October 10 2012

Verb tense in dissertations

Writing your dissertation is a lengthy journey, and your document will go through several versions as you move through the dissertation process. At many schools, your dissertation begins with your proposal, which typically includes the first three chapters of your dissertation: Introduction, Literature Review, and Methods. Once you defend your proposal and complete your research, you return to the document to write the final chapters, which summarize your findings.

Because the dissertation is a multi-chapter document written at different points in your PhD journey, you might be confused by what verb tense to use. While every dissertation is different, here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Write your dissertation proposal in future tense when referring to your study because it has not taken place yet.
    For example: “The purpose of this dissertation will be to…” or “This study will answer the following research questions…”
  • Change those future-tense constructions to past tense once your dissertation research is complete.
    For example: “The purpose of this dissertation was to…” or “This study answered the following research questions…”
  • Use past tense when referring to other studies that have been completed (common throughout your dissertation, especially in your Literature Review).
    For example: “Carpenter’s (2012) article indicated the importance of using the proper tense in dissertations.”
  • Use past tense in your results and discussion to explain what your study achieved.
    For example: “Participants indicated that they liked using past tense in their dissertations.”

When we edit your dissertation, we make sure that verb tense is correct throughout, whether you’re in the early stages of your dissertation proposal or wrapping up your post-defense revisions. We are happy to change the tense as the document develops, but these tips can guide you as you write and revise.