The Basic Structure of the Dissertation – by Mark Ellis, Ph.D.

29 10 2013

This article will discuss the major components of the dissertation. Further, it will  describe the necessary phases that the doctoral student will have to successfully complete before becoming the recipient of a doctoral degree. Keep in mind that the following components of the dissertation are critical in order to present a viable study in the student’s particular area of interest.

Be aware that a dissertation is not a book report, an academic paper that would be submitted as a deliverable in a class, or a conglomerate of factual data. A dissertation is the crown jewel of the doctoral program. Further, the doctoral student should understand that there are important phases that are necessary in order to present and defend a viable proposal. Although there may be a slight variance from program to program, the overall requirements are essentially the same. Before being conferred the doctoral degree it is critical that the doctoral student understand the all-important fundamental phases of the dissertation proposal, proposal defense, completion, and final defense.

While each institution has its own unique dissertation requirements the overall concept and fundamental components are basically quite similar. Often times the dissertation is thought of as a relatively straightforward document consisting of Chapters 1-5 as outlined below:


  • Chapter 1 – Introduction
  • Chapter 2 – The Literature Review
  • Chapter 3 – Methodology and Research Design
  • Chapter 4 – Results
  • Chapter 5 – Discussion, Implications and Recommendations for Future Research.


Note that the dissertation will certainly consist of many steps and components, which possibly may overlap. Research questions usually move forward into the literature review, which in turn lead to the methodology and methodological framework. From there, the data is collected and analyzed all which conclude with displaying, describing, and discussing the results and ultimately the final defense. Breaking down these chapters, or components of the dissertation may give the appearance of a very simplistic, doable, analogical process. 

The completed document may appear to be simple enough. However, starting from the ground up a doctoral student quickly understands that the dissertation is much more iterative and often times complex. Keep in mind that the dissertation is not written within a week or two. Sometimes completing a viable dissertation can take many months and often times the dissertation can take years depending on the complexity of the study and the commitment of the doctoral student to completing the task.

Generally, completing a dissertation should require three major and distinctive steps from start to finish: Step number one is preparation. Step number two is research and step number three is completion. Each one of these steps should be completed in sequential order. In fact, the stages are oftentimes considered as unidirectional. Moreover, the steps are not something that you can go back and arbitrarily change once you have set the ball in motion. One small variance in the previous step may certainly have a direct impact on one or more subsequent steps. This is why it is important to understand that the initial step (the preparation stage) is critical to the rest of the process.

Often, the doctoral student will find themselves at an impasse, or in a precarious dilemma of frustration largely due to a lack of appropriate concentration in one or more of the stages. It cannot be over emphasized that preparation is absolutely critical and cannot be disregarded as inconsequential to the outcomes of the rest of the process. It would be safe to say that building an appropriate foundation to support a superstructure takes time, effort, and careful planning. In fact, the greater the superstructure, the deeper and wider the foundation must be. Keep in mind that your dissertation could be considered a superstructure. Do not waste your time laying a foundation for an outhouse. The reality is, the higher the building the more sure the foundation must be.

Spending time identifying a narrowly defined topic will take on number of attempts. So will framing research questions. Being able to identify the dependent and independent variables will be an important endeavor in the beginning stage. Begin thinking early on what factors would determine your hypothesis. What factors may create a null hypothesis? Will your study be quantitative, qualitative or mixed methodology? How will you deal with issues of bias that may exist in self-report measures (if used)? How will your study contribute to the current body of knowledge, and how will you build on previously established research? These are all some relatively straightforward questions and issues that will need to be addressed.

Keep in mind that crafting a viable dissertation proposal and successfully defending does not happen overnight. Oftentimes, it is a lengthy and time consuming process. However, if you think ahead, plan ahead, and remain proactive with your dissertation committee you may be in a better position to not only survive the process, but also thrive through the process and tackle each phase of the rigorous task. Keep in mind that only 1% of 1% of humanity actually has a legitimately earned doctorate. Be determined to be the 1% of 1%.



About the Author |  Dr. Mark Ellis is a doctorate level professor and has served as dissertation chair of numerous dissertation committees. Dr. Ellis specializes in quantitative, qualitative as well as mixed methodologies. He has also served as content expert in his specialized field. He resides with his one and only wife of 24 years and three children. An athlete and physical fitness enthusiast, Dr. Ellis is also a competitive lifter.




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