Expert Advice on Writing a Thesis or Dissertation

Guide to writing a thesis paper or dissertation paper

Writing a theses or dissertation: How to research and write these papers

This guide is just one of a series that explains the mechanics of writing a doctoral-level paper. One of the guides in this series, for example, provides a list of answers to frequently asked questions such as “What exactly is a dissertation or thesis?” This part provides PhD students with advice on how to deal with the not-so-easy task of writing a thesis.


Formulating a topic for your thesis

When you sit down to write a doctoral dissertation, the entire process starts off with choosing a suitable topic for your paper. The peculiarities of the circumstances under which you were admitted to a particular PhD programs is likely to be the decider in how much say you have in choosing a research problem or question to address. It is important to remember there is a great deal of difference between a research problem or question and a thesis statement. In a lot of cases, the funding that is awarded to support the research work of a PhD student will indicate in clear terms what research question(s) that student will be expected to address. The selection of a dissertation committee is something that needs to be done fairly early on in a project like this.

How to begin the actual process of writing a thesis

The prospect of writing a thesiscan be quite a daunting one. Essentially, there are two different strategies a writer can choose from when it comes to creating their first or initial draft. In papers related to the sciences (and according to the requirements of the student’s faculty), there are two ways of organizing their thesis that the student can select from. One of these styles is a format known as the thesis-by-chapter style. Here, once the literature review chapter is written, it should be followed by the methodology chapter and the results chapter for discrete research work that is focused on answering the main research question and the objectives the dissertation seeks to address. Theses and dissertations are typically brought to an end with a summary. This chapter discusses the implications of the actual research in contextual relation to the main research question.

The second option for organizing a thesis is a format known as manuscript. If or when this particular format is used in subjects pertaining to the sciences, the organization of the paper’s contents takes the form of a unified chunk of content with sections devoted to the review of literature, methods and materials, results or results combined with discussion. Out of both these formats, the current method would seem to be the one that is most commonly used. This probably has something to do with the fact that less work is required for the preparation, proofreading, and editing of the paper’s contents before it goes for publishing possibly in a research journal and often in the form of discrete articles.

Begin and continue in an organized manner

It is critical that you maintain a coherent and clear method of organizing all research materials, first drafts, and references during the writing of and editing of a paper like this. Misplacing, losing, or getting notes and files muddled up can be very frustrating but there are ways of minimizing the risk of these things happening. We recommend you set up files on your desktop or laptop computer to organize your work and to arrange this in accordance with any research problems, questions, experiments, or other data you are dealing with. We suggest you create files and folders for every individual chapter of your dissertation. It may be that you want to use this highly recommended system from the outset, even when the contents of the different chapters are only provisionally decided upon. In the chapter devoted to the literature review, for example, you may want to think about creating a special folder to store drafts of everything related to this chapter and other ones for electronic versions of research material organized according to their subject matter. Create as many sub-folders as you need within main folders for the different dissertation chapters e.g. for filing notes, drafts, data, and so on.

You might find software designed for managing references useful

It is likely you will build up a considerable quantity of electronic notes and literature over a number of years as journal publishing increasingly shifts to electronic formats. There are a number of software programs available for managing reference materials. These help to keep all types of literature in an organized manner. Moreover, there is also software available for handling citations and this is often clever enough to format references and in-text citations in accordance with specific styles.

Working on the first draft of a thesis

If it is possible at all, it is advisable to start the writing part of your thesis early on in your PhD studies – as soon as you possibly can in fact. Once you understand the two formats described above, it is most probable the thesis-by-chapter organizational format is the most suitable for this approach. An additional advantage of this particular format is that it will probably be possible to publish different chapters of your final paper in academic journals before you complete your entire dissertation project. When it comes to defending your thesis in a face-to-face setting, your evaluation committee may be inclined to view parts of your dissertation in a more favorable light if they are already peer-reviewed and published in a relevant journal.

Writing an academic paper has many challenges, not least of which is having to tread a very fine line in terms of whether you have explained yourself sufficiently or have provided too much unnecessary detail. While it should be possible to view a thesis as a stand-alone piece of work it is still necessary, for brevity sake, to assume your readers will understand some of the background, at least to some extent. When you are discussing the research work of other authors and any results obtained from their work, you should only include as much information as readers need to contextually understand your work. They also need to be able to understand the implications of this in relation to what is already known about the topic or subject.

What is of the utmost importance when deciding the layout and structure of a dissertation is absolute clarity. In this respect, the format known as thesis-by-chapter can have certain advantages, especially for PhD students applying for a doctoral degree in the natural sciences or similar subjects where the content of the research can be very much of an experiment-based nature.

To summarize everything

It is very likely that writing the summary section or conclusion chapter will prove the most challenging part of your entire dissertation project. Therefore, we offer this advice:

  • Highlight the most significant results and/ or conclusions (or at least some of them).
  • Try showing how, or by what means, the research you have done has had an impact on existing knowledge in its field.
  • Discuss any other the research problems or questions that come to light because of your discoveries or the results you obtained.

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