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How to Write a Master’s Dissertation: Format and Examples

Essay and Thesis Writing Series

Grant Andrews

Academic Coaching


Copyright © 2017 by Grant Andrews

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Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: What’s in a Dissertation

Chapter 3: Format of First Pages

Chapter 4: Literature Review

Chapter 5: Method and Research Process

Chapter 6: Findings & Analyses

Chapter 7: Dissertation Conclusion

Things to Remember

Academic Coaching

Academic Coaching is run by Dr. Grant Andrews and Malan van der Walt

The Academic Coaching team offers free content to help anyone writing a thesis, essay or article. We provide free short books on every topic relating to thesis writing, as well as step-by-step guides on how to plan, research and write your academic piece. If you would like to request that we compile a tutorial or eBook that you need, or if you have any questions, please email us at info@writeyourthesis.com.

Our services also include editing, coaching and counseling. We coach our clients through all stages of essay and thesis writing, and host online workshops and writing marathons. You can find our pricing guide on our website, www.writeyourthesis.com.

We hope this short guide can help you to make a success of your academic work!

Chapter 1: Introduction

If you are just starting with research for your master’s dissertation, or are at the stage where you’re ready to write up your final document, the process can seem very intimidating. There is a lot of information that needs to be included, and many technical aspects that you need to understand and include in your final product. This guide will go through the general format of what a master’s dissertation should look like, and it will explain all of the elements that you need to include in detail to remove any confusion. We will offer you examples of what each section should look like, and give you step-by-step guidance on how to structure your work.

In this guide, we’ll cover the first pages of your dissertation, including your front matter, abstract, and introduction section. We’ll look at how to structure your literature review and method or research process chapters. We’ll look at what to include in your findings and analysis chapters, and finally, we’ll explain how to conclude your dissertation in your dissertation’s final chapter.

It’s important to get the structure right early on in your writing process, so that you won’t have to go back and redo work later on. Read through this guide first to get a good idea of what’s expected of you. If you haven’t written your proposal yet, you can get a guide on how to structure your proposal, with a sample template included, at the Academic Coaching website, www.writeyourthesis.com. We suggest that you also read the guides on writing your literature review, method and findings chapters only once you get to those sections of your dissertation. You can find those guides on the resources page of the Academic Coaching website: www.writeyourthesis.com/p/resources.html.

Before we begin with this guide, take note that you can test your academic and thesis readiness levels, and get detailed advice and strategies on your unique challenges, in a free report written by the Academic Coaches. Take the quiz at the following link: http://www.writeyourthesis.com/p/quiz.html.

For now, let’s look at what your thesis needs to do, and go through the basic structure you need to follow.

Chapter 2: What’s in a Dissertation

Your master’s dissertation or thesis is a step in either fully or partially earning a master’s degree. This degree means that you have mastered the skill of research, that you have a good basic knowledge of your field and an understanding of academic conventions. You need to be demonstrating all of these things within your dissertation document in order to be conferred a degree from your institution, which is why it’s important to know what your supervisor and the examiners will be looking for.

Having a master’s degree can be extremely useful in many ways. It signifies that you’re a capable researcher with excellent critical thinking skills, something that many employers are looking for. Many types of professional registrations require you to complete master’s training before you are able to practice in the field, such as in psychology. The written component shows that you’re able to apply your training in practical and analytical ways.

For a master’s degree, you don’t have to provide a unique or new area of knowledge in the way that a doctorate degree should do. For a doctorate, you need to be expanding the field by either challenging an existing model, developing and testing a new theory, or something else that establishes you as an expert in a particular aspect of your field. You need to do something that no one else has done before. For a master’s degree, your task isn’t quite as big. You’ll have to show that you are able to conduct research and perform a long, focused study, but it doesn’t have to provide completely new or unique knowledge of your field. While you still need to have a thesis statement, you might simply be expanding upon an already-established theory or method, or comparing various methods which might not have been compared before in the way you are doing. Certain master’s dissertations will only be required to conduct a literature review and to provide a basic analysis of the literature.

Most fields require a master’s degree of around 30,000 – 50,000 words, or around 60-100 pages in length (Note that certain fields require more data in the form of tables and figures, and less explanation. These include certain studies in psychology, engineering or computer science, and might require far fewer pages and a much lower word-count. Consult your supervisor in these cases). If you think that your study will require a lot more space than this, your topic is probably too broad and you should consider reframing it. For partial thesis degrees, you can aim for 15,000 – 30,000 words or 20-50 pages in length, unless your degree requires both a full thesis and additional assignments or a practical component (as with certain social sciences degrees).

The key is to keep your research as manageable as possible for your master’s degree. Don’t try and take on too much. Your supervisor will be able to advise you about whether your topic is too broad for a master’s degree and if you should instead aim for something more manageable. Your master’s degree only needs to accomplish the goals set out above, and shouldn’t be on the same level of detail, scope or research as a doctoral study. It is meant to be a rite of passage into academic research, and not establish you as an expert just yet.

Your dissertation will generally contain the following sections, which might be divided into multiple chapters each:

1. Introduction

  • Gives context

  • Explains purpose and value of your study

  • Explains a problem that your study addresses

  • Gives theoretical background

  • Gives a thesis statement and research questions

  • Provides an overview of your study

2. Literature Review

  • Explains your theoretical background broadly and in detail with citations

  • Consults the experts in your field and all of the most prominent research and data which will influence and affect your study

  • Consults relevant literature and organizes this literature to aid understanding of your study

3. Research Process

  • Explains research design

  • Explains ethical considerations

  • Explains instruments used to conduct research

  • Details how research was conducted

  • Gives limitations of your study

4. Findings and Analyses

  • Give all data procured from study

  • Analyze the data in terms of themes, theories or expectations

  • Explain how your thesis statement was supported or challenged by data

  • Explain how your research questions were answered or what was still lacking

5. Conclusion

  • Summarize the findings

  • Final links between data and thesis statement

  • What has your thesis accomplished? How does it add to knowledge/ understanding of your field?

  • What are questions raised by your study which could be answered in future research by yourself or other researchers?

Each of these sections will be discussed in the following chapters so that you can have a good idea of exactly what your dissertation should look like. We’ll start with the front matter and introduction

Review Your Learning:

  • Your master’s thesis is your entryway into sustained academic research, and shows that you are knowledgeable about your field and can perform a substantial study

  • Your dissertation should be about 35,000 to 50,000 words, or between 60 – 100 pages

  • Your study should have limited scope and not be too broad. Rather say one thing well than try to say ten things but miss the mark on all of them

Chapter 3: Format of First Pages

The first few pages of your dissertation need to give a lot of technical information about your study. These pages are used by administrators, by your college or university library, and by any readers who search for research like yours in order to understand the details of your study and to categorize it within databases.

Title Page

The title page has to contain the following information:

  • Your full name

  • The full title of your dissertation

  • Your university or college department’s details; the name of your institution, the college emblem and the department name, as well as the faculty or school your department forms part of

  • The name of your supervisor/ promoter and their rank or title

  • Whether your dissertation is in partial fulfillment of your degree, or whether it is in fulfillment of the degree. If you’re required to also do coursework, extra assignments or community interaction as part of your degree requirements, your dissertation is in partial fulfillment of your degree. Indicate this before your degree name.

  • The full and correct name of your instructional program (eg. Philosophiae doctor, Magister Technologiae, etc). Find these titles on your department guide or registration information at your institution. Your proof of registration should contain the full name of the degree. Make sure it’s correct.

An example of a title page, and a template where you can swap out the information for your own, can be found on the resources page at the Academic Coaching website: www.writeyourthesis.com/p/resources.html. Your department might require additional information, so once you’ve included the basics, be sure to consult your supervisor about anything you should add.


The second page of your thesis needs to contain a declaration which you will need to sign. The declaration states that all of the work in the thesis is your own, original work based on your own research (in the case of collaborations, indicate this in your declaration. Your introductory section will clearly have to state the contributions of each collaborator in order to justify the conferment of your degree). You also need to declare that the contributions of others have been credited, and all resources used in your thesis are fully referenced.

Your declaration needs to state that the work hasn’t been submitted before for any other degree, and that you’ve upheld your department’s ethical requirements. If you’ve been given an ethical clearance reference number, state it in your declaration.

An example of a declaration could look as follows:

Declaration of Originality and Compliance

I hereby declare that the work contained in this dissertation is completely my own, original work, and was not previously submitted, in whole or in part, for the application of any other degree. I declare that any sources consulted or any external contributions have been fully referenced and credited. Furthermore, this declaration acknowledges my full understanding of the ethical requirements of my department, and I affirm that I have upheld these requirements in the course of my work.

Name: Type your name

Student Number: Your student ID number

Department: The name of your department and School

Date: The full date at which you sign the declaration

Signature: Your signature


The third page of your dissertation contains your abstract or summary. This needs to briefly summarize what your thesis is about. Depending on the length of your thesis, your abstract can be between 150 – 500 words. Try and keep it as brief as possible. Mention all of the main points you’ll be looking at, as well as your overarching thesis statement. Also mention the main findings of your study in your abstract in one or two sentences.

Table of Contents

The next page should have an easy-to-read table of contents. Number the pages of your thesis and give the page number of each section and chapter in your table of contents so that the reader can easily navigate your work.


You are allowed to acknowledge any person or institution that has assisted you in your research. If you have been funded by a scholarship or research grant, you should acknowledge this contribution. You can thank your friends, family or supervisor for the help they’ve provided. This section can be as personal as you like.


The first chapter of your dissertation will be your introduction. In your introduction, you should give some background information (context), the main point or contention of your dissertation (thesis statement), and an overview of your research and expected findings.

Most of your introductory chapter will be made up of information prepared for your research proposal, although some of the information for your proposal will be found in the method and literature review chapters.

You can find a full book on writing introductions at the Academic Coaching website if you need more information. However, a full thesis introduction is much longer than the standard essay or proposal introductions. You’ll need to include a lot of information here, including introducing all of the ideas and concepts that you’ll be elaborating on more later in your thesis. Your thesis introduction should be between five and 15 pages, and you should give subheadings for each of the parts of your introduction.

Let’s look at the subsections for each of the different elements of your thesis introduction, and explain how to structure that information in your chapter.

1.1. Background

Your background or context section gives a basic idea of what the field is that your research takes place within. Explain some of the emerging research, and where there are gaps in the research that your study is responding to. What are the ideas or theories that influence the type of study that your thesis will do?

1.2. Motivation

What was your motivation for choosing this topic? Give the reader a clear idea of how your study could add value to your field. What kind of knowledge are you building on? What kind of information could your study clarify? Who could your study help? Why did you choose to undertake this study?

1.3. Problem Statement

Clearly state the problem that your research is trying to address. This could include your research questions or explain the gaps in research with some clarity. Most of this can be taken directly from your proposal; see the guide on research proposals given in the Academic Coaching resources.

1.4. Theoretical Background

What is the main theory or theories that you are relying on for your research. Explain this theory in a few paragraphs and explain how it can help you to complete your research. Don’t do a full literature review of your theory just yet; the reader only needs the basics in the introduction.

1.5. Thesis Statement/ Research Aims

Give the main contention or the main hypothesis which you tested in your research. Explain each facet of this hypothesis or contention. How does it offer an answer to your research questions?

1.6. Overview of Chapters

Describe the chapters of your thesis and what each chapter does. This should be about four to seven paragraphs, each paragraph dealing with one chapter of your thesis. Give detail here; your reader should get a clear sense of exactly what each chapter does and the sub-conclusion that you reach in each chapter, and how this fits into your overall thesis statement.

This basic outline will give you a comprehensive introduction to your dissertation that accomplishes all of the requirements. If you prefer, and if your introduction is too long or complicated, you could split it into two chapters, one covering the background, motivation and problem statement for your study, and the second covering the theory, aims and overview. However, for a master’s dissertation and a limited-scope study, this will likely not be necessary, and one chapter with short sections of one to two pages each should be more than sufficient. Next, we’ll look at the literature review and how to present the information in a structured, clear way.

Review Your Learning:

  • The context component of an introduction gives general background information that the reader needs in order to understand your study

  • The front matter is important for categorizing your work

  • Your introduction is a longer version of the standard format (context, thesis statement, overview). This time, your introduction has many subheadings

Chapter 4: Literature Review

You master’s thesis literature review will be the second chapter of your thesis. Some studies also divide the literature review into two chapters, and for your doctorate you might even require three chapters of literature review. If you have a lot of literature to cover, you could choose two broad themes and make each one a separate chapter of literature review within your thesis. However, in the vast majority of cases, one chapter with a few subheadings will be more than sufficient in a master’s dissertation. Aim for around 10 – 25 pages. Studies in the social sciences should aim for the higher end of that spectrum.

Your literature needs to give citations and paraphrase as much of the knowledge in your field that relates to your study as possible. You need to make sure that you are covering the literature relating to your theoretical background, your main themes and any previous studies that are similar to what you are undertaking, or that you are relying on to inform your study. You might also consider including literature related to ethical concerns which could arise in your study.

Your supervisor/ promoter and examiners will be looking out for certain things when they assess the strength of your literature review. Firstly, they will consider whether it is comprehensive; do you cover all of the most important readings that relate to your study? Are there any major ideas or scholars that you don’t touch on? Secondly, they will assess you on how organized your ideas are. Do you present your ideas in a way that is easily readable and that doesn’t confuse the reader? Are there clear subheadings which help to show trends in the reading? Thirdly, they will consider whether the literature review is logically linked to your study. Have you shown clear gaps in knowledge that your study is responding to? Does the chapter have a logical flow between ideas, all leading up to a conclusion which incorporates the motivation for your research? And finally, your supervisor and examiners will be considering whether you show a clear understanding of all of the literature presented. Are you just parroting ideas, or do you really grasp all of the challenging concepts that you need to know in order to be considered a competent, knowledgeable scholar in your field? You need to master all of these aspects in order to do well in your literature review.

The key to a successful literature review is to plan it thoroughly. You’ve probably already done some relevant readings, but try and do proper planning as early as possible in the process of writing a literature review. If you go into your research with clear objectives, it’ll be much easier to keep a logical structure to your chapter.

Plan your review in the same way you plan your research papers. You need to know what each subheading will be in your literature review before you start reading, and then with each new article you read, you can add a few citations or paraphrases under the relevant subheading. Plan your subheadings with the following ideas in mind:

  • Theoretical background – you could dedicate new subheadings to the two or three most prominent theories you will rely on for your study

  • Themes in the readings (each theme gets a subheading). You can plan these themes beforehand, and also add extra subheadings as you discover new themes while reading.

  • Gaps in knowledge/ research

  • Similar studies to yours, with critiques of these studies in a few sentences as well

If you can clearly identify the subheadings, it is much easier to add relevant information in a word processor as you complete your readings. Each day, you can incorporate the new articles and the information you’ve gathered into well-written paragraphs. You’ll be able to complete your literature review in no time.

There’s a full, detailed discussion of all of these ideas in the guide on writing literature reviews on the Academic Coaching website, so if you need extra help, you can head over there to pick up that guide as well. For now, let’s move on to the next chapter where you’ll need to explain the research process of your study.

Review Your Learning:

  • A literature review should cover the readings that relate to your theoretical background, the main themes of your study and any previous studies that are similar to yours

  • A literature review should be comprehensive and well-organized under clear subheadings

  • All of the readings that you review should be logically linked to your study, and should ultimately add to the motivation of why your study is important

  • Your review must demonstrate that you are knowledgeable and have a good understanding of your field

  • Aim for 10-25 pages in length

Chapter 5: Method and Research Process

Your method or research process section encompasses one or more chapters that deal with the various steps you took to conduct your study. You should explain each step in detail. For most master’s dissertations, one chapter should be sufficient for your methodology. A doctoral dissertation will probably involve at least two chapters, since the research design section might make up a chapter on its own if it is very involved.

You should cover aspects listed below in this chapter, and you can explain each aspect under a different subheading. Be aware that different fields will require different aspects to be covered in the methodology chapter, and certain fields will require a lot less detail from you. For example, if you are doing a master’s dissertation in English literature, you probably won’t have to explain your research instruments. The basic subheadings we provide below should cover all of the important aspects.

Try and aim for about four to twelve pages in your methodology section. It doesn’t have to be very long. If you use multiple questionnaires or surveys, you might consider not including the full text of these instruments in your methodology chapter, and instead adding them as addenda at the end of your thesis to avoid making the body of your work too long.

The following sections should make up your methodology chapter:

Research design

Give a clear description of the type of research you are doing. Is it quantitative or qualitative research? Is it a participant study, a clinical trial, a comparative trial, or literary analysis? There are many different kinds of research designs, and you can find out more about each of these types of research at the Academic Coaching website. You need to know the technical terms to use in describing your research design, so be sure to consult your supervisor or to look up a good research design for your field at the resources page of our website.

It’s important to get your research design right. You need to be doing the right kind of research in order to test your hypotheses thoroughly. Clarify as much as you can in this section: will you be using any types of research instruments? Will you be employing samples, and how will you collect those samples? Do you use questionnaires or surveys?

You can also give a timeline of your study in this section.

Additionally, for participant research, you can include another subheading for setting and participants to describe the type of setting you will use in order to conduct interviews, and how participants will be treated during these interviews. These are all important parts of your research design if you have participant studies, and might impact on the next subheading, namely ethical concerns.

Ethical considerations

What were the ethical considerations involved in your study? What did you have to do to get ethical clearance? What were the possible ethical pitfalls, and how did your study ensure that you avoided these?

Explain how you protect the anonymity of your participants or the safety of your subjects.

Research Instruments

If you use instruments like questionnaires, it’s useful to have a section where you give the full text of these questionnaires and explain why those questions were chosen.

If you sourced your instruments from somewhere, explain why you thought that this instrument was the best one to use for the aims of your research.

Research aims

Here you can list your research questions and hypotheses. Do your best to link the literature which you’ve reviewed to the type of study you conducted. How did the study meet the aims and address the gaps in literature? What are the aims you have for conducting your study?


List a set of limitations to your study. Did you have a small sample size? Could your research design have missed out on certain types of data? Were your aims too broad? Any types of limitations to your study that you can think of should be explained here so that readers know how much thought and consideration you put into your work.

Review Your Learning:

  • Your methodology needs to clarify every aspect of your research design and why it is appropriate for your study. Show why this design will yield the best data to test your hypotheses or offer the richest exploratory data

  • Clarify your type of study using the correct technical terms to describe it

  • The aims of your study need to be clear in your methodology section, and you need to show that you are working towards answering certain research questions

Chapter 6: Findings and Analyses

Your findings and analyses sections usually involve two chapters in a master’s thesis. Your findings section will give details about all of the results of the experiments which you’ve conducted, or will present all of the data which your study has yielded. The data analysis section will show the emergent themes or show how the data which your study has produced actually relates to the research questions or hypotheses which you’ve posed at the start. You also analyse whether your study was appropriate at answering the questions you started with.

These sections have the most variance across disciplines. For many of the social and physical sciences, including fields like psychology and biology, the headings of your two chapters will probably be exactly as listed above, the first being “Findings” and the second being “Data Analysis.” However, for other fields in the humanities, such as Political Science, History, Literature Studies, or other fields that don’t involve experimentation or participant studies, you’ll probably incorporate headings which link to the emergent themes or important points of discussion. Your headings of your chapters could be longer and more detailed, explaining the aspect of your analysis or comparison that you are looking at, and you might have even more chapters here so that each chapter can cover only one of your themes or points of analysis.

However, even though the headings might differ, you’ll be going through the same process of producing data and analyzing it in a focused way, and then comparing it to your research aims. A good point of analysis is whether your findings have challenged, contributed to or complicated the literature which you’ve reviewed in your second chapter.

The distinction between the two chapters in this section should be very clear. Don’t start analyzing the data in the Findings chapter yet, simply present all of the data which you’ve found. You could present this data in the form of statistics, tables, graphs, or any other form that makes it easier to understand. For social sciences, you will want to present the most important elements which you unearthed in your study. If you worked with participants, which answers did they provide which seemed to directly speak to your research aims?

In the analysis section, you can start unpacking this data for the reader and explaining the relevance, importance or applicability of the data for building knowledge and understanding in your field. Your analysis section will look at how the data fits into the theoretical models which your study employed, and if there were any data which had not been anticipated by the theories or hypotheses. You can make comparisons between different data points, and start to identify the important themes that emerged in your study.

Much more can be said about how to do data analysis effectively, which is why we provide some guides on the topic. Make sure that you are considering your data through a critical lens. You need to demonstrate to your reader that you’ve thought about your findings from many different angles. Try to clarify whether or not your data have provided a satisfactory answer to your research aims and questions.

Data analysis is one of the most time-consuming aspects of working on your dissertation. You’ll have to be in constant communication with your supervisor throughout this process to make sure that you’re being rigorous with the way you look at your data.

Some studies also add an additional chapter entitled Discussion, where they have a more overarching discussion of the important points in their data analysis. However, often this forms part of the data analysis chapter, and an additional chapter might not be necessary. Speak to your supervisor about the preferred style of your department.

Review Your Learning:

  • Your findings section shows all of the data which have been produced during your study

  • Your data analysis looks at this data in a critical way, and looks at emerging themes. You can make comparisons or show how your data have responded to gaps in knowledge, how they align with theories, or how they respond to the ideas you looked at in your literature review

  • You might have an additional chapter entitled Discussion where you give an overarching look at your data analysis

Chapter 7: Dissertation Conclusion

You’ve now accomplished everything you’ve set out to do in your thesis. Congratulations! It’s important once you reach the end to reinforce your main findings and to emphasize the importance of your study for the reader.

The final chapter of your dissertation is your conclusion chapter. This chapter should be completed after extensive work, rereads and edits of your previous chapters, so that you have as much clarity on your study as you possibly can, and you can incorporate the feedback of your supervisor and your professional editor into your conclusion.

There are many different things that a dissertation conclusion needs to do, and it will be considerably longer than an essay conclusion. The conclusion chapter should be around two to ten pages in length.

Since your conclusion isn’t as long as your other chapters in your dissertation, you might not require subheadings, especially if it’s only two or three pages. However, if it gets a bit longer, subheadings might be useful for the reader. We’ll go through all of the things you need to accomplish in your conclusion below, and you can use the subheadings we map out in your conclusion chapter.

Summary of findings

Explain what your findings were for your study in a shortened, summarized section. This should be no longer than a few paragraphs where you map out your main findings and how you’ve analyzed them. Try to bring together everything that your study has found in this section.

Research Aims Accomplished

Here you should show a link between your thesis statement and the data which you’ve found. How did your data analysis demonstrate that the aims of your research were actually reached? How did you answer your research questions?

Contributions of the research project

List the contributions that your research has made to the field. Did you help to fill in any gaps in knowledge or understanding which you identified in your literature review? Did you test any assumptions in new ways? Did you build on the research of scholars who came before you?

Areas for Future Research

What are questions raised by your study which could be answered in future research by yourself or other researchers? How did the limitations in your study hold you back from fully answering certain questions, and what could be done in future studies to increase knowledge and understanding of these questions?

You could use a portion of your conclusion to be slightly less formal and to add points of interest for the reader, or even talk a bit about your personal journey throughout the process of completing your dissertation. For example, you could talk about stories in the news and how your research offers some perspective on these, or you could speak about how you will use the knowledge from your study in the professional setting. For my master’s thesis, I ended my conclusion with a poem, and in my PhD dissertation I included discussions of current social trends. There is a bit more flexibility in the conclusion, and you should think about the impression you’re leaving your reader with when they finish reading your work. At least a few future researchers will be reading your dissertation to help them with their own research. That’s the great thing about completing a master’s dissertation; you’ll be part of the academic conversation, and your dissertation will be available for the world to learn from in libraries and online databases. That’s quite an accomplishment!

Review Your Learning:

  • Your conclusion should summarize your findings

  • Explain whether you’ve accomplished your research aims and how you’ve tested your hypotheses

  • End with areas for future research or even a personal touch if appropriate

Things to Remember

You now have a good idea of all of the components of a good master’s dissertation. Use this outline to guide you as you start writing, and remember to ask for help whenever you need it. Writing a dissertation can be challenging, but there are many resources that can help you along the way. The Academic Coaching team offers editing and guidance for your thesis, and we’re able to help you at any point from the initial idea stage to the final edit. We’ll help you come up with a plan and to refine your ideas, and we’ll give you expert feedback on your rough work so that you can write your thesis with confidence. Go to www.writeyourthesis.com to find out more.

This book is part of a series for researchers and students writing essays and theses. We offer many more books and resources at our website, www.writeyourthesis.com/p/resources.html.

Take the Thesis Readiness Quiz for a FREE Report

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All the best with your studies!

Grant and Malan

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