No dissertation is actually ready before it is written. In most disciplines, writing is not something that “just needs to be done” at the very end of the PhD period, but is an integral part of the research process itself.
On this page you can learn about
- types of dissertations
- how to structure your manuscript
- how to relate to previous research
- referencing and reference styles
- how to find examples of best practice
Types of dissertations
Both the type and structure of a dissertation depend greatly on the various traditions in different academic cultures, disciplines and subjects. Therefore, there is no one single recipe for writing a dissertation or for how to write e.g. an introduction, literature review, methodological reflection or data analysis. However, in every discipline there are conventions that you can follow, and the design and composition of your dissertation are vital for the impact of your research.
- Are there specific requirements in your discipline as to type of dissertation? PhD candidates often have a vague feeling that there are certain requirements regarding the type, structure or even the style of a PhD dissertation.
- Take a look at examples of best practice in your field of research: can you find models for your own style in other PhD dissertations? Download past dissertations in dissertation databases and find other dissertations on your subject.
- Have your reader in mind: how can you make your research comprehensible and how can you structure your arguments in a convincing way?
- Are you planning to write a monograph, or are you going to write an article-based dissertation?
Monograph or article-based dissertation?
The choice between a monograph and article-based dissertation (also known as “thesis/dissertation by publication”) will greatly depend on the subject area or discipline of your research. Article-based dissertations are standard in the sciences, but both types are used in the humanities.
- Monographs: Monographs are often chosen if the dissertation has a broad focus and a complex research question. The monograph is a coherent text, structured in chapters, with an introduction and a conclusion, discussing a single topic thoroughly and exhaustively. Even though article-based dissertations have become increasingly popular in the humanities, monographs are still highly valued in many academic disciplines, and supervisors recommend the publication of the dissertation as a book as a prerequisite for career building (Williams et al., 2009).
- Article-based dissertations: The dissertation by publication is an established standard in many academic disciplines. It consists of several research articles and introductory chapters (“kappe” in Norwegian), where the candidate discusses the overall coherence of the submitted articles and methodological and theoretical issues of the project. A major difference to the monograph is supervision by professionals; while in the traditional work on a PhD monograph, the candidate discusses the research with only one or a small number of supervisors, journal articles have to pass through the peer-review process of the journals. This procedure has the advantage of having a higher degree of transparency and professional feedback, and often provides a stronger impact of the research. Article-based dissertations have a different workflow from traditional monographs. On the one hand, the involvement of professional publishers in the supervision process can lead to challenges with time management, but on the other hand, it can be helpful to divide the research project into defined modules and to provide a clear structure and progression.
Structuring your manuscript
Structuring your manuscript makes your research accessible and comprehensible to your reader, but it can also play an important role in your workflow, as a blueprint for your dissertation. Typical sections of a dissertation are
- literature review
- methodological and/or theoretical foundation of the dissertation
- presentation of data
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. In the sciences, however, a more standardized format for articles has become widely accepted.
Structure of the articles (IMRaD)
Journal articles that follow the IMRaD format have the following sections: introduction, methods, results and discussion (IMRaD is an acronym for these four sections). 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
- why the study was undertaken, and why it is important
- a review of the relevant literature
- the research questions and a brief mention of the chosen methods
- the hypotheses
- 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 provide enough details of your methods for the results to be verifiable. Important elements in this section are:
- When, where and how the study was done
- What materials were used
- A description of the study group (patients, species etc.)
- A presentation of background data (consider presenting this in tables and figures instead of text only
- 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 in figures and tables with corresponding captions. When publishing in a journal, the instructions to authors will provide details on how to present tables and figures.
- Discussion: This chapter 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 true?
- How do the results fit in with other researchers’ findings?
- What are the perspectives for future research?
“What should you do in an introduction?”
The introduction gives your reader a very first impression of your dissertation, explains what is coming and is a tool for navigation through your study.
Should your introduction include
… your research question?
This is one of the major issues for 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 dissertation.
… an account of your personal motivation?
In some disciplines, personal motivation and participation of the author in the design of the study might be a part of the introduction, especially when this is methodologically relevant. In the vast majority of dissertations, however, personal involvement is not mentioned in the introduction, but instead in a preface. Remember that your reader is not interested in your person, but in the results of your research.
… reflections on method?
You can provide a brief outline of your methods in the introduction, but a detailed discussion of methodology should be reserved for a chapter of its own in the dissertation. In article-based dissertations, the introduction is more comprehensive and is a suitable place for a more detailed treatment of methodological issues.
The introduction is reserved for issues concerning the dissertation. Acknowledgements belong in a preface.
… a discussion of key theoretical concepts?
You can discuss key theoretical concepts in the introduction, but keep in mind that this should be an introductory text. A detailed discussion of theory should be reserved for a separate chapter in the dissertation. If you are writing an article-based dissertation, however, the introduction can be more comprehensive and a suitable place for a detailed treatment of theoretical issues.
… an overview of your results?
Usually the results are 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. Take a look at
in your field of research to find out more about standards for introductions.
… a literature review?
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. In article-based dissertations, one article often represents the literature review for the dissertation.
… an overview/the structure of the dissertation?
The overview of the structure of the dissertation is a crucial part of the introduction. Your reader wants to know what he can expect of your research, and for you the overview is an opportunity to explain the progression of your study, your line of reasoning and possibly the progress of your research project.
… an eye-catcher?
The very first sentence and paragraph of your dissertation should ideally make the reader curious to read your dissertation and follow your arguments. It depends on the specific academic discipline how this can be done. It might be acceptable to use an apt quotation and begin by explaining this, or to show the relevance of your topic by providing an observation of current interest. Check other dissertations in your field of research to learn about the rhetorical strategies used in introductions.
Introductory chapters in article-based dissertations
The introductory chapter in an article-based dissertation serves both as a synopsis and a contextualization for the journal articles that have been submitted as part of the dissertation. Consequently, it has a wider focus than the introduction to a monograph dissertation.
In the introductory chapter of an article-based dissertation, the PhD candidate discusses the overall coherence of the submitted articles, situating their results in the wider context of international research and in the methodological and theoretical issues of the project. Guidelines and practice in different academic disciplines may vary in details, and it is recommended to look at other dissertations for a better understanding of the type of dissertation typical of your subject. Commonly, the introductory chapter gives a synopsis of the articles submitted for dissertation, containing
- 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
Check for detailed information in the guidelines and handbooks for Phds in your institution. Two examples:
- Guidelines for the introductory chapter of article-based dissertations at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo
- Guidance on requirements relating to doctoral theses for the PhD degree in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Bergen
The meta-information about each article makes your dissertation searchable and retrievable. Without it, your peers may never find your articles. The meta-information consists of the title, authors with affiliations, keywords and abstract. These are the elements that are indexed in scientific literature databases, and thus determine what searches will find your research results.
- Title: The title is essential; a good title is informative, yet catchy. The title has to be focused and specific enough to indicate the content of the article. Though it can be tempting to play around and find a unique title, journal editors might be sceptical of this, and it may also mean that other researchers will overlook your article as its focus is easily obscured and your research will thus pass unnoticed.
- Authors, addresses and affiliations: Supply the names and addresses of all authors. Indicate clearly who is the corresponding author of the article. There are ethical aspects to consider when discussing co-authorship. What constitutes authorship and co-authorship varies between disciplines and fields of research. An author may have more than one affiliation; if so, this should be clearly indicated. A typical example would be both the employer institution and the institution funding your research.
- Keywords: These are given by the authors and the journal. The keywords are essential in retrieving the paper from a literature search. Take careful deliberations when deciding on your keywords; both your subject matter and your intended audience can influence your choice of keywords. The journal may ask you to provide standarized keywords such as the Medical Subject Headings used in Pubmed, so that other researchers can easily find your article when doing their literature searches.
- Abstract: This is your story in a nutshell, designed to tease your reader to read the whole paper or dissertation. Focus on using appropriate words and formulations; a well-phrased and well-organized abstract is what will get the readers’ attention.
How to relate your writing to previous research
“The most important things are first of all to know the state of research in what you actually do. And be able to place yourself in relation to what is going on in your field”.
(PhD graduate, social sciences)
Your research is not done in isolation from previous research. At PhD level, your inclusion of existing literature will show how well you know your field of research, as well as demonstrating that your research will fill gaps in the present knowledge. Keep in mind the aims below:
- Make the context and the foundation of your study transparent.
- Develop arguments with previous research.
- Compare your findings to previous research.
- Contrast your results to those of others.
- Demonstrate the contributions of your research to the field.
- Give credit to previous research.
Your writing consists of several different elements that make up the dissertation or other types of documentation of research. Be aware that each type of text has a different design and may follow discipline-specific rules. Some different types of text involved in a PhD are
- a chapter in your dissertation
- a section in your article
- the introduction or summary in an article-based dissertation
- an integrated discussion with your arguments and interpretations throughout your dissertation
- a work in its own right, e.g. a review article
- an application for grants and funding
Your own voice
How to relate to previous research is above all a matter of style, and often a matter of finding your own voice.
You enter a room with 100 people talking about academic issues. Which attitude seems most appropriate to you when it comes to academic discourse?
Among all the experienced and graduated researchers it is best to keep your mouth shut. Your role in this context is to be a listener, not a speaker.
Your reader is interested in your point of view, not in a general summary of the research of others. In your dissertation, you have to explain your assumptions, premises and theses and how they are related to the research of others. A reasoned and critical review of previous research can be a good starting point for your own writing.
This is a perfect occasion to establish new contacts and to be heard. It is therefore recommended to tell people about your publication plan, show people the relevance of your project and emphasize its ground-breaking aspects. When others speak, try to identify possible flaws in their reasoning, and put your finger on it.
Research is not a monologue, and the quality of academic texts depends to a great extent on how they manage to represent the context of their research. Give credit to others by referencing and acknowledging their merits, and when criticizing the works of others, try to focus on their strengths.
Be part of a conversation. Be interested in others’ research, and find links to your own work. When talking about your own research, keep in mind that you are a specialist and try to explain your dissertation project in a comprehensible way.
No work is done in isolation and you should show your appreciation for the help you have received. It can be challenging to decide who should be listed as co-authors and who should be listed as contributors to be thanked in the acknowledgements.
Acknowledgements should include
- supervisors and colleagues that have provided assistance or feedback to the work
- granting agencies that have provided financial support
- technical support, such as help with figures or proofreading
“Incidentally, a sin one more degree heinous than an incomplete reference is an inaccurate reference; the former will be caught by the editor or the printer, whereas the latter will stand in print as an annoyance to future investigators and a monument to the writer’s carelessness.”
Continuously discussing your work in relation to previous research is an essential feature of academic writing, and you have to make this transparent for the reader and give credit to the works of others by using references and acknowledgements. Sources used in your dissertation are referred to by in-text references and in a reference list/bibliography, usually at the end of the document. The in-text reference is a link to the complete reference in the bibliography. The complete reference is a further link to the original work being cited, and functions as an address to the original work.
The two most common ways of referencing in-text are paraphrasing and direct quotations. Paraphrasing means to express the information that other authors have provided, but to write it in your own words with a reference citation. A direct quotation is a word-for-word transcript of another author’s words written within quotation marks.
A reference is a bibliographic description of a published or unpublished work. The reference should uniquely identify the work in question. In addition, the reference should inform the reader about the document type of the work, e.g. research article, book, conference paper, etc. The bibliographic data required for a reference vary with document type and specific disciplinary requirements.
Referencing codes of conduct
Correct referencing means that you
- are open about your sources
- enable your readers to find your sources easily
- use information that enables verification
- acknowledge other researchers’ contributions
- put your own work into an existing context
- welcome critical discussion by mentioning earlier contributions
Basic bibliographic principles
The basic principle of a reference is to identify who is responsible for the work, what the title is, and where and by whom it was published. Most reference managers let you determine the type of reference (document type). This is very useful as it helps the programme give the right output in the reference list.
You will at times encounter new document types or material where you are uncertain as to how to write the references. Keep in mind that you should provide enough information for your reader to identify and locate the material.
A basic bibliographic description should include the following:
Who is responsible for the work (preferably an author/authors or an organization)?
- When was the work published?
Who published the work or made it available?
Where was the work published?
A web address or digital object identifier (doi), if the work is distributed electronically.
There are two main types of reference styles, author-date and numbered. In the author-date style, the citation in the text consists of the author and date of the work enclosed in parentheses, and the reference list is organized alphabetically by author. The numbered style has the citation in the text indicated by a number, and the reference list is organized in the same sequence, e.g. citation No.1 in the text is reference No.1 in the list. The preferred reference style varies with the discipline.
Over the years, standards have emerged in reference styles, both for numbered and author-date styles. These styles have developed style manuals to guide the writing of citations and references. Consulting a style manual is particularly useful when writing references for special or uncommon material, like maps or archival material.
When preparing a manuscript for submission, you need to pay particular attention to the reference style requested in the instructions to authors from the publisher. Some journals have developed their own reference style. However, in most cases, they have based their reference style on one of the standard formats.
Style manuals and help pages for reference styles
To cite in the text and the reference list, you must use a specific reference style. For articles, this is generally defined in the journal’s instructions to authors. For a dissertation, you may need to follow a common standard for your discipline or particular requirements of your institution. Below you will find a list of style manuals for standard reference styles, as well as links to the help pages of some of our institutions.
- APA manual in Norwegian
- Chicago manual of style. (2010). The Chicago manual of style (16th Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Gibaldi, J. (2008). MLA style manual and guide to scholarly publishing. New York: Modern Language Association of America.
- Iverson, C. (2007). AMA manual of style: a guide for authors and editors. New York: Oxford University Press.
Help pages for reference types and styles from:
Examples of best practice
The academic disciplines show considerable differences regarding the form of dissertations. In order to become familiar with the particular standards for the style and structure of dissertations, reviewing literature and methodology in your field of research, it is recommended to examine some dissertations and find examples of best practice.
Find dissertations on 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.
Resource for finding publications in all Norwegian open access archives.
ProQuest Dissertations and Theses
American and international doctoral dissertations in full text.
Search engine used in Norwegian academic and research libraries. In order to find dissertations on a particular topic, press the “Advanced search” button, then choose “Material type: Dissertations”. It is recommended to expand your search by selecting “Norwegian Academic Libraries”.
Explore your findings with regard to functions and objectives for a literature review within your field of research. In order to find recently published doctoral dissertations, you might search in institutional repositories at universities and research institutions in Norway.
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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.
Nygård, L. P. (2015) Writing for scholars. A practical guide to making sense & being heard (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage
Sword, H. (2017). Air & light & time & space. How successful academics write. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
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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