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How to Write a Thesis or Dissertation

Researching and writing a thesis or dissertation

Formulating a thesis topic

This is the second article in a series that outlines the mechanics of doctoral dissertation writing. Part One of our Thesis/Dissertation Writing series answered the commonly asked question: "What is a thesis?" In Part Two, we provide potential PhDs with tips on how to handle the difficult task of thesis writing.

Writing a doctoral dissertation begins with selecting a thesis topic. The circumstances of your admission to the PhD program will likely determine the latitude you are given in selecting your research question. Keep in mind that a research question and thesis statement are very different things. In many cases, research funding awarded to support a PhD student will clearly indicate the research questions to be addressed. Selecting a thesis committee should also be done relatively early in the thesis writing process.

Beginning the thesis writing process

Thesis writing can be a daunting process. There are essentially two strategies one can take when writing the first draft. In the sciences (and depending on the requirements of your department), you can choose between two styles of thesis organization. The first is the thesis-by-chapter format, in which a dissertation literature review is followed by chapters describing the methodology and results of discrete research projects that address the principal research question/objective the thesis aims to answer. A summary chapter—in which the implications of the research are discussed in the context of the principal research question—typically concludes a thesis of this format.

A second alternative for thesis organization is the manuscript format. When this format is applied in the sciences, the contents are organized as a unified body of text with sections for a literature review, materials and methods, and results and discussion. Of the two formats, the thesis-by-chapter format is probably the most common, as it minimizes the work required to prepare, edit, and proof the contents for publication as discrete research articles.  

Start organized to stay organized

Maintaining a coherent system of organization for your research data, references, and preliminary drafts is critical when writing and editing a thesis. To minimize the frustration associated with lost, misplaced, or scattered files, we suggest organizing your computer desktop according to specific research questions/experiments. If you are using the thesis-by-chapter format, create discrete folders for each chapter. You may want to use this system from the very beginning of your research program, even if the subject matter of the research chapters has only been tentatively decided. For example, in the dissertation literature review chapter, you could create a folder for drafts of the literature review and other folders for electronic copies of research papers arranged by subject. In the folders corresponding to research chapters, create sub-folders for data, notes, and drafts.

Reference management software might be helpful

Over the course of several years, you will likely accumulate a large quantity of literature in electronic format, as journals are increasingly shifting to electronic publishing. Reference management software is available to keep your literature organized, and good citation software should also be capable of formatting in-text citations and references according to specific documentation styles.

Thesis writing: The first draft

If at all possible, it would be advisable to begin writing your thesis as early as you can during the PhD program. Of the two thesis formats, the thesis-by-chapter format is probably the most conducive to this strategy. An added benefit of using this format is the possibility of publishing chapters of your dissertation in professional journals prior to the completion of the entire body of work. During the oral defense of your thesis, examination committees may look more favorably on the components of a dissertation that have already been published in peer-reviewed journals.

One of the challenges of academic writing is walking the fine line between sufficient explanation and unnecessary exposition. Though the thesis should be viewed as a self-contained body of work, for the sake of brevity it is necessary to assume that readers will have a rudimentary understanding of background material. When discussing the results of other authors' research, include only the information necessary for readers to understand the context in which you are conducting your research and to comprehend the implications of your work relative to existing knowledge.

Clarity is paramount when determining the structure/layout of your dissertation. In that respect, the thesis-by-chapter format may be advantageous, particularly for students pursuing a PhD in the natural sciences, where the research content of a thesis consists of many discrete experiments.

To sum things up…

The summary or conclusion will likely be the most difficult section in your dissertation to write. We recommend:

  • highlighting some of your most important results/conclusions,
  • illustrating how, or in what way, your research has impacted the current state of knowledge in your field, and
  • discussing the research questions that arise as a result of your findings

If you need a second opinion on the first or final draft of your thesis or dissertation, send it to our thesis editors for their professional opinion.