Right usage of tenses in dissertations

Get your tenses right in your thesis/dissertation

Master’s and doctoral students often find it challenging to get their tense right when they write their thesis or dissertation. 

This conclusion is based on the proofreading and editing of thousands and thousands of dissertations and essays over the years.

This article will shed light on how you, as an academic, can get your thesis written in the correct tense from start to end. 

The confusion surrounding tenses often revolves chiefly around the use of the present, past and future tenses. 

A key factor  

A key question you need to ask yourself when you are confused as to whether which tense you should use is: “Is what I am writing about something I have already done or something I will still do?”. 

Your answer to this question will, in 99% of the cases, help you determine which tense you should use in the sentence, paragraph or section you are writing in your dissertation.

But let’s explain in more detail how this works throughout your draft. 

Thesis document 

There are two ways of writing a dissertation or thesis: either gradually over time during your course of study or at the end of the academic investigation. 

This likely the reason why many get confused about tenses in their academic papers, although this should not be the case. 

The best way to get your tenses right is to think of a thesis manuscript as a document where you narrate and tell your readers what you DID, what you RESEARCHED, How you DID it, and what you FOUND. 

So, essentially, the dissertation manuscript is a full description of your research which you have already DONE. 

Where applicable? 

 Let’s zoom in a bit more on where you need to use the past tense.  

In the abstract section, you should never use the future or present tense when you explain the objective and aim of your study, i.e you should not say something like: 

“This study will aim to investigate….”

“This study aims to investigate….” 

You should instead say: 

“This study aimed to investigate….” – this is because you have already completed your academic research and are now only reporting what you wanted to investigate. 

The past tense should also always be used in the methodology section of your thesis. 

For instance, you should say: 

“The researcher employed a qualitative approach to investigate….” 

“The research conducted interviews with the participants….” 

Always remember you are telling your readers about what you did. 

The past tense should also be used in the findings section, in which you, again, should be telling your readers about what you found in your research or conclusions you made based on experiments. 


Although when writing your dissertation, most times you will be using the past tense, always remember that there are instances where you will have to use either future, present or present perfect. 

Present tense: In the literature review section, when you refer to a study by an author/authors, you should be using the present tense. 

For instance: “In his study, Robert D. (2009) explains that the best approach to studying psychology…etc” 

You should also use the present tense when you are referring to opinions of other authors wherever applicable.

For instance: “Miller argues that the qualitative methodology is the most effective technique…etc”

Present perfect can be used in instances like: "Previous research has shown that...etc"

Future tense can be used in the future research recommendation section.

For example: “The research believes that more research efforts will be needed to plug this gap in research.”

These are very quick and simple tips that should you get your tenses right when writing your thesis.

Still unsure how to use tenses correctly in your master thesis or dissertation and do not want to risk losing valuable marks? We are here to help. We provide very thorough and rigorous dissertation proofreading services. Just drop us a line.

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