Well, if there’s one thing that dissertations are known for, it’s structure! In fact, depending on your field of study, you will have a template for your dissertation that will dictate all the major areas and requirements. A dissertation is a giant research project, whether that research takes place through statistical tests, or surveys, or if it is an extensive literature review, or a combination of both. Regardless of the exact details, your dissertation is a research project, so the best way to understand the structure of it is to examine how each section relates to the research; the mission of the paper.

Background to Research/Introduction

In a sense, your dissertation is structured by introducing the topic, specific subject area, and important issues or controversies that make your research relevant, or give it a place within the greater world of academic research. It may be called background or introduction but it serves the same purpose. In this section you are answering the question, “what is taking place in the world of this issue (whether it is society, politics, scientific discovery) that makes my research question relevant?’ You don’t literally have to justify your own research here, but rather talk about the background to the issue that led you to ask the question you are asking in your research.

Research Question/Hypothesis

Once you have given the background, you then identify your exact research question and any related sub-questions in explicit detail. If you have a particular point or belief that you are setting out to prove or disprove, then your research question will take form in a statement, or a hypothesis. For example, if you wish to argue that ‘rascally rabbits are best kept out of the garden by a good fence and a clever dog, rather than a shotgun’, that would be a hypothesis for you to prove. The introduction part would not necessary be all about methods for dealing with rabbits, but the background to the issue itself, for example, how Farmer Brown has failed to pay his mortgage three years in a row because of his low yield of carrots and cabbages, owing to rabbit-consumption.

Relevance of Research

This part is little bit like an extension of the introduction, but since you have now explicitly introduced your research, now you can go into the details about why this question in particular is important, and what it is you hope to accomplish by answering it.

Literature Review/Research

Whether or not you have a literature review, or how thorough it is will depend on your project and what form your research takes. Some subjects work best with experiments and statistics, some are more ideological in form, and thus a literature review, as the context of your argument is your research. Thus, although in concept it is a review of what other people have said, there is a purpose behind reviewing these pieces, and that should be obvious in how they are presented, and in what order. It is often wise to use sub-headings in this section, in order to clarify that order. For example, for Farmer Brown’s plight, you may have a section on research covering history of yields and carrot prices at market, followed by a review of common anti-rabbit practices.


In a sense, this is where you finally get to give your opinion on farmers and rabbits, but you do it by using the research you have done, whether you have produced statistics, or presented other people’s arguments that you wish to support, dispute, or add to. Here you answer the question, “why do I think my question/hypothesis is relevant or important, and why did I find out along the way?”

Above all, as much as it can hinder us at times, structure in a dissertation is your friend and your guide. There are many things you will want to say about your topic and research, but by looking at the purpose of each section you can determine quite quickly what fits best in which section. Good luck.