Dissertation Anatomy 101: A Research Paper Roadmap

Last Updated on May 26, 2023

Female student working on her dissertation In Library on a laptop.The key to a successful dissertation journey is a good roadmap. The clearer your idea of the process and of what a dissertation contains, the better your chances of completing a high-quality paper on schedule. Before you start your dissertation, make sure you are familiar with all your departmental and university guidelines for a research paper topic, thesis content, formatting, and submission procedures. Although there are standard elements to the dissertation genre, details vary with institution and discipline. Before you actually start writing, you should work with your supervisor to create a detailed outline and timeline, so you know precisely what you need to do when. You should also plan regular meetings with your supervisor so you don't invest months pursuing unproductive lines of research.

Dissertation Process

Your dissertation actually begins before you are admitted to your program, when you develop a research proposal as part of your application materials. Many university require a detailed research plan and regular monitoring by your supervisor to ensure that you are making the required progress toward your degree. The normal stages in the dissertation process are research, writing, revision, oral examination (or “viva”), thesis submission, and finally graduation.

Dissertation Structure and Format

The main elements of the thesis are the front matter, the body, and the back matter. Each of these usually contain several required elements, often with required wording. Most universities also specify fonts you should use, margin settings, citation formats, and other details of physical layout. Increasingly, dissertations must be submitted in electronic as well as paper form; most universities specify acceptable file formats. Before you start writing, you should create a word processing template conforming to these requirements, to avoid having to do last-minute reformatting. If you are struggling with drudgery of formatting and proofreading, a service like Ivory Research can help with editing, giving you more time to focus on content.

Front Matter

A dissertation begins with a title page, usually including the name of the project and the degree for which it is being submitted. Some universities require your examiners to sign the title page after your defense. Next, you normally include a signed declaration, attesting that the work is original, and that all materials based on other people's scholarship and all quotations are properly cited. Next comes a 100- to 250-word abstract and an acknowledgements page on which you thank the people who helped you through the process, including any organizations who gave financial support. Finally, you should provide a table of contents with a separate page listing tables and figures.


Most dissertations begin with an introductory chapter discussing the issues on which the essay focuses and the author's approach. The second chapter often is a literature review, discussing existing scholarship and situating the dissertation within it. Next is frequently a section on methodology. Following those three obligatory sections are normally two or more chapters containing the main material of the thesis, followed by a conclusion, summarizing the findings of the research and its implications for future study.

Back Matter

The back matter of a dissertation consists of your bibliography, appendices, and indices. Consult your departmental guidelines for bibliographic format. Humanities departments may favor Modern Humanities Research Association style whereas chemists might use the Royal Society of Chemistry style. Appendices are not normally assessed by your examiners and should not contain the material necessary to your main argument, but be provided for the sake of convenience. For example, if you are discussing a unique medieval manuscript not available in print or electronic form, you might include a transcription or facsimile in an appendix.


University of New South Wales: How to Write a PhD Thesis – http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/~jw/thesis.html

University of Cumbria: Dissertation structure – http://www.cumbria.ac.uk/StudentLife/Learning/SkillsCumbria/AcademicWriting/Dissertationstructure.aspx

University of Sheffield Department of Computer Science: Final Dissertation Structure – http://www.dcs.shef.ac.uk/intranet/teaching/public/projects/diststructure.html

University of Leeds: Postgraduate Research and Operations – http://www.leeds.ac.uk/rsa/induction_progressandmonitoring/forstudents/progress.html

Modern Humanities Research Association: MHRA Style Guide: Download Page – http://www.mhra.org.uk/Publications/Books/StyleGuide/download.shtml

University of Bath Library: Royal Society of Chemistry Style – http://www.bath.ac.uk/library/help/infoguides/rsc.pdf

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