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Dissertations are Scholarly Documents

By Diane Kennedy

    The Cambridge Dictionary defines a dissertation as a "long piece of writing on a particular subject".  That definition is deceptively simple, as most writers of dissertations soon learn.  Ultimately, the "long" comes to refer to the process rather than the document itself, and in far too many cases, the "piece of writing" never gets completed.

    Many doctoral candidates find that they have finished course work and comps, and are suddenly thrust into an entirely new arena, one for which the experience of writing papers or a master's thesis has not provided sufficient preparation.

    Many of the clients who come to us at seem lost in confusion over what a dissertation actually is.  I usually suggest to them that if they cannot define a dissertation, or describe one, or visualize a completed document, there is no way they can even begin the process of writing one.

    Simply put, dissertations are scholarly documents.  It is generally lengthy (although we have all heard the stories of doctoral candidates in math and science who present one, perfect equation and are awarded their degree).  The trend is currently toward somewhat shorter documents, and it is unusual these days for a dissertation to exceed 300 pages.  It is (or should be) focused on a very narrow topic.  Because it is a scholarly document, it contains extensive references to the works of experts in the field, in the form of citations to journal articles, monographs and books.  A dissertation commonly contains an empirical component, reflecting some independent study or data gathering (use of a questionnaire, interviews, standardized instrument) on the part of the author, although in certain fields (literature and philosophy, for example), no study is required.  In any case, each dissertation has some research design involved.  An empirical study may be qualitative, quantitative or descriptive, and there are many variations of each of these designs.  Dissertations may be strictly historical and be based primarily on an extensive review of the literature.  There are as many variations of the dissertation form as advisors and dissertation writers can invent.

    But the bottom line, and one that is all too easily forgotten, is that the dissertation is a scholarly document.  It is not a paper, and it is not a journal article, and it is not a book, although it shares some characteristics with each of these documents.  It is not a collection of abstracts; it is not an annotated bibliography; it is not an overview of a topic; it is not a discussion of the writer's personal viewpoint.

FACE="arial" size="3">    Most dissertations follow the classic five chapter format: Introduction (with all of the traditional subheadings); Review of Literature; Methodology; Findings; Summery/Conclusions/Implications.  There are frequently Appendices (copies of instruments, permission letters, for example).  There is always a References list.  A dissertation may be written in any one of a number of formats, but currently the APA format is most popular.  Some universities provide style sheets which augment the APA format with specific features.  The MLA format is still favored in some fields, such as literature.

    You will find the process of writing yours less daunting if you become familiar with the requirements of your advisor and university before  you begin.

Here are some basic hints:

1.  .  Ask your advisor for copies of dissertations which s/he has approved recently.  Having a sample to follow will make your job much easier!

2.  .  Check to see what format is favored (APA, MLA?).  Buy a copy of the style manual.

3.  .  Determine if your university or program has written guidelines which supplement the basic format.

4.  .  Ask your advisor about his/her expectations of length.  Don't be put off by "whatever it takes" as an answer.  You may think a 100 page document is sufficient; your advisor may think that 250 is closer to the mark.

5.  .  Think long and hard about the definition of "dissertation".  A scholarly document must be researched and written at doctoral level.  It must contain a significant contribution to your field.  It must use appropriate source materials, properly cited.

6.  .  Read, read, read dissertations which have been done recently in your field.  Get the "feel" of the document. Understand how it is structured.  Learn to recognize the flow from introduction through conclusion.  Once you are comfortable with the form, content, scope and limitations of the dissertation document, you are ready to begin the process of writing your own.

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