How Long Should A Dissertation Be?

​In the course of your graduate school career, you’ve probably wondered how long should a dissertation be? Now that you’ve worked hard to reach ABD (all but dissertation) status, it’s time to answer this question. This is timely because by now, you have completed all your coursework and other requirements, and are preparing to begin the research and writing process for the dissertation.

​When looking at how long should a dissertation be, the answer is definitely not “one-size-fits-all” – the structure and length of your dissertation is often determined by your own graduate department, in conjunction with rules or guidance from your institution. So the best place to begin to answer this question is by reviewing your graduate department’s dissertation handbook or dissertation template. Most graduate students receive this at the beginning of their graduate studies and then don’t remember to refer back to it when it comes time to plan the dissertation.

​This document will be adapted by the general template or handbook from your University, so if your graduate department doesn’t have its own document, you can very likely utilize the information from the handbook for the entire graduate school. In any case, you want to locate a copy of this document and read it carefully. It will answer many questions related to length and structure of your dissertation.

​But it may not suggest a specific page number or page range. This is because each project is different, and the ultimate guideline is to use as many words as you need to present an effective and complete document. However, keep reading and we’ll talk about average chapter lengths and other detail in just a moment.

After you’ve reviewed the dissertation handbook/template, it’s time to do your next step of research, which is to review recent dissertations that have been accepted by your department (and, ideally, specifically those chaired by your advisor or whomever you hope to lead your dissertation committee). By looking at 3-5 recent projects approved by your department and facilitated by your advisor, you’ll get a solid sense of what type of content, research design, and approach s/he favors. You can also note the actual page length of these documents to get a sense of how long a dissertation should be.

Length of a project doesn’t always indicate quality, so that is important to keep in mind when thinking about how long a dissertation should be.

​In my experience of coaching more than 1000 graduate students to complete their dissertations, here is how most dissertation projects tend to work out:

​For a typical 5 chapter dissertation, which consists of an Introduction chapter, Literature Review, Methodology, Results, and Discussion, the page counts tend to be along the lines of:

​Introduction: 10-15 pages
Literature Review: 20-25 pages
Methodology: 10-15 pages
​Results: 5-10 pages
Discussion: 15-20 pages

​Of course, your project may have more pages, or fewer, depending on its structure and requirements. But it is important to keep your dissertation chapters within reasonable length compared to each other. You wouldn’t, for instance, have a literature review of 100 pages and then a discussion section of 5 pages. You have to do some analysis and synthesis to get your information to fit, so that you can create a balanced final dissertation product.

​The other reason to consider page limits is so you don’t overwrite any one chapter- or, in fact, the entire project. I once worked with a client (who has not graduated with her PhD) and she began our coaching having written more than 700 pages- enough for multiple dissertations. Of course, topics in the humanities may require more pages, but, again, there should be a balance between chapters, and you may consider a dissertation of 150-300 pages to be enough in these situations. Just take care not to write two or more dissertations when you only need one!

So when you are considering how long should a dissertation be, start by looking through your dissertation handbook or department’s project template. Then look at recent projects which have been approved and completed through your department. Take that information and determine a rough page count for each chapter of your dissertation project.

​This simple, yet effective, method will help you write a dissertation that is neither too long, nor too short, but, in fact, just right.