How to write a dissertation

This is a guide for how to write a dissertation which may be useful to both homeschoolers and those attending university from school.

Introduction and Definitions

Research work does not have value per se. In order for its value to be recognized (and, in certain cases, measured), it has to be shared with others, mainly specialized individuals and groups of specialists in the respective research fields (and also, as the case may be, the public at large). In this sense, the most important condition is to express the research work undertaken into high academic terms.

Proper academic writing is of utmost relevance in all the phases of learning, studying, researching and communicating processes, from the high school level onwards. Printed (and, more recently, online) publication remains the main way for sharing with the rest of the interested members of the society the results of the - most of the time - strenuous research work.

Submitting a piece of academic writing for publication means presenting the publisher with a manuscript. A manuscript is the original text of an author’s work, handwritten, or now more usually typed, that is submitted to a publisher. The manuscript has to be properly formatted, in keeping with the publisher’s requirements.

Writing an essay is the first skill learned by students, generally when they are still at school.  Essays can be, for example, descriptive, drawing on the writer’s own experience, an analysis or criticism of a work of literature that has been read, or a comparison of two or more political or philosophical theories. 

As pupils progress through secondary school, a higher level of analysis and scholarly criticism is expected of them and in some countries the presentation of an essay is part of the admissions process to University or other higher education institutions.  Applicants can expect to be questioned on the views they have expressed in those essays, as a means of assessing their suitability for particular courses.


What is a dissertation?

A dissertation, or research project, is probably the single most important assignment to be undertaken whilst at university, and is often a key indicator of the true capabilities of a student and researcher.

A dissertation adheres to certain fundamental principles of academic writing:

  • It is a structured piece of writing that develops a clear line of thought (an 'argument') in response to a central question or proposition ('thesis').
  • A dissertation is an extended piece of work, usually divided into chapters, and containing a significantly more detailed examination of the subject matter and evidence than is the case for most essays.
  • Because the student usually has much more responsibility in choosing his/her research topic, and for sourcing the supporting materials, the dissertation provides evidence of his/her ability to carry out highly independent study and research.
  • Students are typically expected to be clear about the methodology (investigative procedures and rules) they have used to gather and evaluate their evidence. This aspect of producing a dissertation has much greater emphasis than in a typical essay.
  • Those students undertaking analysis of quantitative data must similarly ensure that they abide by the methodological requirements expected within the respective academic discipline, and that they utilize the appropriate software.


Preliminary Issues when Writing a Dissertation

Before starting to write, the author has to clearly understand the aims of the essay/dissertation, as well as the criteria to be used for assessing his/her work

Understanding the Aims

  • To demonstrate some understanding of the relevant theories and concepts which relate to the topic, as well as their usefulness and limitations;
  • To apply these theories and concepts to a real context in an analytical manner and to critically assess their economic, social and/or political impact;
  • To reach appropriate conclusions and offer recommendations on issues related to the topic;
  • To organize and structure the essay/dissertation using appropriate report/academic format and style.

Assessment Criteria

  • Appropriateness of concepts and theories used;
  • Overall,  whether the topic has been addressed appropriately, with concepts and theories applied effectively;
  • Summary of the findings and results of the research or investigation;
  • Critical analysis or interpretation of the results of the research (most important section of the essay/dissertation);
  • Assessment of the tentative recommendations made (using the results and conclusions);
  • Effectiveness and appropriateness of the format, style and referencing.


Structuring the Writing of a Dissertation

According to practically all US and European standard guidelines for academic writing, an essay or dissertation is usually structured into three broad parts: the indicative and informative part; the analytical part; and the supporting one.

 The Indicative and Informative Part

  • Title Page – briefly indicates what the report is about. It should usually consist of: a short running head (preferably appearing on each page); an as concise and explanatory title as possible; the authors’ names and institutional affiliation (in order of their contributions).
  • Executive Summary (or Abstract) – briefly summarizes the whole report (about half a page or approximately 120 to 150 words in length). It should avoid detail and only outline key points, providing the reader with relevant information on the purpose of the study and the results obtained.
  • Contents Page (table of contents) – on a separate page;
  • Introduction - sets the framework and describes the purpose of the essay/dissertation, explaining why it is necessary and useful. It has to spell out precise aims and objectives. Authors are expected to provide enough information, for the reader to perceive the scope and the importance of the problem dealt with in the essay or dissertation.
  • Literature review – briefly describes current research and thinking on the topic (what is already known). Depending upon the scope and/or length of the essay/dissertation, this section may be incorporated into the Introduction;
  • Methods or methodology – describes and justifies the methods and procedures used to collect data or how relevant information used was collected, sources  as journal articles (refereed), core texts, interviews, direct or indirect observation etc. The method segment is meant to describe in as much detail as possible the participants in the study, the instruments employed and the data analysis.

The Analytical Part

  • Results (also called findings) - summary of investigations including tables, charts, diagrams, photos etc., that support the research;
  • Discussion/Critical Analysis – the main body of the essay/dissertation, where factual evidence is analysed and discussed with reference to the original issue. Authors have the opportunity to freely describe what has been done and evaluate at length the actual results obtained. It is also in this section that potential implications and limitations of the current research are dealt with, as well as ideas for future undertakings in the respective research field. It includes headings and subheadings meant to better structure the work and making it easy and logical to follow.
  • Conclusions – this chapter summarizes the report, revising its aims and objectives. It shows the significance of what was covered, reminding the reader of the most important points that have been made and highlighting what is considered as the most central issues and findings.
  • Recommendations – use the results and conclusions to make practical suggestions about the problems or issues discussed.

The Supporting Part

  • Appendices – include all supporting information used in the research process that is not included in the main body of the essay/dissertation, e.g. tables, graphs, questionnaire surveys, transcripts, etc.
  • Bibliography (or Reference list) lists in alphabetical order all published sources referred to in the course of the research and writing activities. Various referencing styles are used, as for example Harvard Reference, Oxford or APA styles.
  • Acknowledgements - where appropriate authors may acknowledge organizations or individuals who have provided information or help in the course of research and/or writing activities.


Dissertation Writing Process

Essential Stages

Stage 1. Understanding the report brief – authors should be confident they understand the purpose of the essay/dissertation.

Stage 2. Gathering and selecting information – information should come from as many sources and varieties as possible.

Stage 3. Organizing the documentary material - after information gathering, decide what you need and in what sequence it should be presented. Group together points that are inter-related.

Stage 4. Analysing the material – using facts and evidence gathered what conclusions can be drawn from the materials? Compare and contrast the sources and arguments raised. What are the limitations or flaws in the evidence? Do certain pieces of evidence conflict with one another?

Stage 5. Writing the report


Writing is synonymous with thinking. What you put on paper and how you put it there reveal your knowledge, the quality of your thinking and your standards of excellence more eloquently than anything else you do. Having in mind the above, the following points should be observed:

  • The essay/dissertation should be clear, concise and enjoyable to read. Choose your words and phrases carefully, say what you mean to say, avoid ambiguity.
  • Express your ideas clearly – communicate your exact meaning with precision.
  • Keep permanently in mind your primary objective and focus your discussions accordingly – do not automatically include everything you have learnt in the course of your study or research work.
  • Organize your ideas from general to specific categories; use headings and subheadings to guide the reader in what you will be talking about.
  • Avoid disjointed work, use transitional phrases or sentences to help the reader to follow your “train of thoughts”.

Other non-mandatory, but important suggestions include the following:

  • Writing an essay/dissertation should be a creative process enabling the author(s) to develop structural thinking.
  • The essay/dissertation should be laid out in such a way that the reader finds all the information readily accessible.
  • Develop a clear, simple writing style that will make reading an easy and enjoyable experience.
  • Spelling and grammatical errors should be avoided.
  • Be prepared to rewrite your essay/dissertation several times until you think it is the best you can do.

Formatting the Text

Coming to the formatting proper of the essay/dissertation manuscript, it is worth mentioning that, while significantly depending on the type of work, the best known and widely used system is again the APA one. Trying to put together some guidelines that may be applicable to most APA – style manuscripts it resulted the following mini-guide:

  • 12-point Times New Roman typing style for text and Arial for figure captions.
  • Double spaced text. No extra space between paragraphs.
  • One-inch margins of the page.
  • The title and the abstract pages are separate pages.
  • References, appendices, author notes, footnotes, and tables all start on separate pages.
  • Indented first line for each paragraph (except for the abstract).
  • Text left aligned, leaving a ragged right margin.
  • Information identifying the author and title of the manuscript on every page.

Other related requirements (particularly when the essays/dissertations are meant to be published):

  • Word count. Given the fact that most publishers pay writers based on a hypothetical number of words, the latter can add the word count of the manuscript.
  • Requirements for manuscript handling. The editors, copy editors, and typesetters may work on an entire manuscript at one time or the editor might hand groups of pages to the typesetter at a time. Unstapled pages facilitate this. The same is valid for the copyeditor, who typically makes marks on many pages. As for the typesetters, they often place the copy on a raised surface to view it better. Stapled manuscripts are difficult to handle in this way. Page numbers, author's name, and title on every page ensure that an unstapled manuscript can easily be reassembled.