Structure of Dissertations

Your dissertation is likely to be the longest piece of writing that you have ever done – as a general rule between five and ten thousand words. But don’t be overwhelmed by the word count! Your dissertation or research report will break down into individual sections, each one of which has its own job to do. (See below)

Abstract (or Executive Summary)

The abstract is a short piece of writing, probably between 200 and 400 words which sums up the whole research piece. It says what was being studied and why. What method of research was used, and even what the results were. All right there at the beginning, so that someone could read just the abstract and yet know everything they needed to know about the research.


The introduction should outline in detail what is being studied and why. Most people give a little historical information about their topic. In writing about concrete bridges in the north of England for example, Civil Engineering student Jerry wrote about the first concrete bridges in the region back in the Victorian era.

Bringing the subject up to date is then a good idea. Jerry went on to explain about the growth of the motorway system and how it created a need for many more bridges before explaining how many bridges there are now and saying hat sorts of uses they are put to.

Finally, the introduction should focus in on the particular issue that the research is addressing. Jerry explained how bridges are attacked by different forces in the north of England, especially weather, but also vibration from heavy traffic and so on. He finished by saying that discovering the primary causes of damage might mean that resources could be targeted more effectively.

Literature Review

Before you decided to look at the topic, other people had written about it too. Your supervisor doesn't want to spend hours reading what they have to say, so your job is to review it for them.

The kinds of literature to include might be Government rules and regulations, any kind of collected official data, books and articles written by theorists, and so on. All of these will need you to read

them and then write a nice short summary of how they affect your own research.

The most important literature of all to include is the work of other researchers before you who have looked at the same topic (the section used to be called "Antecedents"- like ancestors!). A good review of other people's work includes the bad as well as the good, so of course say what they were looking at and what they found, but then evaluate the method they used; Freud has been a terribly influential figure in the field of psychology, but any review of him would be incomplete without mentioning that his experimental method included taking cocaine and intense meditation. Whether or not this reduces the reliability of his work, it is important to include a paragraph on it in your review because it is not a method your supervisor is likely to encourage you to use in your own research!

It is very likely that you won't find enough people who have done exactly the research that you want to do. What is more likely is that you will find people who have done something similar, but in the United States, or on women and you want to study men, or it was last done in 1987. In other words, it isn't completely "viable" to your own research. That is actually an advantage in a way, because it gives you something to write about.

Include a paragraph which says the ways in which the results might differ if the research was done in 1977, in Mexico, on taxi drivers; and your own work is in Coventry, this year, on bus drivers.

A good way to end the "Literature Review" section is to say that although many have gone before, none of them has studied the topic in quite the way the you have decided to, and that is why your research is worth doing.


If you wrote up an old family recipe for sponge cake, you'd try to write it so clearly and so thoroughly that anyone could follow it and make a perfect copy of the original sponge cake!

The "Method" section is supposed to be like that; written so clearly and in enough detail that anyone could run your survey again, asking very similar people, and get results that they can compare with yours.

If you included in your research 24 single male athletes, the reader must know this so that they can try to find 24 single male athletes of their own if they want to run the survey again. They might not get the same result, after all, if they include 29 married females from a knitting circle instead!


The Results section might well have tables and diagrams if you are dealing with numbers, or perhaps lots of quotes if you are conducting interviews. Either way, the isn't any need to discuss what the results mean, because that job is done by the next section; "Discussion"


This is the section where you should try to explain what the results might mean. It is a good idea to bring back in some of the research you reviewed in the literature review as well, so that you can say if what you found was the same as what the other researchers found. This can be quite good fun as it can put your research in the same paragraph as that of some very famous figures! Don't be afraid to say if your research goes against what they found.

Another job of the discussion section is to say how much trust should be put on the results of your research. If you honestly estimate that your results aren't worth trusting because you couldn't get hold of some key people whose opinions would have been vital, then make sure that you say so first. If you don't, it will go against you in the marking. If you do come clean, then at degree level anyway, you will actually be given more points!


A "Conclusions" section puts everything together in a few well chosen paragraphs which say what questions have been answered by the research. However, It is important that the researcher is fairly careful not to say that they have proved anything (after all it was only really a student assignment). It is best to use language like "This suggests that it may be caused by…" rather than "This shows that…". Even if you are 100% sure that you are right!


It may be that the research will lead to a change in practice for an organisation, for instance when the student is following a course of Work – Based learning and chooses a topic which needs researching with their employer or mentor. However, most dissertations are more about showing that the student can do high level research; that they have become a proper academic, rather than whatever the results of the research were.

The most likely recommendation that should be made is that more research needs to be done; this is true for almost everything that can be researched. So don't forget to think of several ways in which the next bit of research on the topic could be done. After all, it could be you doing it at the next level of study…

A typical "Recommendations" section might make a few points about how things could be improved.

Then suggest several questions which are still unanswered, and what method might be used to answer them.


You need to include a list of all the books, journal articles, web pages and everything else you have taken information from in writing your dissertation, so that you can show where your ideas have come from. With such a big piece of writing it's likely that the list is going to be a pretty long one - certainly more than twenty items for example.


The appendix is a good place to put anything which you've created as part of the dissertation, but which isn't strictly necessary for someone to read in order to understand the research; things like questionnaires, raw data, or glossaries of terms, for example. Use phrases such as "see appendix" to show the reader that there is more information if they want it.

video image

toptipsTop Tips

  • Take up the support for report writing available at your institution
  • It's never too early to start writing your report – you can write up first sections while you are carrying out your research
HomepageBack to section index

'I gained valuable experience in public speaking when presenting my work in front of an audience. This experience has played a tremendous role in my professional development,'
[Student, Early Years]

'The audience will pay attention only if you know where you are going with your presentation' [Tutor, Study Skills]