Dissertation and Thesis Guidelines

These guidelines provide an overview of the general requirements applicable to MA theses and PhD dissertations at CIHS.

The specific format and style will be dictated by the nature and design of the research and the requirements of different programs.  The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 5th edition (2001), should be consulted for all questions of form and style. A useful summary of APA format by Plonsky is provided by University of Wisconsin free on their website: http://www.uwsp.edu/psych/apa4bs.htm.

Students who are unfamiliar with research and writing up research projects may often feel intimidated by the process, but if they familiarize themselves with the requirements and begin discussing ideas during their coursework particularly in methodology classes, there is no need for it to be any more challenging than writing a long course paper, particularly if they begin planning discussing it as early as possible.

Dissertations and Theses

A Masters thesis is intended to demonstrate that the student is capable of completing and writing up a research project, while a Doctoral dissertation requires conducting an original piece of research and a written presentation that follows the guidelines of the APA publication standards.  Although the thesis is optional for some programs, for those students intending to proceed to the doctoral level it provides an excellent opportunity to develop research and writing skills that will make completing a doctoral dissertation less challenging.

While a dissertation requires a committee of three, a thesis requires a supervisor who can be a Dean, Program Director or a faculty member as a supervisor.  If the supervisor is a faculty member a dean or program director will also be required to read and sign the final acceptance.

The format of dissertations and theses are similar, therefore the information regarding chapters and format is applicable to both. The procedure is however different as the masters degree does not require the planning or predissertation courses but students are required to get a draft outline approved by their supervisor.

The following suggestions could help you in preparing for the dissertation process:

·         Browse through this outline and manuals for which links have been suggested;

·         Browse through dissertations in the CIHS library and other schools

·         Reflect on topics that interest you;

·         In methodology class discuss your ideas and the methodology that may best suit your topic interests and inclinations. CIHS accepts quantitative, qualitative and theoretical dissertations or the use of combined methods.

·         Become competent in using APA format when writing course papers.

Additional useful tips and guidelines can be found at: www.apastyle.org

As each university has its own dissertation process and procedures the following overview describes the process at CIHS:

The Dissertation Process at CIHS

For doctoral students this requires the completion of the comprehensive examination and obtaining advancement to candidacy (see catalogue). The dissertation process begins with two pre dissertation courses (896 and 897), which involve the preparation of a draft or preliminary proposal outlining the topic and methodology.  This will provide an outline for the formal proposal, which comprises the first three chapters of the final dissertation that the committee will evaluate before data is collected and the final chapters are completed.

Types of Dissertation

The dissertation process and overall format is fairly similar for the types of dissertation design CIHS accepts: quantitative, qualitative and theoretical designs as well as a combination of methods. The main characteristics of these approaches include:

Quantitative research – which most students are familiar with, involves collecting statistical data about phenomena or variables that are being studied to establish specific hypothesized effects or relationships among variables. It is used in experimental and correlation designs in laboratory investigations or in the evaluation of interventions in some clinical studies.

Qualitative and phenomenological research – collects data using observation, interviewing or records such as biographies or case histories, or a combination or these sources of data.  The data is analyzed using concepts and themes in order to build theories or conceptual models.

Theoretical dissertations – usually involve the critiquing or analysis of current theories or of varying definitions of concepts within a particular discipline, and in common qualitative research, theoretical or conceptual models are developed.  It is important for students to be aware that qualitative approaches can often be as challenging as quantitative research and not simply a soft option that offers an escape from statistics.

Combined or Mixed Methods- are used where researchers want to present a broader and a more integral approach to the topic, rather than simply confirming a limited hypothesis.  This approach is increasingly popular and there are several texts available on the subject.

The choice of design requires careful consideration based on its suitability of the method or methods for the development of meaningful research objectives and for the topic chosen.

Pre dissertation Courses and Draft Proposals (PSY/IH/LP/CRP 896 & 897)

These classes begin once students have completed their coursework and Comprehensive examination. The classes numbered 896 and 897 for the doctoral programs are conducted with the Academic Dean, a Program Director or Consultant, and represent the planning phase of the dissertation.

Course 896 – is a discussion of the topic with the faculty member conducting the course to ensure the topic is clear and focused, relevant as well as practical and most important realistic and ‘do-able’.  It requires the preparation of a draft proposal that will be an outline for the first chapter or Introduction of the dissertation. This draft will outline the topic; describe reasons for this choice, and the possible value of the proposed research (or rationale).  It will also clearly identify the main concepts or constructs that will be investigated in qualitative research, or the variables that will be measured in the case of quantitative research.

The main theoretical foundations of the study need to be briefly mentioned, but theses will be elaborated in detail in chapter two of the formal proposal, the Literature Review.  The draft will provide a summary of the research objectives, and the underlying hypothesis for quantitative studies or assumptions that are the basis of qualitative research.

Course 897 – focuses on the research methods that will be appropriate for the particular topic and will provide a draft outline for the third chapter of the dissertation; this describes the design and how data will be collected and analyzed.

Once these two courses have produced an adequate draft proposal the student will decide on and arrange for the appointment of a committee which will guide the writing of the first three chapters of the dissertation, or the formal proposal.

When the proposal has been reviewed and approved by the committee, the final phase of data collection and analysis can proceed and after this has been satisfactorily completed and adequately documented the oral defense is arranged.

Formal Proposal (Chapters 1-3)

This outline of the content of the initial three chapters identifies the common features of both qualitative and quantitative dissertations; but draws attention to some obvious areas of dissimilarity.  A separate document will be provided with the characteristics and format for theoretical dissertations as these have more divergent features.

A typical dissertation/research proposal consists of the first three chapters of the dissertation: Introduction, Review of Related Literature and Methodology.

When these chapters have been completed they are sent to the committee members, and a meeting is arranged for approval before the data is collected.  Students who do qualitative dissertations that use biographical or archival data will already have their data, but committee approvals necessary before proceeding with the data analysis.

Chapter 1 Introduction – this chapter comprises the following sub sections:

  • Background – is the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the topic, it is an introduction to the nature and theme of the study, or the rationale: the reason for your interest in it, and the possible value of the research.  It will also briefly refer to the main theoretical basis of the research that relates to the main concepts or variables that encapsulate the basis of the investigation.
  • Statement of the Problem – a concise statement of the nature and areas of the investigation and conceptualization of the phenomena studied
  • Research Objectives – describe what it is intended or hoped that the research aims to establish
  • Hypotheses – in quantitative research the assumptions regarding outcomes identified in the objectives, must be stated as clear hypotheses that encapsulate the assumed interaction between or among the identified variables.

Qualitative and theoretical dissertations do not usually state hypotheses. It may present assumptions also referred to pre-assumptions, but usually only research objectives are stated.

It is not essential to state hypotheses or assumptions at the end of this chapter as they need to be restated at the end of Chapter 3, the Methods chapter. It is sufficient to state research objectives.

Chapter 2 Literature Review – this chapter reviews the literature that provides a theoretical basis for research objectives and the key concept to variables that have been identified and are contained in the hypotheses or assumptions that have been proposed

For theoretical dissertations this chapter represents the ‘data’ which will be subsequently analyzed; therefore this chapter will be the most substantial section of theoretical dissertations.

 The following link provides some useful guidelines for writing literature reviews


Chapter 3 Method – consists of the following sections:

  • Design – which may be theoretical, qualitative, quantitative and provides details about the design and reasons for the choice of design and its suitability for the particular study.
  • Subjects – where human subjects are used the selection method and sample frame needs to be discussed. If archival data such as records or journals are used, how the records were selected must be detailed. For qualitative data, if a snowball method of selection was used in conjunction with data analysis this requires mention.
  • Data collection – the way in which data is obtained must be fully described for both qualitative and quantitative research methods
  • Measures – in addition to describing how data is obtained; all physical or psychological assessment instruments including devices or rating scales, tests or questionnaires that are utilized in quantitative research, must be outlined in detail.
  • Procedure – this describes the procedure used in each step of the data collection process.
  • Data analysis – the method used in data analysis for both quantitative and qualitative designs needs to be elaborated.  For quantitative studies the statistics utilized require detailed description
  • Hypotheses – these are usually restated at the end of Chapter 3 even if they have been given in the introduction.

The Completed Dissertation and Final Chapters

This constitutes the addition of the final three completed chapters that present and discuss research findings and provide conclusions and recommendations.

The completed work is sent to the committee to read, and the oral defense is arranged for final approval. These chapters comprise: Findings, Discussion, Conclusions and Recommendations.

Chapter 4 Findings – This involved factual reporting of the findings (without discussion) in terms of the research hypothesis, or the research objectives in the case of a qualitative proposal. In the case of a theoretical dissertation this chapter analyses the theories presented in the literature revise in relation to the research objectives

Chapter 5 Discussion – this chapter discusses and comments on, and discussed the findings,

Chapters 6/7 Conclusions and Recommendations – gives a summary of the conclusions derived from the findings and makes recommendations for further research.  These two aspects may be presented in one chapter or two separate chapters depending on the amount of information offered in the two different areas.

Additional Resources

These guidelines are a summary and overview of the research process and dissertation writing requirements, there are a number of resources that provide in depth information about dissertations writing:

General tips on dissertation writing: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/01/

APA Format, writing style handouts and links: 

A useful summary of APA format can be found on the website mentioned earlier http://www.uwsp.edu/psych/apa4bs.htm.

UNC gives a brief free handout on citations and references as well as to other useful web links to other resources and their own web links to free handouts on writing style and other aspects of dissertation advice.


The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill



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