Parts of a Dissertation: Part 1
If you find yourself wondering, “how do I structure my dissertation?” not to worry!—most dissertations use the same format. I’m going to break down the two main dissertation structures: IMRaD and Case Studies. But first, let’s check out the parts that nearly every dissertation has in common.
Nearly every dissertation has an Introduction chapter and a Conclusion chapter that sandwich the rest of the material. The introduction provides an overview of the topic. In this section, you’ll make an argument for why your dissertation is important, state your research question(s) and/or hypotheses, and preview the content that will be covered in the rest of the chapters.
The conclusion summarizes everything you have already discussed. You will review the most important points of your dissertation, remind readers why your research expanded the field, and end with the implications of your research.
Now that we know the two chapters which are almost certain to be included in your dissertation, let’s discuss the middle portion of your dissertation. These middle chapters provide the real content of your project, much like the meat of a sandwich provides the substance for your lunch.
Scientific and social science dissertations most often follow the IMRaD structure: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. The acronym doesn’t include the conclusion chapter, but they almost always include one, for a total of five chapters.
If your dissertation is following the IMRaD format, the methods chapter follows the introduction. This chapter justifies the methodology you have chosen for your research and provides a description of the models and other tools you will use to collect and analyze your data.
The results chapter presents your findings. In this chapter, you will tell the audience what you discovered during your research. This chapter answers your research questions and explains whether the outcomes of the study supported your hypotheses.
Finally, the discussion chapter explains the importance of your results. Altogether, the IMRaD structure makes it very clear what sections to include in a dissertation.
I’m Rad, Too
Not all dissertations follow the IMRaD structure, though. Some social science dissertations and most humanities dissertations will be broken up into chapters by topic. For example, the middle chapters of my dissertation, in rhetoric, covered three case studies. My structure was: Introduction, Case Study 1, Case Study 2, Case Study 3, Conclusion. The not-IMRaD (but still rad) structure allows for flexibility in content.
Other dissertations might cover three separate elements of one topic in those three middle chapters (topical organization). For example, if a historian is writing about the American Civil War, they might organize their dissertation this way: Introduction, Topic 1: Overall Reasons for the War, Topic 2: Perspectives of the Union Army, Topic 3: Perspectives of the Confederate Army, Conclusion.
Finally, though this non-IMRaD structure is most often used outside of scientific dissertations, some scientists and social scientists might conduct more than one study as part of their research. If you are conducting a series of studies, most likely on related topics, you may structure your dissertation as separate research study chapters. This structure would be similar to the two above, and would include the results and discussions within each of the three (or more) middle chapters that cover the individual studies.
How do I choose one of these structures?
Many disciplines have norms and expectations around how to format your dissertation and some programs and universities have very specific requirements, so check with your advisor if you’re unsure which is the right choice for you.