Guidelines for Writing a Doctoral Dissertation

Doctoral Dissertation

In general, the dissertation is a formal, scholarly presentation of your culminating doctoral research.  Once it is completed, the document becomes available to the University at Albany community through the University Library and to the international community through ProQuest Information and Learning.  Your work also will become available through conference presentations and publications that you author.

You should write your dissertation with a particular audience in mind: the community (or communities) of scholars who are most likely to be interested in your work.  To some extent, the literature review for your dissertation should identify this community of scholars and its key leaders.  You should plan to publish your research (usually in an abridged form as a journal article, but sometimes as a book, book chapter, or an extended monograph), and you should write your dissertation in a way that makes it easiest to translate into a publishable form.

There are some common erroneous beliefs that doctoral students have about dissertation research. 

  1. “The dissertation must be long.” There is no need to make the dissertation a long document.  Dissertations are not valued by their size, but by the importance of their contributions to methods of inquiry or to our understanding of specific phenomena.  Often concise documents are more coherent, and thus more influential, documents.  And more concise reports are easier to revise into article-length documents for publication in a journal.
  2. “The dissertation should present everything I know about a topic.” The dissertation should only report what the reader needs to know in order to understand your conclusions and how you arrived at them.  During your doctoral studies and your dissertation research, your extensive reading and inquiry will explore many topics and interesting tangents.  Your readers do NOT need to know about these; indeed, the more you describe these “interesting” side issues, the more difficult it will be for your reader to appreciate your most crucial points.
  3. “Dissertation research is easy for good doctoral students.” The dissertation is rarely an easy experience for you or your committee and requires substantial commitment of time and intelligence from everyone.  Many students spend considerable time deciding on a topic, pursuing and abandoning different ideas until they settle on one that seems sufficiently important and personally interesting to warrant a long-term commitment.  Actually executing the study can present all sorts of problems as the best of plans go awry.  Writing, even for good writers, can be difficult because drafts will be reviewed by committee members, each with their own perspective.  In the end, however, there is no other experience that can so thoroughly move a student into expertise in a chosen area as doing the dissertation research.

The Conventional Doctoral Dissertation Format

A conventional format for the doctoral dissertation is five chapters, each chapter serving a different function.  These five chapters roughly correspond to sections of empirical studies commonly seen in journals.  Please bear in mind that this is not a required format.  If your study uses an unusual method or if you feel an alternative format makes a more readable and convincing document, then by all means feel free to deviate from this typical form in consultation with your dissertation committee.

Let us clarify the purposes of the five chapters of a conventional dissertation.

Chapter 1.  Introduction

Chapter 1 should convince a reader that the topic of the dissertation is important and that the method of inquiry is likely to make a significant contribution to the topic.  In this chapter, the researcher has the opportunity to appeal in a less formal way to practical and conceptual issues that the dissertation should be able to inform.  If there are unusual terms to be used in the text, this is the chapter where they should be first introduced.

Part of convincing readers of the importance of the research is to BRIEFLY introduce them to the method that will be employed.  (Details of method will be given in chapter 3.)  Guiding questions or hypotheses should be articulated and basic elements of the study’s method (such as purpose, subjects, data collection strategies, and data analysis strategies) should be BRIEFLY articulated.

Chapter 2.  Literature review

Chapter 2 is more formal than chapter 1 and presents a critical analysis of prior scholarship related to the central questions of the dissertation.  The literature review serves several purposes: 

  • It identifies chief researchers and documents in the community of scholars to which the dissertation is meant to contribute.
  • It identifies areas of consensus, dispute, and ignorance in the scholarship of the field and evaluates the nature and quality of support for various contentions.
  • It draws new insights or new questions from the literature to offer a conceptual or theoretical framework in which the dissertation should be understood.
  • It prepares the reader to appreciate how the dissertation will contribute significant new understanding to this framework, a point that is more fully developed in chapter 3.

The format of chapter 2 varies considerably depending on the quality of the literatures being reviewed and the degree to which the literatures emerge from a single or multiple research communities.  Headings are useful ways of organizing a literature review presentation.  Some reviews warrant tables that give brief summaries of collections of studies.  In any event, the literature review should not merely describe prior studies, but build a reasoned and well-documented case for specific conclusions and for the significance of the dissertation research.

Chapter 3.  Research method

The third chapter of the dissertation presents the method by which the researcher collects and analyzes data for the study.  It should provide a clear enough picture of what was done to allow readers to evaluate the validity of the study conclusions or emulate research strategies in another setting.

Chapter 3 should begin with a reiteration of the purpose of the study and the guiding questions or hypotheses described in chapter 1.  A full presentation of your methods should include: 

  1. Subjects and setting. The characteristics of participants of the study, how they were selected, and the setting of the study should be presented in detail.
  2. Apparatus and instrumentation. If the researcher used any tools or instruments that might be important for readers to understand (such as, assessment instruments, surveys, interview formats, observation protocols, and data collection devices), these should be described in detail.  If subjects interacted with special equipment or software, or other materials, a detailed description is essential.  Actual copies of instruments or photographs of equipment can be included in appendices.  (Be sure to obtain copyright permission if needed.)
  3. Data collection procedures. The readers should be given a thorough description of all the steps involved in data collection.  Timelines are helpful, either in outline or graphical representation.  Efforts to protect the reliability of findings and the validity of inferences should be detailed.
  4. Data analysis. Regardless of the data collection method you use, some analytic strategy must be applied to make sense of the observations.  Chapter 3 should describe the analytic strategies you intend to employ and a rationale for their use.  To the degree that you can expect your readers will be unfamiliar with your strategy, you will need to provide greater detail.  Methods of “data cleaning” and refinement, categorization schemes and how they were developed, data transformations, statistical tests, and checks on the validity and generalizability of conclusions are suitable topics.  You provide sufficient information for readers to determine the reasonableness of your conclusions.

Any unexpected deviation from your data collection plans or unusual events that might complicate the interpretation of your findings should be frankly described here (and mentioned again in both chapters 4 and 5).  Depending on your study’s method or peculiarities of your implementation, other issues might need to be addressed in this chapter.  For example, some studies might warrant a discussion of ethical issues in the research or provide a more thorough rationale for the particular method used compared to other possible modes of inquiry.

Chapter 4.  Results

The fourth chapter of the dissertation summarizes and analyzes the study’s data with only minimal interpretation.  This chapter should bring your readers as close as reasonable to the original data and experiences of your study.  This gives the reader some chance to form his or her own inferences from your data and match them against your own conclusions in chapter 5.  It should begin with a brief review of the purpose of the study and the research method employed.  The presentation in chapter 4 should closely follow the guiding questions or hypotheses articulated earlier in the dissertation.  Indeed, these questions and hypotheses could be used as headings for sections in which findings relevant to the questions are presented.  The results should be presented first in their simplest form (such as, simple narrative descriptions, simple counts of frequency, and descriptive statistics), later in more complex forms (multifactor interactions and generalized patterns or inferential statistics).

Generally, interpretation of findings is reserved for chapter 5, but if your study is very complex, readers are likely to become bored reading page after page of uninterpreted results.  Sometimes it is useful to highlight the most important findings both in the text and in accompanying tables and to draw some simple conclusions in anticipation of more developed discussions in chapter 5.

It is certainly possible that your results might require several chapters to present.  This is especially true if your findings are in some way voluminous (e.g., many different kinds of data, thick descriptions of settings, multiple case studies, etc.) and could be most convincingly presented around distinct and independent themes or factors.

Chapter 5.  Doctoral Dissertation Discussion

Chapter 5 is perhaps the most crucial because it presents your contribution to the research literature and because some cursory readers will attend to this chapter only.  Therefore, it is typical to summarize briefly essential points made in chapters 1 and 3: why is this topic important and how was this study designed to contribute to our understanding of the topic?  The remainder of the chapter teases out the implications of the study’s findings.  These implications can be grouped into those related to theory or generalization, those related to practice, and those related to future research, and separate sections with corresponding headings are good organizers. 

  • Theoretical implications involve your interpretation of the dissertation findings in terms of the questions and hypotheses that guided the study. It is appropriate to critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your work, the degree to which your conclusions are credible given your method and data.  It also should include a critical, retrospective examination of the framework presented in the literature review in light of the dissertation’s new findings.
  • Practice implications should delineate applications of new insights derived from the dissertation to solve real and significant problems of education.
  • Two kinds of implications for future research are possible: one based on what the study did and found, the other based on what the study did not do or find. Generally, future research could look at different kinds of students in different kinds of settings, interventions with new kinds of protocols or dependent measures, or new theoretical issues which emerge from your study.  You should suggest which of these possibilities are likely to be most fruitful and why.

No new data or citations should be introduced in chapter 5, though you should refer liberally to findings or citations presented in earlier chapters.  Here, however, new frameworks and new insights can and, hopefully, will be articulated.

The last words of chapter 5 should give the “walkaway message,” the enduring ideas or conclusions that you wish readers to keep when they are done.  This should be presented in the simplest possible form, being sure to preserve the conditional nature of your insights.

Writing the dissertation

It is usually best to begin your dissertation research with the literature review.  Clarifying what others have done and found in regards to the questions you are pursuing should help you clarify your own purposes and questions and help you think about the data collection strategies you will use.  You should develop a rationale for your intended study on the basis of the prior research you review.  A critical literature review is usually done as part of the process of proposal development, though the review will need revision after dissertation results are obtained.

Next you should clarify the methods you will employ in your inquiry.  This should be done in as much detail as possible, to communicate your intentions to your committee as well as anticipate and plan for possible difficulties you might encounter in study implementation.  A detailed “methods” description is necessary for your dissertation proposal.

In the Department of Educational Theory and Practice, some faculty members require that your dissertation proposal include drafts of your first three dissertation chapters.  This requirement makes chapter 1 the most obvious candidate for the next chapter to be written, building a case for the significance of the study.

Your committee will reflect on your proposal and typically make suggestions for changes.  When approved, you are ready to implement your study.  Chapter 4 becomes the next best chapter to write as the results of your study become clear.  At this point, it may be worthwhile to reexamine and rewrite or clarify parts of your literature review (chapter 2) and methods (chapter 3).  That is, your study results are likely to send you back to the literature or to your methodology as you begin to assemble a convincing interpretation of your findings or document ways in which your study implementation deviated from your plan.

Now you are ready to write chapter 5, to reflect on the implications of your findings for theory, practice, and future research.  But you have one more thing (besides bibliographies, tables, and appendices) to write after chapter 5 is done..  You should revise chapter 1 after everything is written to make it the best possible introduction to your study.

Your dissertation committee

Different dissertation committees operate very differently depending on the leadership of the chair, the personal styles of the members, and how well the members get along with each other.  In general, it’s best to remember two things.  First, this dissertation is your research, not your committee’s.  You must feel comfortable with their suggestions, or you should make every effort to negotiate something that you’re comfortable with.  You should understand everything you do and be able to provide rationales for your decisions.  In the end, you have to live with your research.  You are seeking an education, so make the most of this opportunity to learn and produce something you are confident in and proud of.  But you must temper your sense of ownership with a sense that, to some degree, doctoral research is (as virtually all research is) collaborative, your committee members being collaborators (albeit somewhat detached collaborators) in your project.  Your committee members should be available to support you in your work, but also to challenge you to meet standards of excellence you may not have thought possible.  If you can balance these two views of your committee members, as both caring consultants and challenging collaborators, it can relieve some of the stress you might feel when you receive extensive, and sometimes contradictory, suggestions from the faculty.

After the dissertation is approved…

By the time your dissertation is approved by your committee, you may feel elated about being done, eager to get on with important nonacademic aspects of your life, or just tired of your research.  However, the best time to revise your dissertation for publication is immediately after its approval, when the study is freshest in your mind.  Presenting your doctoral research at conferences or academic job interviews or publishing it as an article or book can open many new opportunities for you.  If you feel your dissertation chair or committee members have been essential collaborators in your work, you can invite them to co-author publications with you and enlist their help in crafting subsequent presentations.  The dissertation should mark the beginning of a set of subsequent studies and projects, not the end of your work in this area.


Most important of all, try to find ways to enjoy your research.  Research is almost always at some point tedious and discouraging.  Don’t let yourself be frustrated with the tedium, logistical headaches, or disappointing findings, but keep focused on what you find personally interesting in your work and let yourself enjoy it.

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