Writing a Compilation Dissertation

A compilation dissertation constitutes of a number of scientific articles and a combining storyline (the doctoral dissertation). Requirements relating to individual articles, their numbers, and publication mediums may vary among different scientific disciplines. The main benefit of a compilation dissertation is the additional academic merit gained through published articles. If you are a member of a functional high level group, the others are happy to help you with writing articles. However, if you are left alone, by including other researchers as co-authors, you can motivate them to provide valuable feedback early and hence potentially avoid unnecessary work. Also, the person supervising the dissertation may have a greater motivation to provide contribution and invest time towards an article, if he/she is included as a co-author. In addition, one of the main benefits of a compilation dissertation is the research being divided into smaller fragments with a potential to obtain better feedback. On the other hand, the workload towards a compilation dissertation may be slightly bigger than the one required for a monograph dissertation.

It is vital to start the process of writing the articles as early as possible. There is no need to overemphasise planning or aim to have a perfect outline for the future articles before starting to write. Learning by doing enables one to learn quicker. The following presents a recommendation for the process of writing a compilation dissertation and provides practical tips relating to different phases.

1. Research topic – initial outlining

The work towards writing a doctoral dissertation starts by outlining the research topic. Write down a potential topic or a set of ideas. Outline the articles that constitute your dissertation, include any initial ideas and research problems. Ask others for comments.

Do not get stuck with the initial ideas. The topic may change and be re-focused during the dissertation project. You do not need to know everything beforehand. Writing your first article will probably provide new ideas and help in writing the second one, etc.

2. Initial literature review

Conduct an initial literature review on the subject matter of your dissertation. This can also be limited to cover the literature relevant to your first article. However, it is not practical to collect a large pile of books onto the corner of your table and read them thoroughly. Instead, screen some relevant material, e.g. 5-10 books and 10-30 scientific articles. This is to get a level of understanding of recent research close to your topic. Ask your supervisor and colleagues for advice when selecting the books and articles.

You can write summary/summaries by combining the core content of the books/articles discussing similar matters into a single report, e.g. 3-5 pages. These reports can later be utilised as a frame for the theoretical part of your dissertation. You may also be able to obtain credits for these summaries.

Beware of losing yourself in the literature for a too long time, or overemphasising the initial literature review. The purpose at this point is not to come up with a perfect literature review, but familiarise with the subject matter. Use no longer than 1-2 months for this phase.

3. Research plan for dissertation

After initial literature review, start writing the first version of the research plan for your dissertation (see Figure 4). Even if you have completed a research plan for your research group already when joining them, it may be sensible to either have a separate plan for reaching your dissertation, or adjust your original plan to cover these aspects. Among other purposes, your research plan will act as a mean of communication with colleagues and your supervisor. Research plan enables applying for research grants/other funding and guides your research. There is no need to aim for perfectionism as this is merely an initial version of your research plan. Your dissertation research plan will evolve during the process. We encourage flexible planning, meaning that it is important to have a vision towards which you aim with your dissertation; however, it is not meaningful to tie up your hands, instead allow the plan to live while your understanding is enhanced. The research plan should be detailed for the present and near future and less detailed later.

Do maintain two parallel versions of your research plan:

  • 4 pages (the main version)
  • 1 page   summary

These two versions enable more effective application of research grants. You can adjust and target these versions for different foundations and funding bodies, instead of always writing a completely new one.

More extensive and precise version of your research plan can be done later during your dissertation process, if needed for your own purposes. In the more extensive version, you can better describe the scientific problem that is tackled by your dissertation, and how you realise the empirical research.

Do update your research plan regularly, at least in the pace of application deadlines for research grants, 2-3 times a year.


Figure 4. Research plan content for grant applications

4. Research method

Next, it may be sensible to study scientific research methods. Also, prior to writing your first article, it may be worth taking a course on scientific research methods. Alternatively, you may take this type of course later and start immediately collecting the experimental material for your first article, once you have an adequate understanding of relevant methods.

Concentrate on methods that you believe are useful for your research (discuss with your supervisor and colleagues). Update your knowledge on research methods later during the dissertation process. At this point, you only need enough understanding to complete your first article.

5. Planning experimental research

Plan the experimental aspects of your research for the entire dissertation, even if more precise planning is needed only for the first article. Think, whether there are possibilities of collecting the needed data for all the articles at once, or whether more iterative data collection suits your purposes better. In some cases it may be more efficient to collect all the data at once and then analyse it from different angles for different articles.

Do realise that you may not have to collect all the data alone, or conduct the analyses alone. You may also be able to utilise the results of earlier research projects, or even utilise work by other people, i.e. lab assistants or students, to conduct some of this work. Please remember to acknowledge the work done by others.

Update your research plan after planning experimental research.

6. Write your first article

Start writing your first article as soon as possible. Do start ideating and outlining potential articles, even if you do not feel ready. For example, once you have outlined your theoretical background, or you have collected data for analyses, see instructions in chapter Tips for writing articles.

It may be sensible to write the first article of a topic that feels the easiest. Especially important consideration for the first article is the availability of research data, or the ease of collecting it. Writing articles is a learning process, worth starting as soon as possible. No article is perfect, essential is to learn to publish your work. After the first article, it is much easier to perceive Journal format and understand what constitutes an article. This will help in planning and writing the following articles.

It is important that a PhD student working on a compilation dissertation will examine potential target Journals. One of the vital aspects when choosing a target Journal is the turnaround time, the time until feedback and decisions. A PhD student cannot afford to wait for an extended period of time before obtaining a decision on rejection or acceptance. Slow turnaround does not only delay your dissertation, but also decisively slows down your learning process.

7. Update your research plan

Update your research plan. Critically analyse, whether the original plan is still valid in the sense of your research and effective progress. Your view over the content of future articles may change significantly.

8. Write your second article

9. Update your research plan

10. Write your nth article

11. Outline the content for the compiling part your dissertation

It is time to start writing the actual dissertation, once all the articles intended for your doctoral dissertation are ready (submitted, not necessarily accepted). Start a document for the compiling part and roughly outline the content for the dissertation using the attached table of contents (Attachment 2). Utilise the main results from your articles for the Results chapter, and potentially some theory to the theoretical sections of the compiling part. This type of “copy-paste” aids in perceiving what you have already done, and also to understand the work remaining.

The listing below gives a rough outline on the core elements of your dissertation (there is no need to perfectly write these, just to consider initially):

dota24 The introduction of a compilation dissertation must present the subject matter of the dissertation, potential gaps in previous research, and possible research questions that are tackled in your dissertation. Additionally, introduction chapter must present how each article provides a partial solution to the studied problem and how the articles are interlinked.

dota24 Theoretical part will discuss the theoretical playground relevant to your research. You may be able to obtain a good part of this from your articles, and any material excluded from the articles due to e.g. page limitations.

dota24 be sensible to consider the contribution the articles provide as a whole.

dota24 The Discussion chapter includes implications, both scientific and practical, assessment of reliability & validity, and recommendations for future research.

12. Perceiving the positioning of the articles and the research problem

Write first version of ‘Objectives & Scope’ in the Introduction chapter by answering the following questions:

  • What is the storyline of your dissertation?
  • What is the whole the articles constitute?
  • What are the true research questions?
  • It may be sensible to have only one research question for each article (main contribution), even if the article itself would initially have had more than one. This will clarify the compiling part of your dissertation. Note that the research questions in the compiling part can be different than in the articles.
  • What is the order of presenting the articles in the compiling part (it is not necessarily the same as the chronological order of publication) and how are the articles interdependent?
  • What is the research problem?

Do note that the previous research plan you had was only a plan, and it is only now when the actual content of your dissertation starts to freeze.

13.  Write the Results chapter

After this, complete and finalise the Results chapter by utilising the previous outlining and the content of your articles. The results must match your research problem and research questions.

14. Write the Theory chapter

Complete and finalise the theoretical part of your dissertation by utilising the articles and any background material you already have. Should there be any needs, complement these with new viewpoints, paragraphs and references. Make sure you have noted the gurus in your field. Describe the theoretical frame of your dissertation and summarise the core content relevant to your dissertation at the end of the chapter, if necessary.

15. Write the Introduction chapter

After this, it may be worth completing the Introduction chapter. Utilise a funnel principle, meaning narrowing the focus, paragraph by paragraph, starting from a more general and ending with the research questions. This will help in making your text more logical and easier to follow. Utilise the content of your articles, and especially their introduction chapters. Justify why the topic of your dissertation is important and describe the research problem.

Consider whether the original research questions are still correct by comparing them with your results, theory, and adjust the questions if needed. Using research questions help readers follow the structure of your dissertation and to understand the logic of your research.

Write a description of the scientific approach of your research (methodology) and how your research has been realised.

16. Write the Discussion chapter

Write the Discussion chapter by reflecting your research and its results against:

dota24 The existing literature (theoretical implications)

dota24 Who benefits of your research and how? (practical implications)

Utilise the discussion chapters of your articles. Do also consider the whole, constituted by these articles.

Evaluate the scientific reliability and validity of your research. Describe the limitations of your research and describe any potential future research topics you recommend for the scientific community.

17. Finalisation

Check whether the research questions, reasoning and the results match. Refine the research questions if necessary.

Write the Abstract briefly by describing:

  • the topic of your dissertation
  • justification / why is it needed
  • utilised research methods
  • key findings
  • theoretical and practical implications

Finalise different elements of your dissertation. Do pay special attention on the style and format requirements of the publisher.

18 Give the dissertation to your supervisor for final comments

Carefully consider your supervisor’s comments and make changes in the manuscript, if necessary. If he/she does not understand what you have written, you should find another way to write it.

If you are not a native English speaker, send the dissertation for a professional language checker before forwarding it to your opponents. Finally, it may be beneficial to have someone to proof-read your text. If you cannot find anybody do it yourself.

19. Forward your dissertation to your opponents

If you receive critical feedback, do not get depressed! Be analytical, this is the time for a final effort. It may be beneficial to discuss the comments with others, as you may overreact when your own work is being criticised. The required changes are probably smaller than you first think. Contemplate what the fundamental reasons behind the feedback are and tackle them. Be systematic and make the required changes to the dissertation.

Prepare a point-to-point response to the reviewers, where

  • you clearly present any changes made. This will allow the pre-examiners to avoid reading the entire dissertation again
  • you present counter-arguments for issues that you believe are not necessary to change

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