How to Write a Dissertation [2024 Guide]

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If you’re about to enroll in a doctoral program that requires a dissertation, you might be wondering how to write a dissertation.

How to Write a Dissertation

A dissertation is a large research paper included in many PhD programs. As a doctoral student, part of earning your degree may include selecting a dissertation topic to conduct original research on and writing a dissertation that details your findings and contributes to your discipline.

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Depending on your school and program of study, you may begin working on your dissertation once you’ve completed all your doctoral coursework.

How to Write a Dissertation

PhD student writing his dissertation

Writing a dissertation is a lengthy process that includes conducting preliminary and principal research as well as writing a first and final draft.

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You’ll also maintain communication with your dissertation advisor to gain feedback throughout the dissertation writing process.

These are the 10 major steps that go into creating a dissertation:

  1. Select a topic you’re interested in. A dissertation topic generally has some area where there’s a current gap in research or knowledge that you can build upon.
  2. Begin conducting preliminary research on your topic. At this stage, you can begin taking notes of current findings or theories on your topic to gain an understanding of what information is already out there. You can also formulate any questions you may answer later in your dissertation.
  3. Write and submit a research proposal. The research proposal will be submitted to your dissertation advisor. It introduces what you plan to address in your dissertation and the research methodology you’ve selected.
  4. Conduct in-depth research. This is when you’ll take a deep dive into your topic and consume as much knowledge as you can to identify gaps in research relevant to your topic and develop your key findings.
  5. Create an outline for your dissertation paper. It’s recommended to create an outline of your dissertation to break down what needs to be included and how you want to structure the paper.
  6. Write the first draft. The first draft can help you organize all your ideas and discussions for each chapter. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it may help you identify sections or ideas that may need to be revised later.
  7. Rework the first draft. After you’ve completed the first draft, you may make changes to the structure of your paper, remove or add sentences, look for any spelling or grammatical errors, and ensure that the paper is readable.
  8. Write the final draft. One of the last stages in the dissertation writing process is working on the final draft. This is where the structure of your paper, your thoughts, and your findings all come together to create a clear and concise dissertation ready for defense.
  9. Edit the final draft. A final review of your dissertation can help you identify anything you could’ve missed in your first round of editing. You’ll also revise any sections you added.
  10. Prepare for your dissertation defense. Dissertation advisors usually don’t allow you to move onto the dissertation defense step until they know you’re ready. Your advisor may ask you to make additional changes to your dissertation before you start preparing for the dissertation defense process.

Communicating with your dissertation advisor and other members of your dissertation committee is important to receive valuable feedback. The dissertation committee is there to support you through this process, and they may offer additional sources for you to review to create a stronger dissertation.

You can also look at other dissertations in your field of study to get an idea of how to structure your dissertation and clearly communicate your ideas.

Typical Dissertation Chapters

doctoral student reviewing some chapters on her dissertation

The structure of a dissertation can vary depending on your topic, discipline, and the guidelines provided by your school.

Major differences in dissertations can be seen between STEM doctoral programs versus non-STEM programs. Although there are some differences, most dissertations include these chapters:

  • Introduction. The first chapter of a dissertation is the introduction. It briefly explains your dissertation topic and relevant background information, and it introduces the reader to your thesis statement or research question.
  • Literature Review. This section serves as a discussion of the primary and secondary sources you’ve used throughout your research process, and it identifies the research gap that you intend to resolve in the remaining chapters.
  • Research Methodology. All of the methods you’ve chosen to conduct your research are described in this section, including when and where you gathered your data, how you gathered data or conducted tests, and any challenges you faced during this process.
  • Results. This chapter is reserved for discussing all of your findings, which should answer your research question or address your doctoral thesis.
  • Conclusion. The conclusion chapter summarizes your dissertation. It may include answering your research question or revisiting your thesis statement and findings, but it shouldn’t include any new evidence or data.

Along with these chapters, a dissertation also includes a title page, abstract, table of contents, and bibliography. Some dissertations have an acknowledgment page, list of figures and tables, abbreviations page, and glossary.

What Is a Dissertation?

student researching for his dissertation

A dissertation is a long-form research paper typically required in PhD programs that introduces a new theory supported by original research. The dissertation process includes finding research gaps related to your topic and conducting original research to address those gaps.

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Researching a topic and writing a dissertation is one of the final stages in earning your doctoral degree. Once you’ve completed the writing process and your dissertation advisor has approved your final draft, the next step is presenting your dissertation in a dissertation defense.

What is a dissertation defense? A dissertation defense, as a final step, is an oral examination where a doctoral candidate presents and defends their research, methodology, and conclusions before a committee of experts to determine if they have met the requirements for earning a PhD.

Can I Get a PhD Without a Dissertation?

People pursuing PhD degree

Yes, you can get a PhD without a dissertation. Although producing a dissertation is standard for doctoral programs, some PhD programs don’t require a dissertation.

One example is earning a law degree, which usually requires legal writing courses in place of a dissertation. In addition, accelerated PhD programs may not require a dissertation.

Some online doctoral programs in education without dissertation require a capstone project instead. Capstone projects may be delivered as a paper, portfolio, or product intended to solve a real-world problem by applying new research.

How Long Is a Dissertation for a PhD?

student taking PhD reviewing printouts of her dissertation

Dissertation length can widely vary depending on your program of study and topic. Non-STEM dissertations are usually longer than STEM dissertations.

A dissertation may be anywhere between 80,000 to 100,000 words or about 100-300 pages. Non-STEM dissertations may be closer to 200-300 pages, while a STEM dissertation is usually 100-200 pages.

The length of each chapter in a dissertation also varies. The literature review is typically the longest chapter, generally ranging from 20 pages to 25 pages. Other chapters may be between 10 pages to 20 pages long.

How Long Does It Take to Write a Dissertation?

student taking PhD, reviewing his dissertation

Writing a doctoral dissertation can take months or years depending on your own writing process, discipline, and topic.

On average, it may take 1 year to 2 years to finish writing a dissertation. The total time it takes to complete a dissertation, including the research process, may be anywhere between 1 year to 3 years or longer.

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If your dissertation is closer to 300 pages long, it may take more than 1 year to write it. The writing process may also take longer if your dissertation advisor makes any revision requests. As you can see, how long it takes to write a dissertation depends on a number of factors.

Writing a Dissertation Paper

Woman writing her dissertation paper

Writing a doctoral dissertation is a lengthy process that takes about 1 to 3 years. Most doctoral students begin the dissertation research and writing process once all graduate coursework is completed.

The research portion is key because this is when you can take a lot of notes and become an expert on your topic. It can be helpful to approach the writing process step by step. It’s recommended to start with the chapter you feel most comfortable writing first.

If you want to complete a doctoral degree and tackle a dissertation, you can also consult with your dissertation advisor and other members of the dissertation committee for feedback.

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Amy holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Old Dominion University, with a minor in English. She previously worked as an educator before starting her career as a writer. Amy spends much of her time researching and writing, with the goal of sharing valuable information with readers.