Guidelines for Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation

  • The purpose of research is to examine a question or problem. Choose a topic or theory that is interesting to you and one you consider worth examining in more depth. It should be obviously based on your area of study. Is there a research problem in your field that has not been adequately explored?
  • Now that you have picked a topic, it is time to read through the prior research related to your problem question. Find as much information as you can by searching through scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, reputable articles, and books.
  • As you learn more about your topic and the previous research related to it, this knowledge should be used to develop a thesis/dissertation with purposeful aim. Once you are able to explain the importance of your topic, it is time to work on your proposal. This paper highlights the purpose of the study, its importance, a tentative literature review, its theoretical framework, the questions you seek to answer/or hypotheses, and your methods for collecting and analyzing your data. Make sure to include a reference list as well as your proposed instrumentation.
  • Next, committee made up of faculty at your department needs to be assembled and a meeting needs to be convened in order to discuss your research paper. They will lay out the specific expectations and, if necessary, as you to make modifications to your proposal. Discussing your proposed research is often a part of your qualifying exam when you are a PhD candidate. Make sure to document everything and at the end of the meeting submit a memo that contains a summary of your mutual agreement with the committee.
  • Upon the completion of your instrumentation, you will need to get it approved by your learning institution because you go through the process of gathering data. Since it can take some time to get approval, submit this information as soon as you are able.
  • Collect and analyze data, discuss your findings, and start working on the concluding chapter. At this stage, the first and second chapters should be virtually complete. While you can seek assistance from your adviser and committee, by and large you will be expected to work in the dissertation on your own.
  • If you are not familiar with the process of coding, data entry and statistical analysis, you might need to request the services of a research assistant.
  • Make sure to get a copy of your learning institution's guidelines as it relates to thesis and dissertation papers and adhere to them.


While the expectations for each thesis or dissertation paper varies, there are certain universal elements that they follow. Here is how they are typically composed:

Chapter One: Purpose and Significance of the Study

You will begin the paper by discussing the purpose of your study and tell the audience why it is important. In particular, you will need to explain how this study will contribute to academia, especially in the topic's related field. You will definitely want to make sure to develop this chapter extremely well. If you are unable to explain the purpose and sound theoretical foundation of your study, your paper will lack credibility from the start.

Chapter Two: Lit Review

The theoretical framework that you have developed will be expanded upon here. You will discuss and evaluate prior research related to your research problem. Of course, the point is not to just make a list sources, you will need to provide some synthesis of the research and assess the body of work as a whole. Ultimately, you want to inform the reader what is already understood and what additional information needs to be acquired. You will base your hypothesis on this information. Depending on what you are researching, you may seek to replicate the results found in previous reports.

Chapter Three: Methodology

Here you will explain in great, step-by-step detail how you collected the data and provide rationale for choosing your particular methodology. You will also discuss how you went about analyzing the data. As you discuss the various method options and the ones you settled upon, your statements should include cited references based on works that have examined these methods. Depending on the type of research you are doing, there are several aspects of the data that might be addressed. For instance, you might describe the population be examined and justify the size of your sample or method of participant selection. Furthermore, you might give participants pre-tests. You could explain why, say, the use of an open-ended interview provides the most reliable and valid results based on your type of study. Is your method quantitative or qualitative, or both? Why? All of this will be answered in this chapter.

Chapter Four: Findings

The sole focus of the Findings section is to discuss the results based on your data. You will not incorporate outside sources or make observations about the broader implications of your discoveries. After the analyzing the descriptive or exploratory/confirmatory-based information, you will discuss whether your hypotheses can be accepted or rejected. Include charts and graphs as a way of presenting any numerical information in a clear manner.

If the study was qualitative or includes research of a historical nature, discuss what you found in terms of categories or themes. If your research involved interviewing participants, providing some background about characteristics relevant to the study (i.e., age, gender, income levels) would be useful. Using direct quotes or paraphrasing from interviewees as you discuss their observations would also be necessary.

Chapter Five: Discussion

While it may be tempting to wrap up your paper by repeating the results that you uncovered, the purpose of the discussion section is to go further and inform the reader about the broader implications in the field connected to the paper topic. Discuss how your findings are related to the prior research highlighted in your literature review. You might even include sources not previously included in the paper (which in this sense makes it quite different from a conventional essay in which the conclusion section would never introduce new sources). In addition, explain where further research should go from here. Is there a minor element of your study that merits an entire research paper of its own? Are there certain limitations of the study including its narrowness or the type of participant the research interviewed? Can your results be applied in other situations or are they general? End your dissertation with a short conclusion, including a final sentence that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

Final Tips

  • Your thesis is not something that you will complete within a semester. The process should have begun at least in the semester prior to your anticipated graduation. In fact, you definitely will need to have collected the data by then. Also note that the defense of your thesis takes place only after you have successfully finished the paper, not when you had hoped to graduate. Even in a perfect scenario in which everything goes smoothly (and it rarely does), expect between half a year to nine months to finish your paper from when it was first conceived to when your university approves it for defense. Of course, if you are working on a PhD-level dissertation, expect an even longer period of time. Ideally, you will need a year to finish it.
  • Your adviser and members of the committee are not responsible for editing/proofreading your work. Before submitting any drafts, make sure it has been thoroughly edited and checked for typos and spelling mistakes. Beyond this, you will also want to make sure the paper reads well. Does it flow in a logical, structured manner? Did you use transitional phrases between paragraphs? Does it include unnecessary or confusing information? Is everything expressed clearly? Did you overuse certain phrases? Does your paper adhere to the proper formatting style guidelines? Would it help to expand certain sections? Are the abstract, sections and reference list separated by page breaks? These little details matter significantly since your ultimately hope is to create a paper that gets published in academic journals. When in doubt, you might need to hire a professional editor to polish up your work and ask questions about the content.
  • Give your adviser or committee chair an opportunity to read it over a couple of times before distributing it to the other members. When you submit an initial draft of your thesis or dissertation, don't expect the committee to move fast on it. It could take a few weeks before they are ready to set up a time for you to defend your work. As a rule, give the committee a week or two to read your paper before you defend it.
  • It is your duty to reserve the room in which you will defend your paper. Make sure to have a copy of the signature page and examination form with you.
  • Don't be surprised if you are asked to revise your paper even after you have defended it. Also, if you want your institution to clear you for graduation, you should give them a copy of your paper before you defend it.
  • Providing your adviser and committee with a bound copy of the final version of your paper is expected.