Skip to main content

Writing a Dissertation

Richard Fording 's Proposed Dissertation Outline

Chapter One: Introduction - - Tells reader what the topic area is. Extremely general and short.

Chapter Two: Literature Review - - Most people use this chapter to pay homage to some, excoriate others. You should try to make it useful. Since the lit review precedes your theory chapter, you can use the lit review to set up your theory as being a monumental contribution to the literature. In other words, organize the lit review around weaknesses/gaps that your theory (and your subsequent analysis) addresses.

Chapter Three: Theory - - Maybe the most important chapter, it tells readers specifically what your theory/model is. Length is determined by how large a contribution you are making. You should keep the language very general (at the conceptual level), but give a few examples to elucidate difficult conceptual issues. There is no lit review in this chapter, but the theory should flow directly from the weaknesses outlined in the previous chapter (so it is appropriate to reference this work as you develop the theory). The hypotheses you test are introduced, elucidated and listed in this chapter.

Chapter Four: Operationalizations - - You explain how each concept in your theory and hypotheses is operationalized, as well as where your data come from. Some brief lit citations may be appropriate here discussing how others have operationalized. But be brief.

Chapter Five: Empirical Evaluation - - First, succinctly restate your hypotheses. Then explain and justify the statistical/methodological procedure you employ. Present the results. More tables are better to a point. Every table should be relevant to one of the hypotheses being tested. If you replicate your results with some other data or some other technique, you probably just want to mention in a footnote or in the text what the results were and push any tables for such a replication into an appendix. Be sure to state explicitly how your hypotheses fared. Don’t make your reader work too hard to know whether your expectations were borne out. Any literature references in this chapter should be either parenthetical or should be limited only to technical matters. (Note: Those using some type of qualitative research design, such as case studies, present results here as well. If you are doing a comparative case study dissertation, this chapter may be a series of short chapters about each case.)

Chapter Six: Additional Empirical Considerations - - This is an optional chapter. If your analysis produces some paradox, or some puzzle, or you are aware of some situation that might negate your results, it is probably helpful to address them in a chapter like this.

Chapter Seven: Implications - - Pay a lot of attention to this chapter. This is where you bring the dissertation together. You explain the importance of your work. Show how your results might be generalized to a wide range of alternate areas of interest.

Chapter Eight: Summary and Conclusion(s) - - Summarize the dissertation, briefly restate the main conclusions, and suggest avenues for future work.

Appendixes - - If your data are self-collected, an appendix presenting and explaining the data is useful, if not suggested. If your operationalizations are controversial or especially novel, you may want an appendix to explain further. An appendix is a good place to present the results of alternate tests. If your dissertation is formal, a mathematical proof appendix is often expected.

Dissertating with Success

The Topic as Part of Your Academic Identity – Your dissertation is the most important component of your "academic identity." This is extremely important because you will be hired based on this identity.

Elements of your Academic Identity:

  • Dissertation: This is probably the most important dimension on which you are evaluated. If your are applying to a department that is looking for someone who does work in a specific subfield, it will be extremely difficult to get past the first cut if your dissertation cannot be framed as fitting into this subfield.
  • Advisor: Who your advisor is automatically adds credibility to your expertise. But this really only works when your advisor has established a reputation in the general area that your work is in!!
  • Conference Papers/Publications: These are important, regardless of the topics, simply because they establish your credibility as a competent researcher. But the substantive aspects of these papers provide evidence that you are what you claim to be.
  • Courses Taught: Varies in importance depending on teaching emphasis of the department you are applying to.
  • Coursework: Probably the least important in terms of individual courses, but it will be difficult to apply for jobs in a particular major field (e.g. American Politics) if your major field in grad school was something else (e.g. IR).
  • Developing a "flexible" identity:

1.  Develop a flexible dissertation topic – one that can be characterized as fitting more than one subfield.

2.  Highlight different conference papers to support your claims of subfield expertise.

3.  Teach a variety of courses.

  • It is never too early to develop your topic: Since the topic is the most important element of your identity, ideally this should be the first part of your identity that you construct. Advisor and committee choices, conference papers, coursework and teaching should then all flow from your choice of a topic.
  • Two models of Writing a dissertation:

"Dissertation from Scratch" - - topic is decided relatively late (third year), and most all of the work is subsequently completed. For this model, the process proceeds in the following order:

1. Question

2. Theory and Lit review chapters written

3. Data collection

4. Analysis

5. Remainder of dissertation written

This is probably the most common model. Weaknesses: (a) no spin-off article ready until the last stages are completed, (b) the model may bomb and then you are left w/o any interesting results!!!! At this point you can’t change the topic because you have too much invested.

"Dissertation by Article Expansion" - - The process proceeds as follows:

1.  Successful article length manuscript completed

2.  Expansion of scope of question

3.  Expansion of lit review and theory sections to use as prospectus

4.  Additional data collection and analysis

5.  Remainder of article expanded to reflect expander scope of analysis

  • Strengths: (a) competed article ready for submission much earlier (b) you already know that you will have some "good" results
    • Writing the Prospectus:

    1.  Definition of "prospectus": "A statement outlining the main features of a new work." In other words, DON’T WRITE THE DISSERTATION!!!!!

    2.  Present your advisor/committee with multiple drafts

    3.  Don’t put it off – it will keep you off the job market and will hurt your standing in the department.

    4.  The Prospectus defense – should be a formality if your committee has commented on several drafts and you have incorporated their comments (or at least come up with an acceptable defense that doesn’t make their criticism sound trivial or stupid). It is best to include this defense in the manuscript.

    • Writing the Dissertation: General Tips

    1.  Don’t just keep reading…Start writing!!!

    2.  Make a schedule for deadlines

    3.  Have a plan and be organized –filing system

    4.  Back-up, Back-up, Back-up!

    • After prospectus defense:  Go to grad studies office and get publication on style/format of dissertation – if you follow the guidelines carefully the first time, this will save you LOTS of painful editing after your defense

    1.  During data collection and analysis – Take notes on everything you do. If you don’t, I guarantee you will forget important things that you have done (filenames, variable names and definitions, sources, dropping/modifying variables)

    2. Don’t write too much. 200 pages is probably sufficient in most cases for a quantitative dissertation (140+60). In any case, don’t try to set the departmental record for length.

    3. Skim other dissertations recommended by your advisor.

    • The Defense:

    Stay in touch with your committee and especially your advisor.

    If you have consulted your advisor and committee along the way, the defense will be easy.

    After the defense, don’t procrastinate!!! Submission deadlines come quickly and there is generally a lot of minor editing and polishing to do before it is in an acceptable format for the university.