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Main components of a master’s thesis or dissertation

Research is a process which involves a lot of thinking, planning and writing. It is advisable to think about topics that interest you at the beginning of your program. You must also find a faculty member who can serve as your adviser and help you choose the committee members.

In general, the first three chapters of your proposal are the Introduction, Literature Review and Methodology. Take note of the following verb tenses when writing your chapters:

IntroductionChapter 1Simple present and future tense
Literature ReviewChapter 2Present but mostly past
MethodologyChapter 3

Present but mostly future

Your advisor is your ally. In order to obtain enough support from your advisor and your thesis committee members, you have to show that you have done your work well; therefore, you need to be prepared before a proposal meeting. It can take several meetings before you are ready to defend your proposal. Thesis research is directed research. Your advisor must give you advice, and you must do the work. When your proposal is approved, the process of operationalizing your method(s) to find answers to your questions begins. When it is finished, the process of rewriting the proposal can also start.


The first chapter of a proposal consists of several subheadings or sections: background, research questions, objectives, limitations, rationale, hypothesis (optional), statement of the problem, and methodology. Discuss with your adviser as to which section should be omitted or added.

Subheadings and what they mean:

  • BackgroundWhat is the context of this problem? In what situation or environment can it be observed? (Provide sufficient information for the readers to understand the topic you are researching about.)
  • Statement of the ProblemWhat is it that we do not know? What is the gap in our knowledge this research will fill? What needs to be improved?
  • Rationale or Justification of the StudyWhy is this research important? Who will benefit? Why do we need to know this?
  • Research Questions – What is it that you want to find out? (a question that’s broad enough to stimulate your interest and narrow enough that you can provide a convincing answer)
  • *HypothesesWhat ideas are suggested as possible explanation for the problem, situation or condition and will be proved to be correct or incorrect by the research?
  • ObjectivesWhat steps will the researcher take to try and fill this gap or improve the situation? (Relate them to the research problem.)
    Break down a general objective into minor, connected parts (specific objectives). Specific objectives should systematically address the different research questions, and specify what you will do in your study, where and for what purpose.
  • *Scope of the StudyIs the study limited to a specific geographical area or people, or to only certain aspects of the situation? Is there any aspect of the problem the researcher will not discuss?
  • *Limitation of the Study Is there any factor, condition or circumstances that will prevent the researcher from achieving all his/her objectives?
  • AssumptionsIn considering the methods, model, formulation or approach, are there important conditions or states that the researcher takes to be true?
  • Conceptual Frameworksometimes referred to as “theoretical framework”; presents your ideas in a model or illustration of what you intend to investigate and some theories related to it. The research problem is a part of the conceptual framework that you will build based on the existing theories and research.

*The sections, Scope of the Study and Limitation of the Study, can be combined in one section to form the “Scope and Limitation of the Study”. When writing the remaining chapters of the thesis, the Limitation of the Study should be included in Chapter 3 as part of the Methodology.

*Some proposals do not need hypotheses.

Below are some suggested steps for writing the first chapter or Introduction.

1. Think of topics that interest you. Discuss your topics with your adviser before choosing the most interesting and practical one.

2. You have to search for more information first in order to understand what has been studied about the subject or your topic of interest.

3. Define a research problem.

4. Before you can formulate or define the appropriate research questions, you need to be familiar with your topic and current trends/research advances on the topic. A pilot study or feasibility study can be done before the actual research process.

5. Research questions should be developed keeping in mind time constraints—can these be answered by only one study or several studies?

Usually in qualitative approaches, research questions are formulated, instead of a hypothesis/hypotheses. Qualitative research starts an investigation with a concept.

Quantitative research approaches use the hypothesis as the frame for the methodology. Here, you will have an appropriate framework and variables considered.

In both approaches, the main research question is the basis for the hypotheses and objectives of the research.

6. Hypotheses can be developed from the research questions. Designing a hypothesis is supported by a good research question and will influence the type of research design for the study.

7. The development of the research objective can be done after the development of the research questions or hypothesis.

8. Do not forget to CITE current or relevant work of other authors and try to use the different techniques in incorporating other authors’ ideas in your writing; summarizing, paraphrasing and directly quoting the source. This should be applied all throughout your paper. See Citations and References – The APA Style Guide for a guide to acknowledging the works of other authors when incorporating their ideas into your writing.

The Literature Review

In this chapter (and in the succeeding chapters of your thesis or dissertation), you need to write an introductory paragraph or paragraphs that show the following:

1. what the topic is about;

2. the research or theoretical framework;

3. reasons for reviewing the literature (show the gap and how this research would fill that gap)

4. what is discussed in the chapter, the order or sequence of the review;

5. what is included and not included in the chapter


The second part is the Body. The following are some elements that can be included in the second part of the Literature Review chapter. Discuss with your adviser to finalize the sections and sub-headings.

1. a general view of the literature being reviewed to the specific focus of your research;

2. the relationship between your chosen topic and the wider subject area; for instance, between obesity in children and obesity in general; between perspectives of risks in communities and disaster resilience;

3. organization of the literature according to sub-topics or common themes:

a. historical background
b. methodologies/ hypotheses/ models
c. popular views vs. other views (similar and contrasting views)
d. major questions presented
e. general conclusions made by the authors

4. an in-depth examination of the literature in each sub-topic or theme presented (#3)


The last part is the Chapter Summary.

1. Summarize the important aspects of the existing body of literature.

2. Assess the current state of the literature reviewed.


This chapter presents your research design which describes and justifies the methods that will be used to collect your data. It should be well-developed in order to obtain all the information required to answer your research questions, test a theory or explain a situation relevant to the main aim of the research.

Start this chapter with a short introduction to your research design. In this section, the research questions, hypotheses and objectives must be presented. An overview of the research approach, and the techniques and measurements that will be used to analyze data are also included in the introduction.

The next part of this chapter, or the Body, consists of some or all sections shown below. Each section should be described and explained in detail. Discuss with your adviser for additional sections and sub-headings for each section or a more appropriate structure.

  1. Study area
  2. Sampling
  3. Methods of data collection –primary and secondary data
  4. Variables
  5. Measurements and scaling techniques
  6. Processing and data analysis
  7. Ethical considerations
  8. Timeline
  9. Research budget

The last section is the Chapter Summary.

The Final Chapters of your Thesis

At this stage, you have already collected as much data as you can and are ready to process and analyze such a huge amount of information. However, expect a lot of changes in your process, methods and chapters. These changes can come from your research adviser, too.

The first step you need to do is to revisit the first three chapters of your thesis. Here, you would need to make the necessary corrections to some of the sections presented during the proposal stage. For example, you might have to fine-tune your research questions and objectives based on the data you have gathered or what you have found during the research process. The Scope and Limitations of the Study section in Chapter 1 would now have to be included in Chapter 3. Another section, Organization of the Study, must be added in Chapter 1.

Check the figure below for the main parts of a thesis. Variations from the general format can be decided with your adviser.

Figure 1: Main parts of a thesis or dissertation

Components Verb Tense
Title page  
Acknowledgments simple present and past
Abstract simple present and past
Table of Contents  
List of Abbreviations  
List of Tables and Figures  
IntroductionChapter Isimple present and past
Literature ReviewChapter IIpresent but mostly past
MethodologyChapter IIImostly simple past
Results and Discussioncan be divided into several chapters with different chapter titlessimple present, past and present perfect
Conclusion and Recommendationslast chapter of the thesissimple present and present perfect
ReferencesFollow the APA style guides. 

If this chapter is generally brief, presenting the results, and explaining and interpreting them can be combined in one chapter. Otherwise, the Results and Discussion section should be in separate or defined sections or chapters. Start with a brief introduction of this chapter.

Results: answers to the research questions which are generated from the collected data. In this section, evidence is presented through graphical and/or textual form organized in sub-sections. Your opinion should not be included when presenting the results.

Descriptive or frequency statistical results of all variables must be reported first before specific statistical tests (e.g., regression analysis). For instance, the profile of participants or respondents, or characteristics of the sample is presented first if available. Results from a regression and/or correlation analysis are presented after all the descriptive and frequencies for all variables, or summaries of the data set have been presented.

Specific quotes from interviews must be presented under a specific theme or sub-theme in the same way results from focus group discussions are reported. When reporting results from observations, present the conversation, behavior or condition you have noticed first. Then, write your comments.

Discussion: explains the meaning of the results presented in specific sections and links them to previous research studies. It explains why the findings are weak, strong or significant, and their limitations. A further review of the literature might be required to enhance the discussion of results.
End each chapter with a summary.




Introduce this chapter. First, refer back to the problem or topic that you have presented in Chapter 1 and what you hoped to achieve at the beginning of the research. The research questions you tried to answer must also be reviewed in this chapter as well as your hypotheses, if applicable. It is important to also reexamine the methodology followed in the research and show how the objectives were achieved (or were not achieved) with the application of different methods and techniques.

As suggested by Hopkins and Dudley-Evans (1988), six possible components can be included in the concluding chapter of quantitative dissertations: “statement of hypothesis (or purpose), summary of main points / findings (whether they support the hypothesis; whether they align with, or differ from, other researchers’ findings), possible explanations for the findings and/or speculations about them, limitations of the study, implications of your findings, recommendations for future research, action or policy changes, and practical applications.”

End this chapter with some reflections and final words.


When all the chapters have been finalized, you are now ready to prepare the abstract. It is written in the form of a summary, describing briefly the research problem, the aims of the research, the methods used to achieve them, and the main findings and conclusions. Although the abstract is very short (approximately 1-2 paragraphs), it can be considered as the most significant part of your thesis or dissertation. The abstract provides a general impression of what your research is about, and allows other researchers to have a broad understanding of your work. When applying for conferences, your abstract is assessed by an organizing committee for relevance and quality. Make sure to create an impact—write an impressive abstract.