A decorated Christmas tree: A metaphor for the Structure of Your Dissertation

Picture a Christmas tree with only six decorative balls. These decorative balls hang evenly distributed on the tree: two near the top, two in the middle and two on the bottom, as pictured above. These decorations can serve as a metaphor for the structure of a traditional dissertation in the social sciences. This metaphor may apply elsewhere, but as metaphors go, it likely has its limitations. Still, consider the following:

We read dissertations from beginning to end and may even attempt to write them that way, but often the dissertation builds on previous writing like the research proposal. If the research proposal covers an introduction of the topic, a literature review and proposed methodology, some students begin their dissertations by rewriting their research proposals as chapters 1, 2, and 3. Thus the introduction is fleshed out as chapter 1, the literature review is revisited, edited, and expanded to become chapter 2 and the methodology is rewritten in the past tense to serve as chapter 3) of the dissertation. This tactic means that once they have collected and analyzed their data, they sit down and need to decide what goes into the results (aka chapter 4), discussion (aka chapter 5) and conclusion (aka chapter 6) chapters. This is where the sparsely decorate Christmas tree metaphor comes in handy.

The dissertation as a Christmas tree

Running up one side of the tree and down the other are the decorations (aka chapters) in the order you might read them: introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, conclusion. Looking at the tree head on, you see methodology and results partnered at the top, midway down and slightly farther apart, literature review and discussion, and hanging off the bottom branches, even farther apart, as introduction and conclusion.

Let’s take a look at the top two decorations. The methodology chapter can be written by rewriting one’s proposed research design section from the research proposal, by removing language that refers to planning and proposing and substituting or adding language around what was actually done. The results chapter then, is the detail of what came out of that methodology. If the methodology points to a specific theory, methodology, or analysis, that should be evident in the results chapter. For example, if I conduct a mixed methods study with a large-scale questionnaire and then detailed interviews with a subset of participants, then the results chapter will present a synthesis of the questionnaire results and an analysis of the interview data. Note, the word “synthesis” is used to indicate that not all of the raw data is included in the results chapter, but rather that it is presented in a coherent way that demonstrates salient points, but also draws conclusions to the reader understands what is shown by the results. In that way, the results chapter is a partner to the methodology chapter.

Mid-way on the tree are the decorations that represent literature review and discussion. While the literature that was originally reviewed for the proposal may make a basis for the literature review chapter, the finished product will be in closer alignment with the Discussion chapter. First, it is helpful to read the literature review one has written. Next, the Discussion chapter can be outlined using different headings from the Results chapter. Typically, the Results chapter is organized by themes or data sources, whereas the Discussion chapter might more efficiently be organized by headings that represent the research questions. In any case, the research questions should be reiterated. Then the results is “discussed” in light of the literature. In what ways were the results what one might have expected from previous studies and in what ways were they unexpected, expanded or new? Do any of the results contradict findings from previous studies? Were there results sought that did not materialize? These are some questions that can guide the writing of the Discussion chapter. While brief data examples may be used to highlight a point, the Discussion chapter focuses on examining the results in light of the literature. Once the Discussion chapter has been drafted, a revisiting of the literature review may reveal areas that need to be bolstered and other that turned out to be less relevant and may be could be edited down. In this way, the Literature Review and Discussion chapter are in harmony. As the decorations on the tree are farther apart, the relationship between the two may be less obvious at first glance, but nonetheless important.

Finally, we look at the Introduction and Conclusion chapters. Often the Introduction lays out the problem one is examining, situates it in the larger context or field of research, and argues at the end how this study will address the gap in the literature. Now the Conclusion chapter is the chance to show that the problem was examined, how this study informs the larger context or field, and how it did, barring some listed limitations, address a gap in the literature, creating new knowledge. The partner decorations at the bottom of the tree, although farthest apart, prove as well to be connected.

While not everyone resonates with such a systematic view to the chapters in a dissertation, it may be helpful to try this metaphor out. The simple Christmas tree with six decorations reminds us that the dissertation as a whole is a coherent interconnected piece of writing.

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