What is a PhD dissertation and How to Write it Successfully?

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Main Parts of a Doctoral Dissertation

What is a doctoral dissertation? We all read books and are familiar with a basic structure of books. We know what comes in the beginning and at the end of the book, all those chapters, appendices, tables of contents, references and other components, only some of them can be less obvious. Many book writing principles apply to comprehend doctoral thesis. If we look through a doctoral dissertation, we will see that it is structured as an academic book and follows a basic format.

Before starting your PhD dissertation you will need to check the dissertation guidelines that should be available on your university’s website. It’s a good idea to get a model. During your studies at university you, probably, knew students who were ahead of you in organizing themselves and some of them might have completed their dissertations that could be close to your topic copies of which you can use as a model, or you can also find copies in libraries. Having an example or a model will help you to get an idea of how your paper should look like.

Let’s take a look at the overview of a dissertation components ordering, as it might be useful for you when planning your writing process.

The front matter, the body, and the back matter are the three major parts that form the basic format of most dissertations. Details of each of them can vary and the inclusion of each part is fixed.

The front matter

The front element is created as a description of the work and a guide to the contents. The pages in the front element are set at specific font type and size. The front matter consist of (in this order):

Half title page

‘Bastard title page’ (Half title page) comes before the full title page, is the first page of the book and counted as the first page. It shouldn’t compete with the title page and it should be set at the same font and size as the body text. It only features the title and has the blank back (verso) of the page.

Title page

A dissertation title page marks the official start of the book and repeats the title. It includes also the subtitle and the author(s)’ name(s), the university logo, academic degree, the year of the submission.

Copyright page

The publisher, the ISSN code, the copyright notice are included on the back (verso) of the title page as a reminder to the reader that you have privileges to the information. The names of evaluation committee members and your supervisor(s) can be used if your university doesn’t have requirements for the copyright page.

Dedication page

The dedication page is optional and used if the author wants to name the person(s) for whom the book is written. It’s best for the author to wait until the work is completed and decide whether to have a dedication or not.

Epigraph (optional)

When writing a dissertation, you might need to include a short quotation or a poem to brush the paper. It is usually placed in the beginning and used as an introduction, summary and links the work with other famous literary works.

Table of Contents

The table of contents (Contents) is an outline of the parts of your work. Chapters, book parts, sections, list of references, etc. of the dissertation and their page numbers (v, vii or ix – depending on whether there is a dedication/epigraph) are listed in the table of contents. It helps the reader to find which chapter is at what page, what kind of information to expect, and to have an overview of your work, to see the structure of the dissertation. A dissertation table of contents should be generated automatically, perhaps, via Word. It should look clean and professional and provide clarity to the reader. Keep the table of contents to a maximum of two pages. Always include the list of references to the table of contents.

Lists of Tables, Figures, and Illustrations

If your dissertation has tables, charts, diagrams, photographs, pictures or illustrations in it, you need to include a List of Illustrations (Figures), a List of Tables, or both. This page lists names of all illustrations and tables that are included in the body of the dissertation and the page numbers where they appear on. The titles of illustrations or tables can be shortened and the list of the illustrations can be divided into parts, if necessary. Make sure to check what is the practice in your discipline to provide an accurate information.


A dissertation abstract is a summary of your full paper: an explanation of the title of your dissertation, a summary of your research question, hypotheses in your dissertation, it explains briefly the methods and approach of your research, provides your conclusion and results that you have discovered. It is an overview of what readers can expect. The abstract focuses on the result of the scientific investigation. The reader gets an idea what your paper covers and decides whether your dissertation is going to be of interest to him. Your abstract should be written pretty much after you finish the dissertation writing process. Be aware that you will need enough time for writing all components of an abstract – plan a day or two, perhaps, to get the job done effectively and draw out the correct information.


The task of the acknowledgments section is to express your gratitude to the people who have contributed to your doctoral degree, who have helped you and supported you during the writing of your dissertation by providing academic supervision, administrative support, etc. Writing your dissertation might take a long time to be completed and you might have had people who have assisted you during this period of time. People who should be mentioned in the acknowledgment are advisors, upper-level professor, lab assistants, the main supervisor, co-supervisor(s), the administrative staff at the faculty, fellow students, close colleagues, friends, family, God (optionally), and the people who have helped you during your dissertation or thesis journey, people who inspired you. Do not make the list too long as you do not want to annoy the people to who you will be defending your paper. For example, avoid including in the list cousins that you haven’t seen or talked to since last family member’s funeral years ago.

The PhD thesis acknowledgments are less informal and should be easy for you to write in a simple language that reads smoothly. It is a chance for you to sum up the non-scientific part of your PhD dissertation writing. You can reveal your personal information here using jokes, foreign languages, etc. Make a list of the people before you start to write your dissertation and stick a post-it note on your desk to have a possibility to add more people’s names as you remember them during your writing process. Remember to mention how they helped you and express your gratitude. The dissertation acknowledgments should be put in the same font type and size that you are using throughout the rest of your paper.

Note on Transliteration

For some research paper, it is necessary to include a list of the transliterations used in the paper. It should be put into a table format with specified symbols of the conversion.

List of abbreviations

If abbreviations are used in the body of your dissertation, the list of them should be arranged alphabetically.

The Body of Thesis or Dissertation

The body contains the main text of the dissertation describing research performed for a master or doctoral program. You will need to create an outline of your content to help you divide your work into the (approximately) same length chapters. Titles and headings of each chapter should be short and have a clue that would prepare the readers for what they are about to read.

Chapter 1/Introduction

An introduction is the first chapter of a dissertation that inspires an interest in your work and explains the reasons for choosing the topic of investigation, the focus of your study, its importance for science, and the issues it raises. The reader should get an idea what are the main issues you’re raising and the methods you’re using, to explain your rationale for the choices you’ve made, whether you’ve done something experimental and practical, or taken a more theoretical approach.

It is advised to write an introduction near the end of your writing process. It’s best to start your work by writing the chapter you know the most about to fill yourself with the confidence that you can do this and to keep going.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between an introduction and an abstract. An introduction happens to be more detailed and an abstract is a summary which provides a description of your work to interest the reader.

The middle chapters

As stated above, when starting your dissertation it is necessary to check the requirements of your school or university. There is no general maximum or a minimum number of dissertation chapters requirement. Every scientific field would have its own structure requirements of the middle chapters depending on a discipline and level. In general, the structure of the middle chapters of a dissertation is very much like the structure of paragraphs of an essay. Each chapter represents a different aspect but never loses the main argument of the paper. In some dissertations, the research is presented and followed by outcomes and their interpreting. In others dissertations, every chapter represents a different case study. It is important to show careful modification and analysis of theories and data in your findings. In some cases a dissertation concludes of journal articles and it can cause difficulties when creating introduction/conclusion for all the different papers.


The conclusion is the final chapter of a dissertation that you draw out once you have completed the main body. It’s a brief ultimate summary of your key findings, conclusions of your investigation and what you’ve learned, recommendations for future research, how your research has enhanced existing knowledge. The goal is to tell your reader what makes your research special. To demonstrate your contribution to knowledge, for example, you can mention a presentation of a part of your work at a conference or a published chapter in a journal. Every dissertation should have a concluding section, so your research work doesn’t look like a review of some related ideas. You might include a section of how this dissertation has affected you and how you have grown as a researcher. This chapter does not have to be as long as other chapters and should be written in a way that it can stand alone. Writing a conclusion might fill you with joy because it would mean you are almost done with your work.

Dividing chapters into sections

The dissertation is about the lengthier paper. The length of the paper is decided by the university. If chapters of the dissertation are too long, they should be divided into sections, which can be further divided into subsections and sub-subsections. Division of each chapter (subsection, sub-subsection) should be done into at least two section.

Numbering of sections

Numbering the sections and subsections in a chapter makes it easier for a reader to understand where he/she is when reading your paper. The main idea of structuring the writing should be about the ease of understanding. Major sections should be given Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.). And then sections (subsections, sub-subsections) are numbered using decimal points (1.1, 1.2, etc.)

Back matter

The back matter of a dissertation consists of the following parts:


The necessity of providing material in the appendix should be discussed with your committee. The material should be related to the rest of your paper and should not represent a data that the author has not been able to work into the main text, the material must have a value and be helpful for the reader who seeks further information. The appendix should be listed in the Table of Contents and designated by letters (Appendix A, Appendix B, etc.) if there are two or more of them.


If the notes section is chosen to be grouped at the end of each chapter or at the end of your paper, the Notes section should begin on a new page (counted, not numbered). Follow your guidelines for the format of the notes. The notes are normally indicated in the text with superscript numbers.

References (Bibliography or Literature Cited)

When writing a dissertation or any academic paper many sources are used in the research (scholarly projects, the texts of books, relevant articles in periodicals, background readings, and professional and personal sites from the Internet, etc.) All works cited in the text must appear alphabetically arranged in the References, Bibliography or Literature Cited.

The Difference Between a Thesis and a Dissertation

Every student of a graduate program or the one who decides to continue an education after obtaining a bachelor’s degree is required to complete either a thesis or a dissertation. What is the difference between a thesis and a dissertation? They are similar and different at the same time.

Usually a candidate for a master’s degree would be required to write a thesis in which he or she would maintain a certain hypothesis based on previous work done by others in the field, and the members of a commission would check a student’s ability to arrange and express his or her ideas, to test a student’s understanding of his or her field of study. And some master’s degree programs offer for a student to choose either to write a thesis or not. If a student decides to advance his or her education and get a doctorate degree, he or she would be asked to take the thesis option and later to do an original research in a particular area and write up his findings in a dissertation as a doctorate student.

Every discipline would have its own requirements for a thesis or a dissertation.

A thesis and a dissertation have similarities. Both papers are similar in their structure. Both are assigned to graduate students and must be finished by the end of the last year of study. Both papers require a certain time to be prepared and it is necessary to get help from advisers and tutors to get the papers done according to the requirements and have it ready for showtime to earn a passing grade. If you fail, there is a possibility for you to do more work and try to defend your paper again later.

In Europe, PhD students focus on an original research in their doctoral thesis. Normally original research projects require a lot of background research. Therefore a thesis involves large-scale citations and references to previous work and formulates a proposition or a point of view which is considered as original work.

In the United States, students have to perform a thesis in order to obtain a Master’s degree. It’s a prior degree on the way to a doctorate. It is a possibility to show your ability to think critically. In a dissertation, you need to come up with a new concept, develop it and prove its value.

There is also a difference between PhD dissertation length and thesis length. Students can complete the thesis in one semester. How long is a doctoral dissertation? A dissertation is required to be two or three times the length of a thesis as it is a very complex work which, sometimes, can take years to complete.

Remember that every discipline and university, especially abroad, will have its own guidelines, requirements, and also might define doctoral dissertations and theses in their own way. When citing a PhD dissertation or a thesis remember to use models that you will find in libraries or any other databases as an example. Be in touch with your adviser who will help you with any questions you might get during your writing process.