This Study Guide addresses the task of writing a dissertation. It aims to help you to feel confident in the construction of this extended piece of writing, and to support you in its successful completion.
You may also find the following Study Guides helpful:
Sometimes writing is seen as an activity that happens after everything else:
“The research is going well, so the writing should be straightforward - I can leave it until later”.
“I know I’m not good at writing so I keep putting it off”.
“I know I’m good at writing so I can leave it to later”.
“I want to get everything sorted out in my mind before I start writing or I’ll just end up wasting my time re-writing”.
These four very different perspectives lead to the same potential problems:
regarding re-drafting as a failure or a waste of time;
ignoring the further learning and clarification of argument that usually occurs during the writing and re-writing process; and
leaving too little time for effective editing and final proofing.
The process of having to describe your study in detail, in a logical sequence of written words, will inevitably highlight where more thought is needed, and it may lead to new insight into connections, implications, rationale, relevance, and may lead to new ideas for further research.
Barras (1993:136) suggests that you ‘think of your report as part of your investigation, not as a duty to be undertaken when your work is otherwise complete’, and this Study Guide suggests that: writing is an integral part of the research process.
Getting on with the writing
The good news is that you have already started writing if you have written any of the following in relation to this study:
a research proposal;
a literature review;
a report of any pilot studies that you undertook;
an abstract for a conference;
reports for your supervisors;
a learning journal where you keep ideas as they occur to you; or
notes for a presentation you have given.
In each case the object of the writing was to communicate to yourself, your supervisors, or to others, something about your work. In writing your dissertation you will draw on some of this earlier writing to produce a longer and more comprehensive account.
Check out what is required
Before embarking on any substantial writing for your dissertation you will need to check the exact requirements regarding:
the word limit: maximum and minimum; and whether or not this includes words within tables, the abstract, the reference list, and the appendices;
which chapters are expected to be included, in which order, and what kind of material is expected in each;
the kind of content appropriate to place in the appendices rather than in the main text; and
the marking scheme or guidance.
There are some conventions that guide the structuring of dissertations in different disciplines. You should check departmental and course regulations.
Below are two structures that are commonly used.
- Title page
- Contents page(s)
- Materials and methods or Literature review
- Results or Sources and methods
- Discussion or Findings
Each section or chapter has its own particular function
The title itself is an important opportunity to tell the potential reader what your research is about. You will need it to be succinct, specific, descriptive, and representative of the research you have done. There is likely to be a required format for the title page in your discipline, so you need to check what that is.
This may be one of the shortest sections of your thesis or dissertation, but it is worthwhile taking great care to write it well. Essentially, the Abstract is a succinct summary of the research. It should be able to stand alone in representing why and how you did what you did, and what the results and implications are. It is often only one page long, and there may be a word limit to adhere to. The Abstract is an important element of the thesis, and will become a document in its own right if the thesis is registered within any database. The examiners will therefore assess your Abstract both as part of your thesis, and as a potentially independent document.
It can be best to write the Abstract last, once you are sure what exactly you are summarising. Alternatively it can be useful to write the abstract earlier on, as an aid to identifying the crucial main thread of your research, its purpose, and its findings, which could then guide the structure of the dissertation.
Attending to the very restrictive word / space limit, while at the same including all the relevant material is quite a challenge. It might be useful to look at how others have managed. It is certainly an academic exercise, but perhaps not too different from the concise explanations of your research you may have had to give to relatives and neighbours over the last few years, in terms of its brevity, accessibility, and comprehensiveness.
This is your opportunity to mention individuals who have been particularly helpful. Reading the acknowledgements in other dissertations in your field will give you an idea of the ways in which different kinds of help have been appreciated and mentioned.
Contents, and figure and table lists
The contents pages will show up the structure of the dissertation. Any imbalance in space devoted to different sections of content will become apparent. This is a useful check on whether amalgamation of sections, or creation of further sections or sub-sections is needed.
Although this is the first piece of writing the reader comes to, it is often best to leave its preparation to last as, until then, you will not be absolutely sure what you are introducing. The introduction has two main roles:
to expand the material summarised in the abstract, and
to signpost the content of the rest of the dissertation.
The literature review, or context of the study
The purpose of this chapter is to show that you are aware of where your own piece of research fits into the overall context of research in your field. To do this you need to:
describe the current state of research in your defined area;
consider whether there are any closely related areas that you also need to refer to;
identify a gap where you argue that further research is needed; and
explain how you plan to attend to that particular research gap.
This can lead logically into a clear statement of the research question(s) or problem(s) you will be addressing.
In addition to the research context, there may be other relevant contexts to present for example:
practice context; and
It can be difficult to identify the best order for sections in this chapter because the rationale for your choice of specific research question can be complicated, and there may be several inter-linked reasons why the research is needed. It is worth taking time to develop a logical structure as this will help to convince examiners of the relevance of your research, and that you understand its relevance. It will also provide you with a framework to refer back to in your discussion chapter, when you reflect on the extent to which your research has achieved what it set out to do.
Chapter(s) describing methods, sources, material etc
In these chapters a straightforward description is required of how you conducted the research. If you used particular equipment, processes, or materials, you will need to be clear and precise in how you describe them. You must give enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.
Results / Findings
You will need to check which style of reporting is preferred in your field. For example a scientific dissertation would probably have very clear separation between the results and the discussion of those results; whereas a social science dissertation might have an overall chapter called Findings, bringing the results and their discussion together.
Decisions about style of presentation may need to be made about, for example:
whether you want to begin with an initial overview of the results, followed by the detail, or whether you move immediately into the detail of the results;
in which order you will be presenting the detailed results; and
what balance, in terms of word space, you want to achieve across the spread of results that you have.
This is where you review your own research in relation to the wider context in which it is located. You can refer back to the rationale that you gave for your research in the literature review, and discuss what your own research has added in this context. It is important to show that you appreciate the limitations of your research, and how these may affect the validity or usefulness of your findings. Given the acknowledged limitations, you can report on the implications of your findings for theory, research, and practice.
This chapter tends to be much shorter than the Discussion. It is not a mere ‘summary’ of your research, but needs to be ‘conclusions’ as to the main points that have emerged and what they mean for your field.
This section needs to be highly structured, and needs to include all of your references in the required referencing style. As you edit and rewrite your dissertation you will probably gain and lose references that you had in earlier versions. It is important therefore to check that all the references in your reference list are actually referenced within the text; and that all the references that appear in the text appear also in the reference list.
You need to check whether or not the appendices count within the word limit for your dissertation. Items that can usefully go in the appendices are those that a reader would want to see, but which would take up too much space and disrupt the flow if placed within the main text. Again, make sure you reference the Appendices within the main text where necessary.
Designing your detailed structure
If your dissertation is well-structured, easy to follow, logical, and coherent, your examiners will probably enjoy reading it, and will be able to listen to your argument without the distraction of trying to make all the links themselves.
The only way to achieve a consistent argument throughout a piece of writing is by creating some kind of plan or map of what you want to say. It can be useful to think of the research question or topic going like a strong thread throughout the dissertation: linking all the elements of the study, and giving coherence to its reporting.
Moving from doing the research to writing a comprehensive account of it is not necessarily easy. You may feel that you know everything in your head but can’t see how you can put it into words in the most useful order. It can be helpful to break the task down into smaller, more easily accomplished elements. The process of producing your writing plan could go as follows.
You could start by making a comprehensive and unstructured list of all the elements and ideas that you need to include, ranging from
chapter headings to notes about analysis, and from ideas for graphical representation to ideas for further research. Alternatively you could choose to start at stage 2.
List the main chapter headings in the order in which they will appear.
Under each chapter heading, list a series of important sub-headings. It may be that, for example, a literature review chapter needs to be split into a review of several different segments of literature. In this case each segment can have its own sub-heading, with a synthesis that brings the findings together at the end of the chapter.
Under each sub-heading, list the main content that needs to be included, creating sub-sub-headings if needed. If you began by making a long and unstructured list of content, you can now feed that into the developing structure by inserting it as bullet points under the relevant headings. You need to ensure that all the content you want to include has been allocated a place.
As you go, you can slot in ideas, references, quotes, clarifications, and conclusions as they occur to you, to make sure they are not forgotten.
Check that there is an appropriate balance between and within sections, and that the structure facilitates the logical and coherent description of the research study you have undertaken.
- Take feedback from others at this stage, before you begin to fill in the detail.
Filling in the detail
It can be a good idea to put the word limit to the back of your mind at this point, and concentrate on getting everything recorded in a document. You can always edit upwards or downwards later as necessary.
Writing as you go along
It is likely, and advisable, that you will not wait until the end of your research before starting to write it up. You may be required to produce one or more chapters for assessment part way through your research. The process described above can be used for any individual chapter you are working on. It is important to be prepared to critique and revise your own work several times. Even the early chapters submitted for assessment, and passing that assessment, may need to be revised later on. This is not a failure, but a positive sign of increased experience and skill.
Developing an argument
An important aspect running through your dissertation will be your argument for:
why this specific topic is worth researching;
why this is a good way to research it;
why this method of analysis is appropriate; and
why your interpretations and conclusions are reasonable.
You will refer to the work of others as you make your argument. This may involve critiquing the work of established leaders in the field. While it is important to be respectful in the way that you discuss others’ ideas and research, you are expected to engage directly, and even openly disagree with existing writing.
In Taylor’s (1989) book on writing in the arts and social sciences, he suggests that the following different approaches offer a range of academically legitimate ways to engage with published work.
Agree with, accede to, defend, or confirm a particular point of view.
Propose a new point of view.
Concede that an existing point of view has certain merits but that it needs to be qualified in certain important respects.
Reformulate an existing point of view or statement of it, such that the new version makes a better explanation.
Dismiss a point of view or another person’s work on account of its inadequacy, irrelevance, incoherence or by recourse to other appropriate criteria.
Reject, rebut or refute another’s argument on various reasoned grounds.
Reconcile two positions that may seem at variance by appeal to some ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ principal.
Develop an existing point of view, perhaps by utilising it on larger or more complex datasets, or apply a theory to a new context
(Adapted from Taylor 1989:67)
It is important that you are assertive about what you are arguing, but it is unlikely that, in a dissertation project, you will be able to be definitive in closing an established academic debate. You should be open about where the gaps are in your research, and cautious about over-stating what you have found. Aim to be modest but realistic in relating your own research to the broader context.
Improving the structure and content
Once you have the dissertation in draft form it becomes easier to see where you can improve it. To make it easier to read you can use clear signposting at the beginning of chapters, and write links between sections to show how they relate to each other. Another technique to improve academic writing style is to ensure that each individual paragraph justifies its inclusion. More ideas will be presented in the Study Guide The art of editing.
You may choose to review your draft from the standpoint of a dissertation examiner, which might involve preparing a list of questions that you want to see answered, then reading through your dissertation scribbling comments, suggestions, criticisms, and ideas in the margin. If you have a marking guide then apply it to your dissertation and see if there are aspects that you can improve.
While you do this, be aware of whether you need to increase the number of words, or decrease it to reach your target. As you read you can then cross through material that appears unnecessary, and mark points that could be expanded. This will then form the basis for your next, improved, draft.
When to stop
Just as it can be difficult to begin writing, it can also be difficult to know when to stop. You may begin to feel that your dissertation will never be good enough, and that you need to revise it again and again. It may be helpful to divert your attention for a while to the finishing off activities you need to attend to:
writing the abstract and the introduction;
checking the reference list;
finalising the appendices; and
checking your contents page.
Coming back afresh to look critically at the main text may then enable you to complete it to your satisfaction. Remember the dissertation needs to demonstrate your ability to undertake and report research rather than to answer every question on a topic.
It is important to allow yourself enough time for the final checking and proof reading of the finished document.
Devote time to planning the structure of the dissertation.
Plan a structure that will enable you to present your argument effectively.
Fill in the detail, concentrating on getting everything recorded rather than sticking to the word limit at this stage.
Regard writing as part of the research process, not an after-thought.
Expect to edit and re-edit your material several times as it moves towards its final form.
Leave time to check and proofread thoroughly.
Barrass R. (1979) Scientists must write. A guide to better writing for scientists, engineers and students. London:Chapman and Hall.
Taylor G. (1989) The Student’s Writing Guide for the Arts and Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Guidelines for Preparation of Master Thesis/Project Report
Overview of the steps
- Select master project/thesis advisor.
- Select a project topic.
- Select a committee.
- Obtain approvals for committee, advisor.
- Register for the master project/thesis course with thesis advisor. (A section number will be provided to you by your project/thesis advisor.)
- Start Research on your master project.
- (Optional) Present a thesis proposal to the committee during mid-way of the thesis.
- Write project report/thesis.
- Present your master project and/or defend thesis.
- Submit your master project report, or publish thesis.
Discuss with your master project advisor at the beginning to decide whether your master project will be more suited for the project or thesis option.
Questions to ask when evaluating your master project topic:
- Is there current interest in this topic in the field?
- Is there is a gap in knowledge that work on this topic could help to fill?
- Is it possible to focus on a manageable segment of this topic?
- Identify a preliminary method of data collection that is acceptable to your advisor.
- Is there a body of literature is available that is relevant to your topic?
- Do you need financial assistance to carry out your research?
- Is the data necessary to complete your work is easily accessible?
- Define the project purpose, scope, objectives, and procedures.
- What are the potential limitations of the study?
- Are there any skills called on by the study that you have yet to acquire?
Master level project involves:
- Analyzing the problem or topic.
- Conducting extensive research.
- Summarizing findings from the research investigation.
- Recommending additional research on the topic.
- Drawing conclusions and making recommendations.
- Documenting the results of the research.
- Defending conclusions and recommendations.
When you’re contemplating a thesis topic, you should discuss your interests with as many people as possible to gain a broad perspective. You will find your faculty advisor knowledgeable and willing to offer excellent suggestions and advice regarding an appropriate thesis topic.
Give considerable thought to the identification and planning of a thesis topic. Review literature related to your interests; read a variety of research papers, abstracts, and proposals for content, methods and structure. Looking at completed master’s theses will be a useful activity toward expanding inquiry skills and thought processes.
After the thesis advisor is selected, you may register on-line for a thesis section. You will need to see your thesis instructor to obtain the thesis section number.
Suggested Master Project/Thesis Completion Timeline
Below please find a suggested timeline. Individual timelines may vary from one student to another.
|Fall Start (Graduate in May)||Spring Start (Graduate in December)||Recommended Task Completion||Overview|
|Prior to the start of the term||Prior to the start of the term||Planning|
|October||March||Research & Writing|
|December - January||May - August|
|March||October||Submission & Examination|
The thesis defense will consist of a 20-30 min. presentation where the students includes:
After defense, but no less than four weeks prior to the end of the term submit an unbound copy of the thesis to the Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies for pre-printing review.
|Prior to the end of term||Prior to the end of term|
- The approval page with all signatures must be submitted to the graduate advisor prior to the last day of the semester.
- The thesis must be submitted electronically prior to the last day of classes. The last day of class can be identified in the on-line Academic calendar.
Funding is usually available to students with expertise to the specific area. You will want to research scholarship options during the pre-project planning as many scholarship applications are due months before the award is granted.
More opportunities exist; you will need to search for scholarships based on your topic of research.
The College of Technology* does not mandate citation styles, but you must cite your sources and cite them consistently. Here are some helpful links to assist you with citation:
*TheHuman Development Consumer Science departmentprefers you to use the APA style. Please consult with your thesis advisor when choosing a citation style.
The College of Technology has significant expectations with regard to thesis quality. Poor or average level theses will not receive college approvals. It is the joint responsibility of the student and the committee to ensure that the thesis is of acceptable quality. Ultimately, the task is one borne by the student as the thesis is a reflection of the quality of their work. The thesis committee can direct the student to seek assistance if quality issues are noticed as the chapters are developed. The student should take quality feedback seriously and not wait until the end to attempt to fix this type of problem as it can result in significant delays and postponement of graduation. When you write and defend your thesis, keep the following guidelines in mind:
- A poor quality thesis:
- Shows a cursory examination of the topic.
- Makes little use of existing data sources.
- Fails to examine primary sources.
- Shows little comprehension of crucial texts or research in the subject matter.
- Lacks adequate organization.
- A quality thesis:
- Treats the topic in a competent, straightforward way.
- Shows a good grasp of the material.
- Makes use of existing data sources in a competent fashion or shows a good acquaintance with primary sources and current research.
- Shows a solid comprehension of research in the subject matter
- Sustains a line of argumentation throughout the thesis
- A high quality thesis
- Shows all of the above qualities of a quality thesis as well as some measure of originality in research. Originality is defined as developing new data; treating existing data in an original or particularly compelling way; developing new or particularly compelling theoretical arguments; interpreting existing research in an original or particularly compelling way; or bringing primary or secondary materials and research together to sustain a new, comprehensive or compelling interpretation. In general, a thigh quality thesis either shows some measure of originality in its argument or empirical base; or is in some other way striking or new.
Organization of Thesis
The original and copies of the thesis MUST include the following items IN THE ORDER LISTED:
- Blank sheet of bond paper at the beginning of each copy submitted.
- Copyright page (optional).
- Title Page (must show month and year of graduation - see example).
- Signature page (see example). All three required copies must have ORIGINAL SIGNATURES of the committee and the student. Signatures must be in black ink. This page should be omitted from the electronic thesis.
- Acknowledgment (optional).
- Abstract Title Page (optional - must show month and year of graduation - see example).
- Abstract (optional - University Microfilms, Inc. requires abstracts be no longer than 150 words.).
- Table of Contents.
Although there is no prescribed style for the completed thesis, there are several style manuals available which may prove helpful. The student should contact the thesis advisor to discuss the style manual to be used. Above all, it is important to be consistent throughout the entire thesis. Decide how you wish to structure your manuscript and be consistent throughout it.
Steps in the Submission of Electronic Dissertation/Thesis
- Write your thesis per College of Technology thesis guidelines.
- Successfully defend your thesis. Make corrections per the thesis committee.
- Committee signs the approval page.
- Submit a copy of the final thesis version to the Associate Dean of Research for Graduate Studies or your graduate advisor for formatting review a minimum of two weeks prior to the end of the semester.
- Wait for formatting approval before beginning electronic submission process.
- Create a single pdf file of the thesis. The signature page is NOT included in the online submission.
- Submit the signed approval page to your graduate advisor. Approval page is stored in the student’s file. ET students must also submit rubric sheets, one for each committee member.
- Upload your thesis to the Texas Digital Library (TDL).
- Please note you will be asked if you would like to embargo your work, request a journal hold or a patent hold. Be sure to check with your committee chair about these features and whether your committee chair will approve them.
- Uploading the thesis requires an active Cougarnet account and log in. If you have not used your Cougarnet account in more than 90 days, please contact the ETD administrator for assistance.
- You will receive an e-mail confirming your upload to TDL. Please forward this email to your graduate advisor.
- Wait for confirmation from your faculty chair and graduate advisor that your document has been accepted.
- Email your committee chair requesting approval of your submission. Also request approval of the embargo, if applicable.
The font should be Times New Roman, 12 pt. font
The margins should be one inch (1") each
Electronic Copy Submission
All College of Technology theses submitted in an electronic format may be hosted on the College webpage. You must submit an electronic copy of the thesis in pdf format that accurately represents the printed version of the final document.