Dissertations

There are six topics in this section relating to Writing and assessments:

Critical essay writing | Reflective writing | Reports | Dissertations | Academic writing style, editing and proof-reading | Feedback

 

For many students, writing their final-year or master’s dissertation can be very daunting. It’s often the longest piece of work that they have ever written. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed both before you start, and during the process. But remember – thousands of dissertations are written every year, and if you have got this far in your studies, you are more than ready to create yours.

 

Look below at this infographic highlighting nine tips for Getting through your dissertation.

Below the infographic, there is a text version for screen readers.

 

Nine tips for getting through your dissertation

  • Getting through your dissertation - Nine tips for getting it done (text version)

    1. Make a plan

    Set yourself interim deadlines for each chapter or section, and reward yourself when you meet them (but don’t berate yourself when you don’t). Be realistic about how much time you have.

    2. Don’t get it right, get it written

    Your writing does not have to be perfect first time. Getting anything down on the page is half the battle, and it’s a lot easier to edit material than to create it. Just write ANYTHING to start with.

    3. Do something else

    If you DO get writers’ block, try another task – update your references and/or bibliography, proof-read a completed section, sort out your formatting. Or read something different. Or have a rest!

    4. Don’t write in order

    Don’t start at the beginning – introductions are tough and often best left till the end when you know exactly what you are introducing. Starting in the middle can feel less stressful too.

    5. Write an abstract

    If you are struggling with your argument, write an abstract of your dissertation – boiling things down to the basics can help. You can also do this for individual chapters (especially data chapters).

    6. If it’s not relevant, don’t use it

    You will probably do a lot of reading, and collect a lot of data, that will not appear in your final dissertation. This is fine – it will all have informed your thinking, but keep your writing to what’s relevant.

    7. Get feedback

    Share your work – with your supervisor but also with your classmates and friends. A fresh pair of eyes, or having to explain something to a non-expert, can do wonders to help you clarify your ideas.

    8. You will feel awful

    At some point, you will probably feel you don’t know anything and want to give up. This is normal! Trust the process – the feeling will pass, and things will become clearer. You’ve got this!

    9. You will feel good

    Look for progress, not perfection – and give yourself plenty of breaks and positive talk. Ask for help when you need it. You will be so proud when your dissertation is done.

    This infographic was created by Professor Alison Phipps.

 

Initial advice and guidance

This section covers, finding a Dissertation topic, getting some inspiration and structuring your Dissertation.

In this YouTube webinar, two Academic Skills Consultants offer top tips for clarifying your argument, improving your academic style, and reducing or increasing word count to help you produce a well-structured and coherent piece of work.

Access our Writing Your Dissertation Canvas resources where you can:

  • hear from students also writing their dissertations
  • get advice from professional writers with the Royal Literary Fund
  • listen to a podcast guide talking you through the process of writing your dissertation
  • watch videos answering frequently asked questions about dissertations.

 

Finding a Dissertation Topic

One of the most important things to consider is the topic of your dissertation. Getting stuck for inspiration can be a reason to procrastinate for many students. Don’t think that you need to find the ‘perfect’ topic – there isn’t one. A topic that has some potential for an interesting study is enough. It is also normal to change the topic or focus of your dissertation as you do more research and refine your ideas, so don’t worry about choosing your final topic yet.

 

Look below at this infographic 'Finding your research topic and designing your research questions'

This infographic is suitable for undergraduate, MA, and PhD students. Below the infographic, there is a text version for screen readers.

Graphic of Finding a Dissertation Topic

  • Finding your research topic and designing your research questions (text version)

    First, ask yourself the following:

    1. What am I interested in? (what have I done/read/watched/listened to recently?)

    2. What issues do I care about? (what upsets/preoccupies/angers me and why?)

    3. What do I want to know? (what real-world needs can I identify?)

    4. What do I want to change

    (In big writing) What do I want to change?

    BUT: You need to make sure your specific topic hasn’t been researched before – so read, read, read.

    And remember: if our knowledge of the world is one giant jigsaw puzzle, research will usually only contribute one piece.

    Research questions should be: clear (easy to understand); focused (targeting specific things you want to know); complex (not yes/no or obvious answers); ethical (should you really be asking this?); feasible (can this actually be answered?); useful (do we need to know this?)

    Hint: useful research often involves partnerships with frontline groups.

    Think about: contexts, relationships, experiences, consequences, complexities, changes, contradictions. Free-associate before you narrow it down. Don’t make assumptions or just seek to prove what you think you already know (e.g. ‘why are methods lectures so boring?’)

    Good starting words – how and why. Not-so-good starting words – who, when, where, what.

    Ask yourself: SO WHAT? Actual research finding: people wear more layers of clothing when it’s cold. Actual research finding: employees hate meetings (so what?)

    How do you develop good research questions? READING and PAYING ATTENTION.

    Your research questions might change during your project, which is absolutely fine.

    This infographic was created by Professor Alison Phipps.

 

Getting some inspiration

To get some ideas of where to begin, spin the wheel and reflect on what you could write about:

  • an area of your subject that you already know well
  • an area of your subject that really interests you
  • an area of your subject that you have strong opinions about
  • a problem in your area of study that you would like to investigate
  • suggestions that you have read about for further research in the topic
  • some new data about a topic
  • an existing theory that you could apply in a new way
  • existing research that you could apply to a new group of people
  • an existing method that you could apply to a new set of materials.

Checking your topic

Your topic needs to be unique, specific and viable. Can you answer 'yes' to the following questions?

Unique:

  • have you found student dissertations on the same topic, but that differ in one or more obvious ways?
  • have you identified scholars who have written about your topic and identified journals with relevant articles?
  • have you seen other methodologies used for different topics that could apply to yours?

Specific:

  • can you explore your topic or question satisfactorily within the word limit?
  • will you be able to complete all your research and writing in the time available?

Viable:

Have you discussed your topic with other people who know the subject?

  • have you made sure that there are enough relevant and up-to-date materials available on your topic?
  • if you are involving participants in your research, have you checked the ethical and data protection guidelines?
Talk to your lecturers, your supervisor, your course mates. They offer the chance not just for a fresh perspective, but also for you to develop your reasoning.” Josie,  former third-year Global Studies student

Structuring your Dissertation

Types of Dissertations

There are two main types of dissertations: practical and theoretical.

Practical dissertations

These focus on primary research, with you gathering the data yourself.

  • data can be constructed, e.g., computer models, lab experiments
  • data can be explored, e.g., case studies, interviews, field observation.
Theoretical dissertations

These focus on secondary research, with you using data that has been collected and presented by other researchers to develop an argument.

  • arguments can be conceptual, e.g., on feminism, racism, sustainability
  • arguments can be applied, e.g., applying economic, social or environmental theory to a real-life situation.

Source: Trevor Day (2018), Success in Academic Writing, 2nd ed. Palgrave, p.108


Structuring your dissertation

Practical and theoretical dissertations share a lot of the same structure but differ in a few key areas. This downloadable table in Word provides gives some information on what to include in each section.

 

Remember
This is a general guideline only. Check with your dissertation module handbook, which may give you a specific structure to follow, and with your supervisor.

Critical versus descriptive writing

A theoretical dissertation contains only critical writing, whereas some sections of a practical dissertation use descriptive writing. Make sure you are clear on the differences between them, or go to Critical Thinking for more details:

Critical writingDescriptive writing
Identifying if an idea is defensible Listing details
Explaining the relationship between structures or concepts Giving information
Weighing up the significance of things/ideas Describing examples
Drawing conclusions Explaining how a process works

 

Abstracts

An abstract is a short summary of your dissertation, which includes these main ideas:

  • what you examined. State your research question clearly and concisely
  • the reason for undertaking this study
  • for practical dissertations: What you did and how you did it
  • for practical dissertations: The results that you achieved
  • for theoretical dissertations: The themes that you identified and synthesised in the literature. Make sure to list them in the same order you write about them in your main body
  • for theoretical dissertations: How you analysed these themes to reach your conclusion
  • the conclusions that you draw
  • depending on the dissertation: Any recommendations that your research leads you to make.

An abstract doesn’t have references. To refer to your own study, e.g., This dissertation examines…, use the present tense.

Source: This section is adapted from material originally from the University of Plymouth

 

Remember
Your abstract should be clear to a reader who does not know what you have written about – think of it as the TL;DR version of your dissertation.

Introductions

An introduction is similar to an abstract but concentrates more on the context of your study and only refers to your initial hypothesis or argument. It ends with an explanation of structure of the dissertation plan but doesn’t go into depth about the results or conclusions.

  • grab your reader's attention - why is this study of interest?
  • context - show how your study fits within your discipline in general
  • focus in on the narrower context, within the sub-discipline
  • aims of the study - could be questions to answer or hypotheses to test
  • introduce your argument
  • overview of structure of dissertation.

 

Remember
The best introductions start general and then become more specific.
Remember
Often it is easier to write the abstract and introduction of your dissertation after you have written everything else, so they contain any changes of direction that your writing and research take you in.

Literature reviews

A literature review is a critical examination of the secondary sources that you have selected. Your aim in the literature review is to demonstrate your awareness of the current theories, contrasting schools of thought, and relevant writers; what has influenced your ideas, and your own research skills.

Misunderstandings about literature reviews

I must include everything that has been written on my topic answer I must thoughtfully select the most relevant literature for my argument.

It should be a descriptive summary of the existing literature answer It should be a critical analysis of the existing literature.

I need to list each writer’s opinion answer I need to synthesise the main opinions in the area.

It includes my personal opinions on the subject answer It includes my interpretations of the ideas, based on evidence.

Remember that you have made it to the last term of third year [or beyond]; you have got this far because you are a capable and talented individual; use the confidence you have earnt from this to bring flair and originality to your work Ghaleb, former third-year Geography student

Writing your Dissertation

The most difficult part! It can seem like a huge mountain to climb, but you can do it. Since it is a huge project, the key is to break it down into manageable steps that you can tackle each day.

Time Management

You have to be organised with your time to complete your dissertation. Check the Time Management pages for useful general advice. You’ll need to pay special attention to the following:

Allocating time

It’s a long project so make sure you include all the tasks and try to estimate how long each will take. Allow extra time. Dissertations may include:

  • booking access to rooms, people or equipment
  • finding and contacting participants
  • surveying and interviewing participants 
  • transcribing interviews
  • data analysis
  • accessing particular literature which isn’t readily available in the library or online
  • learning new skills such as creating questionnaires, coding, designing charts, analysing data.
Scheduling time

Draw up a timetable as early as possible, including not only the writing, but also the research and the planning. Remember to include time for editing and proofreading at the end. As always, start with the deadline and work backwards.

Ordering your writing

Think about the order for writing your dissertation. This is one way of doing it:

  • work out chapter headings
  • write a couple of sentences about the content of each chapter
  • write the section headings for each chapter
  • divide each section into subsections, in logical order
  • draft a topic sentence for the point for each paragraph within each subsection
  • estimate the number of words for each section, then each chapter, then for the dissertation in total.

Source: Trevor Day (2018), Success in Academic Writing, 2nd ed. Palgrave, p.111

Alternatively, you could start with the total word count and divide it up into chapters. Then sub-divide each chapter into sections and sub-sections.Remember to adjust the lengths of the chapters to make sure you are focusing on the most important sections. The literature review and discussion are the most substantial sections. 

 

Remember
There is no set order in which you must write your dissertation sections. Your tutor will never know (and won’t mind) if you write your title page last. Use this to your advantage to get started – begin with the parts of your dissertation that interest you the most.

 

Other topics in this section relating to Writing and assessments:

Critical essay writing | Reflective writing | Reports | Dissertations | Academic writing style, editing and proof-reading | Feedback