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How to Write a Nursing Dissertation

A dissertation is a substantive research project that is a culminating requirement for earning a doctoral degree in nursing. It represents the highest level of scholarly work that nursing students must undertake to demonstrate mastery within their chosen specialty area.

The overarching purpose is to have students conceive, plan, execute, and report on an original study that makes a new contribution to existing nursing knowledge and practices. Conducting this intensive, faculty-guided investigation over multiple years allows students to develop advanced research competencies.

Dissertations enable nursing scholars to explore compelling gaps or inconsistencies in the current evidence-based literature. Their original research helps build broader empirical foundations for various nursing science domains like theory development, clinical interventions, educational strategies, delivery/management models, and health policy implications.

By disseminating new findings, dissertations have the potential to enhance professional knowledge, influence future research agendas, shape curriculum, and ultimately optimize care standards that benefit both nurses and patients alike.

At its core, the nursing dissertation is a rigorous test of a student’s ability to:

  • Critically analyze and synthesize a comprehensive body of prior scholarly work related to their topic
  • Formulate a researchable problem statement centered on a specific issue or question
  • Design and justify an appropriate, ethical, and academically-sound methodology
  • Systematically gather and analyze relevant qualitative and/or quantitative data
  • Interpret the results in relation to empirical and theoretical contexts
  • Draw valid conclusions that address the original research problem
  • Discuss limitations, implications, and recommendations for further inquiry
  • Produce a substantive, publication-worthy written document adhering to discipline standards

The final dissertation represents a student’s highest intellectual output as the product of extensive subject expertise, independent thinking, innovative problem-solving abilities, and research proficiency.

While faculty advisors provide guidance at various approval stages, the bulk of conceptual work, hands-on investigation, and scholarly writing is driven independently by the doctoral candidate themselves

Choosing a Topic

Selecting the right topic is crucial as it will determine the entire focus and direction of your dissertation. Here are some tips:

  • Identify a broad area that interests you within the nursing field (e.g. pediatrics, oncology, emergency care, etc.) This allows you to narrow down to a specific issue to research.
  • Look for gaps in the existing knowledge that your study could help fill. Reviewing recent literature reviews in your area of interest can highlight areas that need further investigation.
  • Ensure your topic is researchable and aligns with your academic program’s guidelines on scope, methodology requirements, ethics protocols, etc.
  • Develop a brief proposal outlining the background issues, prospective research questions/hypotheses, and potential importance of the study. Get feedback from your advisor before proceeding.

Example Topic Exploration:

Area of Interest: Emergency Nursing → Potential Topic: Intervention to Reduce Burnout → Research Question: Can mindfulness training help lower burnout levels in ER nurses?

Doing Background Research

Conducting a thorough, synthesized review of prior scholarly literature related to your topic is essential. It accomplishes several goals:

  • Provides a comprehensive understanding of existing research about the issues/variables involved in your study
  • Identifies areas where the evidence is currently lacking or contradictory
  • Informs the theoretical foundation and methodology for your own research design
  • Gives context to compare your eventual findings against other studies

Strategies for an effective literature review:

  • Search major academic databases (PubMed, CINAHL, Google Scholar, etc.) as well as browsing reference sections of key sources
  • Use a reasonable variety of relevant keyword combinations related to your topic
  • Focus on sources published within the last 5-10 years, but include older seminal works as well
  • Take structured notes capturing key points, findings, methods, definitions, gaps, etc.
  • Note publication details for all references for later citation
  • Group sources by areas of alignment or differences in perspectives
  • Keep an updated list of references using a tool like Zotero or Mendeley

Example Sources for Mindfulness & Burnout Topic:

  • Randomized controlled trials testing mindfulness interventions on healthcare workers
  • Qualitative studies exploring causes and experiences of nurse burnout
  • Articles defining and measuring variables like mindfulness, burnout, stress, resilience
  • Background on theoretical models like Job Demands-Resources model

Creating a Solid Plan

With your topic selected and research foundation established, the next step is to plan out all aspects of actually conducting the study. This is typically done by preparing these main components which require approval:

Introduction Chapter:

  • Background context of the issues/problems being studied
  • Identify gaps or conflicting findings in current knowledge
  • Clearly state your central research questions and hypotheses
  • Explain importance and anticipated benefits of filling these knowledge gaps

Methodology Chapter:

  • Philosophical assumptions underlying your research approach
  • Specific design of the study (e.g. experimental, descriptive, mixed methods)
  • Data collection methods – what, how, from whom/what sources
  • Sampling strategy and target population
  • Variables being measured and how they will be operationalized
  • Analysis techniques for quantitative and/or qualitative data
  • Anticipated ethical concerns and procedures to address them
  • Plan for validating findings and ensuring study quality/rigor

Chapter Outline and Timeline:

  • Brief summaries of what each subsequent chapter will cover
  • Projected schedule with target dates for key milestones/deadlines
  • Potential limitations and how you will account for them

You’ll need to get approval for this comprehensive plan from your dissertation committee before actually beginning the data collection and analysis phases.

Conducting the Study

Once your research plan is approved, it’s time to execute the proposed methodology rigorously and systematically. This usually involves:

  • Obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for any studies involving human participants
  • Strict adherence to all procedures and protocols as outlined
  • Objective and comprehensive data collection
  • Organized record-keeping, data storage, and version control
  • Monitoring for potential problems or need for adjustments

Depending on your study design, the data collection could take several forms:

For Quantitative Studies:

  • Recruiting and screening participants
  • Experiments with control/test groups
  • Distributing surveys/questionnaires
  • Behavioral observations and assessments
  • Accessing and coding existing data sets

For Qualitative Studies:

  • One-on-one interviews (in-person or virtual)
  • Focus groups
  • Participatory observations
  • Analyzing texts/artifacts related to the topic

Throughout this phase, be meticulous in following all outlined steps exactly as planned. Any deviations could reduce the integrity and validity of your ultimate findings.

Analyzing Findings

With the raw data collected, the next major stage is processing, coding, and analyzing it using appropriate techniques. There are many different approaches depending on your study’s methodology:

For Quantitative Data:

  • Data cleaning and screening for errors
  • Descriptive statistics (means, frequencies, etc.)
  • Statistical tests of significance
  • Correlational and regression analysis
  • Use software like SPSS, SAS, R

For Qualitative Data:

  • Coding techniques (open, axial, theoretical)
  • Thematic analysis to identify patterns
  • Developing categories and relational models
  • Analysis tools like NVivo, Dedoose

For Mixed Methods:

  • Integrate complementary qual/quan results
  • Data transformation for converging findings
  • Visual joint displays and discussion

Your analysis should comprehensively answer the research questions or hypotheses that drove the study. But also be open to unexpected findings that may reveal additional insights.

Use figures, tables, and other data visualizations to help represent and make sense of the findings. But go beyond just reporting numbers – the narrative discussion unpacking the full meaning is most crucial.

Discussing Conclusions

In the final discussion chapter, synthesize and interpret the key takeaways from your analysis in relation to the original research problems. Issues to cover include:

  • How findings help fill gaps or provide new understandings
  • Comparing/contrasting with prior research in the area
  • Theoretical contributions or model modifications suggested
  • Strengths and limitations of your particular study
  • Potential real-world implications and recommendations
  • Need for any future research building on your findings

Don’t just restate the facts, but critically examine their significance through the lens of your discipline’s theoretical framework. Address contradictory data and consider alternative explanations.

While advocating for your findings, also maintain an objective tone and avoid overstating or overreaching beyond what the evidence can reasonably support.

The conclusions you draw should serve to advance knowledge while also acknowledging the inevitable constraints and boundaries of the study’s scope and methodology.

Editing and Formatting

With the full first draft written, leave sufficient time for revising and polishing every aspect into a cohesive, professional scholarly document:

  • Ensure clear, logical organization with smooth transitions
  • Consistent voice, tense, and academic writing style
  • No grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors
  • Accurate in-text citations and reference list formatting
  • Clear, explanatory captions for all tables, figures, etc.
  • Thorough proofreading to catch any oversight

Ask colleagues, professors, or a professional editing service to provide feedback and review for any lingering issues to correct.

You may need to go through several revision cycles based on feedback before it fully meets the standards expected of a high-quality dissertation.

The final polished work should reflect the culmination of your graduate research abilities. Adhere to your institution’s submission procedures and you’ll be one step closer to earning that doctoral degree!

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What is the format for writing a dissertation?
The core chapters of a dissertation are the introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, and conclusion. In addition, there are also supplementary sections, such as the appendices, bibliography, glossary, and abstract.

How long is a dissertation in nursing?
An undergraduate dissertation is typically 8,000–15,000 words. A master’s dissertation is typically 12,000–50,000 words. A PhD thesis is typically book-length: 70,000–100,000 words.

How many references should a dissertation have?
The number of references in a dissertation depends on a lot of things. However, in a 10,000-word dissertation, the ideal number of references is expected to be around 45-50.

How long does it take to write a nursing dissertation?
You might work on it (alongside other classes) for the entirety of the final year, or for the last six months. This includes formulating an idea, doing the research, and writing up.

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