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Tips for Structuring a Qualitative Dissertation

Having difficulties starting your qualitative dissertation? A general dissertation definition would be a lengthy research paper that a graduate student - particularly PhD candidates - must complete as a requirement for matriculating.

The dissertation typically contains original research, although it can also be based on secondary research. As you think about dissertation topics, you should select one that is relevant to your focus of study. Choosing something that is personally interesting can help motivate you to do your best. Of course, the dissertation proposal should also be based on an idea for which there is a research gap. While the requirements of this research paper vary according to your advisor’s instructions, the dissertation structure is generally standard regardless of topic or discipline. In particular, the three main components are:

  • An introduction
  • The main body
  • A conclusion

The research paper begins with a dissertation title page, a dissertation abstract, dissertation introduction, methodology and literature review. Of course, when in doubt consult your advisor so that you are familiar with the requirements and expectations. Do not underestimate the importance of good dissertation titles. It should be both concise but informative at the same time. The reader should not be left to wonder what the paper is about. Aside from the title of your paper, the other information on the dissertation cover page includes:

  • Your name
  • The type of paper (in this case, a dissertation)
  • The department and academic institution
  • The degree program
  • The date of submission

In some cases, you might also include your student ID number, the name of your dissertation supervisor, and even the logo of your university. In terms of details such as font size, spacing and margins, your supervisor or university will provide you with all of the requirements.

Following the title/cover page is the abstract. This provides the reader with all of the details about the dissertation, including the purpose of the study, methodology and conclusions. Keep the abstract at around 150 to 300 words in length.

Next is the dissertation table of contents page, where you list the chapters and major sections of your paper as well as their page numbers. This allows the reader quick access to whatever part of the paper they wish to read. Note that the table of contents should not exceed two pages.


The dissertation acknowledgements section is typically optional, but it gives you a chance to thank those who provided you with support during the process of writing your dissertation, such as your supervisor, research participants, and friends and family.

If your dissertation includes figures and tables, they should be itemized in a numbered list. The Insert Capture feature in MS Word can help you automatically generate this list. In addition, if your paper involves a lot of abbreviations, you can create a list so that the reader can understand what they mean.
It is common for dissertations to contain technical language that the reader might not be familiar with. The glossary lists the terms in alphabetical order and contains definitions.

The Dissertation Chapters

Now that we have covered the sections of the paper leading up to the dissertation, it is time to discuss the dissertation chapters themselves. You might be asking, “How long is a dissertation?” The dissertation length is determined by a few factors such as the amount of important, relevant information that you need to include in the paper, your area of discipline, the design of the project, and the requirements and expectations of your dissertation supervisor. To get the best idea of how long the paper should be, take a look at dissertation papers written by past PhD candidates in your particular department. If you are writing a standard 5-chapter dissertation (Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, Results and Discussion), the page count for each chapter is generally as follows:

  • Introduction: 10-15 pages
  • Literature Review: 20-25 pages
  • Methodology: 10-15 pages
  • Results: 5-10 pages
  • Discussion: 15-20 pages

Obviously your particular dissertation might have a greater (or fewer) number of pages depending on how you structure it and your department’s requirements. However, in all cases you would want to make sure the length of each chapter is well balanced. For instance, it would not make sense to write a literature review chapter that consists of 100 pages and then proceed to write a 5-page discussion chapter. It is important to do some analysis and synthesize the information that you have gathered. Another reason to adhere to page limits is so that you do not end up devoting too much time to writing chapters pages that you will ultimately have to cut. There have been situations in which PhD candidates have written hundreds of pages - more than enough for several dissertations - because they did not understand how to find the right balance. Ultimately, the most effective way to determine how long your dissertation should be is to refer to your dissertation handbook or your department’s dissertation template. You should also look at recent papers that fellow students in your department have completed. Based on what you see, you should be able to estimate approximately how many pages you will need to write for each of your dissertation chapters. The result will be a dissertation that is neither too short nor too long, but instead the ideal length.


For the beginning part of your dissertation, you will discuss the topic that you researched, the purpose of the study, its relevance, and inform the reader about the direction of the dissertation from here. Here are some tips to write the best introduction:

  • Introduce your research topic and provide background and context so that the reader understands its purpose.
  • Keep the topic focused and make sure to narrow down the scope of the project so that you are not addressing multiple, unrelated issues.
  • Mention what relevant research has taken place as it relates to your topic. This will establish the research gap and explain how you intend to find answers.
  • Your research questions and objectives should be stated in a clear manner.
  • Provide a highlight of how your dissertation is structured

The introduction needs to make a great first impression on the reader. Thus it should be easy to understand, it should engage the reader, and it should be relevant to the topic. Ultimately, after reading this chapter the reader will understand what is being researched, why you decided to conduct research on this particular topic, and how you went about it.

Literature Review / Theoretical Framework

Even before you start doing the research, you will need to conduct a literature review so that you will have a comprehensive understanding of the situation as it relates to your search. Furthermore, it will help you identify whatever research gaps exist. Thus, you should do the following:

  • Collect sources (scholarly works, books and academic journals) and select the most relevant ones
  • Critically evaluate and analyze the sources
  • Draw links and commonalities between each of the sources as a way of providing synthesis so that you can develop the broader point.
  • Keep in mind that the purpose of the literature review chapter is not to merely to provide a summary of relevant studies. Rather, it should serve as the foundation for your own research. For instance, the literature review should accomplish these goals:
  • To address the existing gap in the research
  • To introduce new methodological or theoretical approaches to the topic
  • To propose solutions to an issue that at this point remains unresolved
  • Reinforces prior studies with your additional findings and data


The methodology chapter provides the reader with insights into how you conducted your research. This will allow them to determine how valid the findings are. This chapter should include the following:

  • The approach that you took as well as the type of research conducted
  • How you collected the data
  • An overview of where the research took place, the time period, and the participants involved
  • The methods you chose in order to analyze the data
  • What equipment and tools you used in order to conduct the research
  • Identifying issues or problems you faced as you went about the research and what steps you took to overcome them
  • Evaluating and/or justifying the methods you chose to use

As you describe the methodology, it is important that you report your findings transparently. In addition, you need to convince the reader that your approaches were the most appropriate ones for addressing your research question.


In the results chapter, you will do precisely what it suggests: report on the results of your research. This section can be structured on the basis of hypotheses, topics, or sub-questions. You should only discuss the results as they relate to your research questions and the objectives of the research. Depending on the area of research, you might have the results and discussion section as two separate chapters while in other cases they will be combined into one section.

For instance, when you are writing a qualitative dissertation, in which you will likely conduct in-depth interviews, you will interweave the data with discussion and analysis. On the other hand, if your research is of an experimental or quantitative nature, you will start by presenting the results separately before proceeding to interpret what it all means. When in doubt, discuss all of this with your supervisor and skim through dissertations written by previous PhD candidates from your department.

For an effective results chapter, you might consider including charts, graphs and tables. Give some thought to how your data would be best presented. In addition, do not add charts and graphs just for the sake of filling space. You also do not want it to merely repeat what you have already said. Instead, it should enhance your dissertation by adding something informative.


In the discussion chapter, you will write about what the results mean as well as their implications. You will want to provide a detailed interpretation of the results, discuss whether the research went as you expected or if the results surprised you, and how they fit in with what you discussed in the previous parts of the paper. If the results were not what you had expected, explain the possible reasons for this. You should also discuss whatever limitations existed along with alternative interpretations when possible.


The conclusion chapter should be relatively brief and concise. You should reintroduce the research problem/question and provide the reader with a clear understanding about your position. Depending on your academic discipline, you might place the conclusion section before the discussion section. In this situation you would state the conclusions and then proceed to discuss and interpret what it means.

On the other hand, other disciplines require the conclusion to be the final section of the paper that wraps everything up. It can be reflective and discuss the results you achieved and how you achieved it. Here you might also make recommendations for further research or discuss how your research could be improved.

Reference list

As with every type of research paper from short essay to lengthy dissertation, you will need to acknowledge the sources where you collected information. Depending on the reference style that you use, this can be labeled as a reference list, works cited or bibliography. You should make sure to use the citation style recommended by your supervisor or department. APA and MLA are two of the most common styles used in American universities, but it ultimately depends on what your supervisor requires. Making a reference list can be a tedious, time-consuming process. For this reason, we recommend that you use a reference list generator, which you can easily find online.


Your dissertation needs to remain focused on only the most important information that is relevant to your paper. All other information that cannot be placed into the paper itself can be attached as appendices. This can include survey questions, transcripts of interviews and the like.

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June 24, 2019