Main Parts of Your Dissertation
Most dissertations follow the same basic structure and are made up of five parts: an abstract, introduction, methods and discussion, conclusions and references. Although the exact detail of each part can vary (such as the numbers of words allowed in the abstract), the inclusion of each part is standard and fixed.
Before starting your dissertation find out exactly what is required by your university or institution. For example, there may be particular rules about word length, the fonts you have to use or whether the acknowledgements come before or after your abstract. You must be sure to keep to the rules and regulations.
After the title page and any acknowledgements comes a summary of your dissertation. From your own reading of journal articles and reports, you’re likely to be familiar with the purpose of the abstract. In a journal article, the abstract is a summary of the main article, placed directly under the title and usually around 150–250 words long.
Sometimes the abstract has a different name such as ‘résumé’ or ‘summary’. In some documents, such as reports, the abstract is usually called the ‘executive summary’.
The content of your abstract is important because what you say in your abstract gives the reader the opportunity of judging whether your dissertation is going to be of interest to him. While doing your own research, you’re likely to have pursued different journal articles and reports based purely on the relevance of the abstract and so you know how important it is for giving the reader a feel for what your dissertation covers.
Your abstract is an overview of your whole study: a summary of your research question, methods and results – so you really can’t write your abstract until you’ve pretty much finished your dissertation. Be aware that you need to build time into the planning of your dissertation to get the job done effectively.
With your introduction you’re preparing the ground for the main body of your dissertation. In your introduction you’re looking to inspire an interest in your work and explaining something about the background and your reasons for choosing your dissertation topic.
Usually an introduction is around two pages long. Aim to give the reader a clear idea of what to expect to find in the main themes you’re presenting and the methods you’re using, saying if you’ve done something experimental and practical, or taken a more theoretical approach. You can hint at the findings and conclusions, but you needn’t spell them out as in the abstract. To whet the reader’s appetite try to raise his curiosity as to how the dissertation is going to end.
The introduction is a good place to explain your rationale for the choices you’ve made. Perhaps say what motivated you to pick this research question, such as an observation you made on a placement, or a course that stimulated your interest.
Avoid filling the introduction with too many personal anecdotes. The examiner isn’t interested in what you think about that bloke on the telly who made you think about what your lecturer said about that thing that you weren’t sure if it was a good thing before but you are now.
You may be passionate about the area you’ve chosen to study for your dissertation, but avoid overstating the importance of your work. Without false modesty, you can show that you know that your choice of dissertation subject is relevant and interesting, but you understand that it’s not necessarily going to change the world. Shy away from grand claims, but also try not to completely dismiss your work before you’ve started.
Even though your introduction is only a short piece of writing, remember to stick to just one point in each paragraph. Using the following subheadings can help you structure your introduction; remembering to delete the subheadings from your final draft:
Background to the dissertation
Key question to be explored or issues being scrutinised
Brief outline of the structure of the dissertation
Dissertation methods and discussion
Whatever topic you’re researching in the social sciences the structure and level of detail in your abstract and introduction are standard. When you reach the main sections of your dissertation – your methods and discussion – you now take an empirical or a non-empirical route. The elements required in empirical and non-empirical dissertations are subtly different. You need to read up about both approaches just to confirm that you fully understand the method of investigation you’re choosing.
Every dissertation must have a conclusion – otherwise your research can end up being a pointless interpretation and merely a review of vaguely related ideas. Think about some of the definitions of the word ‘conclusion’ – termination, ending, closing, wrapping up, finishing. For your dissertation, however, try to think of the word ‘conclusion’ as a deduction, inference, supposition or assumption.
You’re the one doing the deducing, inferring, supposing or assuming and you’re doing this based on the reading, researching, discussing and thinking that you’ve been doing while carrying out your research. Don’t make the mistake of putting all your effort into collecting, thinking and researching information, but not bothering to consider any of the things that you could deduce from your findings. There is no point in the dissertation if you don’t present your conclusions.
Be aware that you need to understand and follow the rules governing references in your field of study and your university or institution when you’re presenting your dissertation, even though the system of referencing seems fiddly and fussy. Oh, and remember that formatting and checking your references is 99 per cent certain to take you far longer than you expect (and like!).
Producing an accurate and complete list of references is such a simple (but tedious) way of gaining valuable marks that you’re going to kick yourself if you don’t give your references the attention they deserve. Say you only just miss making it into a higher grade classification for your dissertation with the examiner commenting that a few per cent has been deducted for lack of attention to detail and a sloppy approach to referencing.