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					Writing a Dissertation

      Dr. Lorna Uden
  Staffordshire University
  Why do you need to write a dissertation?

• To document work you have done, so that others might
  benefit from it, use it and cite it.
• As part of course requirements.
• To demonstrate your ability to put the coursework into
• To establish a claim for originality.

 Not necessarily the only reasons, but a fairly good set of
      explanations as to why a dissertation is normally
                    required in degrees.

The General Idea:
• A thesis is a hypothesis or conjecture.
• A PhD dissertation is a lengthy, formal document that
  argues in defense of a particular thesis.
• The dissertation must be “original” and “substantial.”
• A dissertation highlights original contributions.
• The scientific method means starting with a hypothesis
  and then collecting evidence to support or deny it.

• Before one can write a dissertation defending a
  particular thesis, one must collect evidence that supports
• The most difficult aspect of writing a dissertation consists
  of organizing the evidence and associated discussions
  into a coherent form.
• The essence of a dissertation is critical
  thinking, not experimental data. Analysis
  and concepts form the heart of the work.

• A dissertation concentrates on principles:
  it states the lessons learned, and not
  merely the facts behind them.

• In general, every statement in a
  dissertation must be supported either by a
  reference to published scientific literature
  or by original work.
• A dissertation does not repeat the details of critical
  thinking and analysis found in published sources; it
  uses the results as fact and refers the reader to the
  source for further details.

• Each sentence in a dissertation must be complete
  and correct in a grammatical sense.
• Each statement in a dissertation must be correct
  and defensible in a logical and scientific sense.
• Moreover, the discussions in a dissertation must
  satisfy the most stringent rules of logic applied to
  mathematics and science.

Hints for Success
a) Ideas for the Introduction
• a clear statement of your subject
• an explanation of why the research is worthwhile
• an outline of methods used
• an indication of the limitations of the study
• a summary of the chapters to follow
b) Ideas for the Chapters
• each one should answer a major question
• each chapter should contain lots of answers to smaller
• use sub-headings to guide your reader
• develop points carefully, step by step
• each chapter should make sense if it were to be read on
   its own
• give chapters introductions and conclusions as well
c) Appendices
• are designed to let you include material which could not be
   fitted easily into any chapter.
• a large document would look awkward in the middle of a
   chapter, so it should be included as an appendix.
• important material referred to in more than one chapter
   should go in as an appendix.
• check with your supervisor that appendixes are acceptable,
   and discuss the material you wish to include in them. Also
   check on whether material included in your appendixes
   counts towards the wordage for the dissertation.
d) Bibliography
• set out all sources used - printed or otherwise,
• everything referred to in the text must be cited in the
• use the appropriate referencing system as advised by your
   supervisor or module leader.
 What might we be seeking to convey to the
                reader ?

• An understanding of why the work/project done is
  worthwhile and useful.
• That our own work was performed competently.
• Awareness of any related work performed elsewhere
  (and how it relates to our own work).
• An appraisal of the significance and degree of
  success/relevance of our own work.
• Ideas for future work.

   Keep the reader‟s attention

Will be aided by a
good logical
structure, including
the use of
• lists
• diagrams
• headings
• emphasis

...beware of:
• using too many typefaces/fonts
• overuse of emphasis
• excess clutter (redundant figures, over-
   detailed sub-headings, too many bullets)
• using citations as a means of avoiding
   explaining something

Components of a document

Logical structure                    Technical content


Presentation style               Assumptions (context)

        Contents of a document
• Logical structure: determines how the
  document is organised and partitioned. This is
  fairly independent of content.
• Technical content: determined locally and
  specific to a given project.
• Presentation style: individual, but needs to
  consider some rules.
• Assumptions (context): determined by the
  intended audience/readership, their expected
  level of knowledge and familiarity with each
     Logical structure: an example

1. Preamble
2. Introduction
3. Background
4. Literature Review
5. Solution
6. Results
7. Project Management
8. Conclusion
9. Bibliography/References
10. Appendices/Glossary
              1. Preamble

Likely to include
• Abstract.
• Acknowledgements (optional).
• Table of content.
• List of figures and tables.

                2. Introduction
• Short and to the point
• Gives summary of:
  –   why the work was done.
  –   major features of the problem and solution.
  –   any significant aspects of the solution that the
      reader might need to anticipate when reading
      the rest.
  –   the structure of the rest of the document.

– What is the topic and why is it important?
– State the problem(s) as simply as you can.
– How does it fit into the broader world of your
– The introduction should be interesting.
– This section might go through several drafts
  to make it read well and logically, while
  keeping it short.
– Your introduction should tell where the thesis
  is going, and this may become clearer during
  the writing.

               3. Background
• Elements may involve
  –   Historical aspect (previous work in the area).
  –   Technical features (specific aspects of the
      problem that make it of interest).
  –   Specific techniques that the reader needs to
      be reminded of (have explained to them) in
      order to understand the solution.
• Also has the effect of identifying the level
  of understanding expected of the reader.
          4. Literature Review
• An examination of existing work related to your
  topic area
• To include aspects of
   – Theory
   – Practice
   – Experience

• Up to date references preferred

The literature review should ask:

• Where did the problem come from?

• What is already known about this problem?

• What other methods have been tried to
  solve it?

5. Solution

           your bit!
        (needs to be structured)

                  6. Results
• Main purpose is to capture information
  –   what happened
  –   what was learned from this
• This should be presented in as objective a
  form as possible, which might include a
  degree of analysis (this might be the topic
  of another section)

      7. Project Management
• You need to describe how you managed
  your project.
• Did the original plan need to be altered? If
  – Why did you need to alter it?
  – How did it affect the progress of your project?
• Provide a final project plan.

              8. Conclusion

•   Keep it brief.
•   Provide a structure.
•   Look back.
•   Be analytical.
•   Draw conclusions.
•   Suggest further

      9. Bibliography/references
• Bibliography sections are mainly suited to
  –   books
  –   review articles
• but may be appropriate where the project
  involves a large degree of surveying of a
• A reference section should always be
  included, and used to support your
  arguments by means of citation (see later).
• Two questions:
  –   when?
  –   how?
• When involves the decision about whether we
  should acknowledge the source(s) of ideas, and
  how often this should be repeated.
• How is a question of labelling.
  – Journals use different styles
  – YOU MUST USE Harvard Style.

       Harvard referencing style
The University standard:
• Labelling by author name and year (Uden, 1995).

• The References section of the dissertation will be
  in alphabetic order (not the order introduced in the

       10. Appendices/glossary
• Any material that is so voluminous or detailed that
  it will change the level of abstraction within a
  section, or is likely to overwhelm the reader,
  should go in an appendix.
• When in doubt, provide a summary in the section
  and provide an appendix.
• Use of a glossary maybe helpful where the topic
  involves specialist use of language, especially
  where this comes from the application area.

         Technical content
A few points to remember:
• Try to have one key message (usually the
  goal of the project) and concentrate on
• Don‟t obscure this message, present it so
  that it cannot be misunderstood.
• Don‟t try to say too much, especially about
  related areas that are not directly relevant.
         Presentation style

Relevant factors might include:
• Sentence length.
• Sentence structures.
• Vocabulary.
• Use of headings and subheadings to help
  the reader to navigate through the work.
• Use of citations.

Remember, it is unlikely that the readers will be as
familiar with the detailed material as you are,
   – spell out those things that are important for
     understanding the problem and your solution.
   – where you refer to some item of „standard‟
     knowledge, a brief summary as a reminder
     might be helpful, but not a tutorial!

               How to do it...
• Have a plan that describes the structure of the
  dissertation (sections, subsections), and a list of
  the topics to be covered in each one.
• Be prepared to modify the plan!
• Don‟t feel it necessary to begin writing at the first
  section, order of development is personal.
• Make notes as you write, especially where you
  realise that something will need to be covered in
  another section, or that an item is missing, or...

           What to do it with...
• Really a matter of personal taste
  and of availability
• Text formatters allow you to
  manage the document‟s logical
  structure, but are less visual
• Word processors allow you to see
  what the finished document will look
  like, but it is easy to get diverted into
  typesetting niceties as an alternative
  to thinking about content!

             To Summarise
       (A suggested thesis structure from Joe Wolfe)

• Title page
  – This may vary among institutions, but as an
    example: Title/author/ "A thesis submitted
    for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the
    Faculty of Computing, Engineering and
    Technology/at Staffordshire University "

• Abstract
  – Of all your thesis, this part will be the most widely
    published and most read because it will be published
    in Dissertation Abstracts International.
  – It is best written towards the end, but not at the very
    last minute because you will probably need several
  – It should be a distillation of the thesis: a concise
    description of the problem(s) addressed, your method
    of solving it/them, your results and conclusions.
  – An abstract must be self-contained.
  – Usually they do not contain references. When a
    reference is necessary, its details should be included
    in the text of the abstract.
  – Check the word limit.
• Acknowledgments
  – Most thesis authors put in a page of thanks to those who
    have helped them in matters scientific, and also indirectly
    by providing such essentials as food, education, genes,
    money, help, advice, friendship etc. If any of your work is
    collaborative, you should make it quite clear who did
    which sections.

• Table of contents
  – The introduction starts on page 1, the earlier pages
    should have roman numerals. It helps to have the
    subheadings of each chapter, as well as the chapter
    titles. Remember that the thesis may be used as a
    reference in the lab, so it helps to be able to find things
The First Chapter should give:

•   The general background of your work,
•   A review of the work done by other people,
•   The objective of your own work,
•   The reasons why your work is interesting
    and useful.

The Middle Chapters should give detailed
  information about your work so that other
  people could repeat what you have done,
  or could do further work starting where
  your work finished.
In these chapters you should:
• Explain the theory,
• Describe exactly how you did the work,
• Give the results you obtained.

– In some theses, the middle chapters are the
  journal articles of which the student was major

– The exact structure in the middle chapters will
  vary among theses.

– In some theses, it is necessary to establish
 some theory, to describe the experimental
 techniques, then to report what was done on
 several different problems or different stages of
 the problem, and then finally to present a
 model or a new theory based on the new work.
– For such a thesis, the chapter headings might
  be: Theory, Materials and Methods, {first
  problem}, {second problem}, {third problem},
  {proposed theory/model} and then the
  conclusion chapter.

– For other theses, it might be appropriate to
  discuss different techniques in different
  chapters, rather than to have a single Materials
  and Methods chapter.

– Materials and Methods vary enormously from
  thesis to thesis, and may be absent in theoretical
  theses. It should be possible for a competent
  researcher to reproduce exactly what you have
  done by following your description. There is a
  good chance that this test will be applied:
  sometime after you have left, another researcher
  will want to do a similar experiment either with
  your gear, or on a new set-up in a foreign country.
  Please write for the benefit of that researcher. In
  some theses, particularly multi-disciplinary or
  developmental ones, there may be more than
  one such chapter. In this case, the different
  disciplines should be indicated in the chapter
• Theory
  – When you are reporting theoretical work that is
    not original, you will usually need to include
    sufficient material to allow the reader to
    understand the arguments used and their
    physical bases. Sometimes you will be able to
    present the theory ab initio, but you should not
    reproduce two pages of algebra that the reader
    could find in a standard text. Do not include
    theory that you are not going to relate to the work
    you have done. When writing this section,
    concentrate at least as much on the physical
    arguments as on the equations. What do the
    equations mean? What are the important cases?
– When you are reporting your own theoretical
  work, you must include rather more detail,
  but you should consider moving lengthy
  derivations to appendices. Think too about
  the order and style of presentation: the order
  in which you did the work may not be the
  clearest presentation.
– Suspense is not necessary in reporting
  science: you should tell the reader where
  you are going before you start.

The Last Chapter should:

• State the conclusions you have drawn
  from your work.
• Compare your conclusions with the
  opinions of other people (Are your
  conclusions the same or different?).
• Suggest what new work should be done to
  answer questions raised by your work and
  extend our knowledge further.

What to avoid
• Excessive description. The dissertation should
  offer an analytical treatment of the subject under
  investigation. This is probably the most common
  weakness cited by examiners.
• Poor definition of the question. One of the
  biggest differences between a dissertation and an
  essay or exam is that it is up to you to define the
  research question you wish to answer. Often, this is
  the most difficult task of all. It is also one of the
  most important. A fuzzy question often results in a
  weak overall structure, since the structure of the
  dissertation should be designed so that each
  section contributes to the argument you are making
  in response to the question.
• Poor integration of theoretical and empirical
  material. This is probably the second most
  common weakness. Many dissertations contain
  theoretical discussions that are meant to inform the
  analysis of the material under study but that are
  never rigorously and clearly applied to it. All too
  often, the theoretical section simply stands isolated
  from the rest of the text - a summary of some
  political science theory that is never referred to
  again in the dissertation. Its inclusion reflects an
  awareness that it is somehow relevant but it is
  never brought to bear on the case or cases under
                Final thoughts...
• Have a plan.
• Produce a draft outline
  before writing any sections.
• Be prepared to:
  –   modify the plan;
  –   reorganise the outline;
  –   rewrite each and every
  –   scrap what you have written
      for a section and start again!


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