A guide to structuring your undergraduate dissertation
Dissertations are structured rather differently from essays and more akin to academic books (though, not textbooks).
Dissertations are normally expected to be original research of scholarly quality, but the meanings of “original” and “scholarly” can vary with discipline and level.
Some dissertations contain primary research such as laboratory studies, surveys or a case-study conducted by the author. Others present a sequential argument from which a conclusion is deduced, such as a point-by-point critique of an author’s work. Especially at lower levels such as BA, many dissertations consist of secondary research (drawing new conclusions from already published primary research), or even tertiary research (assessing existing secondary research, such as surveying the impact of an author’s research in the literature).
The Basic Dissertation Structure
Every dissertation includes one or more substantive chapters, an introduction and conclusion. What else it contains can vary by discipline and level.
Your department should provide instructions for the format of the title page. It normally includes your name and student ID, department, degree level, dissertation title and date of submission.
Sometimes required for higher-level degrees, an abstract is a short (250-750 word) summary of the entire thesis. Your department should specify if an abstract is required and what length and format it should be.
Although placed at the front of the dissertation after the title page or abstract, the contents page is usually written last in the dissertation; it lists the starting pages for the different sections.
The introduction should explain the basic outline of what you are doing in the dissertation, why you have chosen this topic and how the dissertation is structured. It is common for introductions to situate the dissertation briefly in the wider field or in relation to contemporary issues, and for it to lay out what will be done in each chapter or section. The introduction should close with a paragraph leading smoothly into the main body of the dissertation. Some but not all authors write the introduction after the substantive chapters are written.
This is mandatory if the dissertation consists of primary quantitative or qualitative research, but may not be needed in dissertations in theory subjects or focused on secondary or tertiary research. The importance and size of this section varies with discipline and with the method chosen. As well as setting out the method used, this section should also explain why it has been chosen in preference over other methods, and how it was deployed in the substantive research. Also remember to discuss any questions of research ethics which arise. Some (particularly qualitative and secondary) dissertations will also include a separate theory chapter, which is similar to the method chapter and sets out the theories used to interpret evidence.
Again usually mandatory for primary research and some other topics, a literature review surveys the current state of the literature on the dissertation area or areas, and explains why the dissertation is original and fills a hole in the literature. It should be an in-depth study of the field/s of literature related to the dissertation and how it has informed or is corrected by the dissertation. It is often the first chapter written. In the case of theory dissertations and secondary/tertiary research, the substantive chapters may engage in ongoing dialogue with the literature, in which case a separate literature review chapter may not be necessary.
The main body of your dissertation is comprised of sequential substantive chapters. The number of chapters varies according to the length of your dissertation but the average is from three to five. The idea of the chapter structure is very much like the paragraphs of an essay in that each should address a different aspect of the dissertation you are presenting in your dissertation but never lose sight of the main argument. In quantitative research, the chapters usually consist of a presentation of the research hypothesis and its operationalisation, followed by a presentation of the outcomes, followed by one or more chapters interpreting the outcomes. In other dissertations, it is common for each chapter to deal with a different sub-topic within the overall topic, such as a different case-study, a different set of interview questions or different grounds for comparison of cases. The substantive chapters form the main substance of your dissertation and it is important to show careful use and interpretation of evidence, engagement with and modification of relevant theories in light of your findings, and analysis (not simply description) of any data generated.
Obtain and be aware of style limitations as early as possible. Many departments require that the final dissertation be submitted in a specific style such as Harvard or Oxford Referencing.
Your conclusion should summarise the points made in the argument and provide a synthesis of thought on the main thesis. You should identify possible limitations or gaps in the dissertation, attempt to pre-empt objections and counter-arguments, and situate your findings in the broader literature. The best conclusions also give some indication as to where future research on the topic discussed might lead. In some disciplines, it is also appropriate to point out possible “real world” applications and implications of your research. A conclusion can also open out onto areas which have been bracketed in the main body for reasons of length. For instance, in a dissertation devoted to criticising a body of work, the conclusion could suggest what other bodies of work might be more appropriate, or how you might want to reformulate the field in line with your findings.
The bibliography should begin to be compiled the day you begin to research your dissertation and should never be left until the last minute. Ideally it should evolve as your dissertation does and even when you are making notes you should record sources consulted. Again, remember to check your institution’s style guide for referencing. It is advisable to check your thesis when it is finished, to make sure that no cited items are missing from the bibliography.
Some dissertations require appendices containing additional information referred to within the dissertation such as letters, photographs, maps, charts and diagrams. This is particularly likely in dissertations which perform primary research, in which appendices might include for example a sketch of the area in which the case-study was performed or tables of unanalysed primary data.
Be sure to give yourself time for the thesis to be bound, which may require a day or more. This is the last stage of thesis production, and once bound, your thesis will look an impressive, professional piece of work.