What is a dissertation?The Academic Writing Center


What is a Dissertation? 

Many graduate students begin writing their dissertations with very little clarity about what they need to accomplish. They plunge in furiously, hoping to grit it out, and the dissertation can start to feel like an albatross instead of a tool that is helping them become the scholar they want to be. 

A dissertation, sometimes referred to as a thesis, is a scholarly product representing the culmination of a graduate student’s degree. It demonstrates your ability to conduct research independently and, thus, is often conducted with minimal supervision. For this reason, many graduate students get “stuck” questioning their decisions and spinning their wheels in rounds of revision.

Understanding exactly what a dissertation is can help you normalize your expectations and create a realistic timeline for completing each chapter. This guide is meant to help you understand the components of a traditional five-chapter dissertation. 

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Let’s begin with the dissertation proposal.

Dissertation Proposal

In the dissertation proposal, you are justifying; you are arguing the need for your research using evidence to support your argument and decisions. Each chapter in the proposal functions in a different way to support your argument and communicate the plan for your research. 

The introduction, referred to as Chapter 1, presents the problem to be investigated. There are several sections of related material in this chapter. These sections include the purpose statement, research questions and hypotheses, problem statement, background and significance to the problem, theoretical or conceptual framework, and definitions of key terms. While many universities require students to write this chapter first, we recommend writing your literature review before embarking on the introductory chapter. After all, how can you argue for the need for your research if you are not intimately familiar with what other researchers have discovered on your topic? 

The literature review, referred to as Chapter 2, is an in-depth critical analysis and synthesis of the extant literature on your topic. By analyzing the extant literature, you situate your research in the scholarly discourse — you identify trends and issues, controversies, and gaps in knowledge that demonstrate that further research is needed. The literature review is often the most challenging chapter of the dissertation proposal because it requires a multitude of complex reading and writing skills – critically reading, annotating, critiquing, analyzing, synthesizing, and more. 

The methodology chapter, referred to as Chapter 3, describes the methods and analytical steps you will take to conduct your study. The methodology you choose is also a representation of how you view the problem – through a qualitative or quantitative lens. As the architect of your study, you must justify your methodological decisions. You will also need to describe how you will recruit participants by detailing your sampling strategy and recruitment steps. Data collection methods and analytical processes must also be included – in enough detail so another researcher can replicate your study. 

Once you have successfully defended your proposal, you will submit your study for human ethics approval. Once approval is granted, you will begin collecting data.

Results and Conclusions

After data collection, you write the contribution – or the final two chapters of your dissertation, Chapters 4 and 5. 

In your results (quant) or findings (qualitative) chapter, often referred to as Chapter 4, you simply tell readers what you found in response to your research questions. The structure of Chapter 4 depends on your chosen methodology and research design. For example, a quantitative study may be structured according to each research question. A qualitative study may be structured according to themes. It is essential to review previously published dissertations with similar research designs to understand how to structure Chapter 4. 

Chapter 5 is perhaps the most important chapter in the dissertation manuscript because it presents the researcher’s contribution to the body of knowledge. Chapter 5 typically begins with a summary of the essential points made in the original research proposal, and includes why the topic is important and how the study was designed to contribute to the understanding of the topic. The remainder of the chapter contains a summary of the overall study, a summary of the findings and conclusions, recommendations for future research and practice, and a final section on implications derived from the study. This is where you come into your own as a researcher and become one of the voices in the scholarly discourse. 


If you are struggling with any of these components of your dissertation, check out our events page for upcoming workshops, bootcamps, and free webinars.