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Help for Starting a Dissertation

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   Dissertation Writing  >  How to start a dissertation

Begin a Dissertation Easily

You should start a dissertation project by first checking with your advisor about any special requirements.  A typical dissertation follows the classic five chapter format: 1) Introduction (with all of the traditional subheadings); 2) Review of Literature; 3) Methodology; 4) Findings; 5) Summary/Conclusions/Implications.  In addition, there are frequently Appendices (copies of instruments and permission letters, for example).  There is always a References list. Many institutions impose their own rules as well, so it is always wise to check before starting a dissertation or essay, treatise, or paper of any significance. A dissertation may be written in any one of a number of formats, but currently the APA format is most popular.  Some universities provide dissertation help in the form of 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 starting and writing a dissertation less daunting if you become familiar with the requirements of your advisor and university before  you begin.

Here are some basic help resources for starting a dissertation:

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

2.    Check to see what style 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 dissertation 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 every doctoral dissertation which has been done recently in your field.  Get the "feel" of each document. Understand how they are 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.

Help for Starting a Dissertation

    The best way to instruct someone on how to start a dissertation is to point out the single greatest mistake made by doctoral candidates who are unable to complete a Proposal or draft of Chapter I. Your advisor won't tell you. (S)he just says "give me your proposal and then we can discuss the rest of the project". You sit down and attempt to formulate a Statement of the Problem, and list your hypotheses. You have just made the Big Mistake.

    Most people writing a dissertation at the Ph.D. level have a topic in mind, and they have at least a vague notion of the type of empirical study they want to do. Turning those very preliminary thoughts into a scholarly concept, and formulating an acceptable proposal, however, requires more than coming up with a topic.

    The best help for starting a dissertation I can provide is found in this paragraph. It is not a magic wand, and it is not a shortcut, but it is absolutely true. The absolute key to dissertation writing is RESEARCH. There is no shortcut, and no substitute for research. Identifying and retrieving the scholarly sources on your topic must be the first step in the dissertation process. But that isn't enough. The next step is the time-consuming one......but if you skip it, I guarantee that you will never get any further. You must read all of the sources you have retrieved, critically and analytically. You must organize them into two categories: theoretical literature and empirical literature. Within those two major categories you must create sub-categories which reflect the variables in your study and the questions/hypotheses you have formulated. You must then draft your Review of Literature, which will become the core of your dissertation as Chapter II.

    If there is one single, most helpful "hint" we can give you on moving your dissertation forward it is this: do your Review of Literature first!

Working with Your Advisor

    Eight out of ten doctoral candidates working on their dissertation say that they are stuck with "the advisor from hell". The other two think their advisor is "very nice, BUT<

    Very few of the thousands of doctoral candidates I have talked with in well over 40 years have said they have a helpful, cooperative and effective advisor. Something is very wrong with that picture. Are all dissertation writers so stressed and overwhelmed that they cannot recognize good advisement or help when they encounter it?

    Do advisors not understand their pivotal role in dissertation success? Or is some other factor at work in the almost universal perception of advisors as denizens of the underworld?

    Advisor problems arise from three sources: First, doctoral programs do not adequately define the role of the dissertation advisor. Second, advisors are not motivated to help you. Third, doctoral candidates lack assertiveness in obtaining the services for which they pay. Let's look at each.

Doctoral programs lack standards for the advisor role and performance. Institutions have different criteria for choosing, training and evaluating a dissertation advisor. Most commonly there is no standard at all, no special training, and no mechanism in place for evaluating performance. This lack of professional role definition and oversight sets the stage for disaster.

Your advisor is not motivated to help you. Sadly, a dissertation advisor often perceives this phase of his/her professional responsibility as a time-consuming distraction from teaching or their own research and writing for publication. Having no specific training or guidelines for their role in nurturing the fledgling dissertation into existence, many advisors find it easier to let their advisee struggle alone.

You have the right to effective advisement: Insist on it! As a doctoral candidate you are a consumer. You are paying your university for courses and for advisement, with the ultimate goal of receiving your Ph.D. Your university makes a profit. You have a right to effective dissertation help and advisement. Your university has a responsibility to provide you with an advisor who will guide you towards your goal. Your advisor is doing a job, and is being paid.

Consumer? Money? Profit?

Academia creates an atmosphere in which the above words are jolting.

Now is the time to create a new mindset about your pursuit of a doctorate, and about the responsibilities of the university and advisor to provide the help needed to make the dissertation process as smooth as possible.

by Diane Kennedy

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