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Dissertation outline

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How to Create Your Dissertation Outline

How to Create Your Dissertation Outline Writing a Dissertation For Dummies, UK Edition

Outlining your dissertation involves two main aspects: a practical list of what you need to do and a sketch of what you want to say.

First, there is a list of 31 items that you can use as the basis of your own to-do list. Writing your to-do list is the easiest part of your dissertation, being just a list of tasks. The tasks are arranged roughly in the order that you’re likely to do them, although some of the tasks overlap.

Second, the outline of your dissertation needs to say clearly what thoughts and ideas you’re going to include in each section of your dissertation. Sketching out what you need to say and structuring the presentation of your thoughts and ideas can be done in a number of ways but the two most popular methods are linear planning and concept planning (sometimes known as ‘mind-mapping’).

People often have strong feelings about which style they prefer; each method has pros and cons.

If you find creating the outline a useful part of your planning strategy, it’s a good idea to use the same outline style for each chapter. This helps you to write a dissertation with a clear, tight structure and avoiding repetition and confusion. A well-structured outline leads to a coherent dissertation.

Never think about your dissertation plan as set in stone – a good dissertation develops as you’re working on it and you’ve no need to be afraid of moving slightly away from your original plans. If you’re going wildly off track however, seek support from your supervisor as soon as possible.

Use linear planning for your dissertation

When using linear planning for your dissertation outline you list your tasks in order of doing them, starting with your first dissertation task through to the end. Linear planning makes for a very clear outline, but it’s more difficult to make changes as you go along than with a concept map. For your linear plan you can use the chapter headings recommended by your supervisor or the headings in the following list:

Introduction and rationale:

‘Why on earth am I doing this is?’ ‘What led me to this topic?’

Explain all the terms in the research question so that they’re clear.

Outline of the literature:

‘Who are the key thinkers?’ ‘What are the key texts?’ ‘What is the underlying theoretical idea?’

Now choose the 4a or the 4b heading.

Pros and cons of different methods, for example questionnaire, interview, observation

Presentation of data – what I’ve found out

Analysis of data/Discussion of data

4b.Main theorists and supporters:

Counter arguments and supporters

My own view of the argument (and supporting theorists)

Conclusions and suggestions for further research:

What I have found in relation to the research question

Ideas for developing the dissertation topic

Appendices and bibliography:

Additional material that would interrupt the flow of writing

All the references and materials used

Consider concept-mapping your dissertation

If you prefer a more visual approach to your outline plan of your dissertation, a concept or mind-map may suit you better. The disadvantage of the concept map is that you still have to write your dissertation in the traditional linear format, and so you’re going to have to convert your concept map into another form.

A key advantage of a concept map is that you can modify your listed tasks as you go along without having to completely rewrite your map each time. In the following figure, you can see an example of a concept map for a linguistics dissertation looking at how children speak. (The references are fictional.)

Create to-do lists for your dissertation

You need to be aware of the danger of making a to-do list: you can spend more time creating the list then you spend working on your dissertation. However, a comprehensive to-do list has some useful purposes:

Keeping in front of you an overview of your work.

Providing a clear record of your progress so that you know what’s left to do.

Helping build a sense of satisfaction as you tick things off.

When you’re creating your own to-do list, your list is tailored to your dissertation, but many of the following suggestions are likely to be elements of your list. Use the ‘To-do list’ as a basis for creating your own.

Choose a subject and carry out some initial investigations.

Have a look through dissertations written by other students.

Write a proposal/finalise your research question.

Ask your supervisor to sign off your research topic.

Decide what type of dissertation you’re going to write, empirical or non-empirical.

If you’ve chosen an empirical study, think through your research methodologies and check your decisions with your supervisor.

Spend some time organising how you’re going to keep your notes in order.

Read, read, read! Take notes of the literature as you go.

Read about the pros and cons of the different research methodologies and take notes as you go.

Start writing up the essential parts of your literature review and research methodologies – this is an ongoing process and the notes from your reading form part of your dissertation.

Plan the overall structure of your dissertation – create outlines for each chapter.

If your writing is not flowing by this stage, have a go at starting your introduction/rationale just to get some words on paper.

Arrange for your supervisor to look at some of your draft work.

Make sure that you’re all set for carrying out empirical work. For example, have you had ethical clearance? Have you sought permissions from subjects?

Sketch out the general arguments (for and against) for your dissertation. If your work is empirical, you’re looking for ideas to support your findings and provide a backdrop to your work. If your work is non-empirical, this to-do list item should be tackled in detail.

Empirical only: carry out your empirical work.

Empirical only: organise the data you collect and make a note of any difficulties (these notes are going to be very helpful for discussion when you come to finish writing your research methodologies).

Empirical only: analyse your data and discuss your conclusions with your supervisor.

Non-empirical only: discuss the key thinkers and detractors of your topic with your supervisor, checking that you’ve understood their ideas and that you haven’t left out any key thinkers.

Write up your findings/thoughts.

Write (or redraft) your introduction and conclusion.

Empirical only: check over diagrams, charts and so on, and make decisions about what you’re going to put in the appendices.

Arrange for your supervisor to look at some more of your draft work.

Pull together everything you’ve done so far checking that you’ve covered all the elements required – this is your first full draft.

Make a new to-do list for filling in any gaps and be sure that you’ve covered everything.

Write up your final version, by editing your existing work and completing any outstanding items.

As you complete chapters, ask a friend to proofread carefully.

Keep in touch with your supervisor, checking that she has enough time for you if you need extra help.

Be sure that you know the rules for binding your dissertation and check how long binding takes.

Keep the submission date for your dissertation right in front of you and be sure of submitting your dissertation on time.

Dissertation Structure: explaining chapters of a dissertation

Dissertation Structure: explaining chapters of your dissertation Standard Dissertation Structure

Dissertation structures vary from discipline to discipline, but the following sections will be found in almost all UK dissertations. The length of each section and its level of critical analysis will depend on your specific research area and degree programme. For example, in the Humanities and Social Sciences you will be expected to devote a significant portion of the thesis to your philosophical context. This will not be necessary for a UK Masters Thesis in most Science subjects, where you will focus instead on the methodological choices you’ve made and the validity of results.

The Dissertation Abstract is a short introductory statement that contextualises your research, outlines your methodology and summarises findings. An Abstract should be concise but it should include the most interesting and innovative points of your work – think of it as the academic equivalent of a film trailer, except in the Abstract you’ll give away the ending of the “story” before readers choose whether or not to go further. A good dissertation should start from an abstract that clearly explains your research focus and conclusions.


All Masters-level studies begin with an Introduction, which is an essential part of the dissertation structure. The introductory chapter is longer and more detailed than the Abstract, and includes some information about your research context and overall aims. This chapter should set the tone for the remainder of the Dissertation, by conveying informed, critical thinking around your subject. It is less analytical than other chapters, but still scholarly in tone.

Literature Review

A Literature Review is usually the second dissertation chapter . and as the title suggests it provides an overview of the major theories and philosophies related to your topic. The literature review is very important to the rest of the dissertation structure, because it provides the context for your own research and outlines the key theories that your own work will be supported by. The kinds of literature you will cover in a Literature Review will vary according to your discipline; in Humanities subjects you might pay more attention to philosophical works, for example, while Science topics might require more coverage of methodological theories.


The Methodology Chapter of your dissertation will outline the methods that you choose for your research. More importantly though, it will provide a justification for your chosen methodology and a detailed explanation of its practical application. For example, it is not enough to tell readers that you will be using questionnaires as your major methodology; you should also explain why you think this is the best approach, and discuss the design and distribution of the questionnaires.

Main Body / Analysis of Findings

After the standard Abstract, Introduction and Methodology chapters you will need to write the main body of your dissertation, which will provide a discussion of your own research and explain and analyse your results. This can take the form of more than one dissertation chapter, depending on the complexity of your methodology and findings. The length and nature of these chapters will also vary depending on the area of your studies – in MSc subjects you would be less likely to present conclusions in these chapters, focusing instead on the data from your empirical research. However, in Humanities and Social Sciences your theoretical conclusions should be woven into your overall analysis of data. In all cases you should be sure to refer back to the works cited in your literature review, and use them to support your analysis.


The Conclusion should provide a brief but thorough overview of your research project as a whole, and give special attention to the significance of your results. This chapter provides a final opportunity for you to contextualise and justify your research, so use it wisely to ‘sell’ your ideas to your audience. However, be sure to avoid both sweeping statements and meaningless clichés – instead aim for an honest summary and assessment. Try to address any potential criticisms of your research. Discuss any inconsistencies or anomalies that you’ve uncovered, and be specific about what kinds of further research may be needed. Avoid the temptation to make rhetorical flourishes in your final paragraphs and end simply, clearly and factually.


The Bibliography of the Masters Dissertation will vary depending on the citation style prescribed for your university and discipline. Details of the style guidelines will be made available to you by your institution, and most can be found online. Be sure to pay careful attention to the details of the style conventions and avoid costly errors.


Some Masters Dissertations will also include an Appendix or Appendices. These give you an opportunity to provide additional details to readers. An Appendix might include charts, tables or figures that you refer to in your text, or essential documents that are not readily available to readers.

Together these sections form the standard UK Dissertation structure, which is almost universal across disciplines. To learn about the variations in structure that are specific to your discipline, talk to your supervisors and view previous students’ dissertations in the library. As long as you include each of the sections above you will be well on your way to a successful UK Masters Dissertation!


John Biggam, 2011. Succeeding with Your Master’s Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Handbook. 2 Edition. Open University Press.

David Brigden and Graham Lamont, 2010. Planning Dissertations. Available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/medev/Planning_dissertations. Last accessed 08 Apr 2013.

Christopher Hart, 2005. Doing Your Masters Dissertation (SAGE Study Skills Series). 1 Edition. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Kjell Erik Rudestam, 2007. Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. 3rd Edition. SAGE Publications, Inc.

Structure and Outline Drafting Essays

Structure and Outline Drafting Essays

Structure and Outline Drafting Essays

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  • How to structure a dissertation

    Undergraduate Studies How to structure a dissertation

    Dissertations are structured rather differently from essays and more akin to academic books (though, not textbooks).

    Dissertations are normally expected to be original research of scholarly quality, but the meanings of "original" and "scholarly" can vary with discipline and level.

    Some dissertations contain primary research such as laboratory studies, surveys or a case-study conducted by the author. Others present a sequential argument from which a conclusion is deduced, such as a point-by-point critique of an author’s work. Especially at lower levels such as BA, many dissertations consist of secondary research (drawing new conclusions from already published primary research), or even tertiary research (assessing existing secondary research, such as surveying the impact of an author’s research in the literature).

    The basic dissertation structure

    Every dissertation includes one or more substantive chapters, an introduction and conclusion. What else it contains can vary by discipline and level.

    The title page

    Your department should provide instructions for the format of the title page. It normally includes your name and student ID, department, degree level, dissertation title and date of submission.

    Sometimes required for higher-level degrees, an abstract is a short (250-750 word) summary of the entire thesis. Your department should specify if an abstract is required and what length and format it should be.

    The contents page

    Although placed at the front of the dissertation after the title page or abstract, the contents page is usually written last in the dissertation; it lists the starting pages for the different sections.


    The introduction should explain the basic outline of what you are doing in the dissertation, why you have chosen this topic and how the dissertation is structured. It is common for introductions to situate the dissertation briefly in the wider field or in relation to contemporary issues, and for it to lay out what will be done in each chapter or section. The introduction should close with a paragraph leading smoothly into the main body of the dissertation. Some but not all authors write the introduction after the substantive chapters are written.


    This is mandatory if the dissertation consists of primary quantitative or qualitative research, but may not be needed in dissertations in theory subjects or focused on secondary or tertiary research. The importance and size of this section varies with discipline and with the method chosen. As well as setting out the method used, this section should also explain why it has been chosen in preference over other methods, and how it was deployed in the substantive research. Also remember to discuss any questions of research ethics which arise. Some (particularlyqualitative and secondary) dissertations will also include a separate theory chapter, which is similar to the method chapter and sets out the theories used to interpret evidence.

    Literature review

    Again usually mandatory for primary research and some other topics, a literature review surveys the current state of the literature on the dissertation area or areas, and explains why the dissertation is original and fills a hole in the literature. It should be an in-depth study of the field/s of literature related to the dissertation and how it has informed or is corrected by the dissertation. It is often the first chapter written. In the case of theory dissertations and secondary/tertiary research, the substantive chapters may engage in ongoing dialogue with the literature, in which case a separate literature review chapter may not be necessary.

    Substantive chapters

    The main body of your dissertation is comprised of sequential substantive chapters. The number of chapters varies according to the length of your dissertation but the average is from three to five. The idea of the chapter structure is very much like the paragraphs of an essay in that each should address a different aspect of the dissertation you are presenting in your dissertation but never lose sight of the main argument. In quantitative research, the chapters usually consist of a presentation of the research hypothesis and its operationalisation, followed by a presentation of the outcomes, followed by one or more chapters interpreting the outcomes. In other dissertations, it is common for each chapter to deal with a different sub-topic within the overall topic, such as a different case-study, a different set of interview questions or different grounds for comparison of cases. The substantive chapters form the main substance of your dissertation and it is important to show careful use and interpretation of evidence, engagement with and modification of relevant theories in light of your findings, and analysis (not simply description) of any data generated.

    Obtain and be aware of style limitations as early as possible. Many departments require that the final dissertation be submitted in a specific style such as Harvard or Oxford referencing.


    Your conclusion should summarise the points made in the argument and provide a synthesis of thought on the main thesis. You should identify possible limitations or gaps in the dissertation, attempt to pre-empt objections and counter-arguments, and situate your findings in the broader literature. The best conclusions also give some indication as to where future research on the topic discussed might lead. In some disciplines, it is also appropriate to point out possible "real world" applications and implications of your research. A conclusion can also open out onto areas which have been bracketed in the main body for reasons of length. For instance, in a dissertation devoted to criticising a body of work, the conclusion could suggest what other bodies of work might be more appropriate, or how you might want to reformulate the field in line with your findings.


    The bibliography should begin to be compiled the day you begin to research your dissertation and should never be left until the last minute. Ideally it should evolve as your dissertation does and even when you are making notes you should record sources consulted. Again, remember to check your institution’s style guide for referencing. It is advisable to check your thesis when it is finished, to make sure that no cited items are missing from the bibliography.


    Some dissertations require appendices containing additional information referred to within the dissertation such as letters, photographs, maps, charts and diagrams. This is particularly likely in dissertations which perform primary research, in which appendices might include for example a sketch of the area in which the case-study was performed or tables of unanalysed primary data.

    Be sure to give yourself time for the thesis to be bound, which may require a day or more. This is the last stage of thesis production, and once bound, your thesis will look an impressive, professional piece of work.

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