When starting a project (or embarking on a life journey), whenever possible, it is always good to start with the end in mind. This gives you a sense of direction and purpose, pulls you towards your goal and usually saves you time in the long run.
This philosophy can also be applied to planning and writing a dissertation. Instead of chaotically gathering the needed material and organizing it along the way, it can be much more efficient to prepare an outline of the chapters at the beginning, and use the outline as a (rough) guideline for the journey ahead. Also, it is very likely that creating a chapter outline will be required when submitting a research proposal. If done correctly, creating a solid structure will give your application more credence and scientific rigor.
Note that for the purpose of a research proposal, the chapter outline does not always have to be very specific (unless you believe you already have everything worked out). It’s more like a preliminary table of contents (typically less than 200 words long).
Here are some common forms of structuring a dissertation:
1) A Five-chapter Dissertation
Many students opt for a standard, five-chapter dissertation outline — especially when doing quantitative research. The chapters usually follow the outline of a typical academic article:
- Chapter 1: Introduction
- Chapter 2: Literature review
- Chapter 3: Methodology (description of the research design)
- Chapter 4: Results
- Chapter 5: Discussion
This conventional outline can also be followed by students pursuing a qualitative project. (The terminology may need to be adapted in some cases to reflect the nature of the qualitative research; for example, you write about “findings” in qualitative research instead of “results.”)
However, some qualitative studies might require a slightly different outline to capture the flow of a qualitative process. This is described below:
2) Qualitative Dissertations
The structure of a dissertation that uses qualitative methodology might vary depending on your study and writing style. The nature of qualitative study calls for flexibility, so you can let the material guide you and change your study direction if needed. Your chapter outline needs to be able to adapt to allow for any adjustments that might be needed as the study progresses.
One option in qualitative dissertations is to organize your chapters around the future findings. But, since these are not known yet, you need to leave room for potential maneuvering. It is probably best to explain in your proposal that you’re submitting a rough plan and that modifications and fine-tuning might be required after you complete your analysis.
Many qualitative studies will follow this chapter outline:
- Chapter 1: Introduction, background of the problem, purpose of the study, research question, significance of the study, outline of the study.
- Chapter 2: Literature review (often done later, so it doesn’t bias the researcher when collecting and analyzing data).
- Chapter 3: Methodology
- Chapter 4 – chapter X: Analysis of the material/data
- Chapter X – chapter Y: Presentation of the findings
- Final chapter: Discussion and conclusion
3) Three Article Dissertation (TAD)
This type of dissertation structure is becoming increasingly common. It simply means that the student prepares at least three publishable articles/manuscripts, which represent the essence of the dissertation. The dissertation can be structured in the following way:
- Chapter 1: Introduction
- Chapter 2: Article 1
- Chapter 3: Article 2
- Chapter 4: Article 3
- Chapter 5: Conclusion (linking all the articles together, presenting the material that could not be included in the articles, and writing about the general implications of the collective results/findings).
For more details, see the previous post on the TAD dissertation format.
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