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How to Structure a Dissertation – A Step by Step Guide

Published by Owen Ingram at August 11th, 2021 , Revised On September 20, 2023

A dissertation – sometimes called a thesis –  is a long piece of information backed up by extensive research. This one, huge piece of research is what matters the most when students – undergraduates and postgraduates – are in their final year of study.

On the other hand, some institutions, especially in the case of undergraduate students, may or may not require students to write a dissertation. Courses are offered instead. This generally depends on the requirements of that particular institution.

If you are unsure about how to structure your dissertation or thesis, this article will offer you some guidelines to work out what the most important segments of a dissertation paper are and how you should organise them. Why is structure so important in research, anyway?

One way to answer that, as Abbie Hoffman aptly put it, is because: “Structure is more important than content in the transmission of information.”

Also Read:   How to write a dissertation – step by step guide .

How to Structure a Dissertation or Thesis

It should be noted that the exact structure of your dissertation will depend on several factors, such as:

  • Your research approach (qualitative/quantitative)
  • The nature of your research design (exploratory/descriptive etc.)
  • The requirements set for forth by your academic institution.
  • The discipline or field your study belongs to. For instance, if you are a humanities student, you will need to develop your dissertation on the same pattern as any long essay .

This will include developing an overall argument to support the thesis statement and organizing chapters around theories or questions. The dissertation will be structured such that it starts with an introduction , develops on the main idea in its main body paragraphs and is then summarised in conclusion .

However, if you are basing your dissertation on primary or empirical research, you will be required to include each of the below components. In most cases of dissertation writing, each of these elements will have to be written as a separate chapter.

But depending on the word count you are provided with and academic subject, you may choose to combine some of these elements.

For example, sciences and engineering students often present results and discussions together in one chapter rather than two different chapters.

If you have any doubts about structuring your dissertation or thesis, it would be a good idea to consult with your academic supervisor and check your department’s requirements.

Parts of  a Dissertation or Thesis

Your dissertation will  start with a t itle page that will contain details of the author/researcher, research topic, degree program (the paper is to be submitted for), and research supervisor. In other words, a title page is the opening page containing all the names and title related to your research.

The name of your university, logo, student ID and submission date can also be presented on the title page. Many academic programs have stringent rules for formatting the dissertation title page.

Acknowledgements

The acknowledgments section allows you to thank those who helped you with your dissertation project. You might want to mention the names of your academic supervisor, family members, friends, God, and participants of your study whose contribution and support enabled you to complete your work.

However, the acknowledgments section is usually optional.

Tip: Many students wrongly assume that they need to thank everyone…even those who had little to no contributions towards the dissertation. This is not the case. You only need to thank those who were directly involved in the research process, such as your participants/volunteers, supervisor(s) etc.

Perhaps the smallest yet important part of a thesis, an abstract contains 5 parts:

  • A brief introduction of your research topic.
  • The significance of your research.
  •  A line or two about the methodology that was used.
  • The results and what they mean (briefly); their interpretation(s).
  • And lastly, a conclusive comment regarding the results’ interpretation(s) as conclusion .

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Tip: Make sure to highlight key points to help readers figure out the scope and findings of your research study without having to read the entire dissertation. The abstract is your first chance to impress your readers. So, make sure to get it right. Here are detailed guidelines on how to write abstract for dissertation .

Table of Contents

Table of contents is the section of a dissertation that guides each section of the dissertation paper’s contents. Depending on the level of detail in a table of contents, the most useful headings are listed to provide the reader the page number on which said information may be found at.

Table of contents can be inserted automatically as well as manually using the Microsoft Word Table of Contents feature.

List of Figures and Tables

If your dissertation paper uses several illustrations, tables and figures, you might want to present them in a numbered list in a separate section . Again, this list of tables and figures can be auto-created and auto inserted using the Microsoft Word built-in feature.

List of Abbreviations

Dissertations that include several abbreviations can also have an independent and separate alphabetised  list of abbreviations so readers can easily figure out their meanings.

If you think you have used terms and phrases in your dissertation that readers might not be familiar with, you can create a  glossary  that lists important phrases and terms with their meanings explained.

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Introduction

Introduction chapter  briefly introduces the purpose and relevance of your research topic.

Here, you will be expected to list the aim and key objectives of your research so your readers can easily understand what the following chapters of the dissertation will cover. A good dissertation introduction section incorporates the following information:

  • It provides background information to give context to your research.
  • It clearly specifies the research problem you wish to address with your research. When creating research questions , it is important to make sure your research’s focus and scope are neither too broad nor too narrow.
  • it demonstrates how your research is relevant and how it would contribute to the existing knowledge.
  • It provides an overview of the structure of your dissertation. The last section of an introduction contains an outline of the following chapters. It could start off with something like: “In the following chapter, past literature has been reviewed and critiqued. The proceeding section lays down major research findings…”
  • Theoretical framework – under a separate sub-heading – is also provided within the introductory chapter. Theoretical framework deals with the basic, underlying theory or theories that the research revolves around.

All the information presented under this section should be relevant, clear, and engaging. The readers should be able to figure out the what, why, when, and how of your study once they have read the introduction. Here are comprehensive guidelines on how to structure the introduction to the dissertation .

“Overwhelmed by tight deadlines and tons of assignments to write? There is no need to panic! Our expert academics can help you with every aspect of your dissertation – from topic creation and research problem identification to choosing the methodological approach and data analysis.”

Literature Review 

The  literature review chapter  presents previous research performed on the topic and improves your understanding of the existing literature on your chosen topic. This is usually organised to complement your  primary research  work completed at a later stage.

Make sure that your chosen academic sources are authentic and up-to-date. The literature review chapter must be comprehensive and address the aims and objectives as defined in the introduction chapter. Here is what your literature research chapter should aim to achieve:

  • Data collection from authentic and relevant academic sources such as books, journal articles and research papers.
  • Analytical assessment of the information collected from those sources; this would involve a critiquing the reviewed researches that is, what their strengths/weaknesses are, why the research method they employed is better than others, importance of their findings, etc.
  • Identifying key research gaps, conflicts, patterns, and theories to get your point across to the reader effectively.

While your literature review should summarise previous literature, it is equally important to make sure that you develop a comprehensible argument or structure to justify your research topic. It would help if you considered keeping the following questions in mind when writing the literature review:

  • How does your research work fill a certain gap in exiting literature?
  • Did you adopt/adapt a new research approach to investigate the topic?
  • Does your research solve an unresolved problem?
  • Is your research dealing with some groundbreaking topic or theory that others might have overlooked?
  • Is your research taking forward an existing theoretical discussion?
  • Does your research strengthen and build on current knowledge within your area of study? This is otherwise known as ‘adding to the existing body of knowledge’ in academic circles.

Tip: You might want to establish relationships between variables/concepts to provide descriptive answers to some or all of your research questions. For instance, in case of quantitative research, you might hypothesise that variable A is positively co-related to variable B that is, one increases and so does the other one.

Research Methodology

The methods and techniques ( secondary and/or primar y) employed to collect research data are discussed in detail in the  Methodology chapter. The most commonly used primary data collection methods are:

  • questionnaires
  • focus groups
  • observations

Essentially, the methodology chapter allows the researcher to explain how he/she achieved the findings, why they are reliable and how they helped him/her test the research hypotheses or address the research problem.

You might want to consider the following when writing methodology for the dissertation:

  • Type of research and approach your work is based on. Some of the most widely used types of research include experimental, quantitative and qualitative methodologies.
  • Data collection techniques that were employed such as questionnaires, surveys, focus groups, observations etc.
  • Details of how, when, where, and what of the research that was conducted.
  • Data analysis strategies employed (for instance, regression analysis).
  • Software and tools used for data analysis (Excel, STATA, SPSS, lab equipment, etc.).
  • Research limitations to highlight any hurdles you had to overcome when carrying our research. Limitations might or might not be mentioned within research methodology. Some institutions’ guidelines dictate they be mentioned under a separate section alongside recommendations.
  • Justification of your selection of research approach and research methodology.

Here is a comprehensive article on  how to structure a dissertation methodology .

Research Findings

In this section, you present your research findings. The dissertation findings chapter  is built around the research questions, as outlined in the introduction chapter. Report findings that are directly relevant to your research questions.

Any information that is not directly relevant to research questions or hypotheses but could be useful for the readers can be placed under the  Appendices .

As indicated above, you can either develop a  standalone chapter  to present your findings or combine them with the discussion chapter. This choice depends on  the type of research involved and the academic subject, as well as what your institution’s academic guidelines dictate.

For example, it is common to have both findings and discussion grouped under the same section, particularly if the dissertation is based on qualitative research data.

On the other hand, dissertations that use quantitative or experimental data should present findings and analysis/discussion in two separate chapters. Here are some sample dissertations to help you figure out the best structure for your own project.

Sample Dissertation

Tip: Try to present as many charts, graphs, illustrations and tables in the findings chapter to improve your data presentation. Provide their qualitative interpretations alongside, too. Refrain from explaining the information that is already evident from figures and tables.

The findings are followed by the  Discussion chapter , which is considered the heart of any dissertation paper. The discussion section is an opportunity for you to tie the knots together to address the research questions and present arguments, models and key themes.

This chapter can make or break your research.

The discussion chapter does not require any new data or information because it is more about the interpretation(s) of the data you have already collected and presented. Here are some questions for you to think over when writing the discussion chapter:

  • Did your work answer all the research questions or tested the hypothesis?
  • Did you come up with some unexpected results for which you have to provide an additional explanation or justification?
  • Are there any limitations that could have influenced your research findings?

Here is an article on how to  structure a dissertation discussion .

Conclusions corresponding to each research objective are provided in the  Conclusion section . This is usually done by revisiting the research questions to finally close the dissertation. Some institutions may specifically ask for recommendations to evaluate your critical thinking.

By the end, the readers should have a clear apprehension of your fundamental case with a focus on  what methods of research were employed  and what you achieved from this research.

Quick Question: Does the conclusion chapter reflect on the contributions your research work will make to existing knowledge?

Answer: Yes, the conclusion chapter of the research paper typically includes a reflection on the research’s contributions to existing knowledge.  In the “conclusion chapter”, you have to summarise the key findings and discuss how they add value to the existing literature on the current topic.

Reference list

All academic sources that you collected information from should be cited in-text and also presented in a  reference list (or a bibliography in case you include references that you read for the research but didn’t end up citing in the text), so the readers can easily locate the source of information when/if needed.

At most UK universities, Harvard referencing is the recommended style of referencing. It has strict and specific requirements on how to format a reference resource. Other common styles of referencing include MLA, APA, Footnotes, etc.

Each chapter of the dissertation should have relevant information. Any information that is not directly relevant to your research topic but your readers might be interested in (interview transcripts etc.) should be moved under the Appendices section .

Things like questionnaires, survey items or readings that were used in the study’s experiment are mostly included under appendices.

An Outline of Dissertation/Thesis Structure

An Outline of Dissertation

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FAQs About Structure a Dissertation

What does the title page of a dissertation contain.

The title page will contain details of the author/researcher, research topic , degree program (the paper is to be submitted for) and research supervisor’s name(s). The name of your university, logo, student number and submission date can also be presented on the title page.

What is the purpose of adding acknowledgement?

The acknowledgements section allows you to thank those who helped you with your dissertation project. You might want to mention the names of your academic supervisor, family members, friends, God and participants of your study whose contribution and support enabled you to complete your work.

Can I omit the glossary from the dissertation?

Yes, but only if you think that your paper does not contain any terms or phrases that the reader might not understand. If you think you have used them in the paper,  you must create a glossary that lists important phrases and terms with their meanings explained.

What is the purpose of appendices in a dissertation?

Any information that is not directly relevant to research questions or hypotheses but could be useful for the readers can be placed under the Appendices, such as questionnaire that was used in the study.

Which referencing style should I use in my dissertation?

You can use any of the referencing styles such as APA, MLA, and Harvard, according to the recommendation of your university; however, almost all UK institutions prefer Harvard referencing style .

What is the difference between references and bibliography?

References contain all the works that you read up and used and therefore, cited within the text of your thesis. However, in case you read on some works and resources that you didn’t end up citing in-text, they will be referenced in what is called a bibliography.

Additional readings might also be present alongside each bibliography entry for readers.

You May Also Like

Not sure how to write the findings of a dissertation. Here are some comprehensive guidelines for you to learn to write a flawless findings chapter.

If your dissertation includes many abbreviations, it would make sense to define all these abbreviations in a list of abbreviations in alphabetical order.

Your dissertation introduction chapter provides detailed information on the research problem, significance of research, and research aim & objectives.

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How to Write a Thesis or Dissertation Introduction

Published on 9 September 2022 by Tegan George and Shona McCombes.

The introduction is the first section of your thesis or dissertation , appearing right after the table of contents . Your introduction draws your reader in, setting the stage for your research with a clear focus, purpose, and direction.

Your introduction should include:

  • Your topic, in context: what does your reader need to know to understand your thesis dissertation?
  • Your focus and scope: what specific aspect of the topic will you address?
  • The relevance of your research: how does your work fit into existing studies on your topic?
  • Your questions and objectives: what does your research aim to find out, and how?
  • An overview of your structure: what does each section contribute to the overall aim?

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Table of contents

How to start your introduction, topic and context, focus and scope, relevance and importance, questions and objectives, overview of the structure, thesis introduction example, introduction checklist, frequently asked questions about introductions.

Although your introduction kicks off your dissertation, it doesn’t have to be the first thing you write – in fact, it’s often one of the very last parts to be completed (just before your abstract ).

It’s a good idea to write a rough draft of your introduction as you begin your research, to help guide you. If you wrote a research proposal , consider using this as a template, as it contains many of the same elements. However, be sure to revise your introduction throughout the writing process, making sure it matches the content of your ensuing sections.

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Begin by introducing your research topic and giving any necessary background information. It’s important to contextualise your research and generate interest. Aim to show why your topic is timely or important. You may want to mention a relevant news item, academic debate, or practical problem.

After a brief introduction to your general area of interest, narrow your focus and define the scope of your research.

You can narrow this down in many ways, such as by:

  • Geographical area
  • Time period
  • Demographics or communities
  • Themes or aspects of the topic

It’s essential to share your motivation for doing this research, as well as how it relates to existing work on your topic. Further, you should also mention what new insights you expect it will contribute.

Start by giving a brief overview of the current state of research. You should definitely cite the most relevant literature, but remember that you will conduct a more in-depth survey of relevant sources in the literature review section, so there’s no need to go too in-depth in the introduction.

Depending on your field, the importance of your research might focus on its practical application (e.g., in policy or management) or on advancing scholarly understanding of the topic (e.g., by developing theories or adding new empirical data). In many cases, it will do both.

Ultimately, your introduction should explain how your thesis or dissertation:

  • Helps solve a practical or theoretical problem
  • Addresses a gap in the literature
  • Builds on existing research
  • Proposes a new understanding of your topic

Perhaps the most important part of your introduction is your questions and objectives, as it sets up the expectations for the rest of your thesis or dissertation. How you formulate your research questions and research objectives will depend on your discipline, topic, and focus, but you should always clearly state the central aim of your research.

If your research aims to test hypotheses , you can formulate them here. Your introduction is also a good place for a conceptual framework that suggests relationships between variables .

  • Conduct surveys to collect data on students’ levels of knowledge, understanding, and positive/negative perceptions of government policy.
  • Determine whether attitudes to climate policy are associated with variables such as age, gender, region, and social class.
  • Conduct interviews to gain qualitative insights into students’ perspectives and actions in relation to climate policy.

To help guide your reader, end your introduction with an outline  of the structure of the thesis or dissertation to follow. Share a brief summary of each chapter, clearly showing how each contributes to your central aims. However, be careful to keep this overview concise: 1-2 sentences should be enough.

I. Introduction

Human language consists of a set of vowels and consonants which are combined to form words. During the speech production process, thoughts are converted into spoken utterances to convey a message. The appropriate words and their meanings are selected in the mental lexicon (Dell & Burger, 1997). This pre-verbal message is then grammatically coded, during which a syntactic representation of the utterance is built.

Speech, language, and voice disorders affect the vocal cords, nerves, muscles, and brain structures, which result in a distorted language reception or speech production (Sataloff & Hawkshaw, 2014). The symptoms vary from adding superfluous words and taking pauses to hoarseness of the voice, depending on the type of disorder (Dodd, 2005). However, distortions of the speech may also occur as a result of a disease that seems unrelated to speech, such as multiple sclerosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

This study aims to determine which acoustic parameters are suitable for the automatic detection of exacerbations in patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by investigating which aspects of speech differ between COPD patients and healthy speakers and which aspects differ between COPD patients in exacerbation and stable COPD patients.

Checklist: Introduction

I have introduced my research topic in an engaging way.

I have provided necessary context to help the reader understand my topic.

I have clearly specified the focus of my research.

I have shown the relevance and importance of the dissertation topic .

I have clearly stated the problem or question that my research addresses.

I have outlined the specific objectives of the research .

I have provided an overview of the dissertation’s structure .

You've written a strong introduction for your thesis or dissertation. Use the other checklists to continue improving your dissertation.

The introduction of a research paper includes several key elements:

  • A hook to catch the reader’s interest
  • Relevant background on the topic
  • Details of your research problem
  • A thesis statement or research question
  • Sometimes an outline of the paper

Don’t feel that you have to write the introduction first. The introduction is often one of the last parts of the research paper you’ll write, along with the conclusion.

This is because it can be easier to introduce your paper once you’ve already written the body ; you may not have the clearest idea of your arguments until you’ve written them, and things can change during the writing process .

Research objectives describe what you intend your research project to accomplish.

They summarise the approach and purpose of the project and help to focus your research.

Your objectives should appear in the introduction of your research paper , at the end of your problem statement .

Cite this Scribbr article

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George, T. & McCombes, S. (2022, September 09). How to Write a Thesis or Dissertation Introduction. Scribbr. Retrieved 19 February 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/thesis-dissertation/introduction/

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7 steps to writing a dissertation

While you may be experienced in revising and writing essays, your dissertation requires careful planning, extensive research, and time management to succeed

Your dissertation is a key part of your degree course and a testament to your ability to conduct research, analyse data, and write a clear argument. Dissertations can be challenging, but they are also rewarding experiences that allow you to explore a topic in-depth and make a significant contribution to your field of study.

To achieve your academic goals, it is important to act on feedback, use your supervision time to your advantage, and demonstrate a strong knowledge of your subject. Whether you're writing an undergraduate, Masters , or PhD dissertation, these seven steps can help you stay on track.

1. Choose your topic wisely

Selecting the right topic is the foundation of a successful dissertation. It is important to choose a topic that is:

  • Relevant to your academic discipline and interests. This will ensure that you are passionate about your topic and have the necessary background knowledge to conduct meaningful research.
  • Intriguing and thought-provoking . A well-chosen topic will inspire you to ask interesting questions and develop original insights.
  • Specific enough to allow for in-depth analysis, yet broad enough to provide enough research material. A topic that is too narrow may be difficult to research or produce meaningful findings, while a topic that is too broad may be difficult to cover in the allowed time and word count.

Consider your career goals and what topics are relevant to the field you hope to work in after graduation. It's also important to be open to change, as it's common for students to modify their dissertation topic as they explore the subject more.

Once you have identified a potential topic, seek guidance from your supervisor. They can help you to refine your choice, identify relevant sources, and develop a research plan.

2. Check what's required of you

Read your marking criteria carefully. It is also important to consult the module guidelines and follow the instructions on any additional parts to your main assignment, such as a project plan, literature review or a critical reflection.

Neal Bamford, associate lecturer at London Metropolitan University, reports that his marking process always begins by 'distilling criteria to what students need to provide and how many marks this is worth.'

'Several dissertations I mark don't include a project plan in their submission. This is worth 20% of the overall mark, so students lose out on a significant portion of their grade'.

Before you begin to plan, make sure you understand what's expected of you. Find out:

  • what academic writing looks like in your discipline
  • the word count
  • when and where you must submit your dissertation.

3. Conduct in-depth research

Research at this stage in the process is often referred to as a literature review. This is where you are expected to gather relevant sources, articles, and studies from libraries, and online academic resources to identify the existing research on your topic and to develop your own research questions.

'Form your own opinion and argue for it using research. A history of the topic is always helpful, as it shows that you understand how things got to this point in time,' says Neal.

Be sure to take careful notes on each source and organise them for easy reference. You need to critically evaluate and analyse the sources to ensure their credibility and relevance to your research. This will be helpful when citing your sources in the writing stage.

Don't forget to seek guidance from your advisor throughout the research process. They can provide you with valuable feedback, relevant sources, and support.

4. Develop a strong thesis statement

A well-defined thesis statement is a roadmap for your dissertation. It should concisely state your main argument or research question and provide a clear direction for your paper. Your thesis statement will guide your entire writing process, so take the time to fully understand it before you begin to write.

When writing a thesis statement:

  • Be specific and focused - avoid broad or vague statements.
  • Remember that your thesis needs to be arguable - it should be a statement that can be supported or proved false with evidence.
  • Make sure your thesis is realistic - you need to be able to research and write about it in the allotted time and space.

Once you have a draft of your thesis statement, share it with your supervisor and other trusted peers. They can provide you with feedback and help you to refine your statement.

If your research disproves your original statement, it can be a disappointing experience. However, it is important to remember that this is a normal part of the research process.

'Many of my students believe that if they don't find the answer they're expecting, then their work is worthless,' says Neal.

'This is not the case. You don't have to find the answer to produce valuable research. Documenting your process and conclusions, even if they are inconclusive, can help others to avoid repeating your work and may lead to new approaches.'

5. Proofread and edit

After working on your dissertation for such a long time, it can be tempting to end the process once you have finished writing, but proofreading is an essential step in ensuring that it is polished and error-free.

To help with the proofreading process:

  • Read your dissertation aloud . This can help you to catch errors that you might miss when reading silently.
  • Change your environment to see your work with fresh eyes.
  • Focus on one thing at a time such as grammar, spelling, or punctuation to avoid getting overwhelmed.

To edit your dissertation, begin by reviewing its overall structure and flow. Make sure that your arguments are well-organised and that your ideas are presented in a logical order.

Next, check your grammar, spelling, and punctuation carefully. You can use a grammar checker, but it is important to proofread your work yourself to identify stylistic or subject-specific errors.

'Make sure you understand the reference style your university prefers. Formatting and labelling of images, tables etc. is vitally important and will be marked,' says Neal.

You should also ensure that your dissertation is formatted using the correct font, font size, margins, and line spacing.

6. Seek feedback and finalise

Once you have made your final revisions, seek feedback from your advisor or board members.

To get the most out of your feedback, be specific about what you are looking for. For example, you might ask for feedback on the overall structure and flow of your dissertation, the strength of your arguments, or the clarity of your writing.

Be open to feedback, even if it's negative. Remember that your advisor is there to help you improve your work, so it's important to take the time to understand and implement the feedback you receive.

Once you have addressed all the feedback, you can prepare your final submission. It's important to follow the guidelines carefully before submitting. Be sure to hand in your dissertation on time, as late submissions may be penalised or even rejected.

Online hand in is the most common method of dissertation submission, and you will typically need to upload a PDF file to an online portal. Follow the instructions carefully - you may need to provide additional information, such as your student ID number or the title of your dissertation.

Some institutions still require dissertations to be submitted in hard copy. If this is the case, you will need to submit a bound copy of your dissertation to your department office. You may also need to pay the binding fee.

Be sure to check with your advisor or department office for specific instructions on how to submit your dissertation in hard copy. You may have to submit multiple copies of your dissertation, and you be required to to include a title page, abstract, and table of contents.

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What Exactly Is A Dissertation (Or Thesis)?

If you’ve landed on this article, chances are you’ve got a dissertation or thesis project coming up (hopefully it’s not due next week!), and you’re now asking yourself the classic question, “what the #%#%^ is a dissertation?”…

In this post, I’ll break down the basics of exactly what a dissertation is, in plain language. No ivory tower academia.

So, let’s get to the pressing question – what is a dissertation?

A dissertation (or thesis) = a research project

Simply put, a dissertation (or thesis – depending on which country you’re studying in) is a research project . In other words, your task is to ask a research question (or set of questions) and then set about finding the answer(s). Simple enough, right?

Well, the catch is that you’ve got to undertake this research project in an academic fashion , and there’s a wealth of academic language that makes it all (look) rather confusing (thanks, academia). However, at its core, a dissertation is about undertaking research (investigating something). This is really important to understand, because the key skill that your university is trying to develop in you (and will be testing you on) is your ability to undertake research in a well-structured structured, critical and academically rigorous way.

This research-centric focus is significantly different from assignments or essays, where the main concern is whether you can understand and apply the prescribed module theory. I’ll explain some other key differences between dissertations or theses and assignments a bit later in this article, but for now, let’s dig a little deeper into what a dissertation is.

A dissertation (or thesis) is a process.

Okay, so now that you understand that a dissertation is a research project (which is testing your ability to undertake quality research), let’s go a little deeper into what that means in practical terms.

The best way to understand a dissertation is to view it as a process – more specifically a research process (it is a research project, after all). This process involves four essential steps, which I’ll discuss below.

The research process

Step 1 – You identify a worthy research question

The very first step of the research process is to find a meaningful research question, or a set of questions. In other words, you need to find a suitable topic for investigation. Since a dissertation is all about research, identifying the key question(s) is the critical first step. Here’s an example of a well-defined research question:

“Which factors cultivate or erode customer trust in UK-based life insurance brokers?”

This clearly defined question sets the direction of the research . From the question alone, you can understand exactly what the outcome of the research might look like – i.e. a set of findings about which factors help brokers develop customer trust, and which factors negatively impact trust.

But how on earth do I find a suitable research question, you ask? Don’t worry about this right now – when you’re ready, you can read our article about finding a dissertation topic . However, right now, the important thing to understand is that the first step in the dissertation process is identifying the key research question(s). Without a clear question, you cannot move forward.

Step 2 – You review the existing research

Once the research question is clearly established, the next step is to review the existing research/literature (both academic and professional/industry) to understand what has already been said with regard to the question. In academic speak, this is called a literature review .

This step is critically important as, in all likelihood, someone else has asked a similar question to yours, and therefore you can build on the work of others . Good academic research is not about reinventing the wheel or starting from scratch – it’s about familiarising yourself with the current state of knowledge, and then using that as your basis for further research.

Simply put, the first step to answering your research question is to look at what other researchers have to say about it. Sometimes this will lead you to change your research question or direction slightly (for example, if the existing research already provides a comprehensive answer). Don’t stress – this is completely acceptable and a normal part of the research process.

Step 3 – You carry out your own research

Once you’ve got a decent understanding of the existing state of knowledge, you will carry out your own research by collecting and analysing the relevant data. This could take to form of primary research (collecting your own fresh data), secondary research (synthesising existing data) or both, depending on the nature of your degree, research question(s) and even your university’s specific requirements.

Exactly what data you collect and how you go about analysing it depends largely on the research question(s) you are asking, but very often you will take either a qualitative approach (e.g. interviews or focus groups) or a quantitative approach (e.g. online surveys). In other words, your research approach can be words-based, numbers-based, or both . Don’t let the terminology scare you and don’t worry about these technical details for now – we’ll explain research methodology in later posts .

Step 4 – You develop answers to your research question(s)

Combining your understanding of the existing research (Step 2) with the findings from your own original research (Step 3), you then (attempt to) answer your original research question (s). The process of asking, investigating and then answering has gone full circle.

A dissertation's structure reflect the research process

Of course, your research won’t always provide rock-solid answers to your original questions, and indeed you might find that your findings spur new questions altogether. Don’t worry – this is completely acceptable and is a natural part of the research process.

So, to recap, a dissertation is best understood as a research process, where you are:

  • Ask a meaningful research question(s)
  • Carry out the research (both existing research and your own)
  • Analyse the results to develop an answer to your original research question(s).

Dissertation Coaching

Depending on your specific degree and the way your university designs its coursework, you might be asking yourself “but isn’t this just a longer version of a normal assignment?”. Well, it’s quite possible that your previous assignments required a similar research process, but there are some key differences you need to be aware of, which I’ll explain next.

Same same, but different…

While there are, naturally, similarities between dissertations/theses and assignments, its important to understand the differences  so that you approach your dissertation with the right mindset and focus your energy on the right things. Here, I’ll discuss four ways in which writing a dissertation differs substantially from assignments and essays, and why this matters.

Difference #1 – You must decide (and live with) the direction.

Unlike assignments or essays, where the general topic is determined for you, for your dissertation, you will (typically) be the one who decides on your research questions and overall direction. This means that you will need to:

  • Find a suitable research question (or set of questions)
  • Justify why its worth investigating (in the form of a research proposal )
  • Find all the relevant existing research and familiarise yourself with the theory

This is very different from assignments, where the theory is given to you on a platter, and the direction is largely pre-defined. Therefore, before you start the dissertation process, you need to understand the basics of academic research, how to find a suitable research topic and how to source the relevant literature.

You make the choices

Difference #2 – It’s a long project, and you’re on your own.

A dissertation is a long journey, at least compared to assignments. Typically, you will spend 3 – 6 months writing around 15,000 – 25,000 words (for Masters-level, much more for PhD) on just one subject. Therefore, successfully completing your dissertation requires a substantial amount of stamina .

To make it even more challenging, your classmates will not be researching the same thing as you are, so you have limited support, other than your supervisor (who may be very busy). This can make it quite a lonely journey . Therefore, you need a lot of self-discipline and self-direction in order to see it through to the end. You should also try to build a support network of people who can help you through the process (perhaps alumni, faculty or a private coach ).

Difference #3 – They’re testing research skills.

We touched on this earlier. Unlike assignments or essays, where the markers are assessing your ability to understand and apply the theories, models and frameworks that they provide you with, your dissertation will be is assessing your ability to undertake high-quality research in an academically rigorous manner.

Of course, your ability to understand the relevant theory (i.e. within your literature review) is still very important, but this is only one piece of the research skills puzzle. You need to demonstrate the full spectrum of research skills.

It’s important to note that your research does not need to be ground-breaking, revolutionary or world-changing – that is not what the markers are assessing. They are assessing whether you can apply well-established research principles and skills to a worthwhile topic of enquiry. Don’t feel like you need to solve the world’s major problems. It’s simply not going to happen (you’re a first-time researcher, after all) – and doesn’t need to happen in order to earn good marks.

Difference #4 – Your focus needs to be narrow and deep.

In your assignments, you were likely encouraged to take a broad, interconnected, high-level view of the theory and connect as many different ideas and concepts as possible. In your dissertation, however, you typically need to narrow your focus and go deep into one particular topic. Think about the research question we looked at earlier:

The focus is intentionally very narrow – specifically the focus is on:

  • The UK only – no other countries are being considered.
  • Life insurance brokers only – not financial services, not vehicle insurance, not medical insurance, etc.
  • Customer trust only – not reputation, not customer loyalty, not employee trust, supplier trust, etc.

By keeping the focus narrow, you enable yourself to deeply probe whichever topic you choose – and this depth is essential for earning good marks. Importantly, ringfencing your focus doesn’t mean ignoring the connections to other topics – you should still acknowledge all the linkages, but don’t get distracted – stay focused on the research question(s).

Keep a narrow focus

So, as you can see, a dissertation is more than just an extended assignment or essay. It’s a unique research project that you (and only you) must lead from start to finish. The good news is that, if done right, completing your dissertation will equip you with strong research skills, which you will most certainly use in the future, regardless of whether you follow an academic or professional path.

Wrapping up

Hopefully in this post, I’ve answered your key question, “what is a dissertation?”, at least at a big picture-level. To recap on the key points:

  • A dissertation is simply a structured research project .
  • It’s useful to view a dissertation as a process involving asking a question, undertaking research and then answering that question.
  • First and foremost, your marker(s) will be assessing your research skills , so its essential that you focus on producing a rigorous, academically sound piece of work (as opposed to changing the world or making a scientific breakthrough).
  • While there are similarities, a dissertation is different from assignments and essays in multiple ways. It’s important to understand these differences if you want to produce a quality dissertation.

In this post, I’ve gently touched on some of the intricacies of the dissertation, including research questions, data types and research methodologies. Be sure to check out the Grad Coach Blog  for more detailed discussion of these areas.

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32 Comments

Micheal Fielies

Hello Derek

Yes, I struggle with literature review and am highly frustrated (with myself).

Thank you for the guide that you have sent, especially the apps. I am working through the guide and busy with the implementation of it.

Hope to hear from you again!

Regards Micheal

Derek Jansen

Great to hear that, Michael. All the best with your research!

Pheladi

Thank you. That was quite something to move forward with. Despite the fact that I was lost. I will now be able to do something with the information given.

That’s great, Pheladi. Good luck!

Tara

Thank you so much for your videos and writing research proposal and dissertation. These videos are useful. I was struggling, but now I am starting to write. I hope to watch your more videos to learn more about the dissertation.

James Otim

Before this post, I didn’t know where to start my research, today I have some light and do certain % of my research. I may need for direction on literature review. Big thanks to you.

abd

Very very good Derek

NWUNAPAFOR ALOTA LESLIE

Thanks immensely Derek

Derek Jansen

You’re welcome 🙂 Good luck with your dissertation/thesis.

Samson Ladan

Thank you Derek for widening my scope on research, this can be likened to a blind man whose eyes can now see.

Remain bless sir🙏

Goutami

You guys are doing really great… I am extremely grateful for your help… Keep going.. Please activate that research help for indian students as well I couldn’t access it being an indian.

Edric

Hello Derek,

I got stuck in the concept paper because I changed my topic. Now I don’t know where to pick up the pieces again. How can I focus and stay on track. I am getting scared.

JONATHAN OTAINAO

Thank you so much Derek, I am a new comer, learning for the first time how to write a good research. These in information’s to me is a mind opener, I hope to learn more from you in the future, Thanks and God bless.

Toluwani T. David

Thanks Guys this means so much to me

Yusuf Danmalam Ishaya

A pretty good and insightful piece for beginners like me. Looking forward to more helpful hints and guide. Thanks to Derek.

Spencer-Zambia

This is so helpful…really appreciate your work.

Great to hear that

Akanji Wasiu

On cybersecurity Analytics research to banking transactions

Faith Euphemia

This was of great help to me and quite informative .

Jude

Thank you so much GradCoach,

This is like a light at the end of the tunnel. You are a lifesaver. Thank you once again.

mweemba

hello, I’m so grateful for such great information. It appears basic, but it is so relevant in understanding the research process.

Toyosi

Your website is very helpful for writing thesis. A big well done to the team. Do you have a website for paper writing and academic publishing or how to publish my thesis, how to land a fully funded PhD, etc. Just the general upward trajectory in the academia. Thank you

Hasibullah Zaki

I have learned a lot from the lectures, it was beneficial and helped me a lot in my research journey. Thank you very much

Agboinedu John Innocent

Thank you for your gifts of enlightenment to a person like me who’s always a student. May your ‘well’not dry out.

Izhar kazmi

It’s quite a fun and superb, now I have come to believe that the way one teach can have an impact in understanding and can change one’s assumption and position about a subject or a problem, before I came here and learn I consider research methodology a hard thing because, I wasn’t taught by a mentor like this one. Thanks so much who ever have make this effort to make this something easy and engaging

Amir

I can’t imagine that world has achieved major aspects of every field of study

ZAID AL-ZUBAIDI

Thank you very much for all the valuable, wonderful and comprehensive amount of information… I highly appreciate your support, 100% I recommend you

Douglas Owusu

This topic is intended for my MPhil. Work (The perception of parents on Technical and Vocational Education, the impact on educational policy). May you consider the suitability of the topic for me and refine if the need be. Thank you,

EMERSON FISCHER

Hello here…

i have gone through the notes and it is interesting. All i need now is a pdf file that contain a whole dissertation writing inclusive of chapter 1 to 5 on motivation as a topic… thanks

Selasi

Remarkable!!! You made it sound so simple

Aisyah

I got stuck in my writing because I need to change my topic. I am getting scared as I have a semester left 🙁

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Student falls asleep in library

Ten things I wish I'd known before starting my dissertation

The sun is shining but many students won't see the daylight. Because it's that time of year again – dissertation time.

Luckily for me, my D-Day (dissertation hand-in day) has already been and gone. But I remember it well.

The 10,000-word spiral-bound paper squatted on my desk in various forms of completion was my Allied forces; the history department in-tray was my Normandy. And when Eisenhower talked about a "great crusade toward which we have striven these many months", he was bang on.

I remember first encountering the Undergraduate Dissertation Handbook, feeling my heart sink at how long the massive file took to download, and began to think about possible (but in hindsight, wildly over-ambitious) topics. Here's what I've learned since, and wish I'd known back then…

1 ) If your dissertation supervisor isn't right, change. Mine was brilliant. If you don't feel like they're giving you the right advice, request to swap to someone else – providing it's early on and your reason is valid, your department shouldn't have a problem with it. In my experience, it doesn't matter too much whether they're an expert on your topic. What counts is whether they're approachable, reliable, reassuring, give detailed feedback and don't mind the odd panicked email. They are your lifeline and your best chance of success.

2 ) If you mention working on your dissertation to family, friends or near-strangers, they will ask you what it's about, and they will be expecting a more impressive answer than you can give. So prepare for looks of confusion and disappointment. People anticipate grandeur in history dissertation topics – war, genocide, the formation of modern society. They don't think much of researching an obscure piece of 1970s disability legislation. But they're not the ones marking it.

3 ) If they ask follow-up questions, they're probably just being polite.

4 ) Do not ask friends how much work they've done. You'll end up paranoid – or they will. Either way, you don't have time for it.

5 ) There will be one day during the process when you will freak out, doubt your entire thesis and decide to start again from scratch. You might even come up with a new question and start working on it, depending on how long the breakdown lasts. You will at some point run out of steam and collapse in an exhausted, tear-stained heap. But unless there are serious flaws in your work (unlikely) and your supervisor recommends starting again (highly unlikely), don't do it. It's just panic, it'll pass.

6 ) A lot of the work you do will not make it into your dissertation. The first few days in archives, I felt like everything I was unearthing was a gem, and when I sat down to write, it seemed as if it was all gold. But a brutal editing down to the word count has left much of that early material at the wayside.

7 ) You will print like you have never printed before. If you're using a university or library printer, it will start to affect your weekly budget in a big way. If you're printing from your room, "paper jam" will come to be the most dreaded two words in the English language.

8 ) Your dissertation will interfere with whatever else you have going on – a social life, sporting commitments, societies, other essay demands. Don't even try and give up biscuits for Lent, they'll basically become their own food group when you're too busy to cook and desperate for sugar.

9 ) Your time is not your own. Even if you're super-organised, plan your time down to the last hour and don't have a single moment of deadline panic, you'll still find that thoughts of your dissertation will creep up on you when you least expect it. You'll fall asleep thinking about it, dream about it and wake up thinking about. You'll feel guilty when you're not working on it, and mired in self-doubt when you are.

10 ) Finishing it will be one of the best things you've ever done. It's worth the hard work to know you've completed what's likely to be your biggest, most important, single piece of work. Be proud of it.

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EdDPrograms.org

What is an Ed.D. Dissertation? Complete Guide & Support Resources

Wondering how to tackle the biggest doctoral challenge of all? Use our guide to the Ed.D. dissertation to get started! Learn about the purpose of a Doctor of Education dissertation and typical topics for education students. Read through step-by-step descriptions of the dissertation process and the 5-chapter format. Get answers to Ed.D. dissertation FAQs . Or skip to the chase and find real-world examples of Doctor of Education dissertations and websites & resources for Ed.D. dissertation research.

What is an Ed.D. Dissertation?

Definition of an ed.d. dissertation.

An Ed.D. dissertation is a 5-chapter scholarly document that brings together years of original research to address a problem of practice in education. To complete a dissertation, you will need to go through a number of scholarly steps , including a final defense to justify your findings.

Purpose of an Ed.D. Dissertation

In a Doctor of Education dissertation, you will be challenged to apply high-level research & creative problem-solving to real-world educational challenges. You may be asked to:

  • Take a critical look at current educational & administrative practices
  • Address urgent issues in the modern education system
  • Propose original & practical solutions for improvements
  • Expand the knowledge base for educational practitioners

Topics of Ed.D. Dissertations

An Ed.D. dissertation is “customizable.” You’re allowed to chose a topic that relates to your choice of specialty (e.g. elementary education), field of interest (e.g. curriculum development), and environment (e.g. urban schools).

Think about current problems of practice that need to be addressed in your field. You’ll notice that Ed.D. dissertation topics often address one of the following:

  • Academic performance
  • Teaching methods
  • Access to resources
  • Social challenges
  • Legislative impacts
  • System effectiveness

Wondering how others have done it? Browse through Examples of Ed.D. Dissertations and read the titles & abstracts. You’ll see how current educators are addressing their own problems of practice.

Ed.D. Dissertation Process

1. propose a dissertation topic.

Near the beginning of a Doctor of Education program, you’ll be expected to identify a dissertation topic that will require substantial research. This topic should revolve around a unique issue in education.

Universities will often ask you to provide an idea for your topic when you’re applying to the doctoral program. You don’t necessarily need to stick to this idea, but you should be prepared to explain why it interests you. If you need inspiration, see our section on Examples of Ed.D. Dissertations .

You’ll be expected to solidify your dissertation topic in the first few semesters. Talking to faculty and fellow Ed.D. students can help in this process. Better yet, your educational peers will often be able to provide unique perspectives on the topic (e.g. cultural differences in teaching methods).

2. Meet Your Dissertation Chair & Committee

You won’t be going through the Ed.D. dissertation process alone! Universities will help you to select a number of experienced mentors. These include:

  • Dissertation Chair/Faculty Advisor: The Chair of the Dissertation Committee acts as your primary advisor. You’ll often see them referred to as the Supervising Professor, Faculty Advisor, or the like. You’ll rely on this “Obi Wan” for their knowledge of the field, research advice & guidance, editorial input on drafts, and more. They can also assist with shaping & refining your dissertation topic.
  • Dissertation Committee:  The Dissertation Committee is made up of ~3 faculty members, instructors and/or adjuncts with advanced expertise in your field of study. The Committee will offer advice, provide feedback on your research progress, and review your work & progress reports. When you defend your proposal and give your final defense , you’ll be addressing the Dissertation Committee.

3. Study for Ed.D. Courses

Doctor of Education coursework is designed to help you: a) learn how to conduct original research; and b) give you a broader perspective on your field of interest. If you take a look at the curriculum in any Ed.D. program, you’ll see that students have to complete credits in:

  • Practical Research Methods (e.g. Quantitative Design & Analysis for Educational Leaders)
  • Real-World Educational Issues (e.g. Educational Policy, Law & Practice)

When you’re evaluating possible Ed.D. programs, pay attention to the coursework in real-world educational issues. You’ll want to pick an education doctorate with courses that complement your dissertation topic.

4. Complete a Literature Review

A literature review is an evaluation of existing materials & research work that relate to your dissertation topic. It’s a written synthesis that:

  • Grounds your project within the field
  • Explains how your work relates to previous research & theoretical frameworks
  • Helps to identify gaps in the existing research

Have a look at Literature Review Guides if you’d like to know more about the process. Our section on Resources for Ed.D. Dissertation Research also has useful links to journals & databases.

5. Craft a Dissertation Proposal

During the first two years of your Doctor of Education, you’ll use the knowledge you’ve learned from your coursework & discussions to write the opening chapters of your dissertation, including an:

  • Introduction  that defines your chosen topic
  • Literature Review of existing research in the field
  • Proposed Research Methodology for finding the answer to your problem

When you’re putting together these elements, think about the practicals. Is the topic too big to address in one dissertation? How much time will your research take and how will you conduct it? Will your dissertation be relevant to your current job? If in doubt, ask your faculty advisor.

6. Defend Your Dissertation Proposal

About midway through the Ed.D. program, you will need to present your proposal to your Dissertation Committee. They will review your work and offer feedback. For example, the Committee will want to see that:

  • Your research topic is significant.
  • Your research methodology & timeline make sense.
  • Relevant works are included in the literature review.

After the Committee approves your proposal, you can get stuck into conducting original research and writing up your findings. These two important tasks will take up the final years of your doctorate.

7. Conduct Original Research into Your Topic

As a Doctor of Education student, you will be expected to conduct your own research. Ed.D. students often use a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods (quantitative/qualitative) approach in this process.

  • Quantitative Research: Collection & analysis of numerical data to identify characteristics, discover correlations, and/or test hypotheses.
  • Qualitative Research: Collection & analysis of non-numerical data to understand & explain phenomena (e.g. questionnaires, in-depth interviews, focus groups, video artifacts, etc.).

Your Ed.D. coursework will ground you in research methods & tools, so you’ll be prepared to design your own project and seek IRB approval for any work involving human subjects.

Note: Occasionally, universities can get creative. For example, the Ed.D. program at San Jose State University asks students to produce a documentary film instead of conducting traditional research.

8. Write the Rest of Your Dissertation

Once you have written up the first few chapters of your dissertation (Intro, Literature Review & Proposed Methodology) and completed your research work, you’ll be able to complete the final chapters of your dissertation.

  • Chapter 4 will detail your research findings.
  • Chapter 5 is a conclusion that summarizes solutions to your problem of practice/topic.

This is where you and your faculty advisor will often have a lot of interaction! For example, you may need to rework the first few chapters of your dissertation after you’ve drafted the final chapters. Faculty advisors are extremely busy people, so be sure to budget in ample time for revisions and final edits.

9. Defend Your Dissertation

The final defense/candidacy exam is a formal presentation of your work to the Dissertation Committee. In many cases, the defense is an oral presentation with visual aides. You’ll be able to explain your research findings, go through your conclusions, and highlight new ideas & solutions.

At any time, the Committee can challenge you with questions, so you should be prepared to defend your conclusions. But this process is not as frightening as it sounds!

  • If you’ve been in close contact with the Committee throughout the dissertation, they will be aware of your work.
  • Your faculty advisor will help you decide when you’re ready for the final defense.
  • You can also attend the defenses of other Ed.D. students to learn what questions may be asked.

Be aware that the Committee has the option to ask for changes before they approve your dissertation. After you have incorporated any notes from the Committee and addressed their concerns, you will finalize the draft, submit your dissertation for a formal review, and graduate.

Ed.D. Dissertation Format: 5 Chapters

Chapter 1: introduction.

Your Doctor of Education dissertation will begin with an introduction. In it, you’ll be expected to:

  • Provide an overview of your educational landscape
  • Explain important definitions & key concepts
  • Define a real-world topic/problem of practice
  • Outline the need for new studies on this topic

Chapter 2: Literature Review

The literature review is a summary of existing research in the field. However, it is not an annotated bibliography. Instead, it’s a critical analysis of current research (e.g. trends, themes, debates & current practices). While you’re evaluating the literature, you’re also looking for the gaps where you can conduct original research.

Sources for a literature review can include books, articles, reports, websites, dissertations, and more. Our section on Resources for Ed.D. Dissertation Research has plenty of places to start.

Chapter 3: Research Methodology

In the research methodology, you’ll be expected to explain:

  • The purpose of your research
  • What tools & methods you plan to use to research your topic/problem of practice
  • The design of the study
  • Your timeline for gathering quantitative & qualitative data
  • How you plan to analyze that data
  • Any limitations you foresee

Chapter 4: Results & Analysis

Chapter 4 is the place where you can share the results of your original research and present key findings from the data. In your analysis, you may also be highlighting new patterns, relationships, and themes that other scholars have failed to discover. Have a look at real-life Examples of Ed.D. Dissertations to see how this section is structured.

Chapter 5: Discussions & Conclusions

The final chapter of your Ed.D. dissertation brings all of your work together in a detailed summary. You’ll be expected to:

  • Reiterate the objectives of your dissertation
  • Explain the significance of your research findings
  • Outline the implications of your ideas on existing practices
  • Propose solutions for a problem of practice
  • Make suggestions & recommendations for future improvements

Ed.D. Dissertation FAQs

What’s the difference between a dissertation and a thesis.

  • Dissertation: A dissertation is a 5-chapter written work that must be completed in order to earn a doctoral degree (e.g. Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.). It’s often focused on original research.
  • Thesis: A thesis is a written work that must be completed in order to earn a master’s degree. It’s typically shorter than a dissertation and based on existing research.

How Long is a Ed.D. Dissertation?

It depends. Most Ed.D. dissertations end up being between 80-200 pages. The length will depend on a number of factors, including the depth of your literature review, the way you collect & present your research data, and any appendices you might need to include.

How Long Does it Take to Finish an Ed.D. Dissertation?

It depends. If you’re in an accelerated program , you may be able to finish your dissertation in 2-3 years. If you’re in a part-time program and need to conduct a lot of complex research work, your timeline will be much longer.

What’s a Strong Ed.D. Dissertation Topic?

Experts always say that Doctor of Education students should be passionate about their dissertation topic and eager to explore uncharted territory. When you’re crafting your Ed.D. dissertation topic , find one that will be:

  • Significant

See the section on Examples of Ed.D. Dissertations for inspiration.

Do I Have to Complete a Traditional Dissertation for an Ed.D.?

No. If you’re struggling with the idea of a traditional dissertation, check out this guide to Online Ed.D. Programs with No Dissertation . Some Schools of Education give Ed.D. students the opportunity to complete a Capstone Project or Dissertation in Practice (DiP) instead of a 5-chapter written work.

These alternatives aren’t easy! You’ll still be challenged at the same level as you would be for a dissertation. However, Capstone Projects & DiPs often involve more group work and an emphasis on applied theory & research.

What’s the Difference Between a Ph.D. Dissertation and Ed.D. Dissertation?

Have a look at our Ed.D. vs. Ph.D. Guide to get a sense of the differences between the two degrees. In a nutshell:

  • Ed.D. dissertations tend to focus on addressing current & real-world topics/problems of practice in the workplace.
  • Ph.D. dissertations usually put more emphasis on creating new theories & concepts and even completely rethinking educational practices.

How Can I Learn More About Ed.D. Dissertations?

Start with the section on Examples of Ed.D. Dissertations . You can browse through titles, abstracts, and even complete dissertations from a large number of universities.

If you have a few Doctor of Education programs on your shortlist, we also recommend that you skim through the program’s Dissertation Handbook . It can usually be found on the School of Education’s website. You’ll be able to see how the School likes to structure the dissertation process from start to finish.

Ed.D. Dissertation Support

University & campus resources, dissertation chair & committee.

The first port of call for any questions about the Ed.D. dissertation is your Dissertation Chair. If you get stuck with a terrible faculty advisor, talk to members of the Dissertation Committee. They are there to support your journey.

University Library

An Ed.D. dissertation is a massive research project. So before you choose a Doctor of Education program, ask the School of Education about its libraries & library resources (e.g. free online access to subscription-based journals).

Writing Center

Many universities have a Writing Center. If you’re struggling with any elements of your dissertation (e.g. editing), you can ask the staff about:

  • Individual tutoring
  • Editorial assistance
  • Outside resources

Mental Health Support

It’s well-known that doctoral students often face a lot of stress & isolation during their studies. Ask your faculty advisor about mental health services at the university. Staff in the School of Education and the Graduate School will also have information about on-campus counselors, free or discounted therapy sessions, and more.

Independent Dissertation Services

Dissertation editing services: potentially helpful.

There are scores of independent providers who offer dissertation editing services. But they can be expensive. And many of these editors have zero expertise in educational fields.

If you need help with editing & proofreading, proceed with caution:

  • Start by asking your Dissertation Chair about what’s permitted for third party involvement (e.g. you may need to note any editor’s contribution in your dissertation acknowledgments) and whether they have any suggestions.
  • The Graduate School is another useful resource. For example, Cornell’s Graduate School maintains a list of Editing, Typing, and Proofreading Services for graduate students.

Dissertation Coaches: Not Worth It

Dissertation coaches are defined as people who offer academic & mental support, guidance, and editorial input.

  • That means the person who should be your coach is your Dissertation Chair/Faculty Advisor. Remember that faculty members on the Dissertation Committee can also provide assistance.
  • If you’re looking for extra support, you might consider consulting a mentor in your line of work and collaborating with fellow Ed.D. students.

But hiring an independent Ed.D. dissertation coach is going to be an absolute waste of money.

Dissertation Writing Services: Just Don’t!

Universities take the dissertation process  very seriously . An Ed.D. dissertation is supposed to be the culmination of years of original thought and research. You’re going to be responsible for the final product. You’re going to be defending your written work in front of a phalanx of experienced faculty members. You’re going to be putting this credential on your résumé for everyone to see.

If you cheat the process by having someone else write up your work, you will get caught.

Ed.D. Dissertation Resources

Examples of ed.d. dissertations, dissertation databases.

  • Open Access Theses and Dissertations
  • ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • EBSCO Open Dissertations

Ed.D. Dissertations

  • USF Scholarship Repository: Ed.D. Dissertations
  • George Fox University: Doctor of Education
  • UW Tacoma: Ed.D. Dissertations in Practice
  • Liberty University: School of Education Doctoral Dissertations
  • University of Mary Hardin-Baylor: Dissertation Collection

Ed.D. Dissertation Abstracts

  • Michigan State University: Ed.D. Dissertation Abstracts

Ed.D. Dissertation Guides & Tools

General ed.d. guides.

  • SNHU: Educational Leadership Ed.D./Ph.D. Guide

Dissertation Style Manuals

  • Chicago Manual of Style

Style manuals are designed to ensure that every Ed.D. student follows the same set of writing guidelines for their dissertation (e.g. grammatical rules, footnote & quotation formats, abbreviation conventions, etc.). Check with the School of Education to learn which style manual they use.

Examples of Ed.D. Dissertation Templates

  • Purdue University: Dissertation Template
  • Walden University: Ed.D. Dissertation Template

Each School of Education has a standard dissertation template. We’ve highlighted a couple of examples so you can see how they’re formatted, but you will need to acquire the template from your own university.

Literature Review Guides

  • UNC Chapel Hill: Writing Guide for Literature Reviews
  • University of Alabama: How to Conduct a Literature Review

Resources for Ed.D. Dissertation Research

Journal articles.

  • EBSCO Education Research Databases
  • Education Resources Information Center (ERIC)
  • Emerald Education eJournal Collection
  • Gale OneFile: Educator’s Reference Complete
  • Google Scholar
  • NCES Bibliography Search Tool
  • ProQuest Education Database
  • SAGE Journals: Education

Useful Websites

  • Harvard Gutman Library: Websites for Educators
  • EduRef: Lesson Plans

Educational Data & Statistics

  • Digest of Education Statistics
  • Education Policy Data Center (EPDC)
  • ICPSR Data Archive
  • National Assessment of Educational Progress
  • National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
  • UNESCO Institute for Statistics

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Dissertation Explained: A Grad Student’s Guide

Dissertation-Explained-A-Grad-Student's-Guide

Higher education is filled with milestones. When completing your PhD , you will be required to complete a dissertation. Even if you’ve heard this word thrown around before, you still may be questioning “What is a dissertation?” It’s a common question, especially for those considering to join or are already in a graduate program. As such, here’s everything you need to know about dissertations.

What is a Dissertation?

A dissertation is a written document that details research. A dissertation also signifies the completion of your PhD program. It is required to earn a PhD degree, which stands for Doctor of Philosophy.

A PhD is created from knowledge acquired from:

1. Coursework:

A PhD program consists of academic courses that are usually small in size and challenging in content. Most PhD courses consist of a high amount and level of reading and writing per week. These courses will help prepare you for your dissertation as they will teach research methodology.

2. Research:

For your dissertation, it is likely that you will have the choice between performing your own research on a subject , or expanding on existing research. Likely, you will complete a mixture of the two. For those in the hard sciences, you will perform research in a lab. For those in humanities and social sciences, research may mean gathering data from surveys or existing research.

3. Analysis:

Once you have collected the data you need to prove your point, you will have to analyze and interpret the information. PhD programs will prepare you for how to conduct analysis, as well as for how to position your research into the existing body of work on the subject matter.

4. Support:

The process of writing and completing a dissertation is bigger than the work itself. It can lead to research positions within the university or outside companies. It may mean that you will teach and share your findings with current undergraduates, or even be published in academic journals. How far you plan to take your dissertation is your choice to make and will require the relevant effort to accomplish your goals.

Moving from Student to Scholar

In essence, a dissertation is what moves a doctoral student into becoming a scholar. Their research may be published, shared, and used as educational material moving forwards.

Thesis vs. Dissertation

Basic differences.

Grad students may conflate the differences between a thesis and a dissertation.

Simply put, a thesis is what you write to complete a master’s degree. It summarizes existing research and signifies that you understand the subject matter deeply.

On the other hand, a dissertation is the culmination of a doctoral program. It will likely require your own research and it can contribute an entirely new idea into your field.

Structural Differences

When it comes to the structure, a thesis and dissertation are also different. A thesis is like the research papers you complete during undergraduate studies. A thesis displays your ability to think critically and analyze information. It’s less based on research that you’ve completed yourself and more about interpreting and analyzing existing material. They are generally around 100 pages in length.

A dissertation is generally two to three times longer compared to a thesis. This is because the bulk of the information is garnered from research you’ve performed yourself. Also, if you are providing something new in your field, it means that existing information is lacking. That’s why you’ll have to provide a lot of data and research to back up your claims.

Your Guide: Structuring a Dissertation

Dissertation length.

The length of a dissertation varies between study level and country. At an undergraduate level, this is more likely referred to as a research paper, which is 10,000 to 12,000 words on average. At a master’s level, the word count may be 15,000 to 25,000, and it will likely be in the form of a thesis. For those completing their PhD, then the dissertation could be 50,000 words or more.

Photo by  Louis Reed  on  Unsplash

Format of the dissertation.

Here are the items you must include in a dissertation. While the format may slightly vary, here’s a look at one way to format your dissertation:

1. Title page:

This is the first page which includes: title, your name, department, degree program, institution, and submission date. Your program may specify exactly how and what they want you to include on the title page.

2. Acknowledgements:

This is optional, but it is where you can express your gratitude to those who have helped you complete your dissertation (professors, research partners, etc.).

3. Abstract:

The abstract is about 150-300 words and summarizes what your research is about. You state the main topic, the methods used, the main results, and your conclusion.

4. Table of Contents

Here, you list the chapter titles and pages to serve as a wayfinding tool for your readers.

5. List of Figures and Tables:

This is like the table of contents, but for graphs and figures.

6. List of Abbreviations:

If you’ve constantly abbreviated words in your content, define them in a list at the beginning.

7. Glossary:

In highly specialized work, it’s likely that you’ve used words that most people may not understand, so a glossary is where you define these terms.

8. Introduction:

Your introduction sets up the topic, purpose, and relevance. It’s where readers will understand what they expect to gain from your dissertation.

9. Literature Review / Theoretical Framework:

Based on the research you performed to create your own dissertation, you’ll want to summarize and address the gaps in what you researched.

10. Methodology

This is where you define how you conducted your research. It offers credibility for you as a source of information. You should give all the details as to how you’ve conducted your research, including: where and when research took place, how it was conducted, any obstacles you faced, and how you justified your findings.

11. Results:

This is where you share the results that have helped contribute to your findings.

12. Discussion:

In the discussion section, you explain what these findings mean to your research question. Were they in line with your expectations or did something jump out as surprising? You may also want to recommend ways to move forward in researching and addressing the subject matter.

13. Conclusion:

A conclusion ties it all together and summarizes the answer to the research question and leaves your reader clearly understanding your main argument.

14. Reference List:

This is the equivalent to a works cited or bibliography page, which documents all the sources you used to create your dissertation.

15. Appendices:

If you have any information that was ancillary to creating the dissertation, but doesn’t directly fit into its chapters, then you can add it in the appendix.

Drafting and Rewriting

As with any paper, especially one of this size and importance, the writing requires a process. It may begin with outlines and drafts, and even a few rewrites. It’s important to proofread your dissertation for both grammatical mistakes, but also to ensure it can be clearly understood.

It’s always useful to read your writing out loud to catch mistakes. Also, if you have people who you trust to read it over — like a peer, family member, mentor, or professor — it’s very helpful to get a second eye on your work.

How is it Different from an Essay?

There are a few main differences between a dissertation and an essay. For starters, an essay is relatively short in comparison to a dissertation, which includes your own body of research and work. Not only is an essay shorter, but you are also likely given the topic matter of an essay. When it comes to a dissertation, you have the freedom to construct your own argument, conduct your own research, and then prove your findings.

Types of Dissertations

You can choose what type of dissertation you complete. Often, this depends on the subject and doctoral degree, but the two main types are:

This relies on conducting your own research.

Non-empirical:

This relies on studying existing research to support your argument.

Photo by  freddie marriage  on  Unsplash

More things you should know.

A dissertation is certainly no easy feat. Here’s a few more things to remember before you get started writing your own:

1. Independent by Nature:

The process of completing a dissertation is self-directed, and therefore can feel overwhelming. However, if you approach it like the new experience that it is with an open-mind and willingness to learn, you will make it through!

2. Seek Support:

There are countless people around to offer support. From professors to peers, you can always ask for help throughout the process.

3. Writing Skills:

The process of writing a dissertation will further hone your writing skills which will follow you throughout your life. These skills are highly transferable on the job, from having the ability to communicate to also developing analytical and critical thinking skills.

4. Time Management:

You can work backwards from the culmination of your program to break down this gargantuan task into smaller pieces. That way, you can manage your time to chip away at the task throughout the length of the program.

5. Topic Flexibility:

It’s okay to change subject matters and rethink the point of your dissertation. Just try as much as possible to do this early in the process so you don’t waste too much time and energy.

The Wrap Up

A dissertation marks the completion of your doctoral program and moves you from being a student to being a scholar. While the process is long and requires a lot of effort and energy, you have the power to lend an entirely new research and findings into your field of expertise.

As always, when in the thick of things, remember why you started. Completing both your dissertation and PhD is a commendable accomplishment.

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The 8 Most Asked Questions About Dissertations

Blog #110 - The 8 Most Asked Questions About Dissertations

A Ph.D. represents the highest level of education in most fields. People who earn this degree earn the honorific of “doctor” and are considered experts in their field. A doctoral degree is often a prerequisite for teaching at the highest levels in academia or ascending career ladders in education, the government and the nonprofit space.

In 2020 , doctoral degree holders had median weekly earnings of $1,885 and an unemployment rate of 2.5%—lower than any other group. And yet, the dissertation is often a major barrier to completing a doctorate and realizing its many financial and personal benefits. 

So what is a dissertation, and what role does it play in your educational trajectory? At SNU, we value exceptional dissertations and integrate the writing process into your coursework. Here are the most common questions we hear about writing dissertations and earning your doctorate.

1. What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is a published piece of academic research. Through your dissertation research , you become an expert in a specific academic niche. After writing your dissertation, you then defend it to a committee of experts in the field. A dissertation is integral to the process of earning a doctoral degree, contributing innovative ideas to your chosen field. Until you have written, published and defended a dissertation, you can’t graduate from a doctoral-level program.

2. Why are dissertations so important?

Dissertations are the crucial piece of research in most doctoral-level programs. The process of writing, researching and amending the dissertation serves several important goals: 

  • It contributes novel research to the field, supporting innovation, growth and ongoing scholarship. 
  • It requires students to write a substantive piece of academic research across many semesters, sharpening research skills and expertise. 
  • It demands that s tudents defend their research, ensuring strong communication and critical thinking skills. 
  • It requires deep, comprehensive research—including a literature review—improving reading comprehension and writing skills. 
  • It is a challenging project that serves as a test of the skills you might use as an academic professional in your chosen field. 
  • It helps establish new members of an academic discipline as contributors to the field. 
  • It fosters academic connections as you interview sources and defend your work.

3. Why do so many students struggle with the dissertation?

The dissertation process is difficult. However, this difficulty establishes the credibility of doctoral degrees, proving that the student can commit to long-term, intensive research and become a true subject-matter expert. 

However, for many adult learners, the dissertation proves especially challenging thanks to work-life balance difficulties, financial constraints and lack of family or institutional support. At SNU, we know that a dissertation is critical to your growth as an academic. But we also know that institutional support can make a big difference in your ability to finish this impressive work. That’s why we integrate dissertation writing into our curriculum, rather than leaving you to do it all on your own time. 

One study suggests that more than half of students never complete their dissertation. Other research indicates that academic reforms that help students with their work reduce dropout rates, ensuring more students complete their dissertation and earn the coveted title of doctor.

4. How long is a dissertation?

Most dissertations are 100 pages or longer — roughly the length of a book. The specific length of your dissertation depends on the type of research, how much research exists in the field and similar factors. The goal of dissertation writing is not to attain a specific length, but to be comprehensive and thoughtful. It anticipates and answers potential objections, gives appropriate credit to the source materials and reviews prior work in the field. 

Your dissertation review committee is more interested in a comprehensive dissertation that displays your critical thinking and research skills than they are in a dissertation of a specific length. Excessive wordiness without value wastes a reader’s time.  

The right length for a dissertation depends on several factors: 

  • How much research already exists in the field?
  • What field are you publishing in?
  • What type of research are you doing?
  • Is your research controversial?
  • How much space do you need to explain your research and address objections?

Put simply: A dissertation should be long enough to comprehensively cover the subject, but no longer.

5. How do you write a dissertation?

In general, the dissertation process follows this schedule: 

  • Research the field and identify potential topics. 
  • Meet with an advisor to choose and improve a topic. 
  • Perform a literature review. 
  • Conduct new research. 
  • Write the dissertation. 
  • Edit the dissertation. 
  • Defend the dissertation.

Each step involves weeks to months of work and many phases of revision, reevaluation and research. At SNU, we incorporate many phases of the writing and research process into your coursework. This ensures you are on track to graduate and addresses dissertation writing challenges before they snowball into a serious problem.

6. When should you start writing a dissertation?

The dissertation writing process should begin almost as soon as you enroll in school. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have content written on your first day of class. Instead, you will need to engage in substantive pre-writing that includes: 

  • Familiarizing yourself with relevant research in the field. 
  • Developing an opinion on recent research. 
  • Designing your research to address a clear and narrowly defined topic. 

As you hone in on your topic, you can begin the writing and research portion of the project. In most cases, this starts within a semester or two of enrollment. A dissertation is not something you can leave until the last semester or shortly before graduation. SNU ensures this doesn’t happen by integrating the writing process into your coursework. You will start working on your dissertation early, preventing you from becoming overwhelmed.

7. How do you cite a dissertation?

A dissertation is a published scholarly work. Each style manual has specific instructions for citing a dissertation, so be sure to consult the style manual you’re using. 

You can cite other dissertations in your dissertation. In many cases, dissertations can provide useful starting points for your research. The literature reviews they contain may also help with your literature review.

8. How do you choose a school for your dissertation?

Choosing the right school for your dissertation can mean the difference between finishing this scholarly work and languishing at the dreaded “ all-but-dissertation” (ABD) stage . SNU specializes in supporting adult learners by encouraging intensive research and protecting your work-life balance. 

At SNU, your dissertation is a part of your coursework . You will get support from start to finish, including a dissertation advisor who is an expert in your chosen field. We are here for you, and we want to see you succeed. 

To learn more about our course offerings and compare online vs. in-person  education, check out our free guide, “Choose Your Path: Online vs. On-Campus  Education."

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10 truths to help you write your dissertation (and actually finish it)

10 truths to help you write your dissertation (and actually finish it)

As you begin to write your dissertation, you begin to understand that not all of your thoughts are nearly as profound as you imagined. Dr. Michael Munger confirms that writing, editing, and responding to feedback is usually far from glamorous. As Dr. Munger says in the interview below:

“I think if you’re not a little bit confused, embittered, and angry, you’re not working hard enough on your writing.”

But he is quick to point out that dedication to consistency and hard work pay off. Here are a few of his thoughts on keeping the perfect from becoming the enemy of the good as you write, finishing your dissertation sooner rather than later, finishing graduate school (on time), and getting a job afterward. The podcast below contains the full interview with Dr. Munger.

Transcript: 10 Truths to Help You Write Your Dissertation

Jeanne hoffman.

Welcome to this Kosmos online podcast. I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today our topic is dissertation writing and research agendas, and my guest is Mike Munger. Dr. Munger is a professor at Duke University in the political science and economics department and the School of Public Policy, as well as the director of the joint UNC Duke Philosophy Politics and Economics Program. Welcome, Dr. Munger.

Mike Munger

It’s a pleasure to be on.

It’s a pleasure to have you. Our interview today is based on your essay, “Writing your Dissertation and Creating your Research Agenda,” which was originally written for IHS’s guide for graduate students, Scaling the Ivory Tower . Where do you place the importance of these activities in relation to other graduate school responsibilities?

it seems to me that people, when they’re in graduate school, have to recognize that their chief job is to redirect their energies from where they were as an undergraduate to where they will be as a professional.

A graduate student is somewhere between an undergraduate and a professional. The people who succeed are those who make that transition faster. What’s disturbing about it is that faculty often don’t really tell you that. This is something that you have to pick up on your own.

The problem is faculty would like you, and I’m no different, faculty would like for you to validate their pathetic lives by taking their classes very, very seriously. You’re not going to get a job taking classes. You’re going to try to get a job as an independent researcher who has their own ideas. Who’s able to make his or her own ideas clear to someone in writing.

The sooner you start working on that, the sooner you’re going to be able to make that transition. And the easier it will be to write your dissertation.

I’ve noticed that in the second or third year of graduate school there’s something that’s approaching an inversion where the people who were the real stars in the first and second year, who managed to make the faculty smile and pat them on the head and say, “Good student. Here’s a biscuit.” These are the ones who, after their second or third year, are thinking, “You know, I’m going to take more classes.”

Whereas the other people, and frankly I was one of the other people, were thinking, “You know, classes are sort of boring. I’m going to try to write some stuff on my own.”

Those are the ones who end up succeeding.

The stars in the first and second year, a lot of them don’t finish a thesis and they don’t get a job. Be of good cheer, if you feel like an odd ball, if you’re someone who’s working on research and taking the classes. Getting through the classes is fine. But you’re not going to get a job taking classes. You’re going to get a job doing your research.

Start working on writing. Start working on your dissertation as soon as you can.

In your essay, you also listed 10 truths about writing. I just want it go through them all briefly because I think each of them is a great piece of advice for students to keep in mind when they’re writing. The first is writing is an exercise. What do you mean by that?

Mike Munger:

Suppose you were going to run a marathon six months from now. You wouldn’t wait until the night before the marathon and train all night. What you would do is run a little bit at a time. Now, some days you’d go slow. You wouldn’t feel like it, but you would recognize that your performance in this marathon is going to be based on having practiced in situations where you developed the lung capacity, the ability of your muscles in your legs to perform.

Writing is the same way.

If you write every day, some days it’s not going to be very good. You’re going to throw a lot of it away. But when it comes time to do the marathon, you’ll be ready to write the dissertation that you have to finish in order to leave graduate school.

And as I often tell graduate students, “How will be ever miss you if you won’t go away?”

The key to this is to treat it as an exercise. Writing is something that you do every day, and like training for a marathon you will get better. The fact that some of what you do is a waste isn’t the point.

The point is to develop the skills so when the dissertation comes up, you’ll be ready.

Jeanne Hoffman:

You also mentioned “set goals.” What type of goals should graduate students be setting?

So many people have this fetish about input based metrics. I worked for three hours today. Yeah, well you didn’t do a thing. You need output based metrics. I wrote three pages today. That’s a goal. Not I went to the office. Think of all the times that you as a graduate student said, “Well, I worked for six hours today. I read a book.”

No, what you have to do is set a goal of writing. Have an output based metric. Focus on that, and once you’ve done that, yes, then go do something else. But make sure you have an output that you produce every day. Not input.

Nobody cares about the labor pains. They just want to see the baby.

Now, this other one sounds really profound, but could you explain it to me? It says “write for the ages.” What does that mean?

This comes from an experience that I had that was pretty darned embarrassing.

I was interviewing in 1984 at George Mason University, and one of the people I was interviewing with was James Buchanan. Now, this was two years before he won the Nobel prize in economics. He won it in 1986. This was 1984, but he was pretty scary even without a Nobel prize. The first question he asked me in our interview … (Note that this was a job I really wanted. I so wanted to be at George Mason. This meant the world to me.) His first question was, “What are you working on? What are you writing that somebody might read 10 or 100 years from now?”

I had nothing. His point, and he says this pretty often, is you ought to be working on something that people are going to want to read years from now. Because if you know when you’re working on it that’s really of no consequence, why are you spending your time on it? How are you going to stay excited enough about it to be able to produce a decent quality piece of work if you already know that it’s trivial?

Now, a lot of the things that you think are interesting at first turn out to be not as important as you had hoped, but you have to have some aspiration to write on the kinds of questions that people care about and that might conceivably they would want to read in 10 or even 100 years.

Next you have, “give yourself time.” Do you mean time to write?

I certainly do mean time to write. We’re used to being patted on our heads for our prolixity–and the fact that even the night before a paper was due we could produce a decent quality paper.

Well, if you try to carry that over into graduate school or into your professional career, you’re going to fail. Look at something that Adam Smith wrote or that Ayn Rand wrote (or whatever writing that you care about), they didn’t sit down the night before it was due and write the whole thing. They wrote it then they went for a walk, had dinner, talked to someone. Then they wrote it again.

They worked on it over and over again.

In a way, this is the same thing as write for the ages. This is take your work seriously enough to treat it as something that’s worthy of your full attention over an extended period.

Not I work really well under pressure. The fact is nobody works really well under pressure. You’re just smart enough that you’ve been able to get away with it up until now.

Speaking of people leaving things to the last minute, you have as your fifth truth, “edit your work.” Which I know a lot of undergraduates don’t get to because they do their paper overnight. But what does this mean for graduate students who have an extended amount of time to work on their papers?

A lot of people don’t like the idea of editing their work, and I think there’s two reasons. (Maybe they’re related, but students always give two different reasons.)

  • One is it’s boring to edit (especially as you write your dissertation), and it’s more interesting and fun to work on something new.
  • The other is, you know, they hate to waste anything that they’ve written.

Once you get used to editing, it’s really quite liberating. Try to find out if you can shorten everything into something that’s better.

When you’re writing, often less is more.

The first paper that I published came out in the journal public choice in 1984. Started out as 22 pages of calculus and proofs. When it came out in the journal it was two-and-a-half pages, and it had two short equations. It bore no resemblance to the paper I started out with, but it was much better.

That first paper was unpublishable. If I had sent it to the journal it would have just been turned out, and then I would have thought, “Oh I was born under a dark star.” No, I was too lazy to edit the thing.

If you don’t like editing your own papers, find another graduate student and switch as you.

It’s often much easier to edit and find the mistakes or infelicities that other people have made. One of the things that we’re all good at is criticizing, so find a writing buddy and switch papers and edit each other’s stuff. There’s one other thing about editing that Deirdre McCloskey always says. Deirdre McCloskey’s claim is “Let editors edit.”

Which means that if someone, an editor or a friend who you’ve gotten to edit your paper, volunteers that there’s a problem with that sentence, there is. Nobody cares what you think. The fact is that when someone else looks at that and says, “You know, I don’t understand this.” Or, “I think you should reword it.” You should. Don’t get defensive. Just do it.

Let the editor edit.

Okay, now here you have, “pick a puzzle.” That is a puzzle to me. What do you mean by that?

There are a lot of ways of making a paper that you’re working on seem, and in fact be, more interesting.

One of the key ways to do that when you’re setting it up is to choose one of the classic kind of puzzle formulations. Some examples that I could give are, well, we start with the problem of, “there’s a lot of people that have noticed empirically X happens, but the theory says that Y should happen. Why is it that our theory implies something different from what we actually observe?”

Another famous and common kind of puzzle that’s quite useful is, “There’s this theory about phenomenon X, and there’s another theory about apparently very different phenomenon Y. It turns out that the same underlying explanation accounts for both of these apparently very different things.”

Well, there again, if you start with that, you have the readers interest. It’s a way of organizing your discussion. It’s a way of getting started. A lot of people have trouble writing the first page of their paper, so we sometimes jokingly say, “Okay start with the second page!” It’s hard to set the thing up.

Using the puzzle (even if it seems rather mechanical at first) is a good way to get past that first hurdle of presenting your work. Tt has the bonus of grabbing the reader’s attention.

Now, your seventh truth seems to tie into your fourth truth, your “give yourself time” one. Your seventh truth is “schedule time for writing.”

The reason that it’s different is the “give yourself time” means that you start long before it’s due.

Scheduling means that you have to think when is my most productive time. Am I a morning person? Am I a night person? Then make sure that you schedule your writing during your most productive time. For instance, take classes or teach them (as the case may be) at a time that doesn’t conflict with your most productive writing time.

Now, it’s perfectly true that when I teach I get enough of an adrenaline rush. It happens that I’m a morning person, so I always schedule my writing in the morning and then I teach in the late afternoon. The late afternoon, a lot of times, I might need a little nap. I’m a little tired after lunch, and I’m kind of nodding off, but when it comes to teaching I get a rush of adrenaline. It’s like having two different peak times because you spend your writing time when you’re naturally most productive. Then you do your teaching at a time that otherwise would be a down time. It makes you enormously more productive.

The problem that I see is that people say, “Well, I’m so busy, so I’ll write when I get a chance.” It’s a residual category. It’s what I do after I’ve done everything else.

You have to turn that on it’s head. Schedule your writing first, and make everything else fit. First and foremost, if you’re going to succeed, you need to be a writer.

Now, I want to tie your eighth and ninth together because I think one flows from the other one. Your eighth truth is “not all of your thoughts are profound,” and your ninth one is “your most profound thoughts are often wrong.” Why aren’t all my thoughts profound? I think they are.

You know, they are as long as they’re thoughts. Actually this is going to tie into the next one also, so let me tie all three together.

When I think of an idea, or when I talk about an idea in a bar to my friend, we’re having cigarettes and beers, and it’s 1:30 at night. You know, you think that’s really clever. That’s something.

The problem is I sit down to write it, it turns out to be much more complicated than I thought it was.

When I was in graduate school, and I was a beginning assistant professor, would keep a list of what I thought were interesting ideas. Half of them by the time I had worked on them for a day turned out to be not that important. A lot of the things that seem interesting and important are not as important once you start to write them.

That means that you need to start to write them as soon as possible. You learn about your own thoughts by trying to write them. Not by just repeating them and having other people say, “Oh, that’s a clever nugget.”

Writing is how you learn whether your ideas are profound.

The ninth one that you mentioned was your most profound thoughts are often wrong.

I have a friend who made this suggestion that you should kill your children. What he means by “kill your children” is after you finished a paper, and you think it’s almost ready to send to the journal, go through it and underline the three most clever and profound sentences, and delete them because you’re bored with this paper. You have read this paper so often. You thought about it so much. The three sentences that you think are the best are almost all non sequiturs. They’re usually something that they have nothing to do with the paper, or they’re an ad hominem attack on someone you should leave alone. You think, “Oh I really got that guy.”

Go through and take all of those “profound” thoughts out. They’re the things that are going to make referees angry or that are going to side track the reader.

You’re no longer competent to judge whether or not these thoughts are profound.

This leads to the tenth truth, which is that everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant.

In my essay, I try to conjure a figure that we’ve all met. Usually, it’s a like seventh year graduate student, and it could be a fourth year assistant professor who hasn’t published anything, but he’s extremely glib. He generally has a cigarette and probably a black turtle neck sweater and an imported beer. Probably a Hefeweizen from Germany. A person that excludes good taste. He holds court in this bar or in this coffee shop with his cigarette and tells you a three-or-four-hundred-word summary of what he’s going to write his dissertation or his next book on in the case of a professor.

You think, “Wow that’s so interesting.”

Then he asks you, “What are you working on?”

You’re a little confused because the chapter that you’re currently working on, you’re not quite sure it’s going right. The direction isn’t at good. You finished another chapter, but you’re not sure it hangs together, and so you sort of stutter. From this guy, you get a smug smile, “It’s hard, isn’t it?”

Well, the truth is that guy is a poser.

He’s not actually working on anything. The reason that his glib superficial description of his work is so impressive is that he’s been saying the same thing for five years.

You are the winner here. You’re the one who’s actually working on something. You’ve written several pages today. You wrote several pages yesterday. You finished a chapter in the past month.

It’s hard to know because you’re in the middle of a project. Beware of the people that have this description of their work that is practiced and sounds like it’s good. People who are writing are often confused, embittered, and angry.

In fact, I think if you’re not a little bit confused, embittered, and angry, you’re not working hard enough on your writing.

This guy’s work is unwritten. That’s why it sounds brilliant. Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant. You have to encounter how hard your idea is by writing it.

If you could give grad student just one piece of advice over all about their dissertation what would that be?

I’m going to give three. I’m a professor. I have a hard time giving just one.

Okay. I’m a lawyer, so I can negotiate, so that’s fine.

I’ll try to be brief about it, though.

The first is that graduate students elevate the dissertation in their mind to the status of something that’s enormous.

In a way, that absolves them of responsibility for not finishing it very quickly. You should think of the dissertation as being a sort of glorified class requirement. It doesn’t have to be publishable. It doesn’t have to be close to publishable. In fact, when you start to think of your dissertation what you’re doing is saying, “I have to write something that four or five people who may not like each other very much have to all sign off on.”

Which brings me to the second point. How good does your dissertation have to be?

Well, one of my professors told me a good dissertation is a done dissertation, and a done dissertation is good.

What that means is that as soon as you get it finished then you’ve already accomplished the first piece of advice was don’t elevate this to having the status of some gigantic important book. You recognize it’s just a glorified class requirement. Now you look and there’s four different people on your committee. Maybe they don’t like each other very much. Maybe they don’t even talk to each other, and so they communicate only through you. Where you bring a draft to one, and they give you corrections. You make the changes, and then another person says, “No, no. Change all that back.”

Well, what you need to do is have them talk to each other. But what you really need to do is recognize that a done dissertation is good. Just finish what they say. Don’t let them use you as a pawn in a personal war that for them goes back ten years. Just get the work finished, and once you’re in a position to have it done you can work on a book that then you won’t have to please four masters who are making different demands on your time.

The way to do that is the third piece of advice which is don’t read. Write.

I ask my students, the students who work with me on their dissertation, to put up a three by five card in their work cubicle or their library carrel or wherever they’re working, that says, “Don’t read. Write.” Because writing is an output-based metric. Reading is an input-based metric. You should always avoid input-based metrics.

“I read two books today” means you did nothing. If you wrote something then you had an accomplishment. What are you supposed to read though? The answer is let other people, including your faculty advisors, be your research assistants. You can hire them as research assistants, and you don’t have to pay them. You give them a draft, and they say, “Oh, here’s four things you should cite.” Well, go look up precisely those four things. Cite those four things, and add them to your references because then you’re not reading to decide whether or not it’s relevant. You already know that it is. You have used your faculty advisors as unpaid, really smart, highly-trained research assistants.

Make the system work for you.

That’s brilliant. You mentioned that students make the mistake of elevating their dissertation much higher than it should be. What are some other common mistakes that you see students making as they work on their dissertation?

I guess an elaboration of that first one is the one that’s most important which is after I’ve been working on it for six months, and I haven’t written anything, the explanation has to be that it’s really hard and really profound. After 18 months or two years, I knew a guy who worked for seven years on his dissertation. He had 600 pages written, but since he’d been working on it for six years it had to be something enormous. Now, he could have turned in what he had, and it would have been fine, but it wouldn’t have been fantastic. It wasn’t good enough because he couldn’t explain to himself why he’d done it for six years. He ended up not finishing, although he had 600 pages written.

Well, believe me, by that time the faculty really just wanted him to go away. Write an introduction, write a conclusion, hand it in. Say, “That’s enough. I’m done.”

What else separates a student who gets their dissertation done from a student who doesn’t complete their dissertation on time?

I would say that completing your dissertation on time largely just requires you sitting down and writing out a timeline that starts with finishing . Then give yourself reasonable amounts of time to do all the things you need to do in the middle, and work backwards to now. Now, I finished my dissertation when I was 25. I wrote the whole thing in six months. Was it good? No. It was terrible, but a good dissertation is a done dissertation. After I finished it I was able, on my own without the infighting and bickering of faculty members looking over my shoulder, to be able to fix the problems, and send it to journals, and I got it published.

Think of it as a job. Think of it as something that has a schedule that you can produce. Rather than “I’m working on this, and my lack of productivity is a sign of my profundity,” which is a trap many of us fall into.

Having a deadline is an important part of becoming a professional because you have to learn to generate internal deadlines. Journal editors do not have deadlines. They would prefer that you don’t send your paper to them.

The editor of the philosophy journal, economics journal, political science journal, they’re not going to call you and say, “Hey, are you going to send that paper in?” They hope you don’t. You have to generate your own internal deadlines. You might as well start doing it now. Think of it as a job. Have deadlines, and meet the deadlines. If it isn’t perfect that’s fine. The faculty will tell you what you have to add.

In this timeline that you’re talking about (other than sending your work to journals) what other steps should people consider in making it?

I guess I would suggest you send papers to journals before a lot of people actually send their papers to journals. Let me see if I can explain that. For anyone who does computer programming, you know something called “machine intensive debugging.” Machine intensive debugging means that I don’t stare at the program and try to figure out what errors of programming or logic are in it. I send it to the computer, and it comes back with error messages.

Now, there are no obvious mistakes. I don’t send it to the computer so that it bombs in the first line. I do the best that I can to make sure that it doesn’t immediately bomb. Well, you can think of journals the same way. Since I, myself, was the editor of the Journal Public Choice for five years, let me say immediately that doesn’t mean send in half-finished papers. It means get the paper to a certain point of being good and then finish it in the sense that you edit it. You correct the references. You make sure the title page is right. There are no typos. There’s no hanging widow titles. It looks like a professional paper.

Then the referees are going to tell you what you should work on.

You need to have a portfolio of papers. People are surprised when they first come out. You know, they’re teaching, they’re spending time trying to get their dissertation into shape, and two or three years pass by. Start sending papers to journals right away, and that sort of generates it’s own momentum, its own logic. You get the paper back, and you’ve got comments. Basically these are like error messages from the computer. Fix those. Send it back again. You’ll be publishing papers before you know it.

Send the paper out before you think it’s perfect because the editors aren’t going to think it’s perfect anyway. Even the paper you worked on for three years is going to come back with error messages.

This is my final question. Do you have any advice on how to generate really interesting ideas that spark quality papers?

I do, and the answer is write a lot of different papers, and recognize that not all of your ideas are as profound as you thought they were. As we’ve already discussed. When the paper comes back from the journal … This has happened to me several times. My most cited paper is the 1986 American Political Science review paper with Arthur Denzau. We had sent it to four other journals before it was finally accepted. When the paper started out, it wasn’t very good, but we got comments from referees that said, “You know, this is stupid, but if you were really going to do this here’s what you could go and do.”

Well, we took those seriously. By the time I had worked on it for two and a half years, it had been turned down at four places. We had gotten comments from twelve different referees. The paper was excellent, and it was partly because of the important ideas that we had gotten from machine intensive debugging.

From having those very smart anonymous referees make suggestions.

Again, you can use smart people as your unpaid research assistants as long as you keep at it, and take comments seriously. Let the editors edit. Let the referees tell you. If they think there’s something wrong with a passage, there is. Don’t be defensive about it. Fix it.

Well, thank you very much for joining us, Dr. Munger and for your great advice.

It was a pleasure.

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Defending Your Dissertation: A Guide

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Written by Luke Wink-Moran | Photo by insta_photos

Dissertation defenses are daunting, and no wonder; it’s not a “dissertation discussion,” or a “dissertation dialogue.” The name alone implies that the dissertation you’ve spent the last x number of years working on is subject to attack. And if you don’t feel trepidation for semantic reasons, you might be nervous because you don’t know what to expect. Our imaginations are great at making The Unknown scarier than reality. The good news is that you’ll find in this newsletter article experts who can shed light on what dissertations defenses are really like, and what you can do to prepare for them.

The first thing you should know is that your defense has already begun. It started the minute you began working on your dissertation— maybe even in some of the classes you took beforehand that helped you formulate your ideas. This, according to Dr. Celeste Atkins, is why it’s so important to identify a good mentor early in graduate school.

“To me,” noted Dr. Atkins, who wrote her dissertation on how sociology faculty from traditionally marginalized backgrounds teach about privilege and inequality, “the most important part of the doctoral journey was finding an advisor who understood and supported what I wanted from my education and who was willing to challenge me and push me, while not delaying me.  I would encourage future PhDs to really take the time to get to know the faculty before choosing an advisor and to make sure that the members of their committee work well together.”

Your advisor will be the one who helps you refine arguments and strengthen your work so that by the time it reaches your dissertation committee, it’s ready. Next comes the writing process, which many students have said was the hardest part of their PhD. I’ve included this section on the writing process because this is where you’ll create all the material you’ll present during your defense, so it’s important to navigate it successfully. The writing process is intellectually grueling, it eats time and energy, and it’s where many students find themselves paddling frantically to avoid languishing in the “All-But-Dissertation” doldrums. The writing process is also likely to encroach on other parts of your life. For instance, Dr. Cynthia Trejo wrote her dissertation on college preparation for Latin American students while caring for a twelve-year-old, two adult children, and her aging parents—in the middle of a pandemic. When I asked Dr. Trejo how she did this, she replied:

“I don’t take the privilege of education for granted. My son knew I got up at 4:00 a.m. every morning, even on weekends, even on holidays; and it’s a blessing that he’s seen that work ethic and that dedication and the end result.”

Importantly, Dr. Trejo also exercised regularly and joined several online writing groups at UArizona. She mobilized her support network— her partner, parents, and even friends from high school to help care for her son.

The challenges you face during the writing process can vary by discipline. Jessika Iwanski is an MD/PhD student who in 2022 defended her dissertation on genetic mutations in sarcomeric proteins that lead to severe, neonatal dilated cardiomyopathy. She described her writing experience as “an intricate process of balancing many things at once with a deadline (defense day) that seems to be creeping up faster and faster— finishing up experiments, drafting the dissertation, preparing your presentation, filling out all the necessary documents for your defense and also, for MD/PhD students, beginning to reintegrate into the clinical world (reviewing your clinical knowledge and skill sets)!”

But no matter what your unique challenges are, writing a dissertation can take a toll on your mental health. Almost every student I spoke with said they saw a therapist and found their sessions enormously helpful. They also looked to the people in their lives for support. Dr. Betsy Labiner, who wrote her dissertation on Interiority, Truth, and Violence in Early Modern Drama, recommended, “Keep your loved ones close! This is so hard – the dissertation lends itself to isolation, especially in the final stages. Plus, a huge number of your family and friends simply won’t understand what you’re going through. But they love you and want to help and are great for getting you out of your head and into a space where you can enjoy life even when you feel like your dissertation is a flaming heap of trash.”

While you might sometimes feel like your dissertation is a flaming heap of trash, remember: a) no it’s not, you brilliant scholar, and b) the best dissertations aren’t necessarily perfect dissertations. According to Dr. Trejo, “The best dissertation is a done dissertation.” So don’t get hung up on perfecting every detail of your work. Think of your dissertation as a long-form assignment that you need to finish in order to move onto the next stage of your career. Many students continue revising after graduation and submit their work for publication or other professional objectives.

When you do finish writing your dissertation, it’s time to schedule your defense and invite friends and family to the part of the exam that’s open to the public. When that moment comes, how do you prepare to present your work and field questions about it?

“I reread my dissertation in full in one sitting,” said Dr. Labiner. “During all my time writing it, I’d never read more than one complete chapter at a time! It was a huge confidence boost to read my work in full and realize that I had produced a compelling, engaging, original argument.”

There are many other ways to prepare: create presentation slides and practice presenting them to friends or alone; think of questions you might be asked and answer them; think about what you want to wear or where you might want to sit (if you’re presenting on Zoom) that might give you a confidence boost. Iwanksi practiced presenting with her mentor and reviewed current papers to anticipate what questions her committee might ask.  If you want to really get in the zone, you can emulate Dr. Labiner and do a full dress rehearsal on Zoom the day before your defense.

But no matter what you do, you’ll still be nervous:

“I had a sense of the logistics, the timing, and so on, but I didn’t really have clear expectations outside of the structure. It was a sort of nebulous three hours in which I expected to be nauseatingly terrified,” recalled Dr. Labiner.

“I expected it to be terrifying, with lots of difficult questions and constructive criticism/comments given,” agreed Iwanski.

“I expected it to be very scary,” said Dr. Trejo.

“I expected it to be like I was on trial, and I’d have to defend myself and prove I deserved a PhD,” said Dr Atkins.

And, eventually, inexorably, it will be time to present.  

“It was actually very enjoyable” said Iwanski. “It was more of a celebration of years of work put into this project—not only by me but by my mentor, colleagues, lab members and collaborators! I felt very supported by all my committee members and, rather than it being a rapid fire of questions, it was more of a scientific discussion amongst colleagues who are passionate about heart disease and muscle biology.”

“I was anxious right when I logged on to the Zoom call for it,” said Dr. Labiner, “but I was blown away by the number of family and friends that showed up to support me. I had invited a lot of people who I didn’t at all think would come, but every single person I invited was there! Having about 40 guests – many of them joining from different states and several from different countries! – made me feel so loved and celebrated that my nerves were steadied very quickly. It also helped me go into ‘teaching mode’ about my work, so it felt like getting to lead a seminar on my most favorite literature.”

“In reality, my dissertation defense was similar to presenting at an academic conference,” said Dr. Atkins. “I went over my research in a practiced and organized way, and I fielded questions from the audience.

“It was a celebration and an important benchmark for me,” said Dr. Trejo. “It was a pretty happy day. Like the punctuation at the end of your sentence: this sentence is done; this journey is done. You can start the next sentence.”

If you want to learn more about dissertations in your own discipline, don’t hesitate to reach out to graduates from your program and ask them about their experiences. If you’d like to avail yourself of some of the resources that helped students in this article while they wrote and defended their dissertations, check out these links:

The Graduate Writing Lab

https://thinktank.arizona.edu/writing-center/graduate-writing-lab

The Writing Skills Improvement Program

https://wsip.arizona.edu

Campus Health Counseling and Psych Services

https://caps.arizona.edu

https://www.scribbr.com/

How technology is reinventing education

Stanford Graduate School of Education Dean Dan Schwartz and other education scholars weigh in on what's next for some of the technology trends taking center stage in the classroom.

what does your dissertation have to be about

Image credit: Claire Scully

New advances in technology are upending education, from the recent debut of new artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots like ChatGPT to the growing accessibility of virtual-reality tools that expand the boundaries of the classroom. For educators, at the heart of it all is the hope that every learner gets an equal chance to develop the skills they need to succeed. But that promise is not without its pitfalls.

“Technology is a game-changer for education – it offers the prospect of universal access to high-quality learning experiences, and it creates fundamentally new ways of teaching,” said Dan Schwartz, dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), who is also a professor of educational technology at the GSE and faculty director of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning . “But there are a lot of ways we teach that aren’t great, and a big fear with AI in particular is that we just get more efficient at teaching badly. This is a moment to pay attention, to do things differently.”

For K-12 schools, this year also marks the end of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding program, which has provided pandemic recovery funds that many districts used to invest in educational software and systems. With these funds running out in September 2024, schools are trying to determine their best use of technology as they face the prospect of diminishing resources.

Here, Schwartz and other Stanford education scholars weigh in on some of the technology trends taking center stage in the classroom this year.

AI in the classroom

In 2023, the big story in technology and education was generative AI, following the introduction of ChatGPT and other chatbots that produce text seemingly written by a human in response to a question or prompt. Educators immediately worried that students would use the chatbot to cheat by trying to pass its writing off as their own. As schools move to adopt policies around students’ use of the tool, many are also beginning to explore potential opportunities – for example, to generate reading assignments or coach students during the writing process.

AI can also help automate tasks like grading and lesson planning, freeing teachers to do the human work that drew them into the profession in the first place, said Victor Lee, an associate professor at the GSE and faculty lead for the AI + Education initiative at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning. “I’m heartened to see some movement toward creating AI tools that make teachers’ lives better – not to replace them, but to give them the time to do the work that only teachers are able to do,” he said. “I hope to see more on that front.”

He also emphasized the need to teach students now to begin questioning and critiquing the development and use of AI. “AI is not going away,” said Lee, who is also director of CRAFT (Classroom-Ready Resources about AI for Teaching), which provides free resources to help teach AI literacy to high school students across subject areas. “We need to teach students how to understand and think critically about this technology.”

Immersive environments

The use of immersive technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality is also expected to surge in the classroom, especially as new high-profile devices integrating these realities hit the marketplace in 2024.

The educational possibilities now go beyond putting on a headset and experiencing life in a distant location. With new technologies, students can create their own local interactive 360-degree scenarios, using just a cell phone or inexpensive camera and simple online tools.

“This is an area that’s really going to explode over the next couple of years,” said Kristen Pilner Blair, director of research for the Digital Learning initiative at the Stanford Accelerator for Learning, which runs a program exploring the use of virtual field trips to promote learning. “Students can learn about the effects of climate change, say, by virtually experiencing the impact on a particular environment. But they can also become creators, documenting and sharing immersive media that shows the effects where they live.”

Integrating AI into virtual simulations could also soon take the experience to another level, Schwartz said. “If your VR experience brings me to a redwood tree, you could have a window pop up that allows me to ask questions about the tree, and AI can deliver the answers.”

Gamification

Another trend expected to intensify this year is the gamification of learning activities, often featuring dynamic videos with interactive elements to engage and hold students’ attention.

“Gamification is a good motivator, because one key aspect is reward, which is very powerful,” said Schwartz. The downside? Rewards are specific to the activity at hand, which may not extend to learning more generally. “If I get rewarded for doing math in a space-age video game, it doesn’t mean I’m going to be motivated to do math anywhere else.”

Gamification sometimes tries to make “chocolate-covered broccoli,” Schwartz said, by adding art and rewards to make speeded response tasks involving single-answer, factual questions more fun. He hopes to see more creative play patterns that give students points for rethinking an approach or adapting their strategy, rather than only rewarding them for quickly producing a correct response.

Data-gathering and analysis

The growing use of technology in schools is producing massive amounts of data on students’ activities in the classroom and online. “We’re now able to capture moment-to-moment data, every keystroke a kid makes,” said Schwartz – data that can reveal areas of struggle and different learning opportunities, from solving a math problem to approaching a writing assignment.

But outside of research settings, he said, that type of granular data – now owned by tech companies – is more likely used to refine the design of the software than to provide teachers with actionable information.

The promise of personalized learning is being able to generate content aligned with students’ interests and skill levels, and making lessons more accessible for multilingual learners and students with disabilities. Realizing that promise requires that educators can make sense of the data that’s being collected, said Schwartz – and while advances in AI are making it easier to identify patterns and findings, the data also needs to be in a system and form educators can access and analyze for decision-making. Developing a usable infrastructure for that data, Schwartz said, is an important next step.

With the accumulation of student data comes privacy concerns: How is the data being collected? Are there regulations or guidelines around its use in decision-making? What steps are being taken to prevent unauthorized access? In 2023 K-12 schools experienced a rise in cyberattacks, underscoring the need to implement strong systems to safeguard student data.

Technology is “requiring people to check their assumptions about education,” said Schwartz, noting that AI in particular is very efficient at replicating biases and automating the way things have been done in the past, including poor models of instruction. “But it’s also opening up new possibilities for students producing material, and for being able to identify children who are not average so we can customize toward them. It’s an opportunity to think of entirely new ways of teaching – this is the path I hope to see.”

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What to do if you receive an academic alert

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LEXINGTON, Ky. ( Feb. 19 , 202 4 ) —  At the University of Kentucky, we take seriously our commitment to the academic success of our students. We want all of our Wildcats to be successful. We know that you may face challenges along your academic journey, and we want to make sure you have the support you need, when you need it. One of the ways we do this is through our academic alert system. 

If your instructors have concerns about your performance in class, they may submit an academic alert. This alert will tell you what the concern is, which may be multiple missed classes or low grades on homework assignments or quizzes and tests, and offer suggestions on how to make improvements. Whatever the academic situation, the main reason that a UK student receives an academic alert is because we care. Use the steps below if you receive an academic alert. 

  • Connect with your instructor . As soon as you receive an academic alert in a class, reach out to your instructor. If possible, schedule a one-on-one meeting to discuss your alert. Find out why you received the alert and what changes you need to make. If you have missed class, make sure you submit any documentation you have for your absences.
  • Talk with your advisor . Your advisors are here to help you discuss your options and to connect you to campus resources to help you be successful. Be honest with your advisor so that they can provide you with the support you need. To locate the name of your advisor, log into  myUK  and navigate to myUK GPS under the Student Services tab. Your advisor’s information will be shown on the right side of the page. 
  • Develop an action plan . Use campus resources, such as tutoring services and Integrated Success Coaching. Make using these resources a regular part of your study routine. For more information about these free resources, click  here .  

At the University of Kentucky, students are at the center of all that we do. From the moment you become a Wildcat through graduation and beyond, the Office for Student Success is committed to supporting you. Comprised of five areas and 25 units, together, they have one vision — to help students live a life of meaning. Student Success works through an equitable, holistic and inclusive lens to design and deliver unparalleled services and support a diverse community of learners in achieving their wildest ambitions. In the Office for Student Success this is what we do — this is who we are. You can explore resources available to you  here . If you have additional questions, you can reach a Student Success team member by calling the helpline 859-218-YouK (9685).

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What does protein do for your body? Plant vs animal sources, and other FAQs answered

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Ever hear your stomach grumbling even though you just ate? Your meal or snack might not have been as balanced as you think. Combining complex carbohydrates with protein and fat is the best recipe for satiety and success, experts previously told USA TODAY.

If you're trying to increase your protein intake, there's more than just meat to choose from. While that and dairy are popular choices, almost 90% of Americans do not eat the recommended amount of seafood and more than 50% do not get enough nuts, seeds and soy products, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

What is the healthiest protein to eat?

Though animal protein sources pack more protein in smaller quantities, plant protein may be better for your overall health, says Theresa Gentile, a registered dietitian nutritionist who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

She points to a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which found that regularly consuming plant protein, more so than animal or dairy protein, is linked with better mental status and fewer physical function impairments . 

It’s also a better protein choice for the environment. According to a 2023 study published in Scientific Reports, plant and fish proteins had the best individual and environmental outcomes while meat proteins scored lower in nutrition, higher in health risks and had a worse environmental effect because of the greenhouse gas emissions created in production .

Here are some popular forms of plant protein:

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Veggie patties

With these foods, you’re also getting fiber, vitamins and minerals along with protein.

Nuts are good sources of healthy fats and fiber. Plant protein sources like greens and broccoli are rich in antioxidants, vitamin K and vitamin C among others. Beans are chock-full of fiber, protein, iron and resistant starch , a form of starch that improves gut health because it doesn’t raise glucose. They also contain polyphenols, which act as antioxidants and may protect against some cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases.

Regardless of the type of protein, it's important to understand how much protein you're getting. Many misunderstand this and take the number of grams at face value, says Dr. Gregory Katz, an assistant professor of medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. Instead, think about the grams of protein as a percentage of calories. Foods that are higher in protein relative to the total number of calories will be more satiating.

What does protein do for your body?

When we eat protein, our body breaks it down into amino acids, which we absorb and use to produce energy or build structures like muscle. This fuels "every chemical reaction in our body," Katz says.

There are 20 amino acids and our body can naturally produce all but nine of them. The ones that we can't produce on our own are called "essential amino acids."

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For someone who weighs 170 pounds, that’s about 60 grams. Older adults or anyone recovering from illness or surgery should aim for closer to 1.2 grams per kilogram, according to Gentile.

But while most Americans eat enough daily protein to function, Katz isn't convinced we're eating enough to prevent age-related muscle loss.

"Higher protein diets tend to be better at preserving muscle, especially when that's coupled with some degree of physical activity," Katz says, adding that you should look for a source of protein in every meal. Aiming for close to 30-40 grams per meal can prevent frailty.

Are plant proteins complete proteins?

Soy and quinoa are complete plant proteins, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids. Most other plant proteins are not. But though it's necessary to get all of the amino acids in your diet, it's not necessary to consume them all at the same time.

Getting in a variety of protein and fiber sources, fruits and vegetables will help you to get all of those essential amino acids in.

"If you're eating a balanced diet, it's almost impossible not to," Katz says.

You don't need to go and buy fancy supplements either, though Katz says protein powder without sugar or additives can have a place in a healthy diet: "There's a lot of money to be made by making this stuff feel onerous and feel like it's really difficult. But for most people, I think just keeping it simple is probably the best way to think about it."

Healthiest beans? Boost your daily protein and fiber with these

What foods are high in protein?

Aside from beans, legumes, nuts and seeds – heroes of the plant protein category – Gentile suggests trying these high-protein foods:

  • Lean meat: This is the healthiest meat to choose if you’re going for animal protein, experts previously told USA TODAY. Chicken is a popular choice, though any meat labeled at least 90% lean meat is a healthy choice. 
  • Fish: Eating fish is one of the easiest ways to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, essential nutrients that 68% of adults don’t consume enough of.
  • Tofu: This plant protein warrants another emphasis. Tofu, made of soybeans, is a complete protein and endlessly versatile. Try pressing it and crisping it up in a pan or air fryer or use it in a miso soup .

Nuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds also contain trace amounts of protein, Gentile says, and can be good additions to toast, soups, salads and smoothies .

Discover more health tips for your daily diet: 

  • Healthiest fruit: This one has cognitive and cardiovascular benefits
  • Healthiest vegetable: Check out these great nutrient-dense options
  • Healthiest nut: Add these two daily for cognitive benefits and more
  • Healthiest deli meat: Guide for your next sandwich, plus during pregnancy
  • Healthiest eggs: Best preparations for protein gain, weight loss

Just Curious for more? We've got you covered

USA TODAY is exploring the questions you and others ask every day. From " How long does weed stay in your system? " to " What is the hottest pepper in the world? " to " Can you drink too much water? " – we're striving to find answers to the most common questions you ask every day. Head to our Just Curious section to see what else we can answer for you. 

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  • What Is a Thesis? | Ultimate Guide & Examples

What Is a Thesis? | Ultimate Guide & Examples

Published on September 14, 2022 by Tegan George . Revised on November 21, 2023.

A thesis is a type of research paper based on your original research. It is usually submitted as the final step of a master’s program or a capstone to a bachelor’s degree.

Writing a thesis can be a daunting experience. Other than a dissertation , it is one of the longest pieces of writing students typically complete. It relies on your ability to conduct research from start to finish: choosing a relevant topic , crafting a proposal , designing your research , collecting data , developing a robust analysis, drawing strong conclusions , and writing concisely .

Thesis template

You can also download our full thesis template in the format of your choice below. Our template includes a ready-made table of contents , as well as guidance for what each chapter should include. It’s easy to make it your own, and can help you get started.

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Table of contents

Thesis vs. thesis statement, how to structure a thesis, acknowledgements or preface, list of figures and tables, list of abbreviations, introduction, literature review, methodology, reference list, proofreading and editing, defending your thesis, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about theses.

You may have heard the word thesis as a standalone term or as a component of academic writing called a thesis statement . Keep in mind that these are two very different things.

  • A thesis statement is a very common component of an essay, particularly in the humanities. It usually comprises 1 or 2 sentences in the introduction of your essay , and should clearly and concisely summarize the central points of your academic essay .
  • A thesis is a long-form piece of academic writing, often taking more than a full semester to complete. It is generally a degree requirement for Master’s programs, and is also sometimes required to complete a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts colleges.
  • In the US, a dissertation is generally written as a final step toward obtaining a PhD.
  • In other countries (particularly the UK), a dissertation is generally written at the bachelor’s or master’s level.

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The final structure of your thesis depends on a variety of components, such as:

  • Your discipline
  • Your theoretical approach

Humanities theses are often structured more like a longer-form essay . Just like in an essay, you build an argument to support a central thesis.

In both hard and social sciences, theses typically include an introduction , literature review , methodology section ,  results section , discussion section , and conclusion section . These are each presented in their own dedicated section or chapter. In some cases, you might want to add an appendix .

Thesis examples

We’ve compiled a short list of thesis examples to help you get started.

  • Example thesis #1:   “Abolition, Africans, and Abstraction: the Influence of the ‘Noble Savage’ on British and French Antislavery Thought, 1787-1807” by Suchait Kahlon.
  • Example thesis #2: “’A Starving Man Helping Another Starving Man’: UNRRA, India, and the Genesis of Global Relief, 1943-1947″ by Julian Saint Reiman.

The very first page of your thesis contains all necessary identifying information, including:

  • Your full title
  • Your full name
  • Your department
  • Your institution and degree program
  • Your submission date.

Sometimes the title page also includes your student ID, the name of your supervisor, or the university’s logo. Check out your university’s guidelines if you’re not sure.

Read more about title pages

The acknowledgements section is usually optional. Its main point is to allow you to thank everyone who helped you in your thesis journey, such as supervisors, friends, or family. You can also choose to write a preface , but it’s typically one or the other, not both.

Read more about acknowledgements Read more about prefaces

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An abstract is a short summary of your thesis. Usually a maximum of 300 words long, it’s should include brief descriptions of your research objectives , methods, results, and conclusions. Though it may seem short, it introduces your work to your audience, serving as a first impression of your thesis.

Read more about abstracts

A table of contents lists all of your sections, plus their corresponding page numbers and subheadings if you have them. This helps your reader seamlessly navigate your document.

Your table of contents should include all the major parts of your thesis. In particular, don’t forget the the appendices. If you used heading styles, it’s easy to generate an automatic table Microsoft Word.

Read more about tables of contents

While not mandatory, if you used a lot of tables and/or figures, it’s nice to include a list of them to help guide your reader. It’s also easy to generate one of these in Word: just use the “Insert Caption” feature.

Read more about lists of figures and tables

If you have used a lot of industry- or field-specific abbreviations in your thesis, you should include them in an alphabetized list of abbreviations . This way, your readers can easily look up any meanings they aren’t familiar with.

Read more about lists of abbreviations

Relatedly, if you find yourself using a lot of very specialized or field-specific terms that may not be familiar to your reader, consider including a glossary . Alphabetize the terms you want to include with a brief definition.

Read more about glossaries

An introduction sets up the topic, purpose, and relevance of your thesis, as well as expectations for your reader. This should:

  • Ground your research topic , sharing any background information your reader may need
  • Define the scope of your work
  • Introduce any existing research on your topic, situating your work within a broader problem or debate
  • State your research question(s)
  • Outline (briefly) how the remainder of your work will proceed

In other words, your introduction should clearly and concisely show your reader the “what, why, and how” of your research.

Read more about introductions

A literature review helps you gain a robust understanding of any extant academic work on your topic, encompassing:

  • Selecting relevant sources
  • Determining the credibility of your sources
  • Critically evaluating each of your sources
  • Drawing connections between sources, including any themes, patterns, conflicts, or gaps

A literature review is not merely a summary of existing work. Rather, your literature review should ultimately lead to a clear justification for your own research, perhaps via:

  • Addressing a gap in the literature
  • Building on existing knowledge to draw new conclusions
  • Exploring a new theoretical or methodological approach
  • Introducing a new solution to an unresolved problem
  • Definitively advocating for one side of a theoretical debate

Read more about literature reviews

Theoretical framework

Your literature review can often form the basis for your theoretical framework, but these are not the same thing. A theoretical framework defines and analyzes the concepts and theories that your research hinges on.

Read more about theoretical frameworks

Your methodology chapter shows your reader how you conducted your research. It should be written clearly and methodically, easily allowing your reader to critically assess the credibility of your argument. Furthermore, your methods section should convince your reader that your method was the best way to answer your research question.

A methodology section should generally include:

  • Your overall approach ( quantitative vs. qualitative )
  • Your research methods (e.g., a longitudinal study )
  • Your data collection methods (e.g., interviews or a controlled experiment
  • Any tools or materials you used (e.g., computer software)
  • The data analysis methods you chose (e.g., statistical analysis , discourse analysis )
  • A strong, but not defensive justification of your methods

Read more about methodology sections

Your results section should highlight what your methodology discovered. These two sections work in tandem, but shouldn’t repeat each other. While your results section can include hypotheses or themes, don’t include any speculation or new arguments here.

Your results section should:

  • State each (relevant) result with any (relevant) descriptive statistics (e.g., mean , standard deviation ) and inferential statistics (e.g., test statistics , p values )
  • Explain how each result relates to the research question
  • Determine whether the hypothesis was supported

Additional data (like raw numbers or interview transcripts ) can be included as an appendix . You can include tables and figures, but only if they help the reader better understand your results.

Read more about results sections

Your discussion section is where you can interpret your results in detail. Did they meet your expectations? How well do they fit within the framework that you built? You can refer back to any relevant source material to situate your results within your field, but leave most of that analysis in your literature review.

For any unexpected results, offer explanations or alternative interpretations of your data.

Read more about discussion sections

Your thesis conclusion should concisely answer your main research question. It should leave your reader with an ultra-clear understanding of your central argument, and emphasize what your research specifically has contributed to your field.

Why does your research matter? What recommendations for future research do you have? Lastly, wrap up your work with any concluding remarks.

Read more about conclusions

In order to avoid plagiarism , don’t forget to include a full reference list at the end of your thesis, citing the sources that you used. Choose one citation style and follow it consistently throughout your thesis, taking note of the formatting requirements of each style.

Which style you choose is often set by your department or your field, but common styles include MLA , Chicago , and APA.

Create APA citations Create MLA citations

In order to stay clear and concise, your thesis should include the most essential information needed to answer your research question. However, chances are you have many contributing documents, like interview transcripts or survey questions . These can be added as appendices , to save space in the main body.

Read more about appendices

Once you’re done writing, the next part of your editing process begins. Leave plenty of time for proofreading and editing prior to submission. Nothing looks worse than grammar mistakes or sloppy spelling errors!

Consider using a professional thesis editing service or grammar checker to make sure your final project is perfect.

Once you’ve submitted your final product, it’s common practice to have a thesis defense, an oral component of your finished work. This is scheduled by your advisor or committee, and usually entails a presentation and Q&A session.

After your defense , your committee will meet to determine if you deserve any departmental honors or accolades. However, keep in mind that defenses are usually just a formality. If there are any serious issues with your work, these should be resolved with your advisor way before a defense.

If you want to know more about AI for academic writing, AI tools, or research bias, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

Research bias

  • Survivorship bias
  • Self-serving bias
  • Availability heuristic
  • Halo effect
  • Hindsight bias
  • Deep learning
  • Generative AI
  • Machine learning
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Supervised vs. unsupervised learning

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The conclusion of your thesis or dissertation shouldn’t take up more than 5–7% of your overall word count.

If you only used a few abbreviations in your thesis or dissertation , you don’t necessarily need to include a list of abbreviations .

If your abbreviations are numerous, or if you think they won’t be known to your audience, it’s never a bad idea to add one. They can also improve readability, minimizing confusion about abbreviations unfamiliar to your reader.

When you mention different chapters within your text, it’s considered best to use Roman numerals for most citation styles. However, the most important thing here is to remain consistent whenever using numbers in your dissertation .

A thesis or dissertation outline is one of the most critical first steps in your writing process. It helps you to lay out and organize your ideas and can provide you with a roadmap for deciding what kind of research you’d like to undertake.

Generally, an outline contains information on the different sections included in your thesis or dissertation , such as:

  • Your anticipated title
  • Your abstract
  • Your chapters (sometimes subdivided into further topics like literature review , research methods , avenues for future research, etc.)

A thesis is typically written by students finishing up a bachelor’s or Master’s degree. Some educational institutions, particularly in the liberal arts, have mandatory theses, but they are often not mandatory to graduate from bachelor’s degrees. It is more common for a thesis to be a graduation requirement from a Master’s degree.

Even if not mandatory, you may want to consider writing a thesis if you:

  • Plan to attend graduate school soon
  • Have a particular topic you’d like to study more in-depth
  • Are considering a career in research
  • Would like a capstone experience to tie up your academic experience

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  1. What Is a Dissertation?

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  4. How to Write a Dissertation or Thesis Proposal

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    Far lengthier and more comprehensive than your average research paper, the dissertation is a document that allows you to demonstrate your ability to pursue a systematic investigation of significant issues in your field of study. The dissertation also contributes to your knowledge, skills, and research expertise.

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