Definitions of Terms in Dissertations

By Jim Goes and Marilyn Simon

A standard and common section in dissertations, generally in the first chapter, is the definition of terms.  Defining important terms is essential to ensure a common understanding of key concepts and terminology is shared between the dissertation author and his or her audience, particularly if the term is unusual or not widely known. However, this important element of the proposal often receives little attention.

Our experience is that students tend to extremes, either going overboard with extensive definitions of words or terms that are well understood and widely used (therefore not really needing to be defined), or the opposite – providing few if any definitions, even for concepts that are critical in communicating the intent and context of the research. It is important to remember that the consumers for the information in the dissertation are other scholars who are familiar with terms related to the methodology and design such as validity, reliability, survey, etc.  Clearly defining your terminology will enhance readers’ understanding of important terms.

In general, important terms only need to be defined in two cases: a) when the term is not widely known or understood, and b) when the term has specific or unique meaning in the context of the study, and it is essential that the reader of the dissertation understand this specific meaning.

A simple example would be the term leadership.  There is a host of different theories of and models of leadership, and many of these theories conflict in the details. If leadership is a central element of the study, such as commonly occurs in business or management fields, clearly defining leadership and the relevant elements of leadership in the context of the study is essential.

Another example would be the term success.  If the research design is evaluative in nature and the success of a program, product, or procedure is being evaluated, then the reader needs to know how the word success is operationalized.

Definitions of specific concepts and terminology should be grounded (whenever possible) by peer-reviewed sources that support the definition.  This helps a great deal to rationalize terminology and understanding, and connects your language to common usage of terminology within the field.  It is also a good idea to alphabetize definitions to make it easier for readers to navigate quickly to the term they need to understand.

Acronyms also need to be defined clearly.  While in the process of developing a dissertation, students are usually deeply immersed in their topic and the details, including the common acronyms around the topic. It is easy to forget that the audience of readers may have no clue what a particular acronym means, particularly in the context of the study.  We encourage students is to include a parenthetical definition of the acronym the first time it appears in a chapter, e.g. “United States (US)”, and thereafter use the acronym (US) until the next chapter.  Refer to the APA 6th edition and your university style guide for further details.

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