Imagine you’re trying to drive to a specific place to attend a party you’ve been looking forward to. You know the address, but you don’t have a map or a driving app. You get there eventually, but it takes a lot longer that it should have and stresses you so much that you’re in a bad mood when you get there. The party ends up being a bust.
This is similar to trying to write an academic paper, especially a PhD dissertation, without using an outline.
Why you need an outline for your paper
An outline is the driving app for your academic paper, giving you direction so you know what’s in front of you. This is especially important for a PhD dissertation because of its physical length and the amount of time you will need to live with it. Successful PhD dissertation writing requires a laser focus, and an outline makes a great navigator.
There are many advantages of creating a PhD dissertation outline1,2:
- Organize your project – Using an PhD dissertation outline will help you organize your thoughts and your work. If you have an idea or find a bit of information to include in a different section, simply write a note in the appropriate place to remind yourself.
- Stay on task – Like the driving app, an outline keeps you on the proper road and minimizes distractions. Without keeping in mind the dissertation structure, it’s easy to find yourself in the weeds.
- Increase productivity – Knowing what you have to do allows you to set goals and be more productive.
- Save time – This is a major advantage in PhD dissertation writing. The faster you can successfully complete your dissertation process, the more money you’ll save, and the sooner you can get on with the rest of your life.
- Reduce anxiety – The effective use of a good outline will give you control over this massive project. You’ll be more confident that you can successfully complete your PhD dissertation.
How to write a PhD dissertation outline
So, now that you’re convinced that you need a PhD dissertation outline, where do you start? A few general steps will get you on the right road3:
- Select an appropriate topic: This one might seem obvious, but it is often a very difficult decision to make. The topic will guide the approach and research methodology. Although the research question will probably be tweaked along the way, not choosing a relevant topic at the start will result in chaos later on.
- Review other dissertations on your topic: This will give you an idea about what your structure will look like.
- Draft a research problem: The research problem is the core of your dissertation and will guide your methodology and thus strongly influence your PhD dissertation structure.
- Get input from your advisor/supervisor: Seek advice from your supervisor often and take advantage of any assistance. This will help keep you on the right road.
PhD dissertation structure
PhD dissertations typically have five standard chapters, although your university might have a specific required structure. Here is a brief description of the typical five-chapter PhD dissertation format3.
- Chapter 1: Introduction – This section provides an overview of the dissertation including its topic, purpose, and relevance. Typically, the general subject area is discussed and narrowed down to the research topic. Then, the research questions are posed, and the methodology is presented.
- Chapter 2: Literature Review – A comprehensive survey and synthesis of existing studies on the research topic, the literature review demonstrates the research gap and sets the context for the research question. Depending on the topic, theory may also be explored. Existing methodologies used to address this topic are also discussed.
- Chapter 3: Methodology – In this section, the methodology and materials used to collect and analyze the research data are presented in enough detail to demonstrate the validity of the method and allow the research to be duplicated by others.
- Chapter 4: Results – The research findings are reported in this section and presented in relation to the research question. Relevant visuals such as tables and figures are typically included here to communicate the findings effectively.
- Chapter 5: Discussion – In a five-chapter format, this is the final chapter in a PhD dissertation. In this chapter, the findings are discussed and interpreted in light of the research question. Bits from all the chapters are synthesized to completely address the research question.
An additional chapter is sometimes added that includes conclusions, recommendations, and suggestions for future research.
Tips for creating your dissertation outline3,4
Finally, here are some quick and useful tips for your PhD dissertation outline journey.
- Use the structure to complete the outline – Carefully think about each chapter and write down questions and information you will need.
- Create your outline early – Keep it up to date through your early research and advisor meetings.
- Be flexible – Changes will need to be made to your outline as you progress.
- Be detailed – You never know when a small piece of information you jotted down in your outline will save you time and anxiety.
- Keep in close contact with your PhD dissertation advisor/supervisor. Make sure to share your outline. You may just save yourself a lot of time and misery if major changes need to be made.
- Stay calm – Changes will come from different committee members. Remember, they are just trying to strengthen your work.
- Statistics Solutions. The benefit of outlining. https://www.statisticssolutions.com/the-benefits-of-outlining/ [Accessed 14 July 2022].
- PapersOwl. How To Create An Outline For A Dissertation? https://papersowl.com/blog/outline-for-dissertation [Accessed 14 July 2022].
- Research.com. What Is A University Dissertation: Structure, Challenges & Writing Tips. https://research.com/research/what-is-a-university-dissertation [Accessed 14 July 2022].
- Docformats.com. Dissertation Outline Templates. https://www.docformats.com/dissertation-outline-templates/ [Accessed 14 July 2022].