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Invitation to Research – The Dissertation

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 24 November 2002

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2002

This document is at



A Dissertation is "an original, rigorous research work carried out with substantial independence by the doctoral candidate. It represents a significant extrapolation from [i.e. development beyond] a base of solid experience or knowledge in the area of concentration. In a significant way, the dissertation advances knowledge, improves professional practice or contributes to understanding in the field of study. Dissertation work is presented in a logical and understandable fashion.

"Originality means that the research has not been done previously in the same way. Independence means that the research is conceived, performed, and documented primarily by the doctoral candidate. To be rigorous, the research work is characterized by strict accuracy and scrupulous honesty and presents precise distinctions among facts, implications, and suppositions. Rigor is achieved by using demonstrable facts when reporting procedures and results, by building on a foundation of facts when drawing conclusions, by specifying links to facts when inferring implications, by always bringing forward all relevant data, and by being both self-critical and logical in reporting (Mauch & Birch, 1998).

"The dissertation must be of sufficient strength to be able to distill from it a paper worthy of publication in a journal or conference proceedings, or to use it as the basis of a textbook or monograph. Although [in most English-speaking countries] publication is not a requirement for completing the doctoral degree, you are strongly encouraged to submit your dissertation research work for publication" (NSU 2002, pp.1-2).

There is an increasing tendency for doctoral candidates to publish before submission of the dissertation. In the past, this was discouraged, and could even result in the material being disqualified from consideration. But the pace of progress in many disciplines is now so fast, and the pressure to publish so great, that few institutions now have such limitations.

Structure and Content

As will be evident from the many examples of completed dissertations that candidates need to examine, there are many ways to present the final document that may satisfy the requirements under various circumstances.

In order to provide some basic guidance, it is easiest to think within the scientific tradition, and to refer to the summary slide of the research process within that tradition:

Hence, for dissertations that have been prepared within the scientific tradition, a default structure is as follows:

  1. Introduction (Background, Motivation, Structure of Dissertation)
  2. The Theory of X
  3. Inferences from the Theory (resulting in the Research Question(s))
  4. The Research Design
  5. The Research Conduct and Results
  6. Implications for Theory, Research, and Practice

It is stressed that this structure is indicative only. Considerable variability in approach and content will be appropriate depending on the discipline, the domain, the research tradition, and/or the research method. In addition, by the time the candidate reaches this point, they should have gained sufficient experience that they can structure their presentation with some confidence.

There are, of course, a number of formal requirements relating to the presentation of the work. These are specific to the institution, and relate to such matters as:


Chinneck J.W. (1999) 'How to Organize your Thesis' Carleton University, 1999, at

Levine S.J. (2002) 'Writing and Presenting Your Thesis or Dissertation', Michigan State University, at

NCSU (2002) 'Required and Optional Sections of a Thesis or Dissertation', North Carolina State University, at

NSU (2002) 'Dissertation Guide', Vova Southeastern University, at

SUPRA (2000) 'The Thesis Guide', Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association, 2000, at

UIUC (2002) 'Writing ECE Theses and Dissertations' Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Illinois and Urbana-Champaign,

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Created: 21 November 2002 - Last Amended: 24 November 2002 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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