Planning the Dissertation: Contents and Structure | Tips on How to Write a Thesis or Dissertation
Every successful PhD dissertation involves careful planning, and in most cases a doctoral candidate will be expected to produce a preliminary outline of the dissertation he or she envisions. Even if a formal plan is not requested or required, however, it is a good idea to take the time to construct an outline that shows the basic structure and contents you anticipate for your future dissertation, and to share that outline with your supervisor and other committee members. Your plan need not be set in stone – indeed, it would be very unusual for a dissertation not to take on a somewhat different form in the actual writing process – but a thoughtfully prepared outline will prove helpful both when working with your supervisory committee and when drafting your chapters.
Structuring your dissertation outline as a working table of contents can be an extremely effective approach. Every main part, chapter, section and subsection of the dissertation you are planning to write should be listed using the titles and headings you hope to use in the finished dissertation. Chapters should certainly be numbered and often other sections of a dissertation are as well, usually with Arabic numerals, but department or university guidelines (or dissertations already completed in your department or discipline) should be checked to ensure that numbered sections and subsections are appropriate for your dissertation. Ideally, the titles and headings in your outline will be carefully formatted in effective and consistent ways that distinguish heading levels and clearly indicate the overall structure of the dissertation, just as would be the case in the final table of contents.
Under each title, heading or subheading in your outline, a brief summary of the contents you anticipate for that part of the dissertation should be provided. These summaries can be very short or quite long and descriptive; they might be written in complete sentences or take the form of lists indicating the material that will be covered in the individual sections. If an outline is required for your dissertation, be sure to check any relevant guidelines and provide exactly what is necessary. Generally speaking, the main concern is that your summaries clearly outline for you, your supervisor, your other committee members and anyone else who needs to see them (in some cases, for instance, a dissertation outline will need to be formally submitted to your department) what you intend to include and discuss in each part of your dissertation. As you outline and structure the material you hope to cover, keep in mind any length requirements or limitations set for the final dissertation by your university or department – your dissertation and perhaps its individual parts will need to be long enough to meet minimum length (or word count) requirements, but not so long that maximum length limitations are exceeded.
You may not need to share your outline with anyone, but discussing it with your supervisor or other committee members will prove beneficial in a number of ways: it is, for instance, an excellent means of communicating your overall plans and can therefore open the door to discussion of both the larger structure and the minute details of your work, and it can also assist you and your supervisory committee in identifying potential problems and thus discovering resolutions before you waste a lot of time drafting sections and chapters. The expertise and knowledge of your supervisory committee can be immensely helpful at this point, so be sure to maintain a flexible attitude about your outline, considering all comments and suggestions seriously, voicing your own concerns and working to develop the structure and content of your future dissertation in a way that all members of your committee find appropriate and promising.
Once you have your outline hammered into shape, it can serve as an excellent tool to keep you focussed and on track as you draft the chapters and sections of your dissertation. Some candidates even find it productive to use this working table of contents as a template as they write, developing the summaries for the individual chapters and sections into the formal text of the dissertation. There may well be changes as you work – often, for instance, headings are adjusted to reflect the actual content of sections once they are written, or additional subsections are added as they prove necessary to the discussion – but these can easily be incorporated into your outline. Finally, once the summaries are removed and page numbers added, your outline itself can become the final table of contents for your finished dissertation.
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