Academic writing is an exacting proposition and writing a dissertation – for some, their first taste in writing to that standard is no easy task.

As an undergraduate and graduate student, you likely had to present a thesis to complete those stages of higher education but writing your final treatise for your doctoral degree is a whole new level of research and writing.

How should a future PhD approach this task? Is there a specific sequence of steps or procedures to follow? What about the format: how should your work be presented?

These are all questions your Superprof answers, along with a host of others you might not have thought about.

What is a Dissertation?

At its simplest, a dissertation is an essay that delves deep into research and provides a lot more detailed information. Unlike theses – usually required at the end of each stage of higher learning, dissertations may be written at any point during a student’s academic career.

Many students and even universities use the words ‘dissertation’ and ‘thesis’ interchangeably.

Your campus' library likely has dissertations written by former students
if you are unsure which step to take first in writing your dissertation, check your campus' library for past works by former students Image by Jens P. Raak from Pixabay

Scholars who have completed their Bachelor’s and Graduate dissertations may think that a doctoral thesis will be a snap – they’ve had practice researching and writing about a specific topic before but a doctoral dissertation is much more exacting, complex and demanding.

It also reveals much more about you than you might think.

A well-researched document on a topic that represents a gap in the existing body of knowledge demonstrates your ability to determine a need, conduct independent research, analyse findings and present them in an orderly, logical manner.

These characteristics, which your writing silently attests to, boost your employability and demonstrate your competence and endurance in your field of study.

It may take you months of research and many sleepless nights to put all of your discoveries into a cohesive narrative but the significance of your work – academically, professionally and personally, is unparalleled.

Would students write dissertations if they weren’t required for their degree?

The jury is out on that question (feel free to let us know your opinion in the comments below) but one thing’s for sure: you couldn’t be assigned a better challenge to complete your tenure in academic learning.

Get everything you need to know about how to write a dissertation in one article…

The Challenges of Writing a Dissertation

Unlike writing an essay for a class or a graduate thesis, writing a doctoral dissertation requires a far greater degree of planning, much more in-depth research and targeted writing skills – specific down to the choice of words you use.

You must also follow your university’s dissertation guidelines lest your work be rejected.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is time or, better said: the perception of infinite time.

Generally, dissertations take a long time to write. You have to conduct research, first to find a topic and then to perform ‘experiments’ and analyse your results; write about the whole ordeal and include references, appendices and, of course, a title page.

For all of this work, universities may allow up to a year but establish firm deadlines for completion. If your deadline is months ahead, you may feel like you have a bounty of time that could be more engagingly spent on other activities.

Poor planning is the number one cause of dissertation anxiety.

Consider all of the work you have to do: find a topic (read through available literature), establish your research question, formulate a hypothesis, figure out how you will get the results proving your argument, conduct that research, analyse your results and, finally, draft it all into a properly formatted, easy-to-read narrative while being ever mindful of your allotted word count.

When seen in its aggregate, it’s no wonder dissertation candidates feel the task is overwhelming but that is precisely why you must plan your project rather than be forced to scramble to meet your deadline or have to ask for an extension.

Be sure to work steadily so that you will meet your deadline
Plan each step you need to take so that you can hand in your dissertation before its deadline Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay

Another major stumbling block is a lack of skills in conducting research.

Is your topic such that you may rely solely on primary research or need you only draw on secondary sources? Is your research qualitative or quantitative – will you include visuals in your written work – tables, charts and graphs?

The type of data you collect, how you collect it and your analysis methods may all impact how you construct your narrative and how much time you have to write.

Academic writing poses the greatest challenge overall.

You may feel comfortable with the verbiage and expectations from past papers you may have written but, for your doctoral dissertation, your university will likely have specific guidelines that you must follow.

Deficiencies in how your document is structured, formatted and styled could lead to your work being rejected; so could something as trivial-sounding as including irrelevant results in the wrong chapter of your dissertation.

It would be best to read your university’s dissertation guidelines thoroughly before you start your dissertation process and consult with your adviser if, at any stage, you are uncertain of how to proceed.

Writing Your Dissertation Proposal

Your dissertation proposal is meant to sway your supervisor and/or committee members that your research has merit.

The most effective way to argue your case is to prove that your proposed work will be important to the academic community and bring substantial value to your field of study.

If your university requires this proposal, make sure that you write about the reasons you want to investigate this particular topic and which research objectives you will address, which hypotheses you will test and how you are going to find your answers.

For that last, you must disclose your approach to research.

Before you can develop or write your dissertation proposal, you will have to have completed a literature review to find which topic you will embrace.

Your dissertation proposal should comprise of:

  • Your dissertation’s title
  • the literature you consulted
  • your proposed research techniques and methods
  • the results you expect
  • the timeline your project demands
  • any academic sources you used as references

Once you your topic is green-lighted, you may begin your work in earnest.

The Weightiest Parts of Your Dissertation

Data collection, research and analysis are arguably the most important components of the work required to write a quality dissertation so finding recent reference material relevant to your topic is critical.

You won’t be able to digest all of the literature of your topic within the time frame specified so, once you have a good grasp on your topic’s earlier research and any gaps or limitations you may have found, you may consider that part of your task complete.

The critical chapters of your dissertation include:

  • the literature review section, written in the past tense
  • your research methodology section
  • your findings chapter, written in the past tense
  • the discussion chapter

Making notes as you proceed through each of these stages will help you keep the focus on the questions your research means to answer.

Let Superprof advise you on the best way of choosing your dissertation topic

Taking notes helps to keep your writing focused
Taking notes as your work progresses will help you at each step of your dissertation writing Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

Fleshing Out Your Dissertation

As you contemplate the monumental writing task ahead of you, you may long for the old days, when writing an essay with references was all that was required of you.

In contrast to those relatively short works, a dissertation is a formal academic document that mirrors the characteristics of many books – novels as well as technical manuals.

Besides revealing your premise, research methodology, data analysis and conclusions, your dissertation must include:

  • a title page
  • an acknowledgements page recognising professional and personal sources, in that order
  • an abstract: a summary highlighting the problems posed and questions raised.
  • A table of contents
    • your literature review, methodology, findings and discussion chapters follow the table of contents, in that order
  • a conclusion
  • a reference list of sources you cited in your work
  • appendices: where you may include results not relevant to your hypothesis

A Word on Abstracts

Some universities call for students to write a chapter introducing their dissertation – an introductory chapter while other institutions will specify their requirement for an abstract. What’s the difference?

An introduction provides background information about your topic, your problem statement and lists your research questions, along with explanations of why you conducted that research.

By contrast, an abstract is your entire dissertation in 300 words or less.

Whether you institute requires one or the other – or both, make sure that each chapter includes the required information. You may consider writing these two chapters last, even though they will preface the work you did once you print and bind your dissertation.

Curious doctoral candidates want to know: how should they write their research methodology section?

Proofreading and Editing Your Dissertation

Every writer knows that their completed work must undergo rigorous scrutiny before it can be published; your dissertation is no different.

Once you’ve written every chapter, you might be tempted to go over it immediately but experts recommend giving your brain some distance between writing your dissertation and reviewing it for content, accuracy and format.

Set your completed work aside for a couple of days to let the tunnel vision effect subside, after which you will be able to review it with newly critical eyes.

Here again, we stress the importance of planning your work so that you will have adequate time to go over your manuscript before your deadline.

What should you look for during this process?

You might find it a good idea to review it once for any grammatical or spelling errors; keep an eye out for formatting flaws, too.

The second time you read through, look for gaps in the narrative, factual errors and structural flaws, any of which may cause your work to be rejected.

Once you are finished proofreading – described in the steps above, it is time to edit your writing.

Editing means taking out unnecessary words or phrases, making your writing leaner, cleaner and easier to understand.

Many students submit their manuscript to a writing service to proofread their work or they entrust their work to an editing service with experience in dissertation editing.

There is nothing wrong with that; to the contrary, editing services provide a critical second set of eyes on writers’ work, checking it for originality and even inadvertent instances of plagiarism – something to be avoided at all costs.

By no means are we suggesting that you engage a dissertation writing service to do your whole paper.

Your academic success and career depend on your ability to discourse on whichever aspect of your chosen field that calls to you but, strictly for revision, once you complete your work, there is nothing wrong with paying for editing and proofreading.

After all, your future depends on how well you present your original work.

Do you know the particulars – the dos and don’ts of presenting your findings?

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.