Most dissertations follow the same basic structure and are made up of five parts: an abstract, introduction, methods and discussion, conclusions and references. Although the exact detail of each part can vary (such as the numbers of words allowed in the abstract), the inclusion of each part is standard and fixed.
Before starting your dissertation find out exactly what is required by your university or institution. For example, there may be particular rules about word length, the fonts you have to use or whether the acknowledgements come before or after your abstract. You must be sure to keep to the rules and regulations.
After the title page and any acknowledgements comes a summary of your dissertation. From your own reading of journal articles and reports, you’re likely to be familiar with the purpose of the abstract. In a journal article, the abstract is a summary of the main article, placed directly under the title and usually around 150–250 words long.
Sometimes the abstract has a different name such as ‘résumé’ or ‘summary’. In some documents, such as reports, the abstract is usually called the ‘executive summary’.
The content of your abstract is important because what you say in your abstract gives the reader the opportunity of judging whether your dissertation is going to be of interest to him. While doing your own research, you’re likely to have pursued different journal articles and reports based purely on the relevance of the abstract and so you know how important it is for giving the reader a feel for what your dissertation covers.
Your abstract is an overview of your whole study: a summary of your research question, methods and results – so you really can’t write your abstract until you’ve pretty much finished your dissertation. Be aware that you need to build time into the planning of your dissertation to get the job done effectively.
With your introduction you’re preparing the ground for the main body of your dissertation. In your introduction you’re looking to inspire an interest in your work and explaining something about the background and your reasons for choosing your dissertation topic.
Usually an introduction is around two pages long. Aim to give the reader a clear idea of what to expect to find in the main themes you’re presenting and the methods you’re using, saying if you’ve done something experimental and practical, or taken a more theoretical approach. You can hint at the findings and conclusions, but you needn’t spell them out as in the abstract. To whet the reader’s appetite try to raise his curiosity as to how the dissertation is going to end.