms of a dissertation on the interwar era when six of your proposed seven chapters are on the period 1920-1925, and the seventh is a conclusion?
But you also want to use this exercise to think a little about how you envision your dissertation. Are you planning on writing a narrative, which proceeds in chronological order? Are you interested, instead, in writing an analytic study that will be organized thematically? You may find it helpful to read (or re-read) some monographs to see how they are arranged. This is not only a way to find some models to borrow from as you write your chapter outline, but it will also encourage you to begin to think about how history can be written.
NOTE: You might find it helpful to sketch out your chapter outline first, before you write the rest of your prospectus, to give yourself an idea of where you hope to go with your prospectus, and then return to the chapter outline when you’ve finished the rest of the prospectus to see how it matches up. In its final form, a good chapter outline not only has tentative chapter titles that suggest what each chapter will cover, but also has a paragraph that summarizes the focus of the chapter and, perhaps, sets out the major sources of evidence for that chapter (ie, in chapter two you will look at trial records, while in chapter three you will look at appellate opinions).
Usually, this is the last text section in the prospectus, since it gives concrete shape to the airier ideas that you floated in the rest of the document.
- Bibliography: This should be the very end of your prospectus, and should contain not only secondary sources but also as many primary sources as you have identified and any archives that may be relevant to your project. Here, you want to be as inclusive as you can be.
There are no hard and fast rules about this, the prospectus should be as long as it has to be. Ideally, you will show several drafts to your dissertation advisor and get feedback on whether material can be cut or needs to be added. It is better to be concise than rambling, but it is also better to treat every part of the prospectus as fully as necessary. Twenty-five pages are probably the minimum (plus a bibliography that lists both primary and secondary sources) and forty-five pages (not including the bibliography) is probably an outer limit. Much will depend on how many fields you need to engage in your literature review or how complicated your methodology is.