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How to Write a Qualitative Dissertation

A qualitative dissertation is a research study that bases its results on findings correlated through methodology such as interviews, focus groups and participant observation. Dissecting case studies can also be utilized in qualitative dissertations. A strong emphasis is placed upon developing the use of theory and utilizing hypotheses based on theoretical findings to demonstrate legitimacy.

Familiarizing Yourself with Qualitative Studies

Before you even begin writing your qualitative dissertation, be sure you understand all the elements of a dissertation and what exactly is a qualitative study. The purpose of the qualitative dissertation is to expose you to dissertation research by providing you with the opportunity to evaluate methodology. While you will be asked to describe the methodology as part of this assignment, the goal of a qualitative dissertation research project is to learn to analyze and evaluate research.

Locate a qualitative dissertation of your choosing, ideally related to the topic you are pursuing for your final project or related to your specialization. Determine the study's research design, and identify the research question(s), and the data handling and analysis procedures used, noting in particular any discussion about strategies employed to increase the accuracy, dependability, or confirmability of the data and findings. Based on information provided by the author about their data analysis strategies, consider how qualitative analysis differs from quantitative analysis.


Steps for Writing a Qualitative Dissertation

Chapter 1: Introduction/Statement of the Problem

Chapter 1 introduces the research question:

  • The purpose of the qualitative dissertation
  • Scope of the research
  • Relevance to the field or discipline you are in

In many cases, the introduction can be an expansion of the appropriate sections of the proposal. Chapter 1 is written primarily in present tense. The one exception may be the “Background to the Problem” section, which brings a historical perspective to the text and may, therefore, be written in past tense. Overall, chapter 1 reflects the current state of the field vis-à-vis the research question. While it follows a standard format, the order of the contents might vary in order to fit the specific project. (Such variations should be discussed by the learner, mentor, and committee members.) The introductory chapter usually includes the following elements.

Introduction to the Study

A well-written introduction presents the topic and research question concisely and completely. It establishes context by including sources that support specific themes or ideas. Overall, the introduction demonstrates that this is a topic worthy of further investigation at the doctoral level.

Background of the Study

This section provides necessary background information about current knowledge of the problem. It provides information essential for the educated reader to understand.

Statement of the Problem

In this section the learner describes precisely what he or she intends to research. It clarifies and limits the nature of the study, focusing the reader's attention on the problem under investigation. Clarity and simplicity characterize the most effective problem statements.

Purpose of the Study

This section provides a general outline of the objectives of the study.


This section presents the justification for conducting the study. Questions such as the following should be addressed:

  • •Why is the study being conducted?
  • Will it question or correct previously held beliefs or conclusions?
  • Will it contribute new knowledge to the field?

Research Questions/Hypothesis(es)

The nature of the research study will determine whether it will pose questions to be answered or propose hypotheses to be tested. Research questions should be
designed primarily to discover facts or establish relationships. Hypotheses, on the other hand, consist of a set of assumptions accepted provisionally as a basis for the investigation. Hypotheses are to be tested and rejected or not based on the findings of the study.

Nature of the Study

This section provides a preliminary overview of the methodological approach to and range of the study. Whether a study will be exploratory or definitive/confirmatory, qualitative, quantitative, mixed, or some other type is discussed here.

Significance of the Study

This section discusses the potential impact of the study's outcomes. What makes this study important? Who will benefit from this study? How is it important to the discipline?

Definition of Terms

To enhance the reader's understanding, learners should introduce words, phrases, and concepts that have a specialized or restricted meaning within the dissertation. Only unusual or unfamiliar terms or ordinary ones used in unconventional ways need to be defined here.

Assumptions and Limitations

This section identifies assumptions or limitations that affect the study. For example,in a study that examines gender differences in ethnic origin, an assumption might be that within either gender, there are no differences related to ethnic origin. Or a study that looks at executive decision-making in traditional, for-profit organizations may be limited in its relevance to other environments.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

The primary purpose of the literature review is to identify the dissertation's position within the framework of previous research on the topic. The literature review is not merely a list of books, articles, and Internet sites related to the topic. Rather, it is an organized and coherent synthesis of the best and most relevant research related to the dissertation topic. The literature review chapter is, as the learner might anticipate, a logical extension of the literature review section in the proposal. The literature review serves many purposes, among which are the following:

  • •Helps determine the study's procedures and refine the research design.
  • Offers opportunities for evaluation and critique of prior research.
  • Positions the study in its historical context.
  • Provides the justification and theoretical or conceptual framework for studying the topic.

Although there is no prescribed outline for the literature review, learners may want to approach this chapter in the traditional format of an introduction, body, and conclusion. The following suggestions may be helpful in employing this approach.

The Introduction

• The introduction to the literature review should provide a transition from the previous chapter to the information presented in this one. It should explain both the parameters of the review and the basis for selecting the literature included.

The Body

In developing the literature review, learners should demonstrate the relevance of the literature reviewed, showing the relationship of the cited works to the topic of the dissertation. They should also organize the literature so that the reader can perceive that relevance. Readability is one hallmark of a well-written review. In general, learners should summarize the literature in clusters of relationships, grouped around major themes or topics, and selected from diverse and relevant sources. It is important to use primary sources whenever possible. The breadth and depth of literature reviews will vary depending on the content and complexity of the topic as well as the needs and desires of the learner and committee, but the comprehensiveness of the review should be evident. Learners should also be mindful that research in many topics is evolutionary, and new development and advances are likely to become available over time. Generally, learners should avoid using reference materials older than five years. The obvious exceptions include those works considered seminal in the subject area. A thorough literature review usually includes the following subsections:

  • A brief summary of the conceptual framework for the study or the theory
    generating the question.
  • A review of the critical literature as it relates to the project's key topic. This review should include an organization, evaluation, and synthesis of research in the identified theme areas.
  • An illustration of the crucial theoretical and/or conceptual debates in the field, resulting in gaps, controversies, or dilemmas in the existing research and/or theory/theories.
  • An explanation of how the present research will help bridge the gaps or resolve the controversies or dilemmas and lead to greater understanding of the problem. This explanation may be supported by showing the research question's relationship to major themes or sub-problems in the literature as well as to the developmental support for alternative hypotheses generation(in the case of quantitative studies).
  • An evaluation of viable research designs and methodology as well as a summary of findings, the existing literature, and how the research will contribute to the field.

In addition to presenting the research of others, learners should also discuss any pilot work they have done on the topic along with the particular hypotheses or research questions the dissertation addresses. Both the pilot work and the hypotheses should be clearly linked to the research and conclusions presented in current literature.

The Conclusion

The chapter ends with a summary of the general conclusions others have drawn,major differences of opinion among researchers, and a clear placement of the dissertation within the context of previous research. In short, this chapter should clearly demonstrate that the learner has:

  • Completed a comprehensive survey of the current research relative to the dissertation topic.
  • Analyzed, evaluated, and synthesized the work of others into an integrated review.
  • Clearly identified the context within which the dissertation research was undertaken.

Strategies for Writing the Literature Review

• Before writing the review, learners may find it advantageous to map the themes from their research on a large poster board or a computer document or spreadsheet, noting the names of key authors they want to include. Since it is easy to get mired in the details of research, following this advice may assist learners in seeing their literature reviews holistically. As they write, learners should keep in mind that this is their review of the literature; they should include their own insights rather than merely parroting the words of others throughout the review.

Chapter 2 is written in both present and past tense, depending on the time of the reference and how it is referred to. As a rule, authors who wrote in the past should be quoted in the past tense (the author “wrote”). Their works may be quoted in present tense, however (In Book Name, the author “writes.”) Learners may find it is helpful to divide the chapter into thematic sections and treat each one as a miniature version of the review. This approach makes the project as a whole more manageable.

•Ultimately, a well-written literature review must flow logically from point to point as it evaluates and synthesizes the work of others. This objective cannot be accomplished if the learner focuses first upon one source and then upon the next. Instead, the learner must pull the relevant points from multiple sources and integrate them into his or her train of thought.• To check the logic and flow of the review, learners may find it beneficial to read the entire chapter or at least the transitional paragraphs aloud. Sometimes the ear catches what the eye misses. If there is a place where the writing sounds disjointed or where there is no link between the thoughts, learners should mark those places and return to fix them later. Learners should take the time to double-check the spelling of all the authors they cite in their review, remembering that their reputations as scholars rest on the completeness and accuracy of their work.

Chapter 3: Methodology

The methodology chapter of the dissertation explains in detail how the study will be conducted, based on the explanation of methods in the proposal. It also allows future researchers to follow the method in order to replicate the research procedures to verify the findings. Thus, this section must be detailed and exact. This chapter will include sources of data, characteristics of the participants, instrumentation, data collection procedures, and data analysis techniques as well as a description of the field/pilot testing, if appropriate. The learner should also explain all steps in the process and how they relate to the research question(s) or the hypotheses. In cases where human participants or their records were used, a description of what precautions the learner has taken to ensure the protection of the participants’ rights and welfare should also be included. The following elements, where relevant, should be identified:

  • Who or what is being studied
  • How it/they is/are studied. •
  • How the information was gathered.
  • How the analysis was undertaken.
  • How confidentiality will be maintained.
  • How data will be stored.

Depending on the nature of the methodology used, chapter 3 may contain the following components in a qualitative dissertation:

  • Researcher's philosophy and justification for the choice of inquiry and methods.
  • Theoretical framework: Initial research question and objectives.
  • Research design strategy: Type, underlying assumptions, and rationale.
  • Sampling design: Participant/case characteristics, selection criteria and setting.
  • Measures: Instruments (if applicable), researcher's role, including qualifications, assumptions, and credibility.
  • Data collection procedures, including researcher's participation.
  • Ethical issues, such as informed consent, privacy, confidentiality, or bias.
  • Field and/or pilot testing.
  • Data analysis procedures:
    • Coding
    • Multiple sources
    • Corroboration
    • Triangulation
    • Analytical procedures
  • Limitations of methodology and strategies for minimizing the impact of the identified limitations.

The dissertation must establish that the methods and techniques chosen are well suited to the type of problem studied. No one method is ideal for every study; instead, the most important criterion is that the chosen method best suits the problem. Referencing the methods used in other studies within the discipline strengthens the learner's choice.

Dissertations that involve human participants should take great care to ensure that issues of informed consent, respondent confidentiality, and resulting data security are discussed thoroughly in chapter 3. It is inappropriate to refer the reader to documents included in the appendixes for details about the procedures used. The IRB application form supports the administrative oversight that ensures protection of human participants. It also includes key points in the study methodology and should be discussed thoroughly in the methodology portion of the dissertation.


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