Descriptive Dissertation Structure

Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.

The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.

Answering Questions:  The Parts of an Essay

A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.

It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)

"What?"  The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.

"How?"  A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.

"Why?"  Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.

Mapping an Essay

Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.

Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:

  • State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
  • Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
  • Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ."  Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay. 

Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.

Signs of Trouble

A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").

Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

How do you start when you have to write a dissertation or a thesis? You can save yourself some headaches by first typing each element of the structure of your dissertation in Microsoft Word. This simple exercise provides an overview of everything that you still have to do, and it functions as an outline that you can later fill in with the parts of your dissertation.

Structure of a dissertation

Each educational program places slightly different demands on the structure of a dissertation. That’s why it is always a good idea to investigate the requirements of your program. However, the structures of all theses have many common elements.

Title page

The title page is the front page and therefore the eye catcher of your dissertation. The title page contains the title (and subtitle) and perhaps a nice illustration that fits with the study. You can also place your name, educational program and student administration number here.

Information page

The information page gives more information than what can be found on the title page. Here you note again the title (and subtitle), information about your supervisors, information about yourself (name, student administration number and email address) and information about your educational program. Finally, end this page with the date on which the dissertation is submitted.

Preface

The preface is a personal note within your dissertation. Here you can give the reader information about the personal background of your dissertation.

In addition, the preface is also used to thank everyone who helped with the production of your dissertation.

Acknowledgements

As with the preface, the acknowledgements section allows space to thank everyone who helped you in writing your dissertation. In this aspect, the acknowledgement section seems much like the preface, but the difference is that there is no mention of any other information in the acknowledgements section, such as the personal background of your dissertation.

We advise you to use only a preface and to add your words of thanks to it. Only when you want to use a lot of space to thank many people can an acknowledgements section come in handy.

Abstract (Summary)

One of the functions of an abstract is to help the reader decide whether the content of your dissertation is interesting enough to read in more detail. In the summary, you answer four questions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What was done?
  3. What was discovered?
  4. What do the findings mean?

Table of Contents

In the table of contents, list all of your chapters and their page numbers. The table of contents ensures that the reader of your dissertation has an overview and can see on which page a certain chapter begins, navigating the document with more ease. Put all parts of your dissertation in the table of contents, including the appendices. You can easily generate a table of contents automatically in Word.

List of Figures and Tables

All tables and figures that you use in your dissertation are itemized in the list of figures and tables. When you use the ‘insert Caption…’ feature in Word, you can automatically generate this list.

List of Abbreviations

In the list of abbreviations, include all abbreviations of key terms used in your dissertation. By alphabetizing this list, the reader can easily look up an abbreviation. It is a matter of personal preference as to whether the list of abbreviations is placed at the beginning or end of your dissertation, after the list of references.

Glossary

The glossary is a list of all terms used in your dissertation that require a short explanation. In the glossary, you list the terms alphabetically and explain each term with a brief description or definition.

Introduction

In the introduction, you introduce the topic and the problem statement, and you describe how your dissertation is constructed. A strong and clear introduction ensures that you win over the reader so that he or she will more eagerly read the rest of your dissertation. You can even use our tips for writing an overview of your dissertation to make sure readers go through your text more easily.

Theoretical framework / Literature review

In the theoretical framework chapter, try to answer all descriptive research questions (the questions that help you define your variables). You can almost always answer these descriptive research questions by conducting a literature study. Use a separate section for each research question.

If you are conducting empirical research and are drafting hypotheses or have already done so, you can use the literature to reject or support a hypothesis. You can also use the literature review to formulate a hypothesis. Later, while conducting qualitative or quantitative research, you will test the hypothesis.

Research design

In this section, you describe the study design, which is part of the research plan. In the study or research design, you explain where, when, how and with whom you are going to do the research. The question of ‘how’ will determine your research method. Are you going to conduct research using a survey or perhaps with an experiment? Another term for the ‘how’ question is ‘research methodology’.

Research results

In the research chapter, you actually carry out the research design that you described in the previous chapter. Thus, here you apply the specified methods. You describe how the research went and you analyze the results.

Conclusion and discussion

In the conclusion, you finally provide an answer corresponding to your problem statement. Often, the results are open to multiple interpretations. That’s why this chapter is called conclusion and discussion.

In the discussion section, you provide the various possible interpretations and views, and you give suggestions for follow-up research.

Recommendations / Advisory plan

The recommendations for follow-up research are always described in the dissertation discussion section. However, many students who are doing a final internship at a company must also write an advisory plan.

In this advisory plan, they make recommendations to the company in response to the conclusions of their study.

Afterword / Evaluation / Reflection

As with the preface, the afterword is often used to thank people. Thus, when you have already written a preface, an afterword is often unnecessary. Another function of the afterword is reflection. That is why the afterword is also referred to as evaluation or reflection.

When you have written the dissertation with another person, you can use the afterword to indicate how the collaboration went and what you have learned. Many students are also required to write a reflection report. The reflection report is often written separately and not added to the dissertation.

Reference list

You list all sources that you have used in the reference list. Your educational program will often specify which style you must use for the acknowledgement of sources. The most prevalent style is APA style.

We have created a free APA Generator for APA style, so that you can easily generate all your sources. When you are following an educational program that uses a different style (e.g. Law), you will have to use appropriate style for that program (e.g. OSCOLA).

Appendices

Your dissertation itself contains only core issues. Many documents that you have used but which do not actually need to be in your dissertation are added as appendices. If documents contribute to your research, then you must include them in the appendix so that others can check how your research has been conducted and on what it is based.

Common appendix items are interview (questions), tables and analyses.

The structure described above is very handy while writing your dissertation, but you may deviate from this format. How other students have structured their theses can be seen in the dissertation examples.

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