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theses

Theses and dissertations

Your PhD thesis or Master’s dissertation is the final stage of a process that involves careful planning, extensive reading, rigorous research and detailed analysis. The quality of your thesis or dissertation depends to a large extent on the successful completion of each of these stages, but the importance of the writing stage should not be underestimated.

The writing process

Theses and dissertations differ from essays and other types of coursework assignment in a number of ways:

  • Theses and dissertations analyse primary data or textual sources using appropriate research methods and drawing on theory to underpin the investigation.
  • They are considerably longer than essays and coursework assignments.
  • They normally have a more complex structure: theses and dissertations typically consist of several connected chapters, with clear transitions from one chapter to the next, and a conclusion summarising the key findings and their implications.

Being aware of these differences will enable you to manage the process of writing your thesis or dissertation more effectively. Here are some key points to remember:

  • The research proposal is a key element of the thesis or dissertation writing process. A good proposal explains the rationale of the project, outlines its structure, gives it a sense of direction and sets time limits for completion. Once your proposal has been approved, avoid departing from the agreed course of action unless strictly necessary, and never make changes before discussing them with your supervisor.
  • Before starting to write, familiarise yourself with quality theses or dissertations in your discipline. This will improve your understanding of standards and expectations, and may help you to decide how to organise and present your material.
  • Do not attempt to write the sections of your thesis or dissertation in the order in which they will appear. For example, the abstract, which precedes all the other sections, is normally the last to be written. Most students write the literature review first, followed by the methods section. The discussion is normally one of the last sections to be written because it draws heavily on the content of other sections, particularly the literature review and results.
  • Remember that good writers seldom write single drafts. Your thesis or dissertation deals with complex subject matter, so you will probably have to redraft some of the chapters several times to achieve a good standard. This is good writing practice, but you need to allow sufficient time for this process.
  • If you develop signs of writer’s block (staring blankly at your computer screen for long periods, for example), try breaking up large tasks into components to regain a sense of achievement. For example, set yourself the target of describing your sample or explaining your sampling technique rather than writing the methods section in full. You can also try freewriting. This technique consists of writing continuously, paying little attention to accuracy or style. You will have to revise this portion of text later, but using this technique usually puts a stop to writer’s block.
  • Writing a thesis or dissertation is a solitary activity. Working in the library and arranging to meet one or two friends for a break at regular intervals is more pleasant and probably more effective that being on your own all day. Setting up a writing group to discuss problems as they arise and seek feedback on drafts can also be beneficial. Editing and proofreading your thesis or dissertation before submission is essential.

Structure and language

All theses and dissertations have an abstract, introduction, main chapters and conclusion. The number and content of the main chapters varies depending on the discipline and your approach to the topic. Other sections include acknowledgements, appendices, lists of tables and figures, and references.

The following structure is commonly used in the sciences and social sciences:

Abstract

The abstract is a short summary of what the thesis or dissertation is about. It is essential that the abstract accurately reflects the content of the thesis or dissertation because it will often be read as a stand-alone document (in databases of PhD theses, for example).

It is useful to think of the abstract as an advertisement for your thesis or dissertation: a poor abstract may confuse readers and even discourage them from reading your work in full.

Make sure you write the abstract after completing your thesis or dissertation.

A good abstract gives information about the problem under investigation, research aims, methods and procedures, results and implications. A quick test involves checking whether your abstract answers the questions ‘Why?’, ‘How?’, ‘What?’ and ‘So what’?

Abstracts should be written in clear, concise, scholarly English, and the information given should be precise and specific.
Acknowledgements

In the acknowledgements, you thank those who have helped you at any stage in the research or writing-up process; for example, your supervisor, other academic and/or technical staff in your school, experts in other institutions who may have provided advice or access to information, funding bodies, and those close to you that have given you help o support.

When writing your acknowledgements, use a variety of sentence structures and vocabulary to make the text more interesting. For example:

  • I would like to thank ….
  • I would like to express my gratitude to ....
  • Thanks are also due to ….
  • I acknowledge the contribution of ....
I am also indebted to ....
Introduction

The introduction generally consists of the following elements:

  • Scene setting: The introduction usually opens with a statement about the general area of research, highlighting its importance, interest or relevance.
  • Research background: This is an overview of key studies that are directly relevant to the issue being investigated.
  • Gap: This element focuses the attention of the reader on the specific area where (further) research is needed. This element also provides the justification for the study.
  • Purpose of the study: This element outlines the aims of the study. Research questions or hypotheses may follow. There may also be references to the value of the investigation.
  • Outline: Most introductions contain an outline of the chapters or sections of the thesis or dissertation.

Useful phrases

Here are some examples of useful phrases for each of the elements of the introduction:

Scene setting:
Recently, there has been growing interest in X.
X has been extensively studied in the last decade.
Recent concerns about X have generated a considerable body of research.
Over the past three decades, X has been studied using various methods.
Considerable excitement has been generated by the discovery that ....

Research background:
Several studies have investigated ….
Researchers have identified ….
A recent survey has shown that X ….

Gap:
Few attempts have been made to ….
However, these studies have not addressed the issue of ….
However, X has received little attention.

Purpose of study:
The aim of this thesis is to ….
This dissertation seeks to address the following questions:
The purpose of this thesis is to ….

Outline:
This thesis is divided into four main sections.
Chapter 2 reviews existing literature in the field. Chapter 3 describes the research design.

Tip: When reading published research, make a note of useful phrases like those above. This will help you to increase your academic vocabulary.
Literature reviews

Most students write a literature review as part of their thesis or dissertation, but in some degree programmes, coursework assessment of a module may involve writing a literature review.

A literature review is a comprehensive survey of published research on a particular topic. It summarises, synthesises and critically evaluates relevant research. It reveals trends and controversies, and identifies areas where further research is needed.

Writing a good literature review requires:

  • the ability to locate, understand, record and categorise complex information from multiple sources
  • good critical thinking and critical reading skills
  • the ability to evaluate other people’s findings and conclusions
  • the ability to identify key contributions, trends and controversies, and gaps in current knowledge

As you can see from the above list, writing a literature review is a cognitively-demanding task. This is why only students on postgraduate degrees or in the final stages of an undergraduate programme are normally expected to write literature reviews. One effective way of learning to write a literature review is to look at good models in your subject. You can find excellent models in review articles published in academic journals. Note, in particular, how the review is structured and how language is used to report and critically evaluate research.

The literature review explores the research context and background of the study in some detail. It focuses on the findings of previous research and may also examine theoretical issues and research methodology. Depending on its scope, it may occupy one or more chapters of the thesis or dissertation.

The literature review is a collection of citations, but this does not mean that it is a descriptive or chronological account of the existing research. A good literature review is a coherent argument organised around key contributions, themes, trends and controversies. The literature review summarises, synthesises and critically evaluates research, and identifies gaps and inconsistencies which provide the justification for further research.

It is important that you avoid presenting citations as a simple list, as in this example:

X found that ….
Y identified ….
Z reported that ….

Since a literature review is a critical evaluation of existing research,it is important that you take a position towards the sources you cite. Use phrases that indicate whether your stance is positive, negative or neutral. For example:

In a landmark study, X argued that …. (positive)
This study made a major contribution to …. (positive)
As X states, …. (positive – indicates agreement with X’s position)
X found …. (neutral)
X overlooks …. (negative)
The main limitation of this approach is …. (negative)
X offers no explanation for …. (negative)
Methods

The methods section describes the steps undertaken to address the research questions. It is important that you describe these steps clearly and accurately to enable others to determine the extent to which your methodology may have affected your results, and to replicate your study if necessary.

In some disciplines, the methods section is fairly brief and simple in structure, consisting of a description of procedures and materials only. This approach is appropriate when the methodology is well established and is not the subject of controversy. On the other hand, if the methodology is new, or if it is a source of debate and intellectual inquiry, the level of detail of the methods section needs to be higher.

A methods section may include an overview of the research design, details of the sample and the sampling technique used, and a description of procedures, materials and statistical tools. Ethical considerations must be included if appropriate.
Results

The results section presents the findings of your study. It is important to plan this section carefully as it may contain a large amount of material that needs to be presented in an accessible, reader-friendly manner. This is a predominantly descriptive section, although in certain circumstances some commentary on the results may be appropriate. For example, it may be useful to indicate whether your results confirm your hypothesis, or whether they are similar to or significantly different from those of existing studies.

The results section normally contains tables and figures accompanied by text. Here is some advice on how to present the results in this way:

Decide which results need to be presented in tables or figures. For example, a table showing the gender distribution of the participants (male or female) is normally not necessary: this information can be presented clearly and succinctly in words only. However, results presenting more complex data or a larger number of variables should be presented numerically or graphically as well as in words.

Decide how the results should be organised. For example, you could use your research questions as headings, presenting each set of results under the appropriate heading; or, if reporting the results of a survey, you could follow the order of the questions in the survey. In some cases, it may be more appropriate to present the most important findings first.

Use headings and sub-headings to make the structure of your results section more transparent and improve readability.

Number all tables and figures and give each a title.

When describing the content of a table or figure in the text, refer to the number of the table or figure. For example, ‘Figure 1 shows….’, or ‘The results of … are given in Table 2.’

Do not attempt to describe all the numeric information in a table or figure. The written text should highlight significant or interesting findings. However, in some cases it may be appropriate to state that certain findings are not significant; for example, if the findings do not support one of your hypotheses, you need to indicate this in the text.
Discussion

The discussion is arguably the most difficult section to write. The reason for this is that it is predominantly interpretative and discursive. In this section, you will examine your results in relation to your research questions or hypotheses and, more broadly, in relation to existing research. This will enable you to assess the contribution of your research to the field, and to make suggestions for further research where appropriate.

To ensure that you adopt the right approach to the writing of the discussion section, you need to remember that you are constructing an argument. The structure and development of your argument will be driven by the points you wish to make, so it is not possible to provide a template for your argument. However, it is possible to identify certain elements of the discussion section. Please note that this is not an obligatory list: you do not need to include all of these elements and you may present them in a different order.

  • A reminder of the purpose or focus of the study
  • A summary of the results
  • An examination of the results in relation to existing research
  • An indication of the importance of the findings
  • An explanation of the results, particularly those that do not support, or only partially support, your hypotheses
  • Limitations of the study, particularly those that restrict the generalisability of the results
  • Generalisations that can be made from the results
  • Implications or practical applications of the study
  • Recommendations for further research

Examples

A reminder of the purpose or focus of the study
The present study investigates ….
The aim of this dissertation was to ….
This study set out to assess the impact of ….

A summary of the results
This study has shown that …
The main finding of this thesis is that ….
This study demonstrates that ….

An examination of the results in relation to existing research
The results are broadly consistent with ….
These findings concur with other studies that show ….
Our observations that … are not new.
In contrast to some reports in the literature, there were few differences between …

An indication of the importance of the findings
This is the first study, to our knowledge, to examine ….
These results describe for the first time ….
Only one other study, to our knowledge, has examined ….

An explanation of the results, particularly those that do not support, or only partially support, your hypotheses
Unexpectedly, X and Y were shown to be ….
This finding was unexpected and suggests ….
The most likely explanation of the negative finding is ….

Limitations of the study, particularly those that restrict the generalisability of the results
The study has a number of possible limitations.
The significance of this finding is unclear.
The main limitation of this study is that ….
The above analysis does not enable us to determine ….

Generalisations that can be made from the results
Although this study was conducted in one region, the results should be generalisable to other areas.
The findings suggest that this approach would also be beneficial in other sectors.

Implications or practical applications of the study
This study reinforces the recommendation for the introduction of preventative programmes ….
These findings can contribute considerably to the development and evaluation of detection techniques ….
The results are of direct practical relevance.
An implication of these findings is that ….

Recommendations for further research
Future larger studies with statistical analyses … would be of interest.
Several questions remain to be resolved; in particular ….
More research in this area is necessary before ….
Further studies are required to establish ….
Conclusions

This section presents the key points emerging from the investigation. All conclusions must be drawn from the findings, so it is extremely important not to include comments or opinions which are not supported by the evidence presented in the previous sections.

We have seen that the discussion section will not necessarily include all the elements listed. It may be appropriate in certain circumstances to present some of these elements in the conclusions.

Do remember that some readers will not read your work in full. Some will read only the abstract, introduction and conclusions. Make sure that your conclusions capture the main points clearly, accurately and concisely.

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