What Is A University Dissertation: 2023 Structure, Challenges & Writing Tips

What Is A University Dissertation: 2023 Structure, Challenges & Writing Tips
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

A dissertation is a culmination of everything a student has learned, from theories to applications, in a particular program. It comes as a formally written assemblage of concepts, research, and experiments, put up for evaluation by an expert panel. As such, dissertations showcase students’ mastery of a program, as they combine research with critical thinking, problem-solving, and at least a measure of creativity. These are often considered the first real test of students’ report writing skills (Stephenson & Bridgen, 2008). 

But, truth be told, writing a dissertation is undoubtedly tedious, time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating. And, owing to the scope of the task, things can quickly go haywire, especially if you dive in blindly. To get things right, you have to understand everything about the dissertation, have complete mastery of the topic, know the right research questions to pursue, and be fully committed to the writing process.

This post seeks to shed light on dissertation writing, from its definition and purpose to types and core parts or structure. Besides, it discusses the common challenges students face when writing a dissertation and recommends vital tips on preparing for this seemingly herculean task. The goal is to help doctoral students know where to start, conquer the challenges, and breeze through dissertation writing.

Dissertation Table of Contents

  1. What is a Dissertation?
  2. The Structure of a University Dissertation
  3. Dissertation vs Thesis
  4. Common Challenges When Writing A Dissertation
  5. Tips on Preparing for Your Dissertation

What is a Dissertation?

A critical element of any postgraduate program, primarily doctoral degrees, is the requirement to complete a dissertation. So, what is a dissertation? In plain language, a dissertation is a report of an extensive original research project completed as the final requirement for a doctoral degree (Grove & Gray, 2018).

To better understand the meaning of the dissertation, let us first look at the etymology of this word. The term dissertation is derived from the Latin word dissertationem (nominative dissertatio or past-participle stem dissertare), which means to argue or debate (Online Etymology Dictionary). Dissecting it further, the word debate implies a discussion that involves a set of ideas and points of view.

A dissertation, therefore, is a substantial document that examines a subject and reviews different points of view (about the said subject) based on original research. It demonstrates the author’s mastery of the subject, scholarly methods, the main facts, and unique points of view in it. In addition, it summarizes the research and advances or elevates the point(s) of review emanating from the original research.

What is the Purpose of a Dissertation?

A university dissertation is an assessment, but unlike other module assessments, it is an independent learning project. In other words, each student is given an opportunity to present his or her findings in response to a research proposal/question of their choosing. In practice, students get assistance from their PhD advisers, but the input of the lecturer or supervisor is explicitly limited to a guidance role.

Generally, dissertations give students an opportunity to:

  • Explore their area of interest in depth.
  • Demonstrate accuracy and skills in investigating and discussing a problem.
  • Manage a critical project from the beginning to the end, most probably, for the first time.
  • Apply the skills they have learned in college in a more practical way.
  • Experience the process of producing knowledge.

The core essence of subjecting students to the dissertation is to gauge the independent research skills and knowledge they have acquired in university. Most importantly, dissertations are usually done at the tail-end of a doctoral program and help determine the student’s final grade.

How long is a dissertation?

The answer is “ long enough to answer the research question.” This simply means there is no universal length, or a number of pages, agreed upon by scholars or experts. As a rule, albeit not formal, the average doctoral dissertation should be approximately 100-200 pages in length.

In general, though, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to determine the length. Rather, the length differs based on various factors, such as the subject one is writing about. Also, some topics presuppose lengthy discussion and research sections, which ultimately increases the number of pages.

Moreover, the length may vary based on the nature of the subject. For example, dissertations for theoretical subjects, such as mathematics are comparatively short (up to 80 pages). In the case of Nobel laureate John Nash, he authored a doctoral dissertation that is only 26 pages. On the other hand, dissertations for technical and empirical subjects, such as mechanical engineering, biology, electrical engineering, and computer science can be 100 pages. Dissertation of management, psychology, history, and communication subjects can get as long as 300 pages.

Lastly, the average dissertation length can vary based on the university’s requirements. In particular, some school departments stipulate the length the dissertation should be. For this reason, it is always wise to check the graduate department’s dissertation handbook or template to get an idea of the expected length. The guidebook is a valuable resource with guidelines for the length and other critical elements of the dissertation.

Types of Dissertations

All dissertations are not equal. The type of dissertation one ends up writing depends on the course of study and the topic one is researching. The implications for the type of dissertation a student picks manifest in the method used to explore the research question and in the format of the dissertation itself.

There are two types of dissertation, namely:

Empirical Dissertation

An empirical dissertation is one that entails conducting original research on a small scale to gather relevant data. It follows the tenets of empiricism and is grounded on the belief that direct observation of a phenomenon is an accurate way to measure reality and uncover the truth about the issue at hand (Bhattacharya, 2008).

In an empirical dissertation, you have to find ways to pose questions to the subjects of the study or review what they are doing. You can gather data in multiple ways, such as using questionnaires, observation and recording, interviews, and focus groups.

Alternatively, you can take different approaches, such as analyzing existing data from a unique perspective, drawing interesting parallels, or making useful comparisons. In some disciplines such as life and natural science, the dissertation may be entirely founded on laboratory work.

However, it might be important to note that even though the focus of the empirical dissertation is on using data, you also have to create a solid theoretical basis for your work.

Non-empirical dissertation

Non-empirical is the exact opposite of the empirical dissertation. Instead of conducting original research and gathering new data, you put the work of others under close scrutiny to find gaps that can be discussed.

Even though a non-empirical dissertation does not involve original research, it is not the easiest to write or accomplish. It means spending a lot of time in the library reading books, thinking, and discussing theories to first find potentially highly valuable and important work. And when you find relevant studies, you have to conduct in-depth research and critically explore its practical implications.

The Structure of a University Dissertation

It is obvious that the entire content of a university dissertation will not be presented in a single block. Whether you are writing a 100-page or 300-page dissertation, it should be broken down into logical chapters or sections to fit a specific format.

Remember, a dissertation is like your first academic book and an opportunity to get published. In this regard, books have a clearly defined format and your paper must adhere to the same. Typically, a well-written dissertation can include conventionally five (in some cases six) chapters that ought to be succinctly and adequately addressed.

These sections include:

Chapter 1: Introduction

The introduction section details the dissertation’s topic, purpose, and relevance, and offers a sneak peek into the dissertation so the reader can know what to expect. It is a teaser that explains what is being done, how, and why. As a rule of thumb, the introduction should be concise, engaging, and relevant to the research.

In a nutshell, the introduction should:

  • Clearly state the research questions and objectives and how they are going to be fulfilled.
  • Define the research topic, outlining the background information to contextualize the work.
  • Define the scope of the research and narrow down the focus area.
  • Summarize the structure of the dissertation, including a preview of the subsequent chapters.
  • State how the chosen issue is relevant in the modern age.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

In essence, the literature review is a comprehensive survey and synthesis of studies that already exist on the selected topic. It often forms the basis for the theoretical framework, in which you analyze the key concepts, theories, and models that frame the research.

In summary, a literature review should show how the research:

  • Addresses the gaps unearthed during the evaluation and analysis of existing studies.
  • Leverages existing and recent methodological and theoretical approaches to the topic.
  • Elevates a theoretical argument.
  • Suggests a fitting solution to a problem not addressed by previous studies.
  • Augment existing knowledge with fresh data.

Chapter 3: Methodology

The methodology section outlines the procedures and methods proposed and used to collect and analyze data. It describes how the research was conducted, enabling the reader to assess the validity of the entire process. The core aim is to accurately report what the research entailed and convince the reader that the best-possible methods and approaches were used to answer the research questions and objectives.

Generally, the methodology section includes:

  • The crucial information on where and when the research was conducted. It also provides details of the participants of the research.
  • The type of research and overall approach used (e.g. experimental, ethnographic, quantitative, or qualitative).
  • Techniques used to collect data (e.g. surveys, interviews, or archives)
  • Methods used to analyze data (e.g. discourse analysis or statistical analysis)
  • Tools and materials used during the research (e.g. lab equipment or computer software programs)
  • A summary of the challenges faced during the research and how they were overcome.
  • Lastly, a detailed evaluation and justification of the methods used.

Chapter 4: Results

This section includes a comprehensive report about results that are most relevant to the research question and objectives. Typically, the section includes a list of findings obtained from the research, mentioned explicitly in their relation to the hypothesis.

As a rule of thumb, the following should be included in the results section:

  • General conclusions to the findings as per the research.
  • Materials or information that will help the reader understand what you found.
  • Tables, charts, and graphs that help visualize the results to add value to the text.

In some cases, it will be convenient to add charts, tables, and graphs to the results section. However, if they are redundant or are not directly related to your research question do not add them here. Instead, find space for them in the appendix.

Chapter 5: Discussion

The discussion is the last chapter in some disciplines while in other it is the penultimate section. The discussion section is just as its name implies, it includes the discussion or the interpretation of the results. It reassembles bits and strands from the literature discussed, the methodology used, and the results presented.

Some of the things discussed in this section include:

  • Did the results meet the expectations as per the research question?
  • How do the results diversify the current base of evidence-based as regards your topic?
  • Did you find any unexpected results? If yes, include a detailed explanation of why this happened.
  • Alternative interpretations of data, to point out what the results mean from a bigger perspective.
  • Acknowledgment of the limitations that might have impacted the results.
  • Recommendations for practical action or future research

In some cases, doctoral students create a separate chapter for their conclusions, recommendations, and future research.

Dissertation vs Thesis

More often than not, the terms thesis and dissertation are used interchangeably by students and PhD advisers. It is common for people to ask how far you have gone with the thesis when as far as you know you are writing a dissertation, and vice versa. The confusion is further compounded by schools and departments that use the terms differently.

So, when people talk about thesis or dissertation, what do they really mean? This section seeks to demystify dissertation vs thesis.

Etymology of the Words

First things first, by looking at the origin of the two words, we can get a glimpse of their difference, or similarities for that matter.

As aforementioned, the word dissertation finds its roots in the Latin word dissertare, which means to discuss. It also borrows from the Latin word disserere, meaning to examine and discuss (Online Etymology Dictionary).

The word thesis, on the other hand, is derived from the Greek word tithenai, later thesis in Latin, which means to place a proposition (Online Etymology Dictionary).

Basic Dissertation and Thesis Differences

The main difference between the two documents is when they are completed. A thesis project is done at the end of a master’s program, whereas a dissertation is a project that marks the end of a doctoral study.

In this sense, their purposes also differ widely. For example, a thesis, which is a compilation of original research, demonstrates student’s knowledge about skills acquired and information learned throughout the undergraduate program. Dissertation, on the other hand, is a way for doctoral students to contribute new theories, knowledge, and practices to their relevant fields. It is an opportunity to suggest an entirely new concept, develop it, and prove its worth.

Of course, the meaning of these words will depend on where you are and the academic system adopted in your country. Generally, countries whose academic systems follow the British system of higher education use a dissertation to refer to the final project done at the end of an undergraduate or masters program. Whereas, the term thesis is used to refer to the final project done by Ph.D. students.

On the contrary, nations and institutions that use the American education systems (including those in the U.S.) may use the term dissertation to mean projects done by doctoral students. Besides, in these countries, a thesis refers to the final project completed by undergraduate and masters students.

The Structural Differences Between Dissertation and Thesis

While there is no right or wrong usage of the terms thesis or dissertation, the structures of the two projects differ.

First, their statements are not the same. A thesis statement states a point to tell the reader how you intend to prove an argument in the study. A dissertation statement includes a hypothesis. It defines results that you expect from the written work and discusses the expected outcomes. The scope of a dissertation is wider than that of a thesis, and thus requires more extensive work to develop the research.

In terms of length, the average doctoral dissertation length varies around 100-200 pages, while the bachelor’s or master’s thesis is no longer than 100 pages. The difference in length emanates from the fact that a dissertation involves a great deal of research and background information. In general, even though it is quite difficult to compare the two, a dissertation involves extremely complex work. As such, it will most likely be two times, sometimes even three times, the average length of a thesis.

Common Challenges When Writing A Dissertation

Every doctoral student hopes to have a successful academic life and a successful dissertation defense on the first attempt. For some students, this dream always comes true, but for others, the dreadful phrase “All-but-Dissertation” becomes a catchphrase for years. After all, dissertation writing is no cakewalk.

Luckily, one can make the process more seamless by avoiding or preparing for some of the potential hurdles along the way. If you want your dissertation to impress the committee and sail through with minimal fuss, you should endeavor to sidestep the following mistakes:

Poor Planning

The old adage “failing to plan is planning to fail” rings true when it comes to writing a dissertation. Like every piece of writing, a dissertation requires a meticulously created structure, augmented by timely, actionable milestones. So, before you make any move, create an elaborate plan, outlining all the things that you need to achieve, when, and how to smoothly see out the process.

One of the most logical things to do is to break the entire dissertation into “bite-sized” tasks. This could mean diving the chapters into multiple sections, then assigning a timeframe for each. Besides, consistent evaluation of the plan can be a strategy to determine the progress made, where you are falling off-pace, and what needs to be done to beat the deadlines.

Moreover, there has to be an underpinning flexibility to the plan. This is because a dissertation requires constant tinkering, and when something urgent comes up you should get to grips with it immediately without jeopardizing the overall progress.

Poor Time Management

Generally, time is a scarce resource, and as a doctoral student, you usually do not have enough of it. This fact, however, is not in the sight of many students. For example, if you begin to think about your dissertation in August and it is due the following August, the seemingly many months can lead to procrastination. Ultimately, you end up pushing the dissertation down the list of important tasks, giving it little to no attention and time.

What you should know is that when it comes to dissertation writing, wasting time or using it improperly is the main recipe for failure. Always keep in mind that writing a dissertation is an intricate and time-consuming process. You are already on a tight schedule, and cannot afford to sit comfortably and expect to whip up the project at the eleventh hour.

Time management goes hand in hand with planning. As you create your plan, ensure every task is given a sufficient amount of time. Also, be realistic, include breaks to the plan, and most importantly, stick to the plan and work consistently to complete the project in a good time.

Selecting a Broad Topic

The research topic you pick is basically the foundation of your study, and it can dictate the success or failure of your project. In one way or the other, doctoral students are inspired by the work of professional researchers, when researching a topic. As a result, they end up picking a broad topic with an aim to emulate or even outwit the work of other scholars.

Such students fail to recognize that professional researchers are funded by deep-pocketed organizations and learning institutions. For this reason, they have considerable budgets and can afford to splash the cash on advanced research equipment and large cooperative teams that doctoral students can only dream of.

Picking a broad research topic is biting more than you can chew, for new-arriving students. Without the huge budget of renowned researchers, a wide topic will only get you so far. In the end, you will be forced to start all over again and pick a narrower research topic. This will ultimately erode your time and trim down the chances of a successful defense. If you decide to go all the way, you will end up delivering sub-par work, which will definitely be rejected by the committee.

To be on the safe side, narrow down your topic to make your subsequent milestones vastly easier to achieve. If you find it difficult to achieve this goal on your own, get help from your advisor or a dissertation professional.

Doing Shallow Research

Dissertations, whether empirical or non-empirical, require extensive research. Without extensive research, it is not feasible to write a comprehensive dissertation at all. To nail it and produce an appropriate quality of work, you have to hit the library and conduct comprehensive Google research. In addition, you have to read tons of scholarly articles to gather relevant and authentic materials for your dissertation.

Lack of Solid Writing Skills

Getting relevant quality materials for a dissertation is a giant leap in the right direction. But having the current information at the fingertips is not a hedge against failure. You have to put the information down on paper with brevity and accuracy. This means you need to possess solid writing skills to synthesize and string together the materials, without straying away from the topic.

For example, the literature review, which regarded the most difficult part to write, should not be a list or series of citations and references. You should use impeccable grammar and vocabulary to deliver succinct and measured interpretation and writing of the literature review.

Beyond writing, you should take time to thoroughly edit and proofread your dissertation. In doing so, you will get rid of spelling and grammar errors, irregular fonts and spacing, and any other error that you may expect in the dissertation. If your document is well researched, free of errors, and has a flow, it will stand a good chance of impressing the dissertation committee.

In addition, poor referencing can scupper your efforts to deliver a winning dissertation. Always ensure that you adhere to the specified referencing guidelines as outlined in the dissertation guidelines. You should get a hang of different referencing styles such as MLA, APA, or Chicago to avoid losing easy-to-gain marks.

Lack of Adequate Technical Skills

Similarly, the use of software and other technology tools can be a perennial problem for doctoral students. While many students are familiar with word processing software such as Microsoft Word, a surprising number do not know some of the arcane formatting rules.

For example, many doctoral students have problems inserting section breaks or page numbers that differ from section to section. Besides, some cannot align tables and figures to appear on the exact page in correspondence with the text or discussed results.

Looking at these issues individually may not be a cause for alarm, but taken together they can be a big problem. The last-minute dash to learn dozens of new commands can put you in a tight corner, especially with the pressure that comes with other dissertation tasks. To be on the safe side, learn all relevant commands early on.

Tips on Preparing for Your Dissertation

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, 43.4% of all doctoral students do not graduate (Council of Graduate School, 2008). A more recent study echoed this by revealing that researchers agree that one in two doctoral students will not complete their degree (Marshall, Klocko, & Davidson, 2017). The failure to complete a doctoral-level dissertation is regarded as one of the main reasons why this number is high.

To be on the right side of statistics, you should endeavor to breeze through your dissertation. To do that, you must demonstrate the right dissertation skills and assume total accountability and responsibility for the management of the entire dissertation process (Strite, 2007).

Beyond that, to better prepare for the dissertation, you should put the following tips to practice:

Start Your Dissertation Early

One of the biggest mistakes that doctoral students make is leaving the writing process of the dissertation in the final year of their degree. Writing should be done in parallel with the research as this allows you to jot down important analyses and insights while the information is still fresh in your mind. It lets you capture and present the data more accurately. What is more, by building your paper bit by bit over the course of your research and continually seeking feedback from your advisor as you go, you can make catch any inconsistencies early on and revise accordingly.

Examine Online Samples

Your institution’s library management software may contain a limited number of materials. As such, you can resort to the internet, which offers an incredible collection of myriad materials that can help you improve the quality of your dissertation. Your university most probably has an online library of previous dissertations. Before you begin your work, check the web for sample dissertations to understand what is expected of you. Exploit all the available resources and learn as much as you can from previous work in your discipline. Among the many public repositories where you can get access to dissertations include:

Attend Dissertation Defense of Other Students

Attending another student’s dissertation defense before you start writing the dissertation is not an idea that crosses many students’ minds. Doing it, however, can help you visualize the end goal and give you a monumental reference point for the journey ahead. This way, as you begin the writing process you will have in mind what needs to be done to make the dissertation sail through.

Keep Close Tabs with Your Supervisor

The supervisor plays a significant role in the success of the dissertation. There is no doubt, as a doctoral student you are on course to become an independent researcher. As such, you may be tempted to want to solve all your problems on your own. It happens, but those who try it end up complicating their process.

Always speak openly with your supervisor and let him/her know whenever you run into trouble. For example, if you realize that you do not have the resources or expertise, consult your supervisor at the earliest. The supervisors are there to guide you, correct you when you make mistakes, and it is in their interest to see you succeed.

Surround Yourself with Supportive People

The writing process will not be an easy process; it is demanding, time-consuming, and sometimes stressful. You will hit obstacles in the dissertation process, some of which will make you want to throw in the towel. You should have supportive people around you to give you that extra nudge when you are on the brink of giving up.

The support could also come in other ways. For example, requesting your husband to tend to other duties such as taking a child to school, taking the trash out, or doing all the dishes. Moreover, if you are employed, try to get your manager on board with you and request days off to complete the dissertation. This will give the extra hours you need to get the dissertation done on time.

Getting Your Dissertation Right on First Attempt

People assume that writing a dissertation is a difficult task to accomplish. The truth is, the process is time-consuming, but if you do things right, it is really not a hard nut to crack. The key to success is to understand the dissertation format, avoid common mistakes, and prepare adequately for the lengthy process.

In particular, emphasis should be placed on getting a narrow topic and conducting in-depth empirical research to get all the materials needed to deliver a winning dissertation. Students should also read extensively on how to write the literature review, which is an area many students struggle to nail. Moreover, doctoral students ought to learn about the use of relevant technology tools, including analyzing software and word processing programs.



  1. Bhattacharya, H. (2008). Empirical research. L. Given (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412963909.n133
  2. Council of Graduate Schools (2008). The crucial issue of doctoral non-completion. CGS Occasional Paper SeriesCGSNet.org.
  3. Grove, S. K., & Gray, J. R. (2018). Understanding Nursing Research E-Book: Building an Evidence-Based Practice (pp. 153). Edinburgh, Scotland: Elsevier Health Sciences. Google Books
  4. Marshall  S. M., Klocko, B., & Davidson, J. (2017). Dissertation completion: No longer higher education’s invisible problem. Journal of Educational Research and Practice, 7 (1), 74-90. https://doi.org/0.5590/JERAP.2017.07.1.06
  5. Dissertation (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary.
  6. Thesis (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary.
  7. Strite, C. (2007). Completing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Qualitative Case Study.  (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Ed. D. Teachers College, Columbia University. WorldCat

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