How to write an effective dissertation

Ways to write an impressive PhD thesis or dissertation

What is the difference between a thesis and a dissertation? They clearly have a substantial amount in common. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘thesis’ as ‘a long essay or dissertation involving personal research written by a candidate for a university degree’ and a ‘dissertation’ as ‘a long essay on a particular subject, especially one written for a university degree or diploma’. Consequently, the differences between them can be somewhat complex to define and the fact that the terms are described differently in different countries, and even in different universities, complicates the matter further. Therefore, in this article, the word ‘thesis’ will be used throughout, but it also applies to the word ‘dissertation’.  

What exactly is a thesis?

Basically, a thesis is work produced by a student as a result of independent research they have conducted. They are required to present an argument based on their research and present their own conclusions and suggestions for future research or possible practical applications. These should be summarised in a conclusion.  


Preparing and writing a thesis involves a substantial amount of hard work. The first step is to discuss the project with your tutor or supervisor, in conjunction with whom you will agree upon a topic. You should then conduct your research, which of course will involve much reading. Writing a thesis is time-consuming; therefore, you should make a plan and construct a realistic time table before you start. This should allow time for the research to be conducted, the writing of the thesis (which may involve several drafts), ensuring it is proofread, edited, or paraphrased as required, and then getting it printed and bound to a professional standard. The work will probably take more time than you anticipate, often due to various delays and unexpected interruptions. Therefore, you should allow for this in your plan to avoid any panic close to the submission deadline.  

Writing the thesis

Once you have decided on your topic and completed your research, it is time to begin writing the thesis. Firstly, familiarise yourself with the style guide and other requirements of your university. This will include the font type and size, the referencing system, the number of words required, and other factors. You then need to plan the layout of your thesis; this should include the title, list of contents, abstract, introduction, main body (which will typically include a literature review, methodology chapter, results/findings chapter, and a discussion chapter), conclusion, recommendations, and a bibliography. Depending on the subject area and topic, the thesis may also include pictures, diagrams, and tables.  

Developing your argument

The thesis must present an original argument and be your own work. You must demonstrate to the examiner that you have employed critical and analytical skills in evaluating relevant evidence and constructing your overall argument. You should not repeat any material that you have used in previous pieces of work. The work should be well written, without spelling, grammar, or typographical errors. It is important that your thesis is clear, concise, and logical, and that sentences are neither too long nor too short.  

Some pitfalls to avoid

 1. Failure to present an argument

You may have researched your topic well, included all the required citations, and written your thesis in perfect English. However, if you have not presented your argument or included any original thinking, you will have done no more than repeat the information obtained from the research.

2. Lack of evidence

When presenting your argument, it can be easy to state your own opinion without any appropriate justification or evidential support. It is essential to always support the claims you make with relevant evidence.

3. Plagiarism

Universities are extremely strict regarding the use of plagiarism, which if identified could have serious consequences. You should never make the work of others appear to be your own. The work and opinions of others should be presented in your own words and always be cited.

4. Misquotation

Sometimes you will need to give direct quotations from other scholars. These should always be placed in quotation marks and the source cited. Do not attempt to paraphrase or edit such quotations as this will be regarded as a misquotation (and you could be accused of misrepresenting the work of others). For this reason, you should ensure that you present the quotation accurately without any typographical errors.

5. Reporting figures and statistics inaccurately

If your thesis contains tables and statistics, you must ensure that the figures you include are accurate and completely free of errors.  

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