What is PhD Dissertation? Introduction and Structure

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What is PhD dissertation?

PhD dissertation or doctoral thesis is a documented account of your findings for partial fulfilment of PhD degree. Once you’re confident to present your work, you prepare a write-up comprising of what motivated you to start the project, how you proceeded to investigate a problem, what your findings are and how you interpret them.

PhD Dissertation is evaluated by examiners, assigned from both within the host university as well as externally, often internationally. The selected examiners are experts in your area of study who provide you with insightful analysis of your data and help you with critical suggestions for improvement.

You’re expected to incorporate these inputs and make a final submission, which is then considered for awarding you the much-awaited PhD degree. The contents, length and format of a PhD dissertation vary according to institute requirements as well as by personal preference.

Component of PhD Dissertation

Broadly however, PhD Dissertation comprises of:

i. Thesis Cover

This is meant to provide all important information at a glance. It includes the thesis title, your name, the name (and logo) of your institute, and the year of submission. Many students include their supervisor’s name. Some people prefer to include an artistic depiction of their results or a scientific image, say, from a microscope, or a field camera.

ii. Declaration

Some universities want you to include a signed self-declaration, stating among other things, that the thesis findings are original work and have not been used for the conferral of any other degree at any other institute.

iii. Synopsis

This is a summary of your entire work, beginning with a short paragraph on the background, the broad question, followed by a brief description of the methods and results of the investigation, and ending with a note on the relevance of your findings.

iv. Introduction

Before embarking on research, a student usually surveys available literature for work done till date on the topic of interest.

What are the findings of previous researchers?

What are the loopholes in available data?

What improvements are possible?

To answer these, it’s important to read as many scientific articles as possible to know the state of affairs. Each published article addresses a scientific problem to a small extent. Putting these findings together helps to comprehend the chronology of development in the field and enables us to connect the dots to form a bigger picture.

The introductory chapter is where you introduce the major players of your story, the known facts and literature references required for you to get started. Each statement here should cite original works, which are expanded later in the References section.

v. Materials and Methods

This section describes your tools, the materials used, and techniques employed to carry out the investigation. You should acknowledge the manufacturer of reagents and give appropriate usage instructions.

Often reagents are gifted by peers and a kind acknowledgement is warranted when you cite them. It’s said that standardizing assays takes longer than generating presentable data.

It’s worthy therefore to pen down every necessary information, in such detail that a new researcher finds it easy to reproduce your results and take the project forward.

It’s a nice gesture to help a successor, so that time is not wasted in reinventing the wheel. In fact, you might want to revisit your dissertation later to learn techniques that you once performed with great efficiency but have lost touch with!

For this exercise to be effective, you need to be methodical throughout your PhD, and take down notes while doing experiments. If you believe you’ll be able to recall everything from memory, then you might be in for a shock!

While writing your dissertation, you’re most often restricted by a deadline, and it might be difficult to recollect experimental nitty-gritties. In fact, it’s a good practice to start organizing the sections on literature survey and methodologies well in advance while you’re still working. That saves a lot of time and effort later.

vi. Results

This is where you report the findings of your experiments. This section is essentially a combination of text and data figures. You describe the rationale of undertaking an experiment, what your hypothesis was, and what you expected to address with the experiment.

You then report the observation and analyze it. Each experiment is described in detail and connected with the prior experiment and the subsequent one, thus building up to a story.

An experiment thus leads you to another question which you try and answer in the next one, finally culminating in an interpretation of the combined results.

vii. Discussion

It’s great to be confident of your research findings and it’s equally essential to be open to analyze your results in the light of current knowledge. Your data might support some views in the field while it might contradict certain others.

It’s crucial to respect peers and give due credit to their findings, whether or not your findings align with theirs. What is critical is to place your research in a broad perspective:

How do your results support previous data?

Are you able to reproduce some crucial data from previous publications?

Why do you think your findings are different than certain others?

What are the scopes of improvement in your research?

Questions such as these are answered here. You may also utilize this section to discuss data which might not fit into your initial hypothesis but which you have worked upon to give your research a new direction.

This is really a fantastic place to reflect upon your data and freely express your thoughts about it.

viii. Contribution to the Field

As an extension of the previous section, some people describe the implications of the current research, how the findings help the field progress and how they contribute to solve unanswered puzzles.

ix. Future Directions

A PhD dissertation is an incremental contribution of a single person to a huge field of study. It’s never expected to culminate discovery. You’ve done your best in the given time frame, and no time limit is ever enough for the progress of science.

Research is an ongoing process, and although you might have earned your PhD degree, your thesis will have a section on future directions. It’s vital you understand where your research is headed, what advances could be done and what are the missing links.

Students often misinterpret this section as a list of unaccomplished tasks and therefore consider it a drawback. On the contrary, a well-written section on the future possibilities demonstrates your ability to think beyond your degree, it shows that you’re interested to see your project move beyond the scopes of your dissertation and provides valuable research ideas for your successors.

Be rest assured that you’ll be gratefully acknowledged for the same! Having worked on a project for many years, it’s imperative that you’re the most knowledgeable person about your project and are the best one to suggest research projects branching out from it.

x. References

Previously published literature from peer-reviewed journals or theses cited in the text should be described in internationally accepted formats (like APA, MLA, etc.) in this section. A good PhD dissertation should cover major and minor contributions in the field, so that a reader can find necessary literature to refer to if desired.

A Perfect PhD Dissertation!

The sections described above are the commonly used ones in dissertations worldwide. There might be minor alterations and inclusions though.

Students often incorporate Acknowledgements (to thank the many people who helped them, including supervisor, family, friends, and others), List of Abbreviations (for quick access to expansion of acronyms), and List of publications (to mention the articles which cover findings from the dissertation).

As you might understand, PhD dissertation is a record book of everything you’ve done to achieve that special degree. So, it’s best to give due prominence to it.

You’ll realize that this remains extremely dear to you, although later in life you might want to rectify the writing abilities of your younger self!

Nevertheless, given the time constraints that you must complete writing your thesis in, it’s best to plan and manage your time accordingly. Not every university gives you dedicated time to write your thesis, instead you are expected to carry on working while you write.

It usually helps if you’re organized throughout your PhD and do not have to dig in and fish out every information with great difficulty form your lab notebooks! Although a PhD dissertation doesn’t usually have a word limit, it’s good to keep the language clear and concise, with minimal re-iterations.

You wouldn’t want your examiners to get bored of reading! The onus is on you to write your dissertation in a way that is enjoyable to read and easy to understand, such that it does not challenge the attention span of your readers.

It should reflect how articulate you are in conveying your research on paper. It’s worthwhile to categorize your dissertation into well-defined chapters, and needless to say, please do avoid typographical and grammatical errors, and plagiarism.

Even self-plagiarism is discouraged in several universities, meaning that you’re expected to re-word yourself even though your thesis and published paper might cover the same results.

Some universities however allow students to compile all their papers and present them as their dissertation.

Overall, PhD dissertation is a testament to the hard work of a student who by the completion of PhD, is an expert in the dissertation topic.

PhD Dissertation Citations


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