Many postgraduate students feel daunted by the required length of the Masters Dissertation. The thought of writing 20,000 – 50,000 words can strike fear into the heart of even the most dedicated scholar! One way to get to grips with this new level of writing is to understand the typical dissertation structure used by most students (sometimes called the ‘thesis structure’). This breaks your task down into many smaller, more manageable chunks.
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.
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.