Academic Writing

Genres in academic writing: Research dissertations & theses

Many students will, towards the end of their academic lives, be expected to carry out some kind of research and write a dissertation or thesis.

In terms of structure, your dissertation or thesis will typically include the following sections (Stokes, 2011, pp. 38-39):

Introduction 
Research Aims & Objectives
Literature Review
Research Methodology
Findings
Discussion
Conclusion
References
Appendices

 

And a minimum (see, for example, Perry, 1998, 2011, 2013) is probably:

1. Preliminaries

Title page
Contents Page

2. Main text

Introduction 
Literature Review
Research Design
Findings
Conclusions

3. End matter

References

 

Or, as Evans (1995) describes the main section:

1. Introduction

Problem statement
Aim
Research approach

2. Background

History, geography
Current theory
Current practice

3. Own work

Design of work
Results

4. Synthesis Discussion
Conclusions

 

Your dissertation or thesis will probably include many of the following elements in some way or other. However, different subject areas do have different preferences for exactly how these components are organised. You will also probably organise your writing, using headings and sub-headings in a simlar way.

1. Preliminaries

Title page
Abstract
Acknowledgments
List of Contents
List of Tables/Figures

2. Main text

Introduction 
Literature Review
Theory
Aims
Methodology/Research Design
Materials, Participants & Methods
Findings/Results 
Discussion/Interpretation 
Limitations
Conclusions/Implications
Future Work
Recommendations

3. End matter

References
Appendices

 

And a minimum (see, for example, Perry, 1998, 2011, 2013) is probably:

1. Preliminaries

Title page
Contents Page

2. Main text

Introduction 
Literature Review
Research Design
Findings
Conclusions

3. End matter

References

 

Or, as Evans (1995) describes the main section:

1. Introduction

Problem statement
Aim
Research approach

2. Background

History, geography
Current theory
Current practice

3. Own work

Design of work
Results

4. Synthesis Discussion
Conclusions

 

Different subject areas have different preferences for exactly how these components are organised. See here for more information.

1. Preliminaries

Before you start the main part of your dissertation, there should be a title page. The Title Page should contain information to enable your supervisor and departmental office to identify exactly what the piece of work is. It should include the title of your dissertation, your name or anonymity number, the degree for which the dissertation is being submitted, the name of the department, the name of the university, the year of submission and the name of your supervisor. Check with your department for specific information.

A dissertation should also normally include an Abstract and a Contents page and, if you are using them, a List of Tables, Figures, Charts etc. The Abstract should give some background information, clearly state the principal purpose of the research, give some information about the methodology used, state the most important results and - importantly - the conclusion. It will usually be no longer than 300 words. See: Writing an Abstract.

The Contents page will give page numbers for the main sections and will show the structure of the dissertation, including headings and sub-headings.

The Acknowledgments section is your opportunity to thank individuals who have been particularly helpful.

2. The main text

The main body consists of several chapters of background, ideas, methods, data, argument, conclusions and implications. Each chapter develops a subdivision of the purpose of the thesis or dissertation.

The Introduction gives background knowledge that supports the reason for undertaking the research and an organisation statement. It should clearly state the problem to be solved in the form of a research question or hypothesis and be clear about the need for the research and its significance. The Literature Review/Theory will set your research against a background of what is already known about the topic in question, and be clear about the gap to be filled and the significance of this. The Methodology section gives detailed information of how the information in the dissertation was obtained. It should persuade your readers that the research was done well so the results can be believed. Findings and Results give the data that has been collected, while the Discussion argues that the results lead to the clearly expressed conclusion, with any Limitations taken into account.

The chapters are linked in order to connect the ideas. The purpose of the dissertation or thesis report must be made clear and the reader must be able to follow its development.

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature Review
  3. Methodology
  4. Findings/Results
  5. Discussion/Interpretation
  6. Conclusion

I. The introduction.

The introduction states briefly why you are studying this topic. It situates your research in relation to previous work that has been done in the area and shows how your study emerges from published accounts. It should make clear your aims and purpose of the study, which cannot simply be a description of something, but should be a reasoned attempt to explain why a certain situation is the way it is. The two ways of expressing this aim are by either a research questions or a hypothesis.

The introduction usually consists of three parts:

      1. It should include a short review of the literature to provide a background to your report and to attract the reader's attention. It may include a definition of terms in the context of the report, etc.
      2. It should try to explain why you are writing the report. You need to establish a gap in current knowledge. This will be expressed in the form of a research question to be answered or a hypothesis to be proved (or not).
      3. It should also include a statement of the specific subdivisions of the topic and/or indication of how the topic is going to be tackled in order to specifically address the question.

It should introduce the central idea or the main purpose of the writing. See: Writing Introductions

II. Literature Review

Your study cannot depend wholly on your own data, but must be set against a background of what is already known about the topic in question. So firstly you need to find the relevant information and studies. You must then give an account of the relevant published studies, properly cited: who found out what, when, and how this moved the study of the topic forward. You should always remember that the reader will want to know why you have included any particular piece of research here. It is not enough just to summarise what has been said: you need to organise and evaluate it. You have to show how a study moved your own thinking forward and how you used it - or rejected it. You also review here methods that have been used that are relevant to your own study. This will be a major section of the dissertation - it may be around 30% of the total dissertation.

Your literature may include a discussion of the relevant theories that you intend to use in order to interpret your findings, or they may be included in a separate section.

At the end of this section, you should now be able to clearly state your aims. See: Writing a Literature Review 

III. Methodology.

You have reviewed the methods used in your field in the literature review. In this section you should justify and describe the methods you selected to use, saying how much you took from previous studies or from common professional practice and say what you changed or added. You will need to give a step-by-step account of the study you carried out, your subjects or informants and how you selected them, the interviews - for example - you held and how you recorded them, the language you studied and how you selected it, the procedures and materials you used, the analyses you carried out .... and so on. You will certainly need to discuss and make clear the theoretical foundations for your approach.

So the methodology section gives details of how the information in the report was obtained. It may give details of the materials and procedures used. In any kind of experimental report, details of the people involved will need to be included. See:  Writing Research Methods.

IV. Findings/Results.

At this stage, you say what you did and what you found out. There is an important distinction to remember here, and that is the one between results and interpretation. In the former, you are only saying what you found, for example, what the informants said or did, how many times they said or did it, how many examples of particular language features you found, and so on. You will need to record your results and there are many ways to do this: tables, diagrams, charts, graphs and so on.

The findings and results give the data that has been collected. In all cases, reference must be made to the location of the information in your text, the main details of the data and any comments on this. See: Writing Results.

V. Discussion.

When you have some results, you can decide what they mean - that is, interpret them. Start by repeating the main purpose of the study. Then give possible explanations for or speculations about your findings. You need to judge how strong you think your findings are. If all the evidence points clearly in one direction, you are probably quite safe in saying that in these circumstances, with these informants and these conditions, this will be the result, but beware of generalising inappropriately. It is important to attribute the right amount of weight to the right factors, and discard as unreliable any evidence that is irregular .

Make sure you relate each finding back to those you discussed in the literature review, so as to show how your results compare with others. You will need to say if yours are the same or different, and will need to say why. Relate this also to your original question or your hypothesis/es: say whether your findings support your original hypothesis or answer your research question. Think widely when interpreting the results: think about how you can explain your findings. There may also be an interaction between certain factors that you had not considered at first, but which may be the explanation of something that you could not at first understand.

You will need to consider any limitations of your study as they will affect the strength of your conclusions. Look back over the conduct of your study, and, seeing it globally, discuss whether you think you have done it in the best way. It is quite likely that in the course of it you thought of better ways of doing things: don't disguise this, but mention your criticisms. Your basic question here is: what aspect of the dissertation could have been done better? Did you ask the right question? Did you use the best possible data-collection techniques? Focus honestly on what you see as the weakest points of the project, and address them. It is important that you disclose what went wrong. Nobody expects research to go absolutely smoothly. Worse in some ways is when you realise - half-way through the study - that the method you're using is not going to give quite the information you wanted. Don 't hide any of this: it gives you part of your final interpretation of the results. What are the implications of your study? How far can you generalise?

So the main purpose of the discussion is to show your reader that the results lead clearly to the conclusion being drawn. This may include any limitations that might cause problems with any claims being made as well as any possible explanations for these results. See: Writing  Discussions.

VI. The Conclusion.

The conclusion starts with a summary of what you have found. Was your research question a good one? Was your hypothesis justified? What are you now sure of? How does it relate to other findings?

The conclusion includes the your final points.

    1. It should recall the issues you raised in the introduction and draw together the points you made in the results and discussion
    2. and come to a clear conclusion.

It should clearly signal to the reader that the dissertation or thesis is finished and leave a clear impression of your new contribution to the knowledge of your subject. You might here include and practical implications or recommendations for practitioners in your field and suggestions for further research in the area. See: Writing Conclusions.

PRELIMINARIES
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I. INTRODUCTION

 

Context
Identification of Gap
Organisation Statement

 

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II. LITERATURE REVIEW

 

Introductory Sentences - Overview
More Details of Background
Detailed Identification of Gap
Problem to be Solved
Overview of Structure of Dissertation
...
Concluding Sentences

 
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III. METHODOLOGY

 

Introductory Sentences - Overview
Approach
Procedures
Materials
...
Concluding Sentences

 

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IV. FINDINGS/RESULTS

 

Introductory Sentences
Locating Results
Findings
Comment
...
Concluding Sentences

 

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V. DISCUSSION

 

Introductory Sentences - Overview
Review of Findings
Possible Explanations
Limitations
...
Concluding Sentences

 

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VI. CONCLUSION

 

Recall Issues in Introduction - Report Purpose; 
Draw Together Main Points;
Final Comment - Clear Conclusion.
Implications/Future Work

 
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END MATTER

3. End Matter

At the end of the report, there should be a list of references. This should give full information about the materials that you have used in the report. See Writing References for more information on the reference list. As always, put here all and only all the works you have cited in the text.

Appendices: Put here any data that was too extensive to incorporate earlier. In the text, for example, you might have included the tables/graphs that give the results of your analyses. In the Appendices, you can give the raw data to enable the reader to make her/his own analysis. You may also include full transcripts of interviews or texts, questionnaires, and so on.


For more information, see also: Bitchener (2010); Brown (2006, ch. 9); Carter, Kelly & Brailsford (2012, ch. 1); Cooley & Lewkowicz (2003, ch. 5); Creswell (2003); Day (1989); Deane & Borg (2011, chap. 7); Dunleavy (2003, ch. 3); Feak & Swales (2009); Feak & Swales (2011); Lewin (2010); Kamler & Thomson, 2006, ch. 6); Madsen (1992); Menasche (1997); Murphy & Beglar (2009, ch. 5); Paltridge & Starfield (2007, ch. 5); Phillips & Pugh (1987); Ridley (2008); Swales & Feak (2009); Williams, Bethell, Lawton, Parfitt-Brown, Richardson & Rowe (2010); Williams, Bethell, Lawton, Parfitt-Brown, Richardson & Rowe (2011), Wallace & Wray (2006, ch. 13).

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