Writing a thesis or dissertation is something that many Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD candidates dread. Even after years of schooling, having to research, write, and defend such an enormous, complex piece of writing literally becomes the academic Mount Olympus of your entire academic career.
The good news it that it's more than just doable. In fact, every year, millions of people submit their dissertation or thesis, which means there's a ton of valuable experience and insights out there on the best way to go about doing it.
However, since you've already got enough on your plate, we took the liberty of assembling this wisdom for you, which we now present to you as the 8 most important tips on writing a dissertation or thesis.
Let’s get to it!
How to write a great dissertation or thesis
1. Pursue a topic that intrigues you
The first step of writing any dissertation is to identify the topic. This is a crucial step because the thing you decide on will have you up to your neck in peer-reviewed literature, data analysis, and written documents for the next several years of your life. Because of this, it’s essential that you chase your curiosity and choose a topic that deeply interests you!
Oftentimes, students simply choose a topic from a list provided to them by their professor or supervisor, who have their own research agendas. But if you aren’t inspired by the options provided, then there's no reason why you can't carve your own path forwards.
Remember, this is about to consume your entire world for the next few years so make sure it sets your brain on fire! (In a good way.)
2. Brainstorm the question(s) you want to answer and how you plan to set about answering them
Once you have your topic—which is really the foundation of the whole exercise of writing a dissertation or thesis—you should set about brainstorming the question or questions you want to answer, and how you plan to answer them.
For example, my Master's dissertation topic at university was The interannual, seasonal, and diurnal variability of thunderstorms in the Southwestern Cape coast of Southern Africa. Bit of a mouthful, I know.
That was my topic. The questions I identified, however, were:
- How has thunderstorm activity varied over the past 30 years and can its frequency be linked with any global weather patterns (like El Niño)?
- During the course of a year, do thunderstorms happen more frequently in one season versus another and, if so, what season is that and why?
- Are thunderstorms more likely to develop at certain times of the day and, if so, when is that and why?
Writing down these questions at the very outset of the writing of my dissertation established its entire structural framework.
What followed then was the world's most epic “brain dump” on everything I knew about thunderstorm dynamics and variability; everything I wanted to know (and, therefore, needed to research); and, importantly, the ideas and resources I had to begin seeking answers to those questions.
You might consider using visual aids like mind maps or spreadsheets or even flashcards to help you arrange your ideas and resources logically.
In addition to your own brain dump, however, you should absolutely pilfer the minds of the knowledgeable people around you. Prepare some questions and ask your professor, supervisor, and fellow students about your topic and any ideas they may have for how you could proceed.
Ask for honest feedback, and be prepared to revise your ideas based on this. Your adviser should be a constant help throughout this process.
3. Write your proposal
The next step in writing a dissertation or thesis is the proposal: a document that you will submit to your adviser detailing your plan. The proposal has two main goals. First, it serves as a framework to help you plan for and think critically about your project. Second, it allows your advisers to critically evaluate and provide feedback on your ideas before you fully dive into the work.
Your proposal should have a strong line of reasoning that links your work to the existing peer-reviewed literature, while expanding upon an existing idea or even introducing a new one entirely.
At this point, it’s important to be realistic about scope. Most people aren’t going to discover cutting-edge new material in their theses; instead, focus on small advancements.
At the same time as you're considering your proposal, you'll need to...
4. Do a thorough literature review (i.e. read everything you can get your hands on)
This comes hand-in-hand with the initial brainstorming you're doing on your topic. What you're trying to establish is what's been written about the subject before and it essentially involves you downloading every peer-reviewed article, paper, or published book you can get your hands on and reading through it.
[You might want to read this guide first—How to read faster and better—to save yourself a lot of time!]
Search as many research databases as you can to find all the ideas and facts that might bear on your argument. And while you're doing this, keep a detailed record of the salient points you'll likely refer to in your own dissertation or thesis.
If literally hundreds of papers have been published before on your topic—too many to read—then focus only on the most recently published ones; or the ones that hold the greatest authority (talk to your supervisor).
There's a delicate balance to be struck between quantity and quality but if you have the time—or can make the time—the more detailed your literature review, the better the foundation you'll be able to build your own research on.
5. Collect and organize your notes and sources
One of the most frustrating aspects of writing a dissertation or thesis is rigor with which you need to cite your sources. You don't really think about this in the beginning, when you're doing your literature review, but eventually, when it comes time to sit down and write, you don't want to constantly have to remember: "Where did I read this again?" or "Which article was supportive of this argument?"
That's why we recommend keeping a detailed spreadsheet or database of the most salient facts and findings with their appropriate bibliographical format sources. If you hate the DIY approach, try a citation software, like Mendeley or Zotero. These can be a more effective way to organize your notes and references, saving you a ton of time later on.
6. Start writing
Once you have a thorough grasp on the questions you seek to answer, a detailed foundational understanding of your topic, a solid outline for your work, and a clear direction on the methods you plan to follow, it’s time to start writing!
(In reality, you won't be writing in isolation. Rather, you'll be doing several of the above-mentioned steps in tandem with each other, in addition to writing.)
For a typical dissertation or thesis, the writing begins with the introduction and overview of your subject, which then progresses to your literature review, and then methodology. Try to write these sections as you go along, rather than doing all the research and analytical work, only to have to return to the beginning and write everything from scratch.
Just keep in mind that a dissertation carves a winding path and that you may have to come back to your methods and outline and adjust it accordingly. In other words, don't grow too attached to what you've written until you are nearing the end and are certain that your research won't throw you any more curveballs.
Pro tip: Write in a clear, concise, academic style, even from your first draft. Academic writing, in general, is valued for clarity over flowery language (unless you’re in literature, eh?).
7. Allow your research to dictate your conclusions
Some topics allow you the luxury of starting out with a point to prove and a conclusion to make. You can take a famous literary work, make an argument, and set out to substantiate that argument. You're neither right or wrong; you're simply revealing—in a compelling way—an interesting new view point.
Other topics, like science, however, do NOT allow this luxury.
In science, you begin with a hypothesis. And while the point of your dissertation is to test whether that hypothesis is correct, you should never do so with an agenda to prove it right. Sure, you hope your hypothesis is right... but you must be unattached to the outcome so that you don't become blind to what the data is actually telling you.
The risk of becoming attached to proving a hypothesis right is that you stake your thesis (or even career) on proving something, only to have the data tell you something contrary or confusing, and this can be incredibly demotivating. And in some unfortunate cases, it can drive people to manipulate the data.
Remember that just because you may not get the answer you were hoping for doesn't mean you didn't achieve anything. In science, no answer is still an answer. What you've done is established the fact that where you thought there was a relationship before, there isn't in fact one.
That's still valuable information!
The moral of the story is to allow your research and data analysis to dictate your conclusions.
8. Write a little bit every day
Our final piece of advice on how to write a dissertation or thesis is to write a little bit every day. This research project is a marathon that takes many years of devoted work; you shouldn't rush the writing of it.
From the very start, set aside a small portion of your academic day (whether it's for just 20 minutes or an hour) to just write. If you do this, by the time you're ready to write up your actual findings, you'll have done more than half of your thesis: the introduction, literature review, methodology, and some of your analysis.
This article may have given you some helpful advice on how to go about writing your dissertation or thesis but it won’t write it for you. So now it’s up to you: take a deep breath and get started. You've got this!