A dissertation is a lengthy research paper written as a requirement to earn an academic degree. Typically, students must write a dissertation toward the end of their program to prove their knowledge and contribute new research to their field. Whether a student earns the degree depends on the quality of their paper and how it is presented.
Dissertations are one of the most difficult research papers to write, involving much of a student’s time, focus, and energy. While they follow the basics of a research paper, dissertations have areas that regular research papers don’t. Below, we provide a foundational primer to help you write a dissertation without getting overwhelmed.
How to write a dissertation: Introduction
Think of a dissertation as the “final exam” for earning certain academic degrees. Although different schools in different countries have their own procedures, in general students submit a dissertation with the help of an adviser, and the dissertation is then reviewed by experts in the field to see if it qualifies for the degree. Often, the student must also give an oral presentation on their topic, known as a dissertation defense.
The term dissertation itself is often used interchangeably with thesis paper. It gets confusing because different countries use these terms in different ways. For example, in the United States, dissertation is used when completing a doctorate, while thesis is used for bachelor’s or master’s degrees. In the UK and Ireland, those are reversed, with dissertation relating to undergraduate degrees.
Dissertations can be either empirical or nonempirical, depending on the field of study. Empirical dissertations (or quantitative dissertations) are common for the sciences; they require students to collect original data, with the methods of research also reviewed. Nonempirical dissertations (or qualitative dissertations) instead rely on existing data, although students are expected to provide original and inventive analyses.
Although dissertations are technically research papers, writing them is far more involved and technical than other school papers. To write a dissertation, you use a more complex format, with sections for literature reviews, appendices, and methodology, among others.
How long is a dissertation?
There is no universal answer to “how long is a dissertation?” The page length or word count varies depending on the degree, field of study, school, and country.
But here are some rough estimates to give you an idea of what to expect:
- Bachelor’s: 10,000–15,000 words (35–50 pages)
- Master’s: 18,000–22,000 words (65–80 pages)
- Doctorate: 80,000–100,000 words (200–300 pages)
As you can see, a doctoral dissertation is a serious investment—you’re essentially writing a book. Keep in mind, however, that these figures are only estimates, and that actual lengths are more flexible. For example, dissertations for science, technology, engineering, and math fields tend to be shorter than non-STEM dissertations.
Dissertation plan: What you need to include
The focus of your dissertation title page is—surprise!—your title. The title of your dissertation should succinctly explain the topic you’re discussing and directly relate to your research question or thesis statement. Anyone who reads the title should understand what you’re writing about.
As for formatting the title page, that depends on the school and style. Often, you’ll include the name of the university and your program, as well as the date. Check with your adviser for specific details.
This optional section gives you the chance to thank anyone who helped you write your dissertation, in the same vein as a dedication page or acceptance speech. If you choose to include this, try to keep it formal and as brief as possible.
The abstract is a short summary of the dissertation that comes at the beginning of the paper. It outlines all the major points your paper discusses and often mentions the methodology briefly. Abstracts should be only one paragraph, about 300 to 500 words.
The term abstract is often used interchangeably with executive summary. While common usage suggests they’re the same, they’re technically different: An executive summary discusses the findings or conclusion of the research, whereas an abstract does not.
Table of contents
The table of contents lists all titles for chapters, headings, and subheadings, as well as their corresponding page numbers. Moreover, the table of contents also includes the supplementary sections—such as the bibliography, appendices, and optional sections like a glossary, list of abbreviations, or a list of figures and tables.
List of figures and tables
Data-heavy dissertations may include multiple visual aids, such as figures or tables. If your dissertation uses a lot of these visuals, you can include a full list of them with their page numbers at the beginning of the paper. Think of this like a table of contents for images and charts.
List of abbreviations
Similarly, if your dissertation includes a lot of abbreviations, you should include an alphabetized key at the beginning of the paper that explains what each stands for. This is especially important if your dissertation relies on abbreviations specific to a certain field that readers outside the field may not recognize.
A glossary defines the complicated words used in your paper, kind of like a mini-dictionary. Like the list of abbreviations, the glossary comes in handy if you use a lot of jargon that won’t be understood by readers outside your field.
The first of the “core chapters” and the de facto beginning of your paper, your introduction sets up your research topic and provides the necessary background context to understand it. Here, you plainly state your thesis statement or research question and give a glimpse of how your paper discusses it.
The introduction is typically structured with each chapter getting its own brief summary. It should hint at your methodology and outline your approach (without going into too much detail), as well as explain the current state of the topic’s research so the reader knows where your dissertation fits in.
How long should a dissertation introduction be? The unofficial rule is 10 percent of the entire paper, so if your dissertation is 20,000 words, your introduction should be about 2,000 words. Keep in mind this is a rough estimate, as your introduction could vary.
During your research, you will have collected and examined the top primary and secondary sources relevant to your topic. As the name suggests, literature reviews are where you evaluate and comment on these sources, not only summarizing their findings but also pointing out flaws and drawing connections between them.
One of the key concepts in a literature review is the research gap, which refers to specific areas of a topic that have not yet been sufficiently researched. These “blind spots” make the best topics for dissertations, and your goal should be filling them in with new data or analysis. The literature review should fully explain the research gap and how your dissertation rectifies it.
Another important aspect of the literature review is defining your theoretical framework, the preexisting theories on which your own research relies. In other words, the theoretical framework is everything your reader needs to know about your topic that has already been proved or established.
The methodology chapter describes how you conducted your research, so the reader can verify its credibility. Typically, you go into detail about how you collected your data, administered tests, and analyzed the data, as well as why you chose the methods you did. You also name any tools or equipment used in your research and state concrete information, such as where and when you conducted tests.
You can also mention any obstacles or setbacks here. If your topic has some biases, mention how your methods avoided those biases.
The nucleus of your dissertation, the results chapter thoroughly explores your findings. This is where you present your data or original analysis, along with any visual aids, such as graphs or charts.
For empirical dissertations, structure the results section by individual data findings, analyzed in depth one by one. For nonempirical dissertations, structure this section by themes, patterns, or trends you’ve noticed in your research.
Don’t forget to relate your findings back to the central research question or thesis statement.
The discussion chapter contextualizes the findings laid out in the previous chapter. What does the data mean for this topic? Did it fit into the theoretical framework? How does it change the way we think? These are the kinds of themes the discussion chapter expounds on.
Feel free to talk about any surprises or unexpected results you had. Transparency is encouraged as a way to establish credibility, so this is a good place to share your personal opinions on how the research went.
As with all research paper conclusions, dissertation conclusions tie everything together. This chapter, the last of the core chapters, should reevaluate your thesis statement or clearly answer your research question. Remember not to present any new data or evidence in the conclusion, but rather review and reiterate the findings you presented earlier.
The bibliography lists the full citations of all the sources used, along with their publishing information. In APA style, the bibliography is called a reference page, while in MLA it’s called a works cited page.
The appendices are different sections of nonessential materials that are still relevant to the topic. While the essential materials should go in the body of the paper, supplemental materials—such as maps, interview transcripts, or tangential explanations—should come at the end of this section. Each piece of content is known as an appendix, the singular form of appendices.
How to write a dissertation step-by-step
1 Choose the best topic
Choosing a topic is of the utmost importance in dissertations, especially for doctorates. You need to ensure not only that your research matters but also that you have enough substance to fill the page requirement.
When choosing a topic, try to frame your ideas in the format of a thesis statement or research question. A thesis statement is a single sentence that encompasses the central point you’re trying to make, while a research question simply poses a question that your research aims to answer.
As we mentioned above in relation to literature reviews, look for a research gap in areas you’re interested in. Which aspects of these topics have not been thoroughly researched or require more data? These make the best dissertation topics.
2 Conduct preliminary research
Once you’ve decided your topic, do some preliminary research until you have a good overview of its current state. You won’t need to fully answer your research question just yet, but after this step you should at least know where to look.
As you review sources, make a note of any substantial findings or prevalent theories in your topic. Jot down any questions you have so you can find the answers later. Also, start thinking about how you will structure your dissertation; this comes in handy when submitting a research proposal.
3 Submit a research proposal
For advanced dissertations, such as those for doctoral programs, you may need to submit a research proposal before you begin. Here, you discuss your intentions for your dissertation, including how you plan to address a research gap and what methodology you’ll use. The proposal is then accepted or rejected by your supervisor, based on its merits.
4 Conduct principal research
Once your preliminary research is finished and your proposal accepted, it’s time to begin one of the most important steps in how to write a dissertation: principal research.
The goal here is to learn as much as you can about your topic, ideally accounting for all available knowledge researchers have amassed up to this point. You’ll want to define the precise parameters of your research gap so you know exactly what to test or analyze yourself.
You’ll also want to review primary sources (reference materials directly related to an event—e.g., eye-witness accounts or raw data from experiments) and secondary sources (reference materials from secondhand sources—books interpreting historical events, analyses of raw data, etc.).
5 Outline your dissertation
A research paper outline helps you structure your dissertation before you write it. The outline is not an official part of dissertations, but it is extremely helpful for organization. You can rearrange topics, points, and evidence before those parts are written.
Your dissertation outline should cover what you intend to talk about in the core chapters (introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, and conclusion). If you intend to use direct quotes or passages, make a note of where to find them in your outline so you don’t have to go searching again.
6 Write the first draft
It could take days, months, or even years to write a dissertation, so hunker down for the long haul. If you put a lot of thought into your outline, writing the first draft is just a matter of following along and fleshing out the ideas.
The body of your paper should be simple enough; simply present the data or analysis as best you can, point by point. Your research and findings will speak for themselves.
A lot of students have trouble with writing an introduction. The introduction chapter can be more challenging because it involves thinking broadly and abstractly, as opposed to simply listing details. Likewise, the research paper conclusion also requires a more general treatment of the topic and can be harder to write.
7 Consult your adviser
Your adviser is there to help you throughout the entire process of writing a dissertation. Feel free to ask them any questions you have, and regularly check in with them while you write the first draft.
When your first draft is finished, ask your adviser to take a look at it. They’ll be able to spot any problem areas or point you in a new direction. Don’t be afraid to ask—that’s what they’re there for.
8 Gather feedback
In addition to feedback from your adviser, see if anyone else can review your work. Ideally, you could have someone experienced in your field offer a professional opinion, but anyone knowledgeable in dissertations can provide you with useful insight in how to improve yours. The more feedback you get before the final draft, the better.
9 Write the final draft
After compiling all your feedback, write a final draft incorporating all the changes and improvements. While some parts might remain untouched, others may have to be completely rewritten. This is also a good opportunity to cut any areas that don’t directly relate to your main topic. At the same time, you may need to add entirely new sections for issues that weren’t addressed in the first draft.
10 Edit and proofread
The last step before submitting your dissertation is to correct any mistakes and finish up your edits. We recommend going through your dissertation a few times, and at least once with a focus on finding grammar mistakes or misspellings. Feel free to run your paper through our online spell-checker to highlight any spelling mistakes.
11 Defend your dissertation
In certain programs, you’re required to give an oral presentation to a panel of experts on your dissertation topic. This is called a dissertation defense, as the panel will ask challenging questions to make sure your research and findings are reliable.
A dissertation defense can be a nerve-racking experience, not only because it involves public speaking but also because it influences whether you receive the degree. Try your best to stay calm and remind yourself that almost everyone with an advanced degree has gone through it—and if all goes well, you won’t have to do it again!
Dissertations are vastly different, with varying styles depending on the subject, method of research, school, country, and type of degree. Looking at dissertation examples is often useful, but make sure to choose a dissertation example that’s most similar to the one you’re writing.
We recommend searching the NDLTD for a dissertation close to yours. This database allows you to search over 6 million online dissertations by keyword and filter results by language, year, or tag.
How to write a dissertation FAQs
What is a dissertation?
A dissertation is a lengthy research paper written as a requirement to earn an academic degree. Typically, students must write a dissertation toward the end of their program to both prove their knowledge and contribute new research to their field. The term dissertation is sometimes used interchangeably with thesis paper.
What is the purpose of a dissertation?
There are two main purposes of a dissertation. First, it proves a student has the adequate knowledge, skill, and understanding to earn their degree and advance into more challenging fields. Second, it contributes new and original research in an academic area with a “research gap.”
What are the critical elements of a dissertation?
The core chapters of a dissertation are the introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, and conclusion. In addition, there are also supplementary sections, such as the appendices, bibliography, glossary, and abstract.