Dissertation Chapters Demystified: A Roadmap for Doctoral Candidates

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Understanding how to break your PhD project down into dissertation chapters can help you with the writing process. The standard doctoral dissertation has 5 chapters, and each plays a critical role.

Dissertation Chapters Demystified: A Roadmap for Doctoral Candidates

Once you get a good grasp of the typical chapter outline, you could be ready to organize your thoughts and information.

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Your goal is to present a cohesive, compelling final draft to your dissertation defense committee, and having a strong chapter structure can help you accomplish it.

Dissertation Chapters

PhD student working on his dissertation chapters

The average dissertation length is usually between 100 and 300 pages. Those pages are typically divided between several chapters.

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While the format can vary, the following list of chapters represents a common dissertation structure.

Chapter 1: Introduction

PhD student working on Introduction of her dissertation

As the name implies, this chapter is where you’ll introduce your topic to the reader. You can do this by discussing:

  • The problem you’re considering
  • The framework undergirding your study
  • Drawbacks and limitations of your study
  • An explanation of any technical terms

Most importantly, this section should also include a brief statement about the purpose of your research. It’s essential to explicitly state why this study is important.

Your explanation should tie into the problem that you’ve already mentioned. From there, you can present the questions that your study was designed to answer or the hypothesis you’ve developed. You may also share information about how you think your findings will be used.

Even though this is the first chapter in your dissertation, it’s usually helpful to hold off on writing it until later in your writing process. The content of your other chapters may shape what you put in your introduction.

Chapter 2: Review of the Literature

Man researching for his dissertation

The theoretical and conceptual framework with which you’ve entered your study is based on the research that has come before yours. This chapter gives you the opportunity to present information about that research.

First, you’ll present your methodology for finding the relevant scholarly literature. This includes:

  • How far back your search went
  • What bodies of literature you searched
  • Which terms you used to guide your search

You’ll discuss and critique your literature findings. If there is a very large body of studies available, then you’ll likely want to be selective about how much detail you share. You may choose to stick only to studies that are directly relevant to your specific question.

On the other hand, there are cases in which you’ll research literature relevant to several different topics within your study. Remember to be open and honest. If there are studies that contradict your framework, then address them.

Chapter 3: Research Methodology

Woman reviewing the Research Methodology of her dissertation

Your goal here is to make sure the reader precisely understands how you carried out your research study.

You’ll share information on any of the following categories that are relevant to your research:

  • Context or setting of the study
  • Data organization methods
  • Ethical considerations and implications
  • Methods of gathering data
  • Participants in the study
  • Steps of the study
  • Timeline of the research
  • Tools or instruments used
  • Variables introduced into the study

Which of the above categories are relevant may depend on whether your study is quantitative or qualitative. This section is also where you’ll discuss your methods for analyzing the data collected during the study.

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In addition to sharing the facts about your methodology, you’ll also justify the method you chose. It’s necessary to address any limitations to your approach as well.

Chapter 4: Presentation of Results or Findings

Man working on presentation of results of his dissertation

Now that you’ve shared your methodology, you are ready to tell your reader what those methods have achieved. This chapter is dedicated to laying out the results of your study. You may include statistics throughout the text.

To make the information more easily accessible, you may want to include:

  • Charts
  • Graphs
  • Tables

Extremely detailed findings, including your raw data, don’t typically need to be listed here. If you want to include that information, you can add it in an appendix. Along with presenting your results in this chapter, you may begin to interpret them as well. If so, you won’t go too deep at this point.

Various universities have different guidelines on whether there should be any interpretations contained in this chapter.

Chapter 5: Summary, Implications, and Outcomes

Woman reviewing Summary, Implications, and Outcomes of her dissertation

The final chapter is where you can dive deep into the significance of your research. Considering that this chapter is a conclusion, you’ll typically start by summarizing the purpose and questions of your project. Then, you can discuss how your work has fulfilled those goals or answered the questions.

You can also cover:

  • Connections to previous research
  • Future research that can build off of yours
  • Ideas for policy changes
  • Implications for professional practice
  • Limitations of your study

As you interpret your results, you might make some definitive statements, but it’s recommended to only do that if the evidence is overwhelmingly clear. If there’s margin for differing interpretations, it’s beneficial to sound more speculative.

Your dissertation outline may divide this portion of the manuscript into several smaller chapters instead of just one longer chapter.

How Long Should a Chapter Be in Dissertations?

Man checking printed copies of his dissertation

In a 100 to 125 page paper, your chapter lengths may be as follows:

  • Introduction: You’ll introduce your research project in 12 to 15 pages.
  • Literature Review: This section may range from 20 to 40 pages.
  • Methodology: You’ll typically spend 15 or 20 pages sharing your research methodology.
  • Results: The presentation of your results will likely span 15 to 20 pages.
  • Discussion and Conclusion: You can use 15 to 20 pages for your discussion and 5 to 10 pages for your conclusions.

The length of each dissertation chapter will depend, in part, on the overall length of the paper.

Is a Dissertation Peer Reviewed?

doctoral student reviewing her dissertation

No, a dissertation is not peer reviewed. Peer-reviewed journals do not publish dissertations. People do review dissertations before they are finalized, though. For example, your doctoral advisor will go over your dissertation in incredible detail. Even still, this is different than the peer-review process.

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While dissertations are not considered peer-reviewed, they are scholarly. That’s because they are written with academic readers in mind. For projects in which you’re required to use peer-reviewed sources, it’s best not to rely on dissertations. But, if your assignment calls for scholarly sources, you may be able to use dissertations.

Writing Your Dissertation

Man writing his dissertation paper

Dissertation writing is an inevitable part of the PhD process, although some universities offer programs with no dissertation, like some online doctoral programs in education without dissertation.

For individuals who have completed all their coursework but not yet defended their dissertation, ABD (All But Dissertation) completion programs provide support and structure to help them finish their research and achieve their doctoral degree. It’s recommended to break the project down into manageable components. Focusing on one chapter at a time can help.

And now that you’re familiar with the chapter breakdowns, you may feel more confident that you know how to write a dissertation. Outlining your paper according to this structure can provide an invaluable framework. Then, you’ll be ready to fill in the body of your dissertation a few pages at a time.

With this approach, it may not be long until you start writing your first draft. The sooner you begin the dissertation process, the sooner you’ll be on your way toward completing your doctoral program.

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Joy is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy & Foreign Policy at Liberty University and holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management from Amberton University, as well as a Bachelor's in Business Administration from Columbia College. With over 20 years of experience navigating online degrees and courses, Joy's focus is helping non-traditional students find accelerated degree options and credit for prior learning opportunities.