PhD Writing – How to Structure the Perfect Dissertation


A good piece of writing is born out of a clear thought process. A process wherein information flows naturally toward a purpose.

The challenge we experience in writing is the result of our efforts in untangling obscurities in our minds. This holds true for all types of writings as we always have a reason (or more) for presenting information, even if we are oblivious to it.

Writing a dissertation, in essence, is formulating an argument. A cogent argument is a clear and well-structured set of statements that support a conclusion. Creating an outline for your dissertation or thesis helps you objectify your argument to assess its validity before investing any time in writing it. For an arduous academic project like this, it saves you a lot of time and effort over the course of months.

Dissertation Outline

A dissertation outline can be thought of as an intellectual scaffolding that supports the construction of your theoretical framework. It is a high-level structure that helps you visualize what you want to convey and keep track of your thoughts and progress.

Creating an outline is necessary because it helps you connect the information to form a coherent and logical statement. It’s a rough sketch that allows you to experiment with ideas before committing to anything and shows you where you need to go, which makes the process a much better experience. But before we delve deeper into how to create a good outline, let’s briefly overview the components that are included in a dissertation.

The Common Structure of a Dissertation

As with any other academic paper, the structure of a dissertation can vary depending on its type and nature. In addition, different universities might have slightly different approaches but the core elements usually remain the same. However, before finalizing your structure, we recommend that you check in with your institution to make sure you’ll follow their specific requirements.  

A typical dissertation is made up of 8 sections:

  1. Front Matter – This section typically includes all the pages that come before the introduction. It contains the title page, acknowledgments, abstract, table of contents, list of tables and figures, list of abbreviations, and glossary;
  2. Introduction – As the name suggests, the introductory section sets up the topic and justifies the purpose and relevance of the research. It provides a road map of what’s to be expected in the main body of the paper;
  3. Literature Review – This section takes a look at the existing studies in the space of the dissertation’s subject. Here, the author reviews the existing sources and provides a theoretical background and critical assessment to form a clear basis for his or her research;
  4. Methodology – This section lays out how the research has been designed and conducted. It includes the methods of data collection and analysis to answer the research questions.
  5. Results – the results chapter is about presenting the raw findings. It does not include any interpretation of the findings or their analysis in relation to the research questions or the literature;
  6. Discussion – This chapter is where the results are interpreted to infer meaningful findings. The author then compares and related the findings to the literature to show if they align or are at odds with each other and hypotheses are set forth to explain why that’s the case. 
  7. Conclusion – The conclusion addresses the main research questions and binds together the paper’s various parts to present the reader with the author’s central argument and ultimate finding;
  8. End Matter – This last section contains the reference list and appendices.

How to Create a Dissertation Outline

Choose a Topic and Form a Thesis

Before you start writing an outline, you should have a clear idea about the argument or thesis you want to present. If you haven’t already, you should do a fair amount of diligent research surrounding the topic to gather enough information to develop an angle or viewpoint. This process includes brainstorming ideas and evaluating them to form a statement that you are comfortable with. If you are struggling to come up with or choose between competing ideas, there are some thesis writing services that can help you.

Break Down Your Argument

After settling on your initial thesis and overall argument, you need to break it down into different components and organize them in a way that serves that argument. This is perhaps the most difficult part as there are lots of ways it can be done. First, try to identify different criteria for classifying your material. This helps you categorize the various ideas and sources in your mind into groups sharing similar features. By scribbling them down, you get a better idea of how you want to go about the main structure of the body of your dissertation.

Design Your Methodology

This is where you need to determine how you’re going to gather your data and information, how you are going to analyze that data, what tools or materials you’re going to use, and what your reasons are for choosing these methods. Try to provide enough detail that you paint a clear picture of how things need to proceed later on when you’re doing the actual research. Specify if your data should be quantitative or qualitative. Are you going to use secondary data or do you plan to collect the data yourself? Are you going to use surveys, interviews, or observation? Details like these give you clarity and a better understanding of whether or not you’ve made the right choices.  

Major Points for Each Component

The next step is to write the points you want to make for each of the components you determined earlier. While doing so, make sure that everything is coherent and closely related to your thesis. As the best essay writing service puts it, this step is not about listing the things we know about the topic, rather, it’s about connecting the dots to build an argument and assess and identify the potential defects and flaws.

Sometimes, we find that we need to rearrange the supporting points to improve the validity of the argument. Logically, some subjects may need to precede others to facilitate the flow of information. Sorting these levels of information can even help inform the thesis and lead to changes in the initial assumptions.

After arranging the points in a logical order, your dissertation outline is almost finished. You just need to review the points to see if there’s a need for more analysis and evidence. After that, you have everything you need to start writing. Keep in mind that the outline is not set in stone. It’s a guideline designed to give you direction and you can adjust or deviate from it as you move forward. It’s also recommended that you take note of each reference in your studies from day one as it can get complicated and cumbersome in later stages of your dissertation.

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