When formatting your dissertation, there are two sets of guidelines you’ll need to successfully get your dissertation approved: (a) the particular style guidelines set out by your discipline (APA, Chicago/Turabian, MLA, etc.), and (b) the formatting guidelines set out by your university. Most students are familiar with the first set of guidelines; however, they are often unaware of the second.

Take APA as an example. The APA 7 manual provides instruction on a multitude of issues. It sets out formatting guidelines for things like section headers, in-text citations and the reference lists, table and figure formatting, spelling and punctuation, etc. While extensive, APA 7 is not exhaustive. It is intended to provide guidelines for student and professional papers. Notably, APA does not provide any guidance on how to format the elements that are unique to book-length manuscripts (like dissertations!). This is where university guidelines come in.

Let’s look at the beginning pages of the dissertation, collectively called the front matter. The front matter is made up of anything that comes before the main body or text of your dissertation. It commonly includes elements like the cover page, signature page, copyright page, acknowledgements, dedication, abstract, table of contents, list of tables, and list of figures. University guidelines provide instruction on how to format these pages, many of which are not covered by the APA manual.

One such page is the Table of Contents. It also happens to be the hardest to format from both a technical and stylistic standpoint. Not only does the Table of Contents need to be accurate and function properly, but it also needs to look a certain way. Your university guidelines will tell you how. They’ll dictate whether to list the pages that come before the Table of Contents, or only those that come after. Whether to include only Level 1 and Level 2 headings, or Level 3 headings as well. Whether to indent entries by half an inch, a quarter inch, or some combination of the two. Admittedly, not all guidelines will address all of these issues. However, your university guidelines will shape the overall look of your Table of Contents and your dissertation more broadly. They’re there to ensure consistent formatting among all of the manuscripts from students who graduate from that institution.

Almost all universities have at least some formatting guidelines. Most even provide a university template which models how the dissertation should be formatted. (It’s much easier to look at an example than to interpret pages and pages of descriptive prose!) If you are not sure whether your university or program has a formatting guide or template, we would suggest reaching out to your chair or program administrator. You’ll want to make sure you have all the information you need to format your dissertation properly and get it approved by both your committee and your university!

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