1. Opening sections. There are a number of standard devices used in the opening sections of dissertations which are usually precisely specified by faculty notices. Do not forget these elements – title page, acknowledgements, contents page – as they are standard requirements, not mere trivialities.
2. Abstract. The abstract consists of usually no more than a single page of text and summarises the entire dissertation. In order to write a good abstract it is necessary to understand its purpose, which is to provide researching academics with a short-hand summary of an extended piece of work to decide whether or not it would be worthwhile for them to read it. All elements of the dissertation should be represented here, including methodology and findings.
3. Task definition. Ensure that you have defined and explained your research aims and the purpose of your dissertation early on. As with all structuring considerations, the aim is clarity of expression. Therefore guide your reader clearly through the piece by establishing early on its primary concerns.
4. Early chapters. The first chapters should be an introductory section followed usually by a review of the existing literature. Discussions of scope, purpose, constraints and objectives are addressed in the introduction, and the literature review provides the space for a full contextualisation of the present work.
5. Middle chapters. Following from the introduction and literature review is the chapter on methodology. Note how the typical sequence of chapters builds, each upon the last, in a logical progression, setting up the information necessary for later findings and conclusions to be meaningful. After the methodology is the chapter on the discussion and analysis of findings.
6. Final chapters. Depending on the particular nature of your research, the analysis and discussion of findings may be split into two chapters. In any case, each should have its own subheading. The concluding chapter makes the analysis of findings meaningful and links to the broader academic context. There should be some symmetry of structure here, with final concluding discussions recalling material from the beginning of the dissertation.
7. From the theoretical to the evidential. Clearly it is the case that different types of research will require different approaches to structure, but in general it is worth noting the value of making the piece show development from theory to evidence. Begin with background theory and a strong conceptual framework, then introduce novel evidence to test or fit this theory. This type of development lends your dissertation a unifying arc.
8. Subheadings. Consecutive pages of uninterrupted prose can leave the reader wondering exactly where each detail fits in the wider picture of your dissertation. Subheadings are a useful way to break up prose for the benefit of the reader, and as a reminder to you when writing that tangents should be eliminated and focus maintained.
9. Ancillary elements. Title and contents pages, bibliography, appendices: these should not be seen as constraints but opportunities. Each serves some function, and gives you space to break up the writing of your sustained research project into manageable sections. Read available dissertations and find out how best to use appendices and other ancillary devices.
10. Review. Look back over your dissertation once complete. You will naturally proofread the piece, but consider looking it over at a glance to see whether the piece makes intuitive sense by its chapter titles and subheadings alone. If so, you have achieved a sound structure which aids in the clear expression of the dissertation’s content. If not, you will have to reorganise material.