If you are studying for a Master’s or a PhD, you will need to write a thesis or dissertation as the final stage. This page explains the difference between these two terms, gives ideas for how to prepare to write one, and gives information on structure. There is also a checklist so that you can check your own thesis/dissertation.

What is a thesis/dissertation?

The meaning of the terms thesis and dissertation vary according to the country of study. In the UK, a thesis (also called a doctoral thesis) is written at the end of a PhD, and a dissertation (also called a Master’s dissertation) is written at the end of a Master’s degree. This contrasts with the USA, where a thesis is written at the end of a Master’s degree, and a dissertation is written at the end of a PhD. In Australia, both of these pieces of writing are called thesis, though there is a distinction between a Master’s minor thesis, which demonstrates knowledge, and a Master’s major thesis, which contributes to knowledge.

The dissertation and thesis have a similar structure. The main difference between them as pieces of writing is the length, with a Master’s thesis/dissertation being shorter, around 15,000-20,000 words, and a PhD thesis/dissertation up to 80,000 words.

How to write a thesis/dissertation

Writing a thesis/dissertation can seem a daunting task. To help, most Master’s and PhD programmes will require you to complete a research proposal first, which will allow you to begin planning and establish a timeline. You will also normally need to write a literature review as an assignment, which, again, will help you prepare. Other similar tasks may be required to help build towards this end goal, for example pilot studies or learning journals.

As part of your preparation, you should check the requirements. The mark scheme, if provided, should help with this. In particular, be sure to check the following.

  • Word limits. What is the word limit for the whole document? Does this include or exclude Abstract, References and Appendices? Is there a minimum number of words? Are there any word limits for individual parts (e.g. Abstract)?
  • Required chapters/content. Are there any chapters which must be included? Is there a specific order for chapters? Is there a guide to what each one should contain?
  • Content of appendices. What should go in the Appendices versus the main body?

Structure of a thesis/dissertation

There are many ways to structure a thesis/dissertation, which, like reports, can vary according to discipline. A traditional thesis/dissertation will be broadly organised using the IMRAD structure (Introduction, Methodology, Results and Discussion), as described below.


There are several parts which go at the beginning, before the main content. There should first be a Title page. This will include the title, which should be short, specific and clear. Details such as name of author, name of university, name of supervisor, and word count, may also appear here. The format of the title page may be specified, so check first.

Next, there should be an Abstract. The abstract is a stand-alone piece of writing which summarises the document. It should contain details of the aim, objectives, background, methods, results, conclusions, and recommendations. There is often a strict word limit for the Abstract, which can be difficult to meet. Although this appears first, it is usually best to write it last, when the whole document is finished and you are sure of the content.

Unlike a report, a thesis/dissertation requires Acknowledgements. This is used to thank your supervisor(s) and the other people who have helped in your research and in the writing of your thesis/dissertation. It may also give a declaration that the work is your own and is free of plagiarism.

Finally, the preliminaries should conclude with a Contents page. This should list all the headings and sub-headings in the document, together with the page numbers. There will usually also be a separate List of illustrations, giving the numbers, titles and page numbers of all the figures, a List of tables for the tables, and List of abbreviations used in the text.


This chapter should give sufficient background to enable the reader to understand the main body of the thesis/dissertation. This means providing the context of the research, why the subject is important, and the aim and objectives of the research. There should also be information on how the thesis/dissertation is organized.

Literature review

The main body is likely to begin with a Literature Review, though for some disciplines this section might be omitted. The literature review gives a critical summary of the existing research in the field, indicating authors who have worked or are working in the area and their main contributions. The main purpose is to identify gaps in knowledge and justify your own research. The review will lead in to the research problem or questions you are addressing.


The term methodology has a broader meaning than method, including not only the method but the philosophy behind it. This chapter will outline the method and materials of your research, in other words how, when and where you gathered information. This chapter is likely to also justify the research process. In addition, you are likely to explain why other methods, which you did not use, were rejected.


This chapter presents the results of the research. There is likely to be a significant amount of data, which will need to be organised and presented in a logical way. Graphs and pie charts are common ways of presenting quantitative data. Qualitative data, such as results of interviews, can be summarised and presented in tables, along with quoted excerpts. Research questions might be used to create subsections to further organise the data. Problems with gathering data should also be considered in this section.


This chapter draws together prior elements by analysing the results, grounded in theory (e.g. from the literature review), and showing their implications. Major differences or similarities between your findings and those of earlier research should be shown. Limitations of the research should also be given.


The conclusion consists of two chapters. The first, Conclusion, summarises information, and states the extent to which the aim and objectives of the research have been met.

There may also be a Recommendations chapter. This will give recommendations for future action, which should derive from the main body. If appropriate, ways to further develop your work will be given in this chapter

End matter

The thesis/dissertation will conclude with two sections. The first is a Reference section. The reference section lists all sources cited in the text. The extensive writing process means it is easy to omit one or more references, or include one or more which are not cited, so be sure to check.

The second is the Appendices, which provide any detailed information which your readers may need for reference, but which you do not want to include in the body.


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Below is a checklist for a thesis/dissertation. Use it to check your writing, or ask a peer.

Stage Section Item OK? Comment
Preliminaries Title page The thesis/dissertation has a clear and informative title.
Other relevant information is included (e.g. name of author, word count).
AbstractThere is an Abstract which summarises the whole document.
AcknowledgementsThere is an Acknowledgements page.
Contents pageA contents page is included, listing all the headings and sub-headings.
There is a separate List of illustrations, List of tables and List of abbreviations.
Introduction Background The Introduction contains necessary background, including context of the research and why subject is important.
Aim and objectivesThe research aim/objectives are given.
OutlineThere is an outline of how the thesis/dissertation is organised.
Main body Literature ReviewThere is a critical summary of existing research.
The review cites authors who have worked/are working in the area and their main contributions.
Gaps in knowledge are identified.
MethodologyThere is an outline of how information was gathered, when and where.
The research process is justified.
Other (rejected) methods are explained.
FindingsData is presented in a logical way (graphs, pie charts, tables).
Problems with gathering data are considered.
DiscussionThe results are analysed, grounded in theory (e.g. from the literature review).
Major differences/similarities between findings and earlier research is shown.
Limitations of the research are given.
Conclusion ConclusionThere is a summary of the main points, and a statement of the extent to which the aim and objectives have been met.
RecommendationsThere are recommendations for future action, and/or ways to further develop the research.
End matter Reference sectionThere is a reference section with full details of sources cited.
Reference section entries are correctly formatted.
All sources cited in the text are in the reference section.
All sources in the reference section are cited in the text.
AppendicesAppendices are clearly presented and numbered.
Appendices contain appropriate material (not essential for main body).
Other requirements Word limitsThe document is within the word limit.
Each section is within the word limit, if this is specified.
ChaptersAll required chapters are included.
Chapters are in the required order, if the order is specified.
OtherThe document fulfils other requirements, e.g. those indicated by the mark scheme.

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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 03 March 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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