ARTICLE 97: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: The Layout of the Thesis or Dissertation Part 1 of 9 Parts

Written by Dr. J.P. Nel

This article is an introduction to eight more articles on how to structure your thesis or dissertation.

I already pointed out in my initial articles that a thesis for master’s degree studies and a dissertation for doctoral studies are not the same.

Even so, there are enough similarities so that we can discuss them together.

Besides, it is a good idea to use the thesis that you write for your master’s degree as a learning opportunity for when you embark on doctoral studies.

And most universities will not object if you write and approach your thesis as you would a dissertation.

I will point out salient differences between a thesis and a dissertation.

Research without writing is of little purpose. There are, of course, other ways of communicating your research findings, most notably through oral presentation, but putting them on paper remains of paramount importance. The thesis or dissertation remains the major means by which you should communicate your findings.

It is something of a paradox, therefore, that many researchers are reluctant to commit their ideas to paper. Then again, not all people like writing and some might claim that it requires writing talent. For those who enjoy writing, this can be the most enjoyable part of the research process, because when compiling your research findings, you need to take what you wrote in the body of your document and create something new from it. Even though you have your research data to fall back on, you still need to think creatively. This takes some courage, hard work and lots of self-discipline.

It is always important to do immaculate and professional research. However, your biggest challenge is to develop an interesting and well-structured thesis or dissertation from the research data. Any research paper is based upon a four-step process. Firstly, you need to gather lots of general, though relevant, information. Secondly, you need to evaluate, analyse and condense the information into what is specifically relevant to a hypothesis, problem statement or problem question. Thirdly, you need to come to conclusions about the information that you analysed, and formulate findings based on your conclusions. Finally, your thesis or dissertation should again become more general as you try to apply your findings to the world in general or at least more widely than the target group for the research.

Different disciplines will use slightly different thesis or dissertation structures, so the structure described in the following nine articles is based on some basic principles. The steps given here are the building blocks of constructing a good thesis or dissertation.

A thesis or dissertation should clearly and thoroughly indicate what you have done to solve a problem that you identified. In addition, it should be factual, logical and readable. A good thesis or dissertation should be comprehensive and precise. Most importantly, though, it must be professionally researched.

Some of the contents of your research proposal will not have changed and should be included in your dissertation, as should some of the information that did change, but in the improved format or content. Your problem statement, question or hypothesis, for example, might have changed. The literature and other sources of information that you consulted will have changed and should include many more sources than the original list.

You should ensure that the time set aside for writing sessions is sufficient, as constant restarting and trying to find out where you left off when you last worked on the thesis wastes time and interferes with your thinking processes. If you are fully employed you should write after hours at least one hour per day, five days a week. Even then you will need to catch up by working over weekends, long weekends and holidays.

It is when writing a thesis or dissertation that you will really come to appreciate your desktop or laptop computer. When writing a thesis or dissertation, you should:

  1. Manage your time well.
  2. Make electronic backups of your work as often as possible.
  3. Plan each chapter in detail and structure your thesis or dissertation before you start writing. The layout of your thesis or dissertation may change over your period of study. Even so, good preparation is still important.
  4. First write your draft, then edit it critically and eliminate unnecessary material. Do not expect to get it right the first time around. Review is part of post graduate studies.
  5. Motivate the necessity of the study and explain the goal clearly.
  6. Give your study leader and anybody else who might read your thesis or dissertation a clear understanding of the research problem. The implications should be explained in such a way that everyone reading the thesis or dissertation has the same orientation towards the problem.
  7. Provide sufficient theoretical background to base the study on.
  8. Clearly describe the data collection methods and aids used.
  9. Provide sufficient and accurate data and indicate exactly how the data was used to solve the research problem.
  10. Conform to the university’s requirements for typing, printing and binding, and also meet the requirements set out formally in the learning institution’s post graduate policy and procedure.

We have come full circle from discussing the research process, all the concepts that you should apply and the tools that are available, to unpacking the research in the form of a thesis or dissertation. The following nine articles, therefore, return to the beginning of the research process and deal with the entire process, the only difference being that now we focus on putting the thesis or dissertation on paper.


The thesis or dissertation is the major means by which to communicate research findings.

Writing a thesis or dissertation requires creative thinking, some courage, hard work and lots of self-discipline.

You must find out in advance what the university’s requirements, rules, regulations and procedures for master’s or doctoral studies are and abide by them.

And you must manage time well.

Conducting research and writing a thesis or dissertation mostly consist of four main steps:

  1. Gather information.
  2. Evaluate, analyse and condense the information.
  3. Come to conclusions and findings.
  4. Apply your findings in practise.

The requirements for a thesis or dissertation are:

  1. It must clearly and thoroughly indicate what you have done to solve a problem.
  2. It must be comprehensive and precise.
  3. You must research the topic of your research professionally.
  4. In the case of doctoral studies your dissertation must align with your initial study proposal.
  5. You should continually make electronic backups of your work.
  6. You must plan and structure your thesis or dissertation before you start writing.
  7. You should review your work regularly.
  8. You should do enough literature study.
  9. You must clearly motivate the importance and value of your research.
  10. You must explain the research problem.
  11. You must clearly describe how you will collect and analyse data.
  12. You must show how you use the data that you collect in your thesis or dissertation.


The eight articles following on this one are critically important for your further studies.

You can use them to guide your research process.

You can also use them to do a self-evaluation of your work before you submit the final manuscript for your thesis or dissertation.

Enjoy our studies.

Thank you.

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