Theses and Dissertations

As you embark upon this important element of your academic career, you should be aware of what a dissertation or thesis looks like. After all, how can you write a dissertation chapter if you've never read one before? Advisers often focus on the content of your dissertation or thesis since this is the culmination of a stage of your academic career and as such should showcase your writing, research, and critical thinking skills-but the form of a dissertation or thesis is also important, and commensurately more difficult to teach.

For every discipline there are differing expectations as to what a dissertation or thesis should include, as well as how it should be formatted. Even though as a writer you have control over how to explain your ideas and how to organize them within the text, scholars in your field have agreed upon how a dissertation/thesis should be organized: what types of chapters you should include, the minimum number of chapters a dissertation or thesis should have, and how those are formatted. This is where seeing and reading what other writers within your discipline and department have done will be helpful. You should do this sooner rather than later.

Getting Started: 

  • Start by asking your adviser if they have any suggestions of dissertations or theses you should look at. They may point you to things like the writings of an ex-advisee or a certain literature review article in a journal.
  • After speaking to your adviser, you can seek out either a reference librarian or a subject librarian to find other dissertations or theses in your subject area. Find out more about how to access completed dissertations and theses at Dissertations and Theses at KU
  • Reading not just for content but also for form will help you understand better how to put together your dissertation or thesis. Learn about thesis and dissertation formatting via KU Libraries: Thesis and Dissertation Formatting
  • Think about how the project as a whole is organized as well as how the individual chapters are organized: how do they separate their literature review from their discussion of their results, for example? Do they utilize headings and subheadings or bulleted lists at any point?
  • Moreover, take notes about elements of the project that stand out to you: use of tables, inclusion of photographs, striking introductions, chapter titles.
  • Based on what you know so far, brainstorm ideas for what to include in your project and how those ideas can be organized. See Prewriting Strategies. 

Finding and Synthesizing Sources: 

  1. Produce a research question that you hope your research will answer. If you are at the beginning stage of this process, you may have a general or vague question or set of questions. Eventually you want to create a set of questions that focus on a specific problem within your area of interest and join an existing academic conversation. 

  2. Begin researching. The KU Libraries has many guides and tutorials for how to use the library resources. You can also set up a meeting with a librarian

  3. Compile a list of sources that seem to approach your subject of interest. In the beginning you may want to compile at least a list of 10 sources and to organize them in a matrix or an annotated bibliography where you note the subject matter of the source, its novel argument, its theoretical relationship to the subject and field, and what may be lacking within the analysis. At a later stage, you may want to synthesize what is different between each source and similar to all the sources you compile and decide on the specific problem you want your research to cover based on the existing viewpoints and conversations on the topic. Find more information on Annotated Bibliographies in our Bibliographies guide. 

  4. Find data and a data source that is appropriate and compatible with your research problem and question. If you are collecting your own data, make sure that you complete the appropriate protocols to ensure that your project will be completed within the intended timeframe.  

  1. Keep track of your sources through citation management tools like EndNote and Zotero. See How to Select and Use Citation Management Tools

  1. Additional steps will depend on the kind of project you are completing. At this point it may be a good idea to meet with the Graduate Writing Coach for more guidance on additional steps.

Literature Reviews: 

The point of the literature review section of your thesis or dissertation is to demonstrate an understanding of the ongoing conversations, disagreements, and conceptualizations of your topic of interest. As a form of writing that tends to be highly technical, it will probably undergo several changes before you are able to reach a draft that closely resembles your final product. Your literature review should directly correspond to your research questions, research purpose, and may be used to justify the methodology of the study. Learn more through our Literature Reviews guide. 

Getting Feedback: 

  • Stuck in your writing process? You may benefit from a consultation with our graduate writing director. To schedule a meeting and for more information see the following: Graduate Writing Coaching | KU Writing Center 

  • Faculty Feedback: Throughout your thesis and dissertation process you will have to keep consistent communication with your advisor/chair and committee members. It is important to view all faculty feedback throughout this process as a conversation that will allow your research to both improve and reach the required conventions of research in your field. If you find yourself stuck with contradictory comments or unclear questions, you may want to reach out to your advisor for additional help. If you have questions throughout this process, you may also want to consider making a coaching appointment with the graduate writing director at the link above.   

Time Management: 

It is important that you learn and intentionally prioritize your thesis and dissertation research and writing.  

  • Set aside a direct weekly block to complete your thesis/dissertation hours.  

  • Use SMARTER goals to help you keep track of your progress and to split the larger semester goal into weekly goals that can be measured, are concrete, and remain specific.  

  • Time-block your calendar so that you can set aside concrete time to finish your weekly writing goal and to block off time to complete your other responsibilities.  

  • Find an accountability buddy within your department, have consistent check-in sessions with your advisor or committee member, and/or join a KU writing group to help you stay on track.  


Foss, Sonja K., and Waters, William Joseph Condon. Destination Dissertation: a Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007. 


(Updated July 2022)