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How to write a great dissertation outline

Being a student can be a turbulent time in that sometimes you feel as if a positive electrical buzz is travelling right through your body but then it becomes over activated and you start to feel like your head is going to burst. This quite often happens when you have to start your dissertation. You have just learned to cope with all the other work and then suddenly this big project is expected of you. Don’t despair, if you take the right steps, writing a dissertation can be inspirational.


In this article, you will learn:

One of the most important steps you can take when writing a dissertation is ensuring that you create a properly tailored dissertation outline. This is an essential step because:

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In the introduction, you will need to make it clear what the research topic or problem is. To do this, you need to be sure about it yourself so you need to give it a great deal of thought.

  • Background of the problem. You will need to briefly describe what the background to your research problem is. This will demonstrate where your research interests originate from. For instance, you may have a strong passion for good nutrition to keep folks healthy. If, while shopping at a cut price supermarket in a part of town that struggles financially, you have noticed lots of obese people. You may feel very inflamed about their future health prospects. As you want to investigate further, you listen in to conversations about the food while people are shopping and you start to see a pattern. You realise as people discuss what they are buying that they have a low understanding of nutrition and health. This can lead you to exploring more about the subject and you can explain this concisely in your outline.
  • Main Research Question. This will be the main springboard for any other sub questions that you need to ask. This question has to be wide enough for you to be able to get enough research out of it but not too wide that it will go beyond the constraints of your time and word budget. You also have to ensure that it is not too narrow because that will mean that you don’t have enough material to write about. If we stay with the topic that was mentioned earlier, your research question could be, “Is obesity in low income families due to a lack of education?”
  • Why is your study worth investigating? The whole purpose of doing research is to find out something whether lives can be improved or knowledge can be enhanced. It depends on the type of dissertation you are writing. For instance, if we stay with the topic of obesity among low paid families, you would essentially be exploring whether you could make them healthier by offering health education. The implications of this would be huge as it would save the National Health service millions of pounds a year. It would also enhance the lives of the subjects involved in the fact that they would lead fuller and healthier lives and possibly even live longer.
  • Definition of terms. You should always ensure that the reader is clear as what exactly you are offering with your research. Never presume knowledge when setting out your stall for your dissertation or, in fact, when you are writing an essay. This means. For instance, if when you use the term ‘obesity’, you should define it as a person’s Body Mass Index being over 30.
  • Limitations. It is important that in your dissertation outline that you make it clear what the limitations of your research are. For instance, you do not have the time, word count or finances to conduct your own personal national market research on the obese but you can look at statistics and investigate a sample of the population personally. Therefore, you need to explain exactly what you can do.

If you’re doing a humanities dissertation, for example “the effects of capitalism in Wuthering Heights compared with the Merchant of Venice”, this part might confuse you because your subject matter is the literature itself. The best way to tackle the literature review for the outline in this case is to review the most important issues of the text succinctly and also to do the same with any theorists that you are using. Remember that this is an outline, not the full piece so you have to be concise. The most important aspect of this is that you get your analytical points across. The literature review in a text based dissertation is not expected to be as immense as in a more practical dissertation.

If, on the other hand, you are doing an empirical dissertation, a literature review must demonstrate that you have read around your topic and that you have an understanding of the issues that it raises. Therefore, in your outline, you need to mention this and acknowledge the work of the theorists that you will be using. In doing this, you also need to demonstrate how their findings work as a springboard for your own research. If this seems like hard work, it is, but it is also worth it because it will give you a clarity that could deliver the groundwork for the critical analysis in your own research later on in the dissertation.

If you are writing a dissertation outline for an English Literature topic such as “the effects of capitalism in Wuthering Heights compared to the Merchant of Venice”, the methodology will be different from a dissertation based on obesity. The reason for this is that methodology within a humanities degree is often based mostly on other people’s theories whereas methodology for a practical dissertation often means conducting research personally. Your methodology outline would therefore need to describe which theorists you would be examining and critically analysing, why you had chosen them and also what you contemplate you will achieve through your comparisons.

If you are writing a dissertation that was not text based but more practical, for instance, “Is obesity in low income families due to a lack of education?” you would have to use either qualitative methodology, quantitative methodology or mixed methodology depending on your individual topic.

  • Qualitative research. If you were using purely qualitative methodology in your outline. You would need to concisely justify why you had chosen to us this form of research. This may include focus groups, one to one interviews or case studies. You would also briefly need to explain what your research sub questions are; where the research will take place; who will participate in your research (this means the group not specific people); how you will collect your data; what methods you will use to analyse it and a brief conclusion bringing it all together.
  • Quantitative research. If, on the other hand, you decided to use quantitative research, you would have to rationalize why you had chosen to use purely statistics etc. Your outline would need to also include research questions and hypotheses but also an explanation of the population and sample to be used. You would then briefly outline how you would instrument your research, collect the data and examine it. Again, as with the qualitative research you would use maybe a sentence or two to offer a conclusion to your methodology outline.
  • Mixed research. If you decided that using both quantitative and qualitative research mixed together would work better for your dissertation, you need to explain why you have reached that conclusion. Remember though that this is an outline, it is not your dissertation, being able to succinctly offer main points will clarify your argument in your mind. In this case, you need to outline, as before, your research questions and hypotheses; the people that are being researched and their setting; you need to analyse how the quantitative research offers different value to the qualitative research and how this improves upon your study; how you will collect your data and analyse it and a one-line conclusion.

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