The Dissertation

The dissertation is the result of all the work you have done to qualify for a doctorate. Just as there are many ways to reach that goal, there are many ways to write a dissertation. Therefore, we cannot offer you a manual, but we will provide you with some good advice you might want to consider.

On this page you can learn about

  • different types of dissertations
  • elements often included in dissertations
  • the IMRaD structure
  • rights and permissions
  • where to find examples of best practice

Monograph or article-based dissertation?

You can write your dissertation as a monograph, or as a collection of articles bound together by an summary chapter (in Norwegian: kappe). The summary chapter is also known as introduction, introductory chapter, synopsis or summary.

Many factors may influence your choice between writing a monograph and an article-based dissertation (also known as 'thesis/dissertation by publication'). The prevailing tradition in your discipline of research is important, of course. The choice may also depend on the kind of research project you are conducting. Article-based dissertations are standard in the sciences (such as technology, engineering, mathematics, life sciences, and medicine), while both monographs and article compendia are written in the humanities and social sciences.

In a monograph, you investigate and discuss your topic or research question in one long, coherent text. Monographs are often chosen if the dissertation has a broad focus and a complex research question. The monograph is structured in chapters, with an introduction and a conclusion. It discusses a single topic thoroughly and exhaustively. In an article-based dissertation you typically address different aspects or sub-topics in shorter, discrete, stand-alone articles, which are discussed in relation to the overall research question of the project in the summary chapter (kappe).

The chosen structure will affect the workflow and rhythm of the work process as much as the result. Whereas articles must go through the process of external peer review and the revisions that come with that, the monograph in its entirety is submitted for the first time to the dissertation evaluating committee.

A monograph is solo-authored throughout. Hence the entire writing process is individual. An article-based dissertation may have one or more co-authored articles, whereas the summary chapter that discusses and ties together the separate articles is written by the individual PhD candidate.

Check what the PhD regulations of your institution say: is it specified that you should be sole or first (main) author of a certain number of articles? It is a good idea to discuss the different co-authors’ roles in a joint work, and to align your expectations at an early stage in order to preclude disputes. It is increasingly common to include a statement identifying the contribution of each individual author in articles, and some institutions require that a similar statement be submitted along with the final manuscript of the dissertation. Read more about co-authorship issues in the section about publishing.

Elements of dissertations

There is no standard recipe for how to write your dissertation, introduction, literature review or data analysis. There are different conventions in every discipline. Keep in mind that the design and composition of your dissertation can affect the impact of your research.

We strongly recommend that you study examples of best practice in your field of research: can you find models for your own style in other PhD dissertations?

In addition, you must check the PhD regulations of your institution carefully. Here you will find necessary information about requirements concerning style and structure of the dissertation, co-authorship, publishing, and more. Many institutions require you to use a template. It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the template at an early stage, so that it does not become a stress factor towards the end.

The following list gives an indication of frequently used elements in a dissertation. The list is not exhaustive.

Typical sections of a dissertation are

Title

A good title is informative, yet catchy. The title should be focused and specific enough to indicate the content, yet interesting enough to arouse the interest of potential readers. It can be tempting to play around and find a creative and unique title, but be careful: journal editors might be sceptical to this, and it may also lead other researchers to overlook your article as its focus may be obscure. Remember that unconventional orthography may be misinterpreted by databases and represented incorrectly. You can read more about optimising your title for academic search engines on the Writing page.

Abstracts

You are normally required to supply a short abstract at the beginning of articles, your dissertation, and a press release to announce your doctoral defence. This is your story in a nutshell, designed to convince your reader to read the whole paper or dissertation. Focus on using appropriate words and formulations; a well-phrased and well-organised abstract is what will get the readers’ attention. You can read more about metatexts on the Writing page.

Acknowledgements

No work is done in isolation and you should show your appreciation for the help you have received. With articles, it can be challenging to decide who should be listed as co-authors and who should be listed as contributors and be duly thanked in the acknowledgements. The acknowledgements section in your dissertation should include supervisors and colleagues who have provided assistance or feedback, granting agencies that have provided financial support, and providers of technical support, such as help with figures or proofreading.

List of abbreviations or other explanatory material

In subjects like classical studies, archaeology, history or philosophy, there are often standard abbreviations used for authors and works. Where many abbreviations are used, or a few recur frequently, it may be useful to provide a list of abbreviations. These should be formatted in two columns, with the abbreviation in the left-hand column and the full term in the right-hand column. Entries should be alphabetised by the abbreviation, not the full term.

List of papers you include in your thesis

If you are submitting a dissertation by publication, you have to list the articles included. Usually, you will want to provide full bibliographic information, stating which journal the article is published in, the names of your co-authors, if any, pages from-to, whether the article has been published, submitted, or accepted and forthcoming, whether it can be found in a repository, etc. The list may be a separate element or integrated in the text of your summary chapter.

List of tables, figures and other kinds of illustrations

If you use tables, figures, or other images, you should provide a list of these. If you write an article-based dissertation, check the author guidelines of the journal(-s) in which you are going to publish for details on formatting. Remember to pay attention to copyright issues if you use third-party material in your work, such as figures and images.

Introduction (monograph)

A presentation of your research question, including definition of focus, research context, discussion of relevance and possible hypotheses should be given at the very beginning of your dissertation. The overview of the structure of the dissertation is a crucial part of the introduction. Your reader wants to know what to expect, and for you, the overview is an opportunity to explain your line of reasoning and possibly the progress of your research project. You can provide a brief outline of your methods and key theoretical concepts in the introduction, but a detailed discussion of methodology and theory might be contained in a chapter of its own. Results are usually presented in the concluding part of the dissertation. In some disciplines, however, the introduction provides an account of the research process, expected outcomes and even the results of the research. Whether your literature review will be comprehensive or selective will depend on the topic and form of your dissertation and the standards in your discipline. By identifying the current state of research and possible gaps, your review of literature can serve as an introductory part of your dissertation, but if it is done in a more comprehensive or systematic manner, the literature review should have a chapter of its own. Look to other dissertations in your field of research to find out more about standards for introductions.

Summary chapter (article-based dissertation)

In the summary chapter of an article-based dissertation (kappe), you are expected to discuss the overall coherence of the submitted articles and to situate your results in the wider context of international research and relate them to the methodological and theoretical framework of the project. Guidelines and practice in different academic disciplines may vary in details, and we recommend that you look at other dissertations for a better understanding of what is most common in your field. The summary chapter typically contains:

  • an introduction to the overall dissertation
  • a literature review
  • the theoretical framework of the dissertation
  • an account of methodological choices
  • a summary of the individual articles of the dissertation
  • a discussion of results and overall conclusion
  • a reference list

The summary chapter in an article-based dissertation serves both as a synopsis and a contextualisation for the separate journal articles. The chapter should not be merely a summary of the articles, but be of stand-alone research nature. It should not merely attest to the value of the work, but should strengthen the dissertation's value considerably. Nygaard & Solli (2020) argue that you demonstrate your 'doctorateness' through your introductory chapter, that is, your ability to publish your articles, the thematic, philosophical and logical cohesiveness of your work, and your understanding of your disciplinary belonging. Further, you demonstrate the originality of your work and that you can act independently as a researcher (see Nygaard & Solli, Chapter 4). 

Research question
Your research question is one of the major items in the introduction. An explanation of your research question, including definition of focus, research context, discussion of relevance and possible hypotheses should be presented at the very beginning of your introductory chapter.

Literature review
Whether your literature review will be comprehensive or selective, narrative or systematic, will depend on the topic and form of your dissertation along with the standards in your discipline. By identifying the current state of research and possible gaps, your review of literature can serve as an introductory part of your dissertation. In article-based dissertations, one article may represent the literature review for the dissertation.

Results
Results are typically presented towards the end of the summary chapter (kappe), usually in the form of summaries of each of the papers. These are commonly followed by a general discussion and concluding remarks. 

Updates
If your articles are published already, you might also include relevant updated information in your introductory chapter.

Best practices and guidelines
Take a look at other dissertations in your field of research to find out more about standards for introductions. Check for detailed information in the guidelines and handbooks for PhDs in your institution.

 

Literature review

You are expected to place your own work in the context of your research field. Different research traditions and cultures, disciplines and projects will have varying approaches to writing literature reviews. Should your review be narrative or systematic, or perhaps something in-between? Should you write it as an integrated part of the dissertation or as a stand-alone text? Read more about the reviewing process and different approaches and types of literature reviews on the page types of reviews.

Conclusion

The function of the conclusion is to sum up your project, your findings, and your view on what is needed in terms of further research in the field. What is the significance of your work? What are the main findings? How does your work fit into the discussion in your field, and bring it forward? In a monograph, it will probably be a separate chapter at the very end, whereas in a dissertation by publication, it may be integrated in the summary chapter (kappe), and most likely sum up conclusive remarks from the different articles.

Bibliography

By citing and referring, you credit the work of other researchers and make your research transparent and traceable for your reader. Therefore, your bibliography is a crucial part of your dissertation. A comprehensible and coherent structure of the bibliography and the accuracy and completeness of the references are of prime importance. With an informative bibliography you demonstrate academic integrity and indicate that you have control of your field of research. 

If you are writing an article-based dissertation, you need a separate bibliography for the summary chapter (kappe). It will overlap to some extent with the bibliographies of the articles, but the additional literature you draw on in the summary chapter contributes to, and underlines, its nature as an academic work in its own right.

To save time, and to make sure that your bibliography is generated in your preferred output style, we recommend that you use a reference management tool. Make sure to proofread your reference list even when you use a reference management tool, as no tools are infallible. Errors may occur in the exportation and generation of records. In addition, not all references fit into the predefined categories and require manual adjustment.

Appendices

If applicable, you may include appendices. These might include an interview guide, a questionnaire, or other documents of relevance to your dissertation.

How the different parts are allocated to single chapters or articles depends on both the conventions of the discipline and the composition of the dissertation.

The IMRaD structure

In the sciences (STEM), a more standardised format for articles has become widely accepted. Journal articles that follow the IMRaD format have the following sections: introduction, methods, results and discussion. Journals across scientific disciplines employ variations of this structure in their articles.

Introduction

This section is where you present the context of your work. It must contain a general background to your subject and a more specific background to your work. You should include

  • the research questions and a brief mention of the chosen methods
  • the hypotheses
  • why the study was undertaken, and why it is important
  • a review of the relevant literature

 

Materials and methods

In this section, you provide information on the methods used in your study. Verifiability is a central principle in the sciences and you should describe your methods thoroughly enough for the results to be verifiable. Important elements in this section are

  • when, where and how the study was done (usually called the procedure)
  • what materials, apparatus and measurement instruments were used
  • a brief description of the sample or study group (patients, species etc.). Often, a fuller description of the study sample is provided in the results section

 

Results

This section gives a general description of the study and presents the findings, including

  • what answers were found to the research questions
  • the data, which are often presented as a recapitulation, typically as descriptive statistics, in figures and tables with corresponding captions, or as illustrative examples on observations or statements, depending on the type of research you are conducting. When publishing in a journal, the instructions to authors will provide details on how to present tables and figures

 

Discussion

This section demonstrates your scientific creativity, thoroughness, knowledge and overview of the subject. The findings obtained must be discussed within the context and approach you have chosen, and in relation to findings by other scientists. Focus on and broadly discuss important or extraordinary results and conclusions.

  • What do the results show?
  • Are the tested hypotheses strengthened?
  • How do the results fit in with other researchers’ findings?
  • What are the perspectives for future research?
  • What are the implications of your findings?

Rights and permissions

If you write an article-based dissertation, you will have the copyright for the summary chapter (kappe) yourself. When it comes to the articles, a publisher or a journal may require you to transfer your copyright to them. Check the terms and conditions for the journal you are going to publish in. If you publish open, you should attach a Creative Commons licence to your work.

If you are going to include figures, images and other kinds of third-party material, be aware that you may have to ask permission to use it. If possible, find material you are free to use, for instance material that is licensed with a Creative Commons licence. Depositing your dissertation in an open repository will often be considered a form of publishing. If you do not have the right to publish images, figures etc., you have to omit them.

If you have published one or more articles in a journal, you need to clarify if and when you can publish them in your institution's open repository.

Examples of best practice

The academic disciplines are considerably different in terms of the form of dissertations. To become familiar with the particular standards for the style and structure of dissertations, reviewing literature and methodology in your field of research, we recommend that you examine completed dissertations, reflect on strengths and weaknesses and find examples of best practice.

FIND DISSERTATIONS IN YOUR FIELD OF RESEARCH

The following databases and archives provide dissertations in most academic disciplines:

DART-Europe E-theses Portal Searchable database of electronic open access research theses held in European repositories. The portal does not store dissertations, but it provides a link to at least one electronic copy of every dissertation listed in its database.

OATD - Open access theses and dissertations Resource for finding open access graduate theses and dissertations published around the world.

Nora Resource for finding publications in all Norwegian open access archives.

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses American and international doctoral dissertations in full text.

Oria Discovery tool used in Norwegian academic and research libraries. To find dissertations on a particular topic, select the "Advanced search" button, then choose "Material type: Dissertations". You should select the "Norwegian Academic Libraries" setting for your search to include dissertations from most Norwegian higher education institutions.

To find recently published doctoral dissertations, you could also search in institutional repositories at universities and research institutions in Norway.

References

Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD. How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Murray, R. (2011) How to write a thesis. Maidenhead: Open University Press study skills.

Nygaard, L. P. (2015) Writing for scholars. A practical guide to making sense & being heard (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage

Nygaard, L. P. & Solli, K. (2020) Strategies for Writing a Thesis by Publication in the Social Sciences and Humanities. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429261671

Rudestam, K. E. & Newton, R. R. (2015) Surviving your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. (4th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE

Sword, H. (2017). Air & light & time & space. How successful academics write. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Thody, A. (2006). Writing and presenting research. London: SAGE.

Williams, P., Stevenson, I., Nicholas, D., Watkinson, A. & Rowlands, I. (2009). The role and future of the monograph in arts and humanities research. Aslib Proceedings, 61, 67-82. https://doi.org/10.1108/00012530910932294