How do I Write a Dissertation Outline?

A.F. Heath

Writing a dissertation outline is something that usually requires a bit of pre-planning and a lot of prior research, but isn’t typically very challenging in and of itself. Different schools have different requirements, and there also tend to be differences between the disciplines; an outline for a dissertation in chemistry will likely take a slightly different form and approach than one rooted in history or the social sciences, for instance. Reading up on any specific instructions from your school or program is usually the best place to start. From there, most outlines include an abstract, and introduction, a literature review, a place for research methodology, and any preliminary conclusions you may have or that you expect.

It may be necessary to consult a dissertation manual before an individual begins writing a dissertation outline, because some schools have specific requirements.
It may be necessary to consult a dissertation manual before an individual begins writing a dissertation outline, because some schools have specific requirements.

Outlining Basics

The main idea with any dissertation outline is to create a roadmap or guide for the project you’re about to start, namely writing a dissertation — which depending on your topic and your program could be an undertaking of several hundred pages. An outline, by contrast, is generally much shorter. It should ideally serve two purposes. First, it should force you to lay out your ideas in a coherent and logical way, which can both help you identify what you have and notice places where you need improvement or more information. Second, it will help your advisors get a sense of where you’re heading. This will help them give you more nuanced and helpful guidance throughout the process. Most schools require all dissertation writers to meet with their advisors at various points in the writing process, and turning in your outline is often one of the first formal steps once you’ve had your topic approved.

The literature review in a dissertation outline provides a list of secondary sources of research that are related to the dissertation topic.
The literature review in a dissertation outline provides a list of secondary sources of research that are related to the dissertation topic.

Know Your Requirements

Before you begin your outline, it may be best to consult a dissertation manual from your school. Some schools are very particular about the order of sections for dissertation outlines and will require that you follow a specific format. You should be able to get this sort of guide from your advisors or from any research library on campus. If you need anything special or need to follow any particular formatting guides, the manual will usually say so.

Importance of an Abstract and Introduction

In most cases you’ll start by setting out your abstract, which is sort of like a summary of your total research plan. The purpose of the abstract is typically to set out your goals, how you’ll get there, and what you’ll conclude. This may change as your research develops, but at the outline stage it’s important as a placeholder. In some instances it may look a lot like the initial research proposal you submitted at the very beginning of the dissertation process, if that is something you did.

A brief introduction typically comes next. This, too, is likely to change a little bit as you flesh out your project, but at the outlining stage is usually a place for background summary of the topic area you are researching. This section commonly includes some historical references as well to allow the reader can understand the context of your project.

Literature Review

The literature review is likely going to take up the bulk of your space. This section is where you’ll provide a comprehensive list of all of the research you’ve done so far related to your topic. This section normally includes secondary sources of information, such as books and articles, as well as primary sources you’ve used like interviews and media transcripts. The purpose of the literature review is usually to show the reader what has already been done in the field of study. More importantly, in this section you show what areas lack research and thus need to be investigated. This element is often really useful as you think about what work remains to turn your outline into a full dissertation.

Setting Out Your Research Methodology

In most cases the literature review goes hand-in-hand with a section known as “research methodology,” which is where you’ll identify not only where you’re getting your information, but how you’re synthesizing any data you encounter or ideas you come across. Most writers start out by identifying a few central research questions and then devising a plan for getting them answered. Your research questions will be used to guide your overall research, so they should be focused and very specific. The questions should be clear and not too broad. Research questions should also hint at the type of information needed for the study such as raw data versus anecdotal.

The purpose of the research methodology is to give the overall plan for your research study. Research methodologies can be qualitative, quantitative, or both. A qualitative methodology commonly involves using surveys and interviews to study people and their attitudes, behaviors, and experiences. A quantitative methodology, on the other hand, typically involves the use of statistical techniques to analyze data that is collected from surveys or from sets of already gathered information. You may also use this section to state your rationale for choosing your methodology. It could be based on a similar methodology used in previous research within the field of study or it could be that you consider it to be the most suitable for the type of data that you need to collect.

Reserve Space for Conclusions

Many dissertation writers don’t actually have conclusions yet when they’re only at the outlining stage. Still, though, it’s usually a good idea to set out a place for results and conclusions that you expect, even if everything you write is speculation. You might also start out looking at the broader implications of your intended study. You can demonstrate how your research contributes to the field, how it could expand upon current research threads, and how it explores a new related thread or introduces new directions in the field of study.

The last section of a dissertation is usually reserved for future work, which is often closely related to your conclusion. In this section, you’ll normally discuss the limitations of your own research study and what questions came up during your research that weren't addressed in your dissertation. You might also point to new areas of interest that arose in the process of completing your study. Of course, this section is all but impossible to write before you’ve actually finished your project, but at least identifying it in your outline can be a good way to remind yourself of it and to keep it in mind as you get started.

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