How to Write a Social Science or Humanities Thesis/Dissertation

HomeHow to Write a Social Science or Humanities Thesis/Dissertation

Writing a thesis/dissertation is a huge task, and it is common to feel overwhelmed at the start. A thesis and a dissertation are both long pieces of focused research written as the sum of your graduate or postgraduate course.

The difference between a thesis and a dissertation can depend on which part of the world you are in. In Europe, a dissertation is written as part of a Master’s degree, while a thesis is written by doctoral students. In the US, a thesis is generally the major research paper written by Master’s students to complete their programs, while a dissertation is written at the doctoral level.

The purpose of both types of research is generally the same: to demonstrate that you, the student, is capable of performing a degree of original, structured, long-term research. Writing a thesis/dissertation gives you experience in project planning and management, and allows you the opportunity to develop your expertise in a particular subject of interest. In that sense, a thesis/dissertation is a luxury, as you are allowed time and resources to pursue your own personal academic interest.

Writing a thesis/dissertation is a larger project than the shorter papers you likely wrote in your coursework. Therefore, the structure of a thesis/dissertation can differ from what you are used to. It may also differ based on what field you are in and what kind of research you do. In this article, we’ll look at how to structure a humanities or social science thesis/dissertation and offer some tips for writing such a big paper. Once you have a solid understanding of how your thesis/dissertation should be structured, you will be ready to begin writing.

How are humanities and social science thesis/dissertations structured?

The structure of a thesis/dissertation will vary depending on the topic, your academic discipline, methodology, and the place you are studying in. Generally, social science and humanities theses/dissertations are structured differently from those in natural sciences, as there are differences in methodologies and sources. However, some social science theses/dissertations can use the same format as natural science dissertations, especially if it heavily uses quantitative research methods. Such theses/dissertations generally follow the “IMRAD” model:

  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion

Social science theses/dissertations often range from 80-120 pages in length.

Humanities thesis/dissertations, on the other hand, are often structured more like long essays. This is because these theses/dissertations rely more heavily on discussions of previous literature and/or case studies. They build up an argument around a central thesis citing literature and case studies as examples. Humanities theses/dissertations tend to range from between 100-300 pages in length.

The parts of a dissertation: Starting out

As you prepare your topic and structure your social science or humanities thesis/dissertation, always keep your audience in mind. Who are you writing for? Even if your topic is other experts in the field, you should aim to write in sufficient detail that someone unfamiliar with your topic could follow along. Never assume what your reader knows! Explain every step of your process clearly and concisely as you write, and structure your thesis/dissertation with this goal in mind.

While the structure of social science and humanities theses/dissertations differ somewhat, they both have some basic elements in common. Both types will typically begin with the following elements:

Title page

What is the title of your paper?

A good title is catchy and concisely indicates what your paper is about. This page also likely has your name, department and advisor information, and ID number. However, the specific information listed varies by institution.

Acknowledgments page

Many people probably helped you write your thesis/dissertation. If you want to say thank you, this is the place where it can be included.


Your abstract is a one-page summary (300 words or less) of your entire paper. Beginning with your thesis/dissertation question and a brief background information, it explains your research and findings. This is what most people will read before they decide whether to read your paper or not, so you should make it compelling and to the point.

Table of contents

This section lists the chapter and subchapter titles along with their page numbers. It should be written to help your reader easily navigate through your thesis/dissertation.

While these elements are found at the beginning of your humanities or social science thesis/dissertation, most people write them last. Otherwise, they’ll undergo a lot of needless revisions, particularly the table of contents, as you revise, edit, and proofread your thesis/dissertation.

The parts of a humanities thesis/dissertation

As we mentioned above, humanities and some social science theses/dissertations follow an essay-like structure. A typical humanities thesis/dissertation structure includes the following chapters:

  • Introduction
  • Background
  • Theme 1
  • Theme 2
  • Theme 3
  • Conclusion
  • References (Bibliography)

The number of themes above was merely chosen as an example.

In a humanities thesis/dissertation, the introduction and background are often not separate chapters. The introduction and background of a humanities thesis/dissertation introduces the overall topic and provides the reader with a guide for how you will approach the issue. You can then explain why the topic is of interest, highlight the main debates in the field, and provide background information. Then you explain what you are investigating and why. You should also specifically indicate your hypothesis before moving on to the first thematic chapter. 

Thematic chapters (and you can have as many of them as your thesis/dissertation guidelines allow) are generally structured as follows:

  • Introduction: Briefly introduce the theme of the chapter and inform the reader what you are going to talk about.
  • Argument: State the argument the chapter presents
  • Material: Discuss the material you will be using
  • Analysis: Provide an analysis of the materials used
  • Conclusion: How does this relate to your main argument and connect to the next theme chapter?

Finally, the conclusion of your paper will bring everything together and summarize your argument clearly. This is followed by the references or bibliography section, which lists all of the sources you cited in your thesis/dissertation.

The parts of a social science thesis/dissertation

In contrast to the essay structure of a humanities thesis/dissertation, a typical social science thesis/dissertation structure includes the following chapters:

  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Methodology
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • References (Bibliography)
  • Appendices

Unlike the humanities thesis/dissertation, the introduction and literature review sections are clearly separated in a social science thesis/dissertation. The introduction tells your reader what you will talk about and presents the significance of your topic within the broader context. By the end of your introduction, it should be clear to your reader what you are doing, how you are doing it, and why.

The literature review analyzes the existing research and centres your own work within it. It should provide the reader with a clear understanding of what other people have said about the topic you are investigating. You should make it clear whether the topic you will research is contentious or not, and how much research has been done. Finally, you should explain how this thesis/dissertation will fit within the existing research and what it contributes to the literature overall.

In the methodology section of a social science thesis/dissertation, you should clearly explain how you have performed your research. Did you use qualitative or quantitative methods? How was your process structured? Why did you do it this way? What are the limitations (weaknesses) of your methodological approach?

Once you have explained your methods, it is time to provide your results. What did your research find? This is followed by the discussion, which explores the significance of your results and whether or not they were as you expected. If your research yielded the expected results, why did that happen? If not, why not? Finally, wrap up with a conclusion that reiterates what you did and why it matters, and point to future matters for research. The bibliography section lists all of the sources you cited, and the appendices list any extra information or resources such as raw data, survey questions, etc. that your reader may want to know.

In social science theses/dissertations that rely more heavily on qualitative rather than quantitative methods, the above structure can still be followed. However, sometimes the results and discussion chapters will be intertwined or combined. Certain types of social science theses/dissertations, such as public policy, history, or anthropology, may follow the humanities thesis/dissertation structure as we mentioned above.

Critical steps for writing and structuring a humanities/social science thesis/dissertation

If you are still struggling to get started, here is a checklist of steps for writing and structuring your humanities or social science thesis/dissertation.

  • Choose your thesis/dissertation topic
  • Check your institutional requirements for thesis/dissertation structure
    • What is the word count/page length requirement?
    • What chapters must be included?
    • What chapters are optional?
  • Conduct preliminary research
  • Decide on your own research methodology
  • Outline your proposed methods and expected results
  • Use your proposed methodology to choose what chapters to include in your thesis/dissertation
  • Create a preliminary table of contents to outline the structure of your thesis/dissertation

By following these steps, you should be able to organize the structure of your humanities or social science thesis/dissertation before you begin writing.

Final tips for writing and structuring a thesis/dissertation

Although writing a thesis/dissertation is a difficult project, it is also very rewarding. You will get the most out of the experience if you properly prepare yourself by carefully learning about each step. Before you decide how to structure your thesis/dissertation, you will need to decide on a thesis topic and come up with a hypothesis. You should do as much preliminary reading and notetaking as you have time for.

Since most people writing a thesis/dissertation are doing it for the first time, you should also take some time to learn about the many tools that exist to help students write better and organize their citations. Citation generators and reference managers like EndNote help you keep track of your sources and AI grammar and writing checkers are helpful as you write. You should also keep in mind that you will need to edit and proofread your thesis/dissertation once you have the bulk of the writing complete. Many thesis editing and proofreading services are available to help you with this as well.


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