ARTICLE 9: The Nature and Structure of a Dissertation for a Ph. D. or a Thesis for a Master’s Degree

Written by Dr Hannes Nel


Before we discuss the nature and structure of a Ph.D. or master’s degree research report, I need to point out that research on especially the doctoral level is not about just writing an essay. It is hard and complex work, but the rewards are most certainly worth the effort.

Conducting research and writing a report is like the seafarers of old and the astronauts of today who, as the old space science movie used to begin, “venture where no one else has ventured before”.

You will enjoy interesting and exciting discoveries.

Sometimes you might weep because of what you discover.

At other times you will jump for joy.

It is, indeed, a roller coaster ride that I hope you will enjoy.

Let’s board the ship.

Characteristics of a dissertation or thesis

A dissertation should show the following characteristics:

  1. The topic can be highly complex but need not be so.
  2. The content will be highly specialized in a highly complex area of expertise.
  3. The scope can be extensive or at least apply to a realistic community or geographical area.
  4. Analysis of data will require sophisticated analytical processes.
  5. Recognised research approaches, methods and paradigms should be used.
  6. The report should be 30,000 to 70,000 words in length.
  7. The bibliography can include generic and specific sources.
  8. More than 130 sources should be consulted.
  9. Some universities might be flexible about the characteristics of a dissertation.

A research report for a masters degree should show the following characteristics:

  1. The topic will probably be complex.
  2. The content will be specialized but probably not generally applicable.
  3. The scope can be broad in terms of the subject and geographical area to which it applies.
  4. Analysis of data can require the use of complex analytical processes.
  5. Any recognised research approaches, methods and paradigms can be used, depending on the scope, context and purpose of the research.
  6. The thesis should be 20,000 to 50,000 words in length.
  7. The bibliography can include generic and specific sources. An advanced level of existing knowledge of the topic and problem should be evident.
  8. 70 to 130 sources should be consulted.
  9. Some universities might be flexible about the characteristics of a thesis.

The research design

You should design your dissertation or thesis in such a way that it will satisfy the purpose of your research.

Although the design will consist of several headings or steps, it does not mean that you will follow a linear process. You will inevitably need to return to previous work, construct and reconstruct until you achieve an acceptable level of complexity, validity, authenticity and reliability.

The design will be linear, but the research process is always a spiral.

Most of all, however, you will need to achieve the purpose of your research.

In the case of doctoral studies, your research design will probably move from underlying philosophical assumptions and theoretical knowledge to new knowledge and a solution to a problem.

Even though the basic structure of a research report is prescribed by universities, all of them will allow a measure of flexibility by allowing you to add chapters. Omitting chapters that the university asks for might be risky because you might leave out important steps in the writing of the report or in the research process.

Changes in the internal or external environment, new information, unforeseen obstacles and unexpected opportunities to improve your work can move, perhaps even force you to change the structure and layout of your research report.

Research is not just about collecting and interpreting data. It is also a process by means of which you would manage change. That is why your design should be flexible.

Never pad, i.e. never include data in your report that is not relevant to the purpose of your research. Study leaders are experienced educators and they will not be impressed by volume. Quality is what they are looking for.

Structure your dissertation or thesis, including the chapters, subsections, paragraphs and even sentences in such a manner that they logically flow from the problem to the solution.

The design of your dissertation or thesis will depend on your research skills, the topic of the research and what the university prescribes. It should include which type of research you will conduct. Your research can be exploratory, descriptive or explanatory.

Exploratory research is research on a concept, people, or situation that you, as the researcher, know little about. You will typically use observation, interviews and content analysis to do exploratory research.

Descriptive research is research on a concept, people or situation that you know something about and about which you wish to describe what you have found or observed. Descriptive studies lend themselves well to a combination of quantitative and qualitative research approaches.

Explanatory research involves testing a hypothesis and coming to one or more conclusions about the validity of your hypothesis. The topic of the research is often something that has not been researched properly before. For explanatory research, you might use quantitative studies and hypothesis testing or the pursuance of a problem statement or question.

The scale and scope determine the boundaries of the design.

The boundaries put the problem statement or hypothesis into perspective.

You will also need to acknowledge the limitations of your research process. Some universities will allow you to overcome limitations with assumptions. Be careful of using assumptions in your research. It can damage the validity of your findings and the reliability of your recommendations.

Acknowledging that you are developing or deconstructing the findings of somebody else will lend validity and authenticity to your work.

Be modest about your claims to the originality of your work.

Do not underestimate the quality of research done by academics before you.

Do not regard quotations from the work of other researchers as a substitute for sound arguments by you.

Do not be jealous of the work of other researchers. You can often use their work as a corroboration of your own.

Regarding the structure of your research report, it should have the following elements:

  1. The title page.
  2. The table of contents.
  3. A list of figures and tables.
  4. The abstract.
  5. Confirmation of authenticity.
  6. Acknowledgments.
  7. The preface or introduction.
  8. The chapters.
  9. Bibliography and references.
  10. Appendices.


Research design is the blueprint according to which you will conduct your research.

Accept that change will occur while you do your research. Accept this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Consult as many sources of data as you can find, but guard against trying to include too many research methods, paradigms and data collection methods in your research.

The insights that you offer must be your own.

Remember that scrupulous honesty is as important in small matters as in large.

Enjoy your studies. Hard work will bring you good luck.

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