How To Write A Dissertation Or Thesis

How To Write A Dissertation Or Thesis

In this blog we’re going to look at how to write a dissertation or thesis in eight straightforward steps. We’re going to look at big picture level process for developing a high quality dissertation or thesis step by step we’ll also share some useful tips and tricks to help you optimize your approach and minimize wasted time. So grab a cup of coffee grab a cup of tea whatever works for you and let’s jump into it.

Hey and welcome to acadmicx where we demystify and simplify the seemingly bizarre world of academia. Today we’re going to look at how to write a high quality dissertation or thesis in eight simple steps so that you can approach your project with confidence. Now before we jump into it let’s just clarify some terminology. You’ll notice that i’m using the words dissertation and thesis interchangeably. In the u.s a thesis is usually completed at the end of a master’s level degree and a dissertation is completed for a phd or doctoral degree. While in the uk and some other countries it’s the other way around. Now naturally a phd level project will be more demanding than a master’s level one. But the fundamentals remain the same they’re both formal academic research projects and they both follow the same process. So don’t get wrapped up in the lingo in this blog dissertation equals thesis. With that out of the way let’s take a look at how to craft a winning dissertation or thesis step by step.


Writing a dissertation or thesis is a long journey with many twists and turns along the way. it’s a multi-step process and you can’t skip past or try to shortcut any steps. Each step depends on completing the step before it so it’s important to approach your project systematically or you’ll end up doing a whole lot of unnecessary reworking. Now broadly speaking there are eight steps to the dissertation writing journey i’ll outline them first and then we’ll look at each of them in a bit more detail.

How to write thesis or dissertation
How to write thesis or dissertation

Step 1: Understand what exactly a dissertation is

Now the very first step you need to take is to clearly understand exactly what a dissertation or thesis is? Now this might sound obvious but so many students get it wrong and then they end up paying dearly for this misunderstanding. Don’t worry i’ll break it down for you next you’ll need to find a unique and valuable research topic and research questions. This can be a tricky task but it’s essential to take the time to find a high quality topic or you could end up in a very difficult situation down the line. Now once you’ve got your topic nailed down you’ll need to craft a persuasive research proposal to convince your university that your topic is suitable and manageable. Once your proposal’s been approved it’s time to start your research and write up your actual dissertation or thesis. The first chapter that you’ll need to write up is your introduction chapter which will need to provide a clear description and justification of your research. The next task will be for you to review the existing literature and compile a comprehensive literature review that synthesizes the current research in your area. Now once that’s done you’ll need to design a rigorous research methodology and undertake your own research this is where the real action happens. Next you’ll need to craft your findings and discussion chapters. where you’ll explain exactly what you found and what it all means in relation to your original research questions. Lastly you’ll need to write up your conclusions chapter where you bring your project full circle and discuss the implications of your findings. a quick disclaimer these eight steps cover the typical dissertation or thesis writing process some universities will have slight differences some may specify a topic for you. so you can just skip the first step some might require a brief outline of your research rather than a full proposal and. so on so use your discretion and make sure you’re familiar with your university’s specific requirements before you start your project. if you understand each of these steps and work through them carefully you should be able to move through your dissertation or thesis relatively smoothly and avoid any major hurdles along the way. if some of these steps sound like gibberish don’t worry we’re going to dive into each of them in this  blog. but a quick side note while i’ve mentioned some of the chapters and the rough structure of the dissertation document here. there are a few other bits and pieces that you’ll need to include. if you want to learn exactly how to structure your dissertation we’ve got a separate  blog covering that. i’ll include the link below.


“Alright now you’ve got an idea of the big picture process of how to write a dissertation so let’s jump into each of the steps. The very first step in your research journey is to understand what a dissertation actually is. now this probably sounds like a no-brainer but all too often students come to us at grad coach for help with their research and the underlying issue is that they don’t fully understand what a dissertation or thesis actually is.”

So what is a dissertation?

Well at the simplest level a dissertation or thesis is a formal piece of academic research reflecting the standard research process. The key phrase here is the research process but what is the research process this process involves four important steps.

Firstly: asking a very specific well-articulated research question or set of research questions. A research question is an overarching high-level question something that you’ll try to answer by undertaking research. Now don’t confuse this with the specific questions that you’ll ask those who you interview or survey participants. This research question or set of questions then forms the foundation of your research topic.

Secondly: assessing what other researchers have said about this research question and importantly whether they’ve already answered it in other words what research already exists concerning your topic. if the existing research hasn’t answered the research question adequately.

Thirdly: undertaking your own research which often means collecting and analyzing your own data in a systematic rigorous fashion.

Fourthly: answering your original research question or questions based on the findings of your analysis. simply put the research process is about asking and answering important questions in a systematic process driven fashion. This probably sounds pretty obvious but all too often people think they’ve done research when in fact what they’ve done is:

  1. Started with a vague poorly articulated question
  2. Not taking the time to see what research has already been done regarding the question
  3. Collected data and opinions that support their existing position but ignored anything that challenges it. undertaken a flimsy unscientific analysis
  4. Drawn highly questionable conclusions based on that analysis.

If you want to see the perfect example of this in action just look out for the next Facebook post where someone claims that they’ve done research. All too often people consider reading a few blog posts to constitute research. so it’s no surprise then that what they end up with is an opinion piece not actual research.

Now but the key take away here is that a thesis (or dissertation) is a formal piece of research reflecting the research process. It’s not an opinion piece or a place to push your own agenda or try to convince someone of your position. writing a good dissertation involves asking a question and taking a systematic rigorous approach to answer it. Even if it turns out that the answer is opposite of what you originally expected. if you’re willing to follow the research process and are comfortable leaving your opinions and preconceived ideas at the door you’re already off to a good start. so let’s jump into the next step finding a research topic.


Step 2: Find a unique, valuable research topic

As i mentioned the very first step of the research process is to identify a specific well-articulated research question in other words you need to find a research topic that asks a specific question or set of questions. sounds easy enough right all you’ve got to do is identify a question or two and you’ve got a research topic. well not quite a good dissertation research topic has a few important attributes specifically a solid topic should be clear unique and important. let’s take a look at each of these attributes.


Attribute number one: Clear

Clarity your research topic needs to be crystal clear about what you’re planning to research what you want to figure out and within what context. there shouldn’t be any ambiguity or vagueness about what you’ll research. so here’s an example of a clearly articulated research topic.

An analysis of factors influencing consumer-based organizational trust in u.s low-cost equity brokerage firms. as you can see in this example it’s very clear what will be analyzed factors impacting organizational trust amongst who consumers and in what context the u.s low-cost equity brokerage firms.


Attribute number two: Unique

Uniqueness your research should be asking questions that haven’t been asked before or that haven’t been asked in a specific context. like in a specific country or industry. for example sticking with the organizational trust topic. it’s quite likely that organizational trust factors in the us have been investigated before. but the specific context low-cost equity brokerages could make this research unique. therefore the context makes this research original. now one caveat applies when you’re using context as the basis for originality if you do this you need to have a good reason to suspect that your findings in this context might be different from the existing research. otherwise there’s no reason to warrant researching it. for example you might argue that the equity brokerage environment is unique in that it is a high ticket high risk type of service and therefore different factors might impact consumers decisions to trust affirm.


Attribute number three: Important

Importance asking a unique or original question is essential. but originality alone is not enough when it comes to research questions. the question you ask or rather the answer to that question needs to create value. successfully answering your research question should provide some value to the field of research or the industry. you can’t research something just to satisfy your own curiosity. your research needs to make some form of contribution either to research or industry so. for example researching the factors influencing organizational trust would create real world value by enabling businesses to tailor their operations to leverage the factors that promote trust. that knowledge would have a clear benefit on the industry. so how do you go about finding a clear unique and valuable research topic. well there’s a process for that too which we’ve covered in a blog.


Step 3: Write a convincing research proposal

Once you’ve pinned down a high quality research topic the next step is to convince your university to let you research it. No matter how awesome you think your topic is it still needs to get that rubber stamp of approval before you can move forward. the research proposal is the tool you’ll use for this job.

So what goes into a research proposal?

Well the main job of a research proposal is to convince your university advisor or committee that your topic of research is worthy of approval. but convince them of what well this varies from university to university but generally they want to see that:

  1. You have a clearly articulated unique and important topic.
  2. You’ve done some initial reading of the existing literature relevant to your topic. In other words You’ve done a basic literature review.
  3. You have a provisional plan regarding what data you’ll collect how you’ll collect it and how you’ll analyze it in other words a provisional research methodology.

At the proposal stage it’s generally not expected that you’ve extensively reviewed the existing literature. but you will need to show that you’ve done enough reading to identify a clear gap for original or unique research. similarly they generally don’t expect that you have a rock solid research methodology mapped out just yet. but you should have an idea of whether you’ll be undertaking qualitative or quantitative analysis and how you’ll collect your data. i’ll explain this more in detail later in this  blog.

Long story short don’t stress about having every detail of your research meticulously thought out at the research proposal stage. this will develop as you progress through your research. however you do need to show that you’ve done your homework and that your research is worthy of approval. now a quick tip in your research proposal it’s really important to show that your project will be manageable you need to show that. you will actually be able to pull off the project given your constraints what constraints you ask you need to think about the practical limitations such as time money resources like lab equipment access to your sample of interest and so on. no matter how solid your research topic may be it’s of little use if you don’t have the resources to pull it off well your university will want to see that you can in fact undertake your research given your constraints. so think about these factors carefully and communicate your plan of action clearly.


Step 4: Craft a strong introduction chapter

Right once you’ve crafted your killer proposal and you’ve got it approved it’s time to start your research and write up your actual dissertation or thesis. so let’s do it. once your proposal has been approved it’s time to get writing. the good news is if you put the time into crafting a high quality proposal you’ve already got a head start on your first three chapters of your dissertation in other words the introduction literature review and methodology chapters. this is because you’ll be able to transplant a lot of what you already have in your proposal into these three chapters. now of course you’ll still need to put in quite a bit of work but you’ll have a solid foundation ready to go.


So what’s the introduction chapter all about?

Well the purpose of the introduction chapter is to set the scene for your research so that the reader understands both what you’ll be researching and why it’s important. in other words it covers the same ground as the research proposal and that it explains and justifies your research topic. a good introduction chapter helps orient the reader. so that they understand where your research is headed and what you’re trying to figure out. without getting into all the nitty gritty details.


So what exactly goes into the introduction chapter?

A good introduction chapter needs to pack in a few essential ingredients. the exact requirements can vary slightly between universities and degrees but generally you’ll need to include the following.

  1. A brief background to your study explaining the broad area of research you’re going to be sinking your teeth into. now this will be fairly high level as you’ll get into detail in the next point.
  2. A problem statement explaining what the problem is with the current state of research. so basically where the specific knowledge gap exists that your research will address.
  3. Your research questions in other words the overarching questions that your study will seek to answer. based on the knowledge gap you stated.
  4. The significance of your study so basically why it’s important to answer your research questions and how the findings will be useful in the world.

As you can see this is all about explaining the what and the why of your research. it’s about defining and justifying your research topic essentially the introduction chapter is the salesman of your study selling your research to the first time reader. hopefully getting them interested to read more this selling is something that you would have done in your research proposal already. so you can draw on that content as the foundation of your introduction chapter.


So how exactly do i write the introduction chapter you ask?

Now with your introduction chapter out of the way and your research topic clearly defined and justified. the next step is to review the existing research to assess the current state of knowledge and lay a foundation for your topic. enter the literature review as.


Step 5: Undertake an in-depth literature review

I mentioned earlier you’ll need to do an initial literature review in steps two and three to find your research gap and craft a convincing research proposal. but that’s just scratching the surface once you reach the literature review stage of your dissertation you’ll need to dig a lot deeper into the existing research. then write up a comprehensive literature review chapter.

so what’s the literature review all about?

well there are broadly speaking two stages in the literature review process reading up and writing up. sounds pretty obvious sure but we see so many students making the age-old mistake of trying to craft their literature review before they’ve digested all of the existing research. this just results in multiple rewrites and a whole lot of unnecessary pain. so let’s look at these two stages a little closer stage.

Stage One: Reading up the first thing you’ll need to do is take a deep dive into the existing literature and research to gain an in-depth understanding of the current state of knowledge regarding your topic. this will include resources like journal articles textbook chapters industry reports and so on. now while you don’t need to read every single article you do need to ensure that you cover all of the literature that’s relevant to your core research questions. then create a comprehensive catalog of that literature which you’ll use in the next step. cataloging your resources as you read is essential. there’s just no way you’ll remember who said what once you’ve worked your way through a few dozen journal articles. now you don’t need anything super fancy here a simple excel spreadsheet will do the trick just fine in fact we’ve put together an excel template that you can use to catalog your literature. you can download this for free on the grad . now i’ll give you a warning this stage of the literature review process the reading and digesting all of the relevant literature it is a time-consuming and intellectually demanding process. many students underestimate just how much work goes into this stage. so make sure that you allocate a good amount of time for this when you’re planning your project schedule. you see you could very easily spend weeks if not months reading and making sense of all of the literature. this is an essential task you can’t afford to get any of it wrong without a firm knowledge of the existing research your dissertation will be built on shaky foundations. now thankfully there are ways to fast track the reading process we’ve published an article on how to optimize your reading process. so that you can conquer those lengthy journal articles more speedily..

Stage Two: writing up once you’ve worked your way through the literature and digested all of it. you’ll need to write up your actual literature review chapter this too is quite a big task but you can save yourself a lot of pain by having a clear understanding of what you need to achieve before you start outlining and writing. so what do you need to achieve in your literature review chapter. well many students make the mistake of thinking that the literature review chapter is simply a summary of what other researchers have said. now this is partly true but your literature review needs to provide so much more than just a summary to pull off a good literature review chapter you’ll need to achieve at least three things.


  • First you need to synthesize the existing research not just summarize it you need to show how different pieces of theory fit together what’s agreed on by researchers what’s not why this might be and so on
  • Second you need to highlight the research gap that your research is going to fill you’ve got to define the problem with the current state of research so that your research can provide a solution to that problem
  • Last but not least you need to use the existing research to inform your research methodology and approach to your research design. for example you might use survey questions or likert scales from previous studies in your own survey design.


As you can see a good literature review is more than just a summary of the published research. it’s more than a he said this and she said that and they said this it’s about bringing all the research together synthesizing it to lay the foundation for your own research. so it deserves a lot of love and attention take the time to craft a comprehensive literature review. you will not regret it as always we’ve got a detailed  blog and blog post covering how to undertake a literature review step by step. we’ve also got a post covering how to structure your lit review chapter so that you can start with a clear outline and avoid wasting time on dead ends.


okay with your literature review out of the way it’s time to get to the real action designing and executing your research strategy.


Step 6: Carry out your own research

Once you’ve completed your literature review and have a sound understanding of the existing research the next step is to undertake your own research finally. in other words this is where you’ll collect and analyze your own data. importantly you’ll need to design your research specifically so that it can help you find the answers to your unique research questions. there’s no one-size-fits-all approach there are two steps at this stage. designing your research strategy and executing on it

let’s take a look at those

The first step is to design your research strategy and craft a methodology chapter in your research proposal you would have outlined a basic research strategy and methodology. but you’ll need to get a lot more detailed here. now i won’t get into all the technicalities of the methodology chapter here. but in simple terms this chapter is about explaining the how of your research how will you go about finding the answer to your research question. if you recall the introduction and literature review chapters discuss the what and the why of your project. so it makes sense that the next point to cover is the how that is what the methodology chapter is all about. in this section you’ll need to make well-justified decisions about your research design. this includes things like your research philosophy. for example positivism interpretivism or pragmatism. your overall methodology like qualitative quantitative or mixed methods your sampling strategy in other words what data you’ll collect and who you’ll collect it from your data collection strategy. for example interviews focus groups surveys your data analysis strategy like content analysis correlation analysis regression analysis. if you want more clarity about any of these concepts but right now you don’t have to understand the intricacies of research design. the key takeaway here is that you’ll need to make decisions about how you’ll design your research. you’ll need to be able to describe and justify those decisions in your methodology chapter. right onto the execution of your research strategy the doing bit.

once you’ve worked out your research design the logical next step is to put it into action and start collecting your data. data collection could mean undertaking interviews hosting an online survey or any other data collection method. there are a variety of data collection methods and the right approach depends on your research aims and objectives. but a word of warning data collection can take quite a bit of time especially if you host in-person interviews. so be sure to factor sufficient time into your project plan for this oftentimes things don’t go 100 to plan. for example maybe you don’t get as many survey responses as you had hoped for. so bake a little extra time into your schedule here once you’ve collected your data you’ll need to do some data preparation. before you can sink your teeth into the analysis. for example if you carry out interviews or focus groups you’ll need to transcribe your audio data to text in other words into a word document. if you collect quantitative survey data you’ll need to clean up your data usually in excel and get it into the right format for whichever analysis software you plan to use like spss r or stata. once you’ve completed your data prep you’ll undertake your analysis using the techniques that you described in your methodology. depending on what you find in your analysis you might also do some additional forms of analysis that you hadn’t planned for. for example you might see something in the data that raises new questions or that requires clarification with further analysis. this is perfectly normal so don’t stress out if your data leads you down an unexpected path. the type of analysis you’ll use depends on the nature of your research and your research questions. for example if your research is exploratory in nature you’ll often use qualitative analysis techniques. if your research is confirmatory in nature you’ll often use quantitative analysis techniques. but if your research involves a mix of both you might use a mixed methods approach. for now is simply that there’s no one size fits all for research design and methodology, it all depends on your topic your research aims and objectives. a quick tip using the right tools for the job is a large part of what markers are looking for when they assess your dissertation or thesis. so take the time to think carefully about what data you’ll collect how you’ll collect it and how you’ll analyze it to make sure these choices align well with your research aims and objectives.

all right once you’ve collected and analyzed your data it’s time to present your results so let’s jump into that.


Step 7: Present your findings

Once you’ve collected and analyzed your data it’s time to present your findings. in a traditional dissertation or thesis you’ll typically present and discuss your findings in two separate chapters. the results chapter and the discussion chapter. now that being said some universities do allow or even require you to combine these chapters. so be sure to check with what your institution’s preference is.

Now you’re probably wondering what’s the difference between the results chapter and the discussion chapter, right?

Well while these two chapters are similar the results chapter just presents the process data without interpretation and the discussion chapter explains what the data means the story they’re telling. in other words the results chapter just presents the data while the discussion chapter details your interpretation of the results. for example if you’re researching the factors that influence consumers trust and equity brokerages you might have used a quantitative approach to identify the relationship between potential factors. for example consumers perceptions regarding a broker’s competence and integrity and their feelings of trust towards the brokerage.

  • In this case your results chapter would just present the results of the statistical test numbers charts and graphs. for example correlation or regression results while your discussion chapter would explain what the numbers mean in relation to your research question or questions. for example factor one has a weak relationship with consumer trust well factor two has a strong relationship.
  • Importantly your discussion chapter needs to be linked back to the literature review. do your findings align with the existing research? if not why might this be also your discussion should link back to your research questions you need to discuss what the findings mean in terms of your original research questions. what answers do they provide to those questions. let’s look at a practical example.


Sticking with the same research topic of consumer trust the discussion section would clearly outline which factors seem to influence trust and which factors don’t. by doing so this section would be linking back to and addressing the original research question. right with your findings presented and discussed all that’s left to do is wrap up your dissertation or thesis by drawing your conclusions and discussing the implications. let’s do it.


Step 8: The Final Step

last but not least you’ll need to wrap up your dissertation or thesis with the conclusion chapter. in this chapter you’ll bring your research full circle by highlighting the key findings of your study and explaining what the implications of these findings are. but what exactly are the key findings and implications. well the key findings are those findings that directly relate to your original research questions. and overall research objectives which you discussed in your introduction chapter. in other words the key findings are the answers to your original research questions. so this section closes the loop for your research project.

let’s take a look at a practical example sticking with the trust topic. this study set out to identify which factors influence consumer-based trust in U.S based low-cost equity brokerage firms. the results suggest that the following factors have a large impact on consumer trust:

  1. Factor x
  2. Factor y
  3. Factor z

Well the following factors have a very limited impact on consumer trust:

  1. Factor e
  2. Factor h

Notably within the 25 to 30 age groups factor e had a noticeably larger impact. which may be explained by contextual factor a. as you can see this section reminds the reader what you set out to research and then clearly states exactly what you found.

now let’s take a look at the implications.

The implications explain what your key findings mean for industry or for research in your area. the implications might look something like this these findings having noteworthy implications for us-based low-cost equity brokers. specifically the large impact of factors x and y implies that brokers need to consider investing in initiatives that cultivate these perceptions such as a and b. the limited impact of factor e suggests that brokers should not over invest in activities such as c and d. so as you can see the implications sections brings things back down to earth. it explains what the impact of your findings are and how these can be used in industry or academia. the key findings and the implications are the main components of the conclusions chapter. but depending on the university there may also be some other extras that they want covered here. most importantly though the conclusion chapter must cover the what what your study found and the so what what the findings mean for the industry or research. this brings the study full circle addresses your research objectives and it closes off the document neat and clean.


Again – How to write a dissertation or thesis

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this  blog well done on making it this far i hope that you’ve managed to get a solid high-level understanding of how to write a dissertation or thesis.

To recap the eight steps to writing a quality dissertation are as follows

  1. one understand what a dissertation or thesis is that is a research project that follows the research process
  2. two find a unique or original important and manageable research topic
  3. three craft a convincing research proposal
  4. four write a clear compelling introduction chapter to outline and justify your research
  5. five undertake a thorough review of the existing research and write up your literature review chapter
  6. six design and execute your own research strategy
  7. seven present and interpret your findings
  8. eight draw your conclusions and discuss the implications

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