Dissertation Writing Tips

  • Be clear on what is your dependent variable – both conceptually and empirically.
  • Outline your argument very early on in the dissertation – perhaps even in the first paragraph or two. It is helpful for the reader to know where you are going as this frames the rest of the text. You are not writing a detective story where the answer is only revealed at the very end!
  • The literature review is there for you to carve out your niche in the literature, not show that you have read every article mentioning X, Y, or Z. It should be thorough and critical in the sense of showing that previous work has failed to consider something important, or has measured something inappropriately, or has conflated conceptual issues, or whatever else is appropriate. Note, however, that the most salient short-comings to highlight are the ones that you address yourself in your own work. The dissertation is not a vehicle for you to show that we have taught you how to criticise scholarly work. Rather, it is for you to make a positive research contribution. The critiques are an exercise for you to show what value your work adds.
  • While an interesting argument is important, it can often be helpful to give a catchy example or puzzle at the start of the dissertation. Something that makes the reader think ‘Hmm, I wonder why that is’ and then want to go on and read more about your explanation. Depending on your topic, this can be more a less difficult to come up with, of course.
  • Take your own theory seriously. Think in detail about the concepts that you use and the way you argue that they interact with each other. Apply this careful thought to the empirical part of your work when considering how to measure things. Your argument may be only subtly different from those of others, but it could still have strong implications for what is an appropriate (proxy) measure for your theoretical concept.
  • Graphics are good. It is very often much more reader-friendly to depict your data and/or results, rather than solely present them in tables. While the latter can provide clearer detail, the former are nearly always better at revealing relationships between variables.
  • 10,000 words is the limit. Do not break it!
  • 10,000 words is the limit, not a target. If you feel you have covered all of the material and analysis that you need to in order to make your case, do not feel obliged to add redundant text in order to get to the limit.
  • 10,000 words is really plenty of words. If you feel the need to go over this limit, it is almost certainly because you have not edited your paper sufficiently. Text that is repetitive, otherwise redundant, or not clearly related to the argument(s) you are advancing in the paper will likely lose you marks. Be sure to edit your work, perhaps several times, before you submit it.
  • There are different ways to structure your writing, and your choice is likely to partly depend on the specifics of what you are writing about and the method(s) that you use. Something like the following may be a helpful point of reference, but it is certainly not the ‘required’ structure for you to use. Adding, omitting, and changing the order of sections may make a lot of sense for you, and is entirely at your own discretion.
    1. Introduction – what you’re doing and why; outline your dependent variable; brief argument; puzzle/example.
    2. Literature – see above.
    3. Theory/Argument – having shown the gap in the existing literature, fill it; including hypotheses if you are adopting a deductive theoretical approach.
    4. Empirical Evidence – in a theoretically justified way, some combination of: case/sample selection; measurement of dependent and independent variables (whether qualitative or quantitative); hypothesis testing (if appropriate); findings/inferences.
    5. Discussion – discussion of the results; the extent to and ways in which they (don’t) support the hypotheses or the extent to which they yield new theoretical propositions; possible short-comings; perhaps illustrative case examples.
    6. Conclusion – sum up what we’ve learned from the dissertation; suggest future avenues for research that arise as a result of the findings and/or argument.

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