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Graduate Writing: Writing Theses and Dissertations

Writing Theses and Dissertations

Most research-based graduate programs require students to produce a thesis or dissertation. This document is evidence of the research project that you carried out as part of your degree. Many graduate students enter their program having previously completed an undergraduate thesis, but for some students this may be a new and potentially daunting task. Regardless of whether you have previous experience or not, you will need to understand what you will need to produce to successfully write and defend your thesis or dissertation.

Take time to review the Grad Hub's Thesis/Dissertation Roadmap, which covers everything from purpose to formatting. Your supervisor and your committee members will also be key sources of information as you put together this document.

The IMRD Thesis or Dissertation

IMRD stands for Introduction, Methodology, Results, and Discussion and refers to a common structure for theses, dissertations as well as journal articles. This structure offers flexibility to capture a wide range of research projects and consequently is commonly used in many disciplines, primarily within the social and physical sciences, but is useful for writing up any empirical or applied project.

The IMRD structure is an overarching organizing principle that can be modified to accommodate one or more studies. Introductions may serve as a standalone chapter or be merged with a Literature Review, while a Discussion chapter may also include the Conclusion. If reporting on multiple studies, there may be multiple Results and/or Discussion chapters followed by a separate Conclusion. Many theses and dissertations will also include an Appendix that contains supplementary material for your committee to reference and understand your project.

Using LaTex to write your thesis? Consider downloading the LaTex template developed by Professor Mark Eramian in the Department of Computer Science. 


Looking for more information about how to structure an IMRD thesis or dissertation?

  • Bitchener, J. (2010). Writing an applied linguistics thesis or dissertation: A guide to presenting empirical research. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Evans, D., Gruba, P., & Zobel, J. (2014). How to write a better thesis. Springer.

Humanities Theses and Dissertations

Depending on the nature of their graduate research, some humanities students may opt for an IMRD structure to write up their project. However, these texts often follow a looser structure that focuses on building and sustaining a central argument, with chapters organized thematically in service of this aim.

Reviewing sample theses and dissertations that have been recently published within one’s discipline can provide insight into the different ways in which these texts can be structured.


Looking for more information on how to structure a humanities thesis or dissertation?

The Manuscript-Style Thesis or Dissertation

A manuscript-style thesis or dissertation is composed of a series of previously published articles bookended with an introduction and conclusion identifying the overarching themes of the collected work.

In its guidelines on Manuscript-Style Theses and Dissertations, the university explicitly states “A manuscript-style thesis is not . . . merely a collection of published or publishable papers. It must meet the principles and objectives required of a thesis” (para. 2).  What does this mean? Simply, that the work must cohere and build to a central theme that sufficiently contributes to knowledge (for more on this topic, visit Establishing a Project’s Value).

This type of dissertation tends to be more popular in PhD programs and is sometimes referred to as a “PhD by publication.” If any of the previously published papers include co-authors, such texts commonly mandate an explicit statement of contribution to clarify the student’s involvement (e.g., data collection, data analysis, drafting of text). Having co-authored papers tends to be more conventional in the sciences as it is more common to work on projects as part of a larger laboratory or investigative team.


Looking for more information about manuscript-style theses and dissertations?

Alternate Formats

The structure of any thesis or dissertation should reflect the nature and purpose of the research project. While non-standard structures are often characteristic of certain creative arts disciplines, they are gaining traction in other fields too, such as the digital humanities.

Alternate theses and dissertations can also be very appealing for students who are foregrounding decolonization in their research as a non-standard structure may more accurately represent the scholarly perspectives or content contained therein. 

In discussion with your supervisor, committee members, and other university stakeholders, you will determine if it is appropriate, valuable, and permissible to present your work in a non-standard way. Like any decision, this should be made carefully. Regardless of the format you choose, what remains critical is that the text clearly and convincingly demonstrates to your committee members how you have advanced knowledge in a meaningful way.


Looking for more information about alternate formats?

Planning and Project Management

Even if you are incredibly passionate about your research, it can be a challenge to carry your thesis or dissertation to the finish line. This text may be the longest you’ve ever written (and may ever write) so having a plan is essential, especially to circumvent those days (or weeks) when you just do not feel like writing.

As part of your early planning, look at a range of sample theses or dissertations in your field and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How long are they?
  • How are they structured?
  • What commonalities do you see?
  • What makes one more readable than another?

This review process will help you construct a mental framework, coupled with the formal guidelines from your department and/or CGPS. After all, what is the point in trying to write a 300-page document if a 180-page one will do?

Sample theses and dissertations can be found in repositories like USask’s HARVEST and other university repositories and/or showcases (e.g., Queen’s University), ProQuest Dissertations & Theses, and Library and Archives Canada.

Having a clear understanding of what the final product will be is often key; from there, you can work backward to understand what steps they need to take to reach the end goal. To help with this process, a dissertation calculator can be a useful tool for helping to conceptualize a workable timeline.

Once you have the bigger picture in place, figure out a realistic schedule that identifies monthly, weekly, and daily goals—while also accounting for setbacks.

Keep in mind that it will be easier to write your thesis or dissertation if you have a regular writing practice and do not wait until your research is “finished” before starting to write up your work. Such writing might involve writing sections of your literature review or methodology or keeping a research journal that will then serve as stimulus material for your discussion. Plus, having a regular writing practice can help make writing less intimidating and more mundane and help reduce potential tendencies toward perfectionism that can make it difficult to get started on the project.


Looking for more information on planning and project management?

Productivity and Avoiding Burnout

As you write your thesis or dissertation, you may feel blocked, unmotivated, overwhelmed, or even hostile to the process. Such emotional responses are completely normal and reflect the complexity of the task at hand.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to help ensure that you continue to meet your goals while also maintaining your well-being.

Many productive academic writers identify daily writing as key to their success. Daily writing does not necessarily mean 3–4 hours of uninterrupted time, rather it could mean having anywhere from 30–90 minutes set aside.

These writers also set concrete, achievable, time-restricted tasks as part of daily writing. For instance, rather than saying, “I’m going to write for 60 minutes today,” they say, “Between 9–10:30am today I’m going to write two paragraphs for my literature review.” Having a tangible plan in place before writing means that writing time remains focused and outcome oriented. These outcomes might be small, but they add up quickly.

Having such plans in place can help with productivity, but it is also important to plan for life—and fun! By nurturing relationships and hobbies, we promote and protect our well-being and prevent burnout.

If you find yourself struggling or are finding it difficult to cope at any stage of your program, do connect with the Student Wellness Centre.  


Looking for more information on productivity and avoiding burnout?