The following, a dissertation on dissertations, is taken from the Graduate Student Handbook for Theology at Fordham. It's a bit long, but I'm going to cite the entire thing, because it is one of my favorite things ever. Just read the whole thing; you won't regret it.
A. A Dissertation upon Dissertations
"The maintaining of a thesis, is a great part of the exercise a student is to undergo for a degree." Chambers Cyclopedia, 1727
The Dissertation or Thesis
The Latin term dissertatio means a discourse, disquisition, or disputation; by extension, a treatise on a subject. In its wide sense the word "dissertation" can be applied to a variety of literary products. (Charles Lamb wrote a humorous essay--you probably read it in grammar school--called "A Dissertation upon Roast Pig," in which he elucidates the origin of that succulent dish. This is probably the most famous literary work to describe itself explicitly as a "dissertation." Unfortunately, however, it will give you little guidance in planning your doctoral project; indeed, you would be ill advised to use it as a model.)
The sort of dissertation that you will soon be engaged in writing is also called a "thesis." If we ignore the use of the word in classical prosody (where "thesis" is contrasted with "arsis," and designates either the stressed as opposed to the unaccented metrical foot or--curiously enough--exactly the reverse), a "thesis" is a proposition or affirmation; by extension, a theme to be discussed, proved, or maintained against attack. Here we are on firmer linguistic ground. Your thesis, in our sense, is the theological proposition for which you will marshal evidence and arguments. Ideally, you should be able to formulate your thesis in a declarative sentence: "my thesis is that . . . ." Strictly speaking, then, a doctoral dissertation is the literary exposition of a thesis; in our permissive age, however, the two words may be used interchangeably.
What Is not a Dissertation
The set of all-things-not-doctoral-dissertations, as a logician might say, has a vast and varied membership. Ocean liners, the square root of minus one, and pickled herring spring to mind. There is in general little chance of mistaking most of these things for a doctoral thesis, even in dim light. There are, indeed, a few things that bear a superficial resemblance to dissertations—telephone books, for example—but the clever observer will soon learn to distinguish them. (In the case of the telephone book, for instance, one will quickly note a strict logical progression in its contents that sets it apart from all but a few dissertations.)
The problem of identification arises most acutely when one enters the realm of contents. Not every subject that might be of personal or scholarly interest constitutes a genuine "thesis"--in the narrow sense of the argument of a dissertation. If you were to discover a perfectly preserved first-century papyrus containing all the "Q" sayings in Aramaic, and were to publish it in facsimile with an introduction explaining how you found it, with a recipe for halvah on the back, in your Syrian great-grandmother's attic, the book would be of some interest to the scholarly world; but it would not constitute a doctoral thesis. (It might become one if you included a commentary, an argument that the document was original, and/or an explanation of its effect on Biblical scholarship.)
Other things that are not doctoral dissertations include: translations without commentary or critical apparatus; bibliographies or other instruments of research, however needed or useful they may be; essays not based on detailed research; mere compilations or digests of what is already known (by others, if not by you) about a given subject. A dissertation should not be thought of as a kind of gigantic book report, differing from those you did in high school principally in that it deals with a whole lot of books instead of just one. Although the writing of each chapter of a dissertation is not terribly different from the writing of a term paper, the whole must be more than a superficially linked series of such papers: it must have an overall direction and coherence. In general, anything that could just as well be done by a machine--whether a simple one like a pair of scissors (combined with a pot of glue) or a more complex one like a computer with a scanner--is not a proper dissertation. There must be more than just the transfer of information from one place to another.
What a Dissertation Is
A waggish author has remarked, "A thesis is much like a graduate student: it has a limited purpose and a small audience; it is often insecure and defensive, justifying itself with excessive documentation; it is too narrowly focused; and it has not yet developed a style of its own."
There are in our experience no graduate students in the theology department who fit this description; but it is nevertheless helpful in delineating some of the characteristics of a doctoral thesis.
Purpose. The writing of the dissertation is at the same time the last part of your formal education and your first major work of independent scholarship. It is meant to train you in the skills needed to be a competent and productive member of the academic community, and to develop expertise in some limited area. The finished product is meant to demonstrate a number of things: that you can do scholarly research; that you have the ability to ask significant questions; that you have something original to contribute; that you can communicate intelligibly and in accepted academic form; that you can perform a task within an allotted time framework; that you have competence in your field,and are familiar with the relevant literature; that you can defend a position against objections that may beraised; that you know and can use appropriate theological methods.
Your thesis is not simply a test of your competence, however; it is also meant to be a contribution to the field you are entering. It should add something new to scholarship: for example, the uncovering of new data; a new interpretation or theory or synthesis regarding data already at hand; a new evaluation or judgment of data or theories or their results; the solution of a problem hitherto unsolved; the construction of a theory involving new principles; a critical study correcting errors or establishing negative conclusions; or the proposal of a new method or course of action to be followed. A thesis must be arguable: that is, on the one hand, it must be able to be demonstrated by convincing arguments; on the other hand, it must say something that is not perfectly obvious, and that therefore could conceivably be contested. A good thesis will not argue that the Pope is Catholic or that liberation theologians are interested in social justice.
Audience. You may one day turn your dissertation into a book, during the many leisure hours you can expect to enjoy as a well-paid and pampered junior faculty member at the fortunate college or university that you select from the many that will vie for your services. You will then bask in the admiration of the theological world and the less critically grounded adulation of the general public, while living luxuriously on your vast royalties. Perhaps there will even be a lump sum for the movie rights.
At the moment, however, your audience is more limited. Most immediately, you are writing for a faculty committee whose function is to oversee and aid in this last step in your education and to evaluate your performance. This committee represents the theological academy"--the scholarly and professional community to which you are seeking entry. Every dissertation, therefore, is addressed to an academic audience--even if its subject matter is relevant to pastoral practice, or to Christians in general, or to society at large.
Genre. The doctoral dissertation is a sui generis literary form. It is first of all a work of scholarship. This can mean somewhat different things in the different branches of theology. Under the influence of the positive sciences, whose criterion for truth is empirical facticity, American academia tends to subsume nearly all scholarly activity under the rubric "research." In the human and divine "sciences," however, truth is not reducible to fact, and scholarship is not reducible to research. Some areas of theology--textual, exegetical, and historical studies, for example--will have a strong emphasis on positive data and the exposition thereof. Others--foundational, dialectical, hermeneutical, and systematic studies--begin with a level of experience that is non-empirical, and emphasize reasoning and judgment. In these fields, a thesis must be more than mere exposition, either of data or of others' opinions.
In every specialization, however, research is one important component of theological scholarship, and your ability to do it is one of the main criteria on which you will be judged. It is of course possible for a work to make a great contribution to theology without much research or citation of sources. In the introduction to his magistral work Insight, Bernard Lonergan warns the reader that 'this is not an erudite work'--by which he means that he does not give many references to sources outside his own thinking. And the young Maurice Blondel submitted what some might regard as the ultimate doctoral dissertation: a five-hundred page personal reflection with only a handful of footnotes expanding on the text and no references to sources. However, unless you are another Bernard Lonergan or Maurice Blondel, your dissertation should be well researched. It should show that you have done a thorough review of the literature and are mentally engaged with other scholars in your project. All statements that you make must be defensible: i. e., supported either by appeal to sources or by argument. The privilege of making apodictic statements, hasty generalizations, and gratuitous assertions is reserved to those who have already attained the giddy eminence of the doctorate.
Focus. A theological dissertation should present a thesis that lies within the bounds of the discipline of theology. This might seem obvious; but the observance of the rule involves a notion of just what theology is and what those bounds are. It is fairly easy to distinguish theology from, say, physics or biology; but how is it related to philosophy; to sociology; to psychology; to church dogma; to religious studies; to spirituality; to religious education; to piety? What is the difference between "history" and "historical theology"?
Moreover, the scope of the thesis must be rather narrowly defined. It is not intended to be your life's work, but only a limited exercise. It must focus on an area that can be dealt with thoroughly and in depth within a limited amount of time and in a finite number of pages. It presupposes an audience already knowledgeable in the field.
Style. A dissertation should naturally be written well. On the most basic level, this means using proper grammar and being acquainted with the elements of style. Many students write run-on sentences, they join independent clauses with a comma or even with no punctuation at all they should instead use a conjunction between the clauses or separate them by a semicolon or a period. Also, incomplete sentences. They sometimes fail to place a comma before conjunctions introducing dependent clauses for they are not well acquainted with the rules of grammar. Being graduate students, there is a tendency to use dangling participial phrases; as inexperienced writers, adjectival phrases are treated in the same way. It is fortuitous that most students do not fall into the lacuna of improper word usage. But in a sea of mixed metaphors, their writing sometimes fails to bear fruit of ironclad perfection. Be very careful of this, as well as using pronouns with no clear referent, speling, and that parallel construction is used to express correlative ideas. After all, it can be embarrassing when the first question from the readers at your defense is,"Did you ever go to high school?" If you use this document as your model and proofread carefully, especially if you use a word processor to alter your text, and you will have no difficulties.
Accuracy, conciseness, and clarity are more important in a dissertation than elegant phraseology. This is not the place to wax poetic or--even worse--homiletic. Humor is of course totally out of place in the Grove of Academe.
A dissertation must be methodologically self-conscious. It must justify its method and structure and continually demonstrate their presence. In the Beatles' film "Help!" the assistant to the mad scientist uses "scientific method" by describing into a tape recorder each step of his procedure, including walking from one place to another. "I am now moving my left foot . . . I am now moving my right foot. . . ." You need not go quite so far. But the "skeleton" of your work--its outline--should show through. The progression of your argument or exposition should also be made clear to the reader. But this can be accomplished without falling into the dissertation style that Beth Luey caricatures: "Here's what I'm going to say. . . . Look! I'm saying it. . . . Here's what I just said."
A Final Word
One last bit of advice. The peculiar nature of a doctoral dissertation obviously puts constraints on its style, as well as its content, form, and method. However, the readers, for all that they are professional theologians, are also human beings (at least this is considered by moralists to be a probable opinion). Therefore, keep in mind the injunction found in the ethics of the Zoroastrians: "Strive not to bore your fellow creatures."