How to Write a Dissertation
Abstract--Introduction--Literature Review--Methodology -- Results
Discussion, Conclusions, Recommendations
Dissertations are written for knowledgeable peers in your particular field of study. They are not written for laymen, or for people in other disciplines. For instance, if you are in the field of education, you will write your dissertation for knowledgeable peers in education, not for people from the field of physics. There is a lot of misinformation about this aspect of a dissertation, but consider the problem of someone from the field of physics trying to write a dissertation for someone in education, or a layman. Trying to explain common physics mathematical equations would result in hundreds of pages of explanation. Neither is a dissertation a textbook. Lengthy explanations that are common knowledge in the field of study are not appropriate.
The most important first step in writing a dissertation is to identify a gap in the knowledge. This begins when you identify a problem with the human condition. As an example, the problem you have identified is that higher than normal attrition of teachers is happening in a school district, which is causing all the problems associated with high turnover. Your next step is to search the empirical (research) literature to see if anybody else has investigated the high turnover in that school district, and if you fail to find any published piece of scholarly literature, you have a legitimate ‘gap in the knowledge.’ The gap in the knowledge is the most critical finding you will have because it drives every element of your dissertation. If you do not identify a legitimate gap in the knowledge, you have no foundation for your study.
The abstract is usually found in the preliminary pages and may include only two paragraphs if it accompanies the proposal to do the study, or it is written after the study is complete. An abstract is normally four small paragraphs or one unbroken paragraph and may not exceed 250-350 words according to university standards. The length of the abstract is driven by the electronic cataloging of dissertation abstracts. It is comprised of (a) one paragraph that identifies the problem and related purpose of the study, (b) one paragraph about the methods, (c) one paragraph about the findings, and (d) one paragraph about the conclusions and recommendations.
Chapter I – Introduction
Chapter I, with a thorough review of the literature, is normally the “prospectus” that a committee approves before the “proposal” to begin research is approved. The proposal, which follows the prospectus, is the first three chapters of the dissertation. After the prospectus is approved, some of the review of literature may be moved to Chapter II, which then becomes part of the proposal. Once the proposal is approved, some of the methodology in Chapter I may be moved into the Chapter III.
Chapter I is the engine that drives the rest of the document, and it must be a complete empirical argument. It is narrowly focused on the gap in the knowledge. Dissertations are somewhat repetitive. Once you establish a word or words to identify something, stick with it throughout. Dissertations are not an exercise in creative writing, so do not try to find new words for the same thing every time you mention it. Use plenty of transitional sentences from one section to another. Following is an outline of the content of a typical Chapter 1.
Introductory paragraph. State the general field of interest, and end with a sentence that states the general subject of the research project. Do not keep the reader waiting to find out what you are going to do. Your first subheading follows.
Background of the Problem. A brief 3-4 page summary of the major findings in the field of interest narrowly focused on the gap in the knowledge. The task is to prove that the gap in the knowledge has not been studied. Citations should be within the 5 years previous to your own study. These paragraphs point out unresolved issues, conflicting findings, social concerns, or educational or national/international issues, and lead to the next section, the statement of the problem. A good Background of the Study has a minimum of two to three citations to the literature in every paragraph.
Statement of the Problem. Arising from the Background of the Study is this statement of the problems that are occurring and a specific statement of the exact gap in the knowledge you will study. The gap in knowledge is the nerve center for your study.
Purpose of the Study. One to two paragraphs that state your intention to address the gap in the knowledge.
Research Question(s). These are your basis for action and arise from your attack on the gap in the knowledge. When your research is finished, your contribution to the knowledge will be the answers to these questions.
Hypotheses. These are found primarily in quantitative studies. Each research question will have both a primary hypothesis and a null hypothesis.
The Background of the Problem the Statement of the Problem, the Purpose of the Study, and the Research Questions area are all narrowly focused on the gap in the knowledge. Use the same language in the same way throughout.
Significance of the Study. A statement of why it is important to study the problem, and how the solution will improve the human condition.
Research Design. This is sometimes entitled Nature of the Study, and some committees want it only in Chapter 3. This is a summary of the methodology that contains a brief description of three things: (a) the participants or subjects of the research, (b) the instrumentation used to collect data, and (c) the procedure that will be followed.
Of note is Institutional Review Board approval for the use of human subjects, if you have them, which is a Federal law. Also, if you are investigating minors, you must have parental approval. These two subjects are in Chapter 3 of some dissertations.
Assumptions. An assumption is a self-evident truth. For instance, it is assumed that participants in either a quantitative or qualitative study will answer questions honestly and to the best of their abilities.
Limitations, and/or Delimitations. Limitations are things over which the researcher has no control, such as bias, and delimitations are things over which the researcher has control, such as the place of the study.
Definition of Terms. Define terms that may have more than one meaning among knowledgeable peers.
Remember that an individual advisor or department may reorganize, add or delete from the above list, or require you to put a subject elsewhere, but the basic foundation of the study will remain the same.
Chapter II – Review of the Literature
The purpose of the review of the literature is to prove that no one has studied the gap in the knowledge you intend to study. It is not a textbook of subject matter loosely related to the subject of the study. In fact, every study that is mentioned should in some way bear upon the gap in the knowledge, and you should be able to conclude every mention of a study with the comment that the researcher did not study the gap in the knowledge that you mentioned in Chapter 1.
The review should be laid out in major sections introduced by organizational generalizations. You will need a transitional sentence prior to the beginning of each new section. It ends with a Conclusion that clearly states that, based on the review of the literature, the gap in the knowledge that you are going to study has not been studied by anyone else. At the end, remember that a “summary” is different from the “conclusion.” The Summary introduces the next chapter.
The purpose of this chapter is to cite major conclusions, findings, and methodological issues related to the gap in the knowledge from Chapter 1. It is written for knowledgeable peers from easily retrievable sources of the most recent issue possible. You should cite works within the previous 5 years or less to prove that you have searched the recent literature for any mention of your gap in the knowledge. If you cite works older than 5 years, use the word “seminal” to describe them. You will acquaint the reader with existing studies relative to your gap in the knowledge and describe who has done the work, when and where the research was completed, and what approaches were used for the methodology, instrumentation, or statistical analyses.
If you find very little literature, take each study and write, in effect, a mini-book report about it. Cite the purpose of the study, the methodology, the findings, and the conclusions. Describe where it took place, and anything you can find about the author (Google is great for this). If you have a lot of literature, cite only the most recent studies.
Firmly establish the need for your study. You can defend your methods and procedures here by pointing out other relevant studies that used similar methodologies, a section that is sometimes found in the methodology chapter.
Chapter III – Methodology
The purpose of the methodology chapter is to give an experienced investigator enough data to replicate the study. Some advisors don’t understand this and require their students to write what is, in effect, a textbook.
Objective of the Study. Briefly restate the objective of the study in the first paragraph.
Appropriateness of the Research Design. This section is optional, but required by some committees. You will write a little textbook about the difference between quantitative and qualitative studies and state which approach you deemed most appropriate for your own study.
Research Approach. Specify that it is either experimental, quasi-experimental, correlational, causal-comparative, quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods, or other design. Be specific.
Research Design. Spell out the independent, dependant, and /or classifatory variables. Some advisors will have you put variables in a separate section or in the Introduction. Sometimes an operational statement of the research hypotheses in null form is given to set the stage for later statistical inferences. State the significance factor by which you intend to accept or reject the hypotheses, if you have them.
Pilot Study. Any survey instrument that is self designed must have a pilot study. Describe your pilot study as it relates to your research design, development of the instrument, data collection procedures, or characteristics of the sample.
Participants. Fully describe the place where the study took place, and the expected participants of the study.
Instrumentation. Fully describe what you will use to collect the data and put the instrument in your appendix.
Procedure. Fully describe how you collected the data, beginning with any letters of permission you needed from institutions or individuals, which you will put in your appendix. If you send a letter to participants, it should also go in your appendix.
Data Processing and Analysis. This is a careful description of how you will analyze the data.
Ethical Considerations. A standard statement of the measures you took to protect the participants or institutions you studied.
Internal and External Validity. Regardless of whether you use a self-designed instrument or a validated instrument, or whether you are doing a qualitative or quantitative study, you must state how you intend to support validity.
Chapter IV – Results
The purpose of this chapter is to summarize the collected data and the statistical treatment, and/or mechanics, of analysis. The first paragraph should briefly restate the problem, taken from Chapter I. You should then explain the object of each experiment, question, or objective, point out salient results, and present those results by table, graph, chart, or other form of collected data. Select tables and figures carefully. Some studies are easier to defend if all the raw data is in this chapter, some are better if the bulk of the raw data is in an appendix.
Do not repeat in tedious prose what it is obvious for a knowledgeable peer to see at a glance, as dissertations are written for knowledgeable peers, not laymen. However, some advisors do not understand this basic principle, so ask your advisor about the level of detail. The headings on tables and captions on figures should be understandable without reading the text to find out what the data means. Note all relevant results, even those that were contrary to your hypotheses, or those that tend to distract from clear determinations.
Make statements of the results without any implication, speculation, assessment, evaluation, or interpretation. Sometimes the results and discussion are combined into one chapter, but in general, keep the results, and the conclusions and discussion, separate.
Chapter V – Discussion and Recommendations
Purpose of the Study: Open this chapter by reminding the reader of the purpose.
Methods and Procedures: Summarize the approach.
Major Findings: Summarize the Chapter IV results.
Discussion: Refer to your hypotheses, objectives, or questions. Assess the meaning of the results by evaluating and interpreting. Speculation should be reasonable, firmly justified, and subject to test. This is the hardest part to write because your committee will challenge your interpretation in your Defense. Refer to several studies cited in Chapter II for comparison or contrast.
Conclusions: The conclusions relate directly to your questions or objectives. They represent your contribution to the knowledge, and fill in the gap in the knowledge. They also relate directly to the significance of the study. These are your major generalizations, your answer to the problem revealed in Chapters I and II, and for the first time in the dissertation, you are allowed to have a personal opinion so long as you can back it up with the data.
Recommendations: These can take two forms: recommendations for further study, or recommendations for change, or both. Each recommendation should trace directly to a conclusion.
These will follow the specific format of an individual style guide, such as APA, Chicago, or other.
If your study involves an organization, you will need a letter of permission to conduct the study from the primary leader. You will need a letter of invitation and consent from all adult participants, if you have them, and a letter of permission from parents if you are involving minors. You will need your instruments. Your committee or your study may require additional appendices, such as ancillary tables and figures. Finally, some institutions require a vita at the end.