Writing a Thesis or Dissertation

Put together a strong proposal,

turn that proposal into a solid draft,

sort through your committee members' feedback,

and prepare for your defense. 


Resources on this Page

The Introduction Chapter  |  The Theoretical Framework  |  The Literature Review  |  The Methodology Chapter  |  The Analysis Chapter  |  The Defense or Viva  |  General Resources 

The Introduction Chapter

Dr. Cheryl Lentz gives a "big picture" description of the dissertation/thesis and explains what information goes in the Introduction, or foundational chapter. The Introduction needs to show the structure of the entire study on a macro level (the overall purpose structure of the thesis or dissertation) and on a micro level (the structure of each individual chapter, each with its introduction, body, and conclusion). 

"Chapter One's purpose really is to look at your problem statement.  What is the specific problem you're going to solve?"


The Theoretical Framework

Amanda Rockinson-Szapkiw explains that a theoretical framework is "a set of interrelated concepts in which you ground your research." The role of the theoretical framework is to show how your research fits into what is already known, and to show how your research makes a contribution to the existing knowledge on your subject.

"A theoretical framework guides your literature review. It informs your questions as well as your methodology."


The Literature Review

This video from NC State gives a brief overview of the literature review and the process of developing it.



"You will be telling the specific story that sets the background and shows the significance of your research." 


The Methods Chapter

Dr. Ziene Mottiar and Dr. Deirdre Quinn discuss the methods chapter, in which you describe your research process and give a defense of that process. You identify your philosophical lens, your methodological approach, and your research tools, referring to the literature as necessary. 


"You have to imagine yourself as a salesperson; you're selling your approach."


More on Methods and Methodology

Methodology Isn't Methods (Pat Thomson)  


The Analysis Chapter

Dr. Ziene Mottiar and Dr. Bernadette Quinn discuss how to write the all-important analysis chapter, in which you comment upon your findings, highlight which of your data are most important, and relate the findings to the literature discussed in the literature review.  The analysis must also be linked to the research questions; these questions (or the key terms in them) can be used in the section headings. This chapter "makes or breaks" the dissertation and answers the "so what" question.


"You have to trust your instinct on what is important" to include in your analysis.



The Defense or Viva

How long will my viva be? (Pat Thomson)

What are examiners looking for? (Gina Wisker)

Top 10 Questions for the Viva oral exam (Patrick Dunleavy)

How not to fail the phd (Pat Thomson)

Viva Cards (discussed by Pat Thomson here)




General Resources

Online resources

Writing Proposals. A powerpoint that gives a great overview of all sections of the proposal. (Penn State University)

The Thesis Whisperer. Widely read blog, based in Australia; also has active Facebook and Twitter feeds.

UNC Writing Center | University of Florida  |  Columbia University

How Not to Write a PhD Thesis (University of Brighton) 

Writing the Successful Thesis and Dissertation: Entering the Conversation  (Irene L. Clark)

Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (Joan Bolker)

Writing up your Thesis (Paul Spencer)

Pat Thomson's posts on writing the thesis or dissertation

PhD Essentials (James Hayton's YouTube channel and podcast)



Authoring a Ph.D.: How to Plan, Draft, Write, and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation (Patrick Dunleavy). Written by a British political scientist, this guide will be most useful for humanities doctoral students in the UK system. The author's writings on Medium under the handle @Write4Research are useful to a wide range of writer-researchers.  


Other Tips

  • For specific examples of what constitutes excellence in your area of study, locate and read prize-winning theses and dissertations in your discipline
  • Remember, your primary audience is your committee. To whatever extent you can, give them what they want; you can (and will) make significant revisions before sending your work off for publication
  • If you plan to publish the manuscript or portions of it, write it with an eye toward publication


"My work with Margy Thomas was invaluable in the process of shaping my dissertation project. ... Her clear questions and patience gave me insight on what someone who is unfamiliar with my project would think, thus giving me a clear audience for whom to write."

Doctoral student at Baylor, now a TT Assistant Prof.


"Margy was fantastic. She had a very good method to help me through the vagaries and ambiguous swill that my dissertation had been immersed in. Her enumerated lists, while at first unsettling, were just what I needed."

Doctoral student at North Carolina State University