Writing your dissertation chapter by chapter
The introduction is the first chapter of your dissertation, and it’s essential to draw the reader in with a strong beginning. Set the stage for your research with a clear focus and direction.
The overall purpose of a dissertation introduction is to tell your reader what you’re writing about, why it matters, and how you approach it. To write your introduction, you can break it down into five steps:
- Topic and context: what does the reader need to know to understand the dissertation?
- Focus and scope: what specific aspect of the topic will you address?
- Relevance: why is this research worth doing?
- Aims and objectives: what did you aim to find out and how did you approach it?
- Overview of the structure: what will you cover in each chapter?
Introduce the topic and context
Begin by leading into your broad topic and giving any necessary background information. Aim to spark interest and show why this is a timely or important topic for a dissertation (for example, by mentioning a relevant news item, debate, or practical problem).
Show the relevance of the research:
You need to explain your rationale for doing this research, how it relates to existing work on the topic, and what new insights it will contribute. What is the relevance of this dissertation to your academic field? Does it have broader social or practical relevance? In short, why does it matter?
Give an overview of the dissertation’s structure
To help guide your reader through the dissertation, end with an overview of its structure, summarising each chapter to clearly show how it contributes to your central aim.
It’s best to keep the overview concise. A few sentences should usually be enough to describe the content of each chapter. However, if your research is more complicated or does not follow a conventional structure, you might need to elaborate a full paragraph for each chapter.
A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research.
Conducting a literature review involves collecting, evaluating and analysing publications (such as books and journal articles) that relate to your research question. There are five main steps in the process of writing a literature review:
- Search for relevant literature
- Evaluate sources
- Identify themes, debates and gaps
- Outline the structure
- Write your literature review
A good literature review doesn’t just summarise sources – it analyses, synthesises, and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.
Begin by introducing your overall approach to the research. What problem or question did you investigate, and what kind of data did you need to answer it?
- Quantitative methods (e.g. surveys) are best for measuring, ranking, categorising, identifying patterns and making generalisations
- Qualitative methods (e.g. interviews) are best for describing, interpreting, contextualising, and gaining in-depth insight into specific concepts or phenomena
- Mixed methods allow for a combination of numerical measurement and in-depth exploration
Depending on your discipline and approach, you might also begin with a discussion of the rationale and assumptions underpinning your methodology.
- Was your aim to address a practical or a theoretical problem?
- Why is this the most suitable approach to answering your research questions?
- Is this a standard methodology in your field or does it require justification?
- Were there any ethical or philosophical considerations?
- What are the criteria for validity and rigorousness in this type of research?
In a quantitative experimental study, you might aim to produce generalisable knowledge about the causes of a phenomenon. Valid research requires a carefully designed study with controlled variables that can be replicated by other researchers.
In a qualitative participant observation, you might aim to produce ethnographic knowledge about the behaviours, social structures and shared beliefs of a specific group of people. As this methodology is less controlled and more interpretive, you will need to reflect on your position as researcher, taking into account how your participation and perception might have influenced the results.
Your results will look different depending on the research methodology you used. In some types of research, it might not make sense to include a separate results section – for example, in desk research that focuses on interpretation of texts or analysis of case studies.
But in most dissertations based on experimental research or collection of primary data, it’s a good idea to report the results of your study before you move onto the discussion of their meaning. This will give the reader a clear idea of exactly what you found.
The results section should be written in the past tense. Its length will depend on the amount of data you collected and analysed, but make sure you only include information that is relevant to your research problem and questions.
Results of quantitative research (e.g. surveys)
The easiest way to report your results is to frame them around any research sub-questions or hypotheses that you formulated.
For each sub-question, present the relevant results, including any statistical analysis you conducted, and briefly evaluate their significance and reliability. Observe how each result relates to the question or whether the hypothesis was supported. You can highlight the most important trends, differences, and relationships among the data, but do not speculate on their meaning or consequences.
If you have results that are not directly relevant to answering your questions, or any extra information that will help the reader understand how you gathered the data (such as the full survey design), you can include them in an appendix.
Tables and figures
In quantitative research, it’s often helpful to include visual elements such as graphs, charts and tables, but only if they accurately reflect your results and add value to the story you are trying to tell.
Make sure you refer to all tables and figures in the text, but don’t simply repeat information. Tables and figures can be used to condense lots of complex data or clearly illustrate a trend in the results, while the text should summarise or elaborate on specific aspects. Give your tables and figures clear, descriptive titles and labels so the reader can easily understand what is being shown.
Results of qualitative research (e.g. interviews)
In qualitative research, the results might not be directly related to specific sub-questions or hypotheses. In this case, you can structure your results section around key themes or topics that emerged from your analysis of the data.
For each theme, make general observations about what the data showed. For example, you might mention recurring points of agreement or disagreement, patterns and trends, and individual responses that were particularly significant to your research question. You can clarify and support these points with direct quotations.
Example: Write-up of qualitative interviews
When asked about video games as a form of art, the respondents tended to believe that video games themselves are not an art form, but agreed that creativity is involved in their production. The criteria used to identify artistic video games included design, story, music, and creative teams. One respondent noted a difference in creativity between popular video game genres:
“I think that in role-playing games, there’s more attention to character design, to world design, because the whole story is important and more attention is paid to certain game elements […] so that perhaps you do need bigger teams of creative experts than in an average shooter or something.”
It is clear from the responses that video game consumers consider some types of games to have more artistic potential than others.
Discussion of results
The discussion chapter is where you delve into the meaning, importance and relevance of your results. It should focus on explaining and evaluating what you found, showing how it relates to your literature review and research questions, and making an argument in support of your overall conclusion. There are many different ways to write this section, but you can focus your discussion around four key elements:
- Interpretations: what do the results mean?
- Implications: why do the results matter?
- Limitations: what can’t the results tell us?
- Recommendations: what practical actions or scientific studies should follow?
There is often overlap between the discussion and conclusion, and in some dissertations these two sections are included in a single chapter. Occasionally, the results and discussion will be combined into one chapter. If you’re unsure of the best structure for your research, look at sample dissertations in your field or consult your supervisor.
Length of the conclusion
Depending on the type of dissertation, the conclusion should typically be around 5-7% of the overall word count. An empirical scientific study will often have a short conclusion that concisely states the main findings and recommendations, while a humanities dissertation might require more space to conclude its analysis and tie all the chapters together in an overall argument.
Answer the research question
The conclusion should begin from the main question that your dissertation aimed to address. This is your final chance to show that you’ve done what you set out to do, so make sure to formulate a clear, concise answer.
Don’t repeat a list of all the results that you already discussed, but synthesise them into a final takeaway that the reader will remember.
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