Tips on dissertation writing

Dissertations are lengthy documents based on a particular piece of research work as well as the findings of that work, and they are submitted by students in support of their candidacy for a high-level degree or some other academic qualification. These papers usually entail a vast amount of research using sources of both the primary and secondary variety. The writer should also show they are able to critically evaluate their research findings using specific subject-matter knowledge acquired during the course of their studies, creative thinking, and a range of other related skills.


Main steps involved in dissertation writing

The amount of time allowed to write a dissertation to defend one’s degree is usually three to eight months. This timeframe can sometimes be extended to cover a year or more worth of study. So, with this amount of time available, it would seem somewhat careless to delay getting started or to approach such a project without developing a fairly strict schedule. The following steps need to be taken into account when creating a research plan:

  1. Make a list of the courses and subjects you participated in during your studies and identify a particular area upon which to build a hypothesis for your paper.
  2. Once this has been decided upon, read as much secondary source material as you can and whittle this down to a narrower focus. The aim is to arrive at a specific hypothesis or a critical research problem.
  3. When the hypothesis or problem is identified and fully formulated, you are ready to write a proposal wherein you describe the importance of this problem and the need to research it further. The aim is to get approval to proceed with the research project and dissertation.
  4. Once the dissertation committee approves your proposal, you can start planning your work. Start by developing a fairly comprehensive outline to cover the chapters you will include in your paper.
  5. Consider the most appropriate research methodologies for your work and develop or assemble the tools or equipment needed for each chosen methodology.
  6. Begin writing each of the chapters for your dissertation, progressing from a full theoretical literature review (this should include any existing research on your subject) to the actual research itself, which may involve gathering primary source material.
  7. As you review and refine each chapter according to feedback from your tutor, you will move forward to the last chapter – the conclusion. Here, you should summarize your findings and results, analyze their significance, and relate them to the theory you defined at the outset.
  8. Proofread your entire dissertation thoroughly (twice at least) even if you have previously read and re-read the individual chapters.

Read about: “Writing the abstract, introduction and conclusion for a dissertation”

Choosing an appropriate topic

One of the most vital factors in selecting a topic for your dissertation is finding one you feel passionately about, not least because you will be working with this subject matter for a long time. Therefore, to stick with it for the entire project, it must be something you can remain interested in. If, at any time, you are unable to narrow the subject matter down sufficiently to a specific topic, think of three areas you would most like to explore and make questions of them. This technique can also help select a topic. It is essential, however, to understand your capabilities and limits when choosing a topic because you will have to complete your project in a set timeframe. Another important factor is being realistic or honest about your own abilities. When selecting a topic and knowing what is required of you, give serious consideration to whether you will definitely be able to finish it in the time allowed.

Main points for consideration

  • Because a dissertation is a vast and very important paper, it is crucial that sufficient time is dedicated to every stage of the process. It is not a good idea to rush to the more practical research part because you will need to do a comprehensive review of available literature to ensure your hypothesis is current and has not been addressed or resolved already. The initial preparation time for a dissertation project is estimated at around 30 percent of the allocated time.
  • Another critical step in the preparation stage is deciding which sources to use in your paper’s literature review chapter and how to separate reliable sources from unreliable ones. Every source should be up-to-date (within the past five to seven years) and relevant to your topic. The availability and accessibility to these sources is something you need to consider at the outset when selecting your research area.
  • It is important you know how to correctly cite sources from the beginning because revisiting each source and trying to remember where it came from can be a very tedious and time-consuming process, and it is a trap that a lot of students fall into. So, try to cite your sources correctly from the start or create index cards with the information or data you intend to draw upon. This system can be very helpful if you are unsure how to arrange your literature review as you can juggle the index cards to establish where each piece of information fits best into the chapter.
  • Plagiarism should be avoided at all costs, even when it is unintentional. It may surprise you to hear that a lot of students fail to obtain their degrees even after writing a good dissertation because they do not use citation properly and this leads to accusations of plagiarism. Your professor or course supervisor may be able to guide you in this respect while you are still at the draft stage. Still, it is better not to depend too heavily on their spotting lapses in citation. The best solution is for you to take responsibility by including the name of original authors whenever you refer to a concept, idea, or piece of work that is not your own.

Check also our article: “Dissertation literature review”

What you should and should not do

What you should do

  1. Maintain regular contact with your mentor or course supervisor.
  2. Choose a research methodology that suits the number of people involved in any sampling you do and one that matches the methods available to you in your capacity as researcher.
  3. Develop a suitable number of true or false hypotheses to test with your research results or findings, according to whether your primary hypothesis is proved or rejected.
  4. Adhere to a particular formula or standard for the structure of your dissertation according to the requirements of your college or university. Usually it is recommended that literature reviews do not exceed 35% of the overall paper and that the analysis of findings should make up at least 15% of the overall text.
  5. Be critical of any assumptions, findings, or facts quoted in your paper. It is a mistake to believe that you should only use ideas and quotes that you believe or agree with in a literature review. It is equally permissible to use opposing viewpoints to show ambiguities in the subject matter and to show by sound reasoning and argument why you cannot agree with a certain viewpoint.

What you should not do

  1. Do not use sources taken from a different field of study in a literature review. Source materials on drug use, for instance, may be taken from the fields of medicine, sociology, psychology, or even from social services, but not from other unrelated fields. If sources from other fields are intentionally used, these should be clearly distinguished in appropriate citations.
  2. Do not dash into research until you are sure the design is flawless and capable of showing reliable and credible results. Pre-test any methodology you invent (rather than adapt) or run a pilot study on it before undertaking field or site research (at least when using a design that involves collecting primary source materials)
  3. Do not just summarize and restate research findings in your conclusions chapter. Go back to your hypothesis and restate it either by proving or rejecting the questions within it. Then set out any areas that need further research (which need not be your own). This may mean analyzing how the subject might be researched further, what the next question or hypothesis might be, or by listing any questions arising from your conclusions that merit additional research.
  4. Creating individual chapters as separate documents without connecting them to earlier chapters and properly integrating them into your paper as one whole. A good dissertation should show integrity, cohesion, and continuity throughout.
  5. Relying too much on just one source type for the literature review chapter. It is important you show you are able to analyze a number of academic and even non-academic types of sources such as research papers, peer-reviewed journals, financial reports, interview notes, academic manuscripts, and so on as well as textbooks, course hand-outs, and other class-related materials.
  6. Failing to adhere to the general formatting requirements, chapter lengths, and number and type of sources, etc. It is usually your content rather than form that matters. Everything matters, of course, in a paper as important as a thesis or dissertation, so try and identify even the smallest flaws when you are proofreading your final text.

Frequent mistakes

Using diagrams and charts to demonstrate results where the population you took samples from is fewer than thirty (30) participants. Generally, it is not considered good practice to present percentage graphs for a population of under 100 participants because this number is not deemed adequate for representation purposes. Still it is worth presenting analyzed data in a logical and organized way e.g. by presenting findings in table, scheme, and column format.

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