Guide to undergraduate dissertations in the social sciences
Writing the Dissertation1
By the time you start to write the first draft of your dissertation, you will probably already have accumulated a wealth of notes, scribbles and ideas. Planning is essential, but do not be hesitate to draw up new plans whether it is a brief abstract of your dissertation as a whole, or a detailed breakdown of a particular chapter. This section looks at effective planning, which should be a continuous process that intensifies during the writing of your dissertation and not something that fades into the background.
Do all dissertations look the same?
At one level, yes. They will have to:
- Formulate a clear question that your dissertation seeks to answer.
- Review the literature in the field relating to your question.
- Engage in independent research in addressing this question.
- Justify whatever methods you choose to undertake your research.
- Present and discuss your findings, whilst demonstrating how they relate to your original question.
Watch Different types of dissertations video (.wmv)
Do all dissertations look the same? This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
Producing a ‘working title’
Insofar as the preparation of the dissertation is a process of investigation and discovery, the precise scope of your study may well only emerge as you become closely involved in a detailed review of the literature. At this early stage, your title may be a provisional one that you will revise later. Your dissertation supervisor may advise on the title in order to help you find and define the focus of the dissertation.
You should examine articles in scholarly journals for examples of appropriate titles for a study of this length.
Starting to write the dissertation
Supervisors have different ways of working and you will, to some degree, need to negotiate your approach to supervision style. For example, your supervisor may advise you to write a short proposal or abstract, say of about 300 words, in which you set out as clearly as possible what you intend to do in the dissertation. The value of this exercise is that it requires you to focus and articulate your thinking. It may be that you will be able to summarise the exact nature and scope of your study, in which case the proposal can serve as guide to refer to as you write the main chapters of the work. Alternatively, it may make you aware of gaps in your knowledge and understanding, and show you the areas that need further thought and research.
It is useful, therefore, to write the proposal and to retain it for reference and revision. It helps to attempt such an abstract even if your supervisor has not suggested that you write one. However, practice varies, and your supervisor will advise you on how to proceed. As you continue to write the main chapters of the work, you may find that your initial plan has changed. This means that when you have completed the chapters that form the main body of your dissertation you can return to the proposal and revise it as much as you need, to form the introduction.
It is highly advisable to draft a plan of the dissertation. There is a lot in common between different dissertations regarding the structure and although you do not need to stick slavishly to a standard plan, such a plan is very helpful as a template to impose some order on what may seem an unmanageable task. Here is an indicative structure that might help you with your initial plan.
The field of study, the research question, the hypothesis (if any) or, more generally, the research question that is to be investigated. It should also include a summary of the contents and main arguments in the dissertation.
Usually, this comes immediately after the introductory chapter. This may be more than one chapter, but should certainly be written in sections. This should include previous work done on the field of study and anything that you consider to be relevant to the hypothesis or research question and to its investigation. It will include a large number of references to the literature in your chosen area.
This section should include an account of the research questions and/or hypotheses to be investigated, relevant methods of investigation and an argument for why you think these methods are the most appropriate ones for the question and for your circumstances. You should consider the benefits of your chosen method as well as identifying any disadvantages and how you overcame them. Ethical issues and the ways in which you dealt with them should be noted. This section should also discuss any variations from the original fieldwork plan, and should conclude with a reflection on the experience of doing fieldwork.
This section should present the main findings of your research together with an account of the strengths and weaknesses of your data relative to your research question/hypothesis. You may also wish to include an evaluation of any difficulties you encountered in collecting and analysing data, together with an assessment of how this affected your plan of research.
Here you can provide an assessment of whether and how well you were able to answer your research question and/or confirm/reject your hypotheses.
This chapter must relate the findings to the theoretical/policy discussion in your literature review. You should NOT introduce any new literature at this stage.
Conclusions and recommendations
An overall assessment of what you found out, how successful you were and suggestions for future research.
Beginning work on the main body of the dissertation
Once you have produced the proposal and discussed it with your supervisor, you may want to write the first draft of a chapter of the dissertation. When you hand in this draft, you should arrange a tutorial to receive your supervisor’s verbal or written comments and suggestions on how it may be improved. You may, for example, produce a draft introduction setting out the issue, together with a literature review which covers what, if any, treatment of the topic has gone beforehand. You may also wish to draft those sections of the methodology chapter that cover the methods that you wish to use, together with a justification for why you think those methods are best.
Revising sections after receiving the supervisor’s comments
When you have received your supervisor’s comments on the draft of any chapter, you should revise that particular chapter immediately. Prompt revision is easier than letting things drift, and you should do it while the advice of your supervisor is fresh in your mind. This will also avoid building up a backlog of work that needs to be revised, which can be discouraging. Having the material on a computer disk will enable you to do revisions efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Be sure to back up all your work on a floppy disk, CD, or memory stick.
Organising your time
Depending on the credit rating of the dissertation, the amount of time you devote to it should be equivalent to the time you would devote to a taught course with the same credit rating; that is, seminar and lecture time plus time for private study.
Findings from our Research
In our research we found that students often did not think about the credit rating of their dissertation and actually spent more time working on it than they should have! They saw it as such an important part of their degree that they wanted to put more into it:
It [the dissertation] took up more of my time . Once you get into it, you have to out in the effort. It’s 8000 words, plus there’s so much to do. When you’re doing it, it seems so much more that the rest of your work (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p341).
However, this can have a detrimental effect on your other modules – one student said ‘I did the dissertation and left the other work’ – don’t make his mistake. All the modules in the final year are important.
You will find that once the final year begins, the weeks go by very quickly, and you will need to organise your time well from the start so that the ongoing preparation of your dissertation continues alongside work for the taught units you are studying. Once you have a workable plan it is much easier to plan the work in sequence and to set yourself targets for the completion of the separate parts (see the section on Getting started with the Dissertation). Allow plenty of time for final revisions after your tutor has seen a complete draft.
If you are taking a dissertation over two semesters, you should aim to spend the equivalent of one full half-day per week working on your dissertation during each semester of your final year if it is worth 20 credits – nearer twice that amount of time if it is a 40-credit dissertation.
Deadlines for producing drafts
You will decide with your supervisor precisely when to produce drafts, but if you are taking a dissertation module over one academic year then by the end of the first semester you would normally expect to produce a proposal or abstract and a first draft of one or two chapters. You would then produce the drafts of the remaining chapters and complete the process of revision and writing-up during the second semester.
In the second semester, when drafting the remaining main chapters of the dissertation, you will follow the practice established in the first semester of submitting the drafts to your supervisor for comments and advice. You should take advantage of the period between the first semester and the start of the second semester to write a draft of a chapter, and you should plan to have produced first drafts of all the main chapters by at least four weeks before the submission date (also allowing for any vacation periods when staff may not be available).
If, however, you are taking the dissertation module over one semester, you will need to adjust this time frame accordingly.
Writing the introduction
The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation’s topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature. Having completed the work on the main substance of your dissertation, you should have a much clearer idea of its nature and scope than you did when you wrote your preliminary abstract or proposal. The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation’s topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature.
It is important, however, to write the introduction as though you are setting out on a process of investigation. You need to emphasise the exploratory nature of your work. You should also avoid anticipating the discoveries and conclusions that you have made in the course of your investigations. So, you might simply say that you have identified certain common features in the relevant literature, or a particular issue that it deals with, and that your dissertation will examine the literature closely in order to demonstrate the relationships between treatments of the issue in the sample texts. When you have completed the main body of the work and your tutor has commented on your complete draft, you may well wish to revisit the introduction to take into account your findings and your tutor’s comments on their significance.
Writing a literature review
Your dissertation is a substantial piece of written work that ideally should conform to a number of academic conventions. One of the most important of these academic conventions is the literature review. In short, the literature review is a discussion or ‘review’ of secondary literature that is of general and central relevance to the particular area under investigation.
Often students ask how long a literature review should be. This is a difficult question given that the total length of your dissertation might be anything from five to twelve thousand words. Obviously your supervisor may be able to give some indication of the approximate length of your literature review. However, don’t become pre-occupied with word length, the main thing is that your literature review should capture the general and specific aspects of the literature of your subject.
Why is a literature review necessary?
The literature review is an important device in your dissertation as it performs a number of related functions:
- It demonstrates to whoever reads the dissertation that the author of the work has read widely and is aware of the range of debates that have taken place within the given field. It provides the proof that you have more than a good grasp of the breadth and depth of the topic of the dissertation – your dissertation gives you the opportunity to show off how clever you are! The literature review is a great place to start, because it should demonstrate that you know what you are talking about because you have read everything that is relevant to your dissertation.
- It can provide the rationale for the research question in the study. This can be done by highlighting specific gaps in the literature вЂ“ questions that have not been answered (or even asked), and areas of research that have not been conducted within your chosen field. In this way the literature review can provide a justification of your own research.
- It can allow you to build on work that has already been conducted. For example you might adopt a similar methodological or theoretical approach in your work to one that exists within the literature, yet place your actual emphasis elsewhere. In this way you are building on work that has already been conducted by adopting similar strategies and concepts, yet focusing the question on something that interests you.
- It helps to define the broad context of your study, placing your work within a well defined academic tradition. Poor dissertations often fail to relate to broader debates within the academic community. They may have a well defined research question, yet without placing this question in the appropriate context, it can lose its significance. The literature review therefore can add weight to your question by framing it within broader debates within the academic community.
How do I ‘do’ a literature review?
Writing a literature review is not as simple as at first it may seem. What follows is a step by step guide on how to go about conducting and presenting your literature review.
1. Generate a list of references
The first stage of your literature review is to collect a list of literature that is relevant to your study. You have already seen in the section Help with Finding Literature and Research В how you can get a list of useful references.
2. Make sense of your reading
Once you have a list of references for your dissertation, you now have to access and read this material. This is time consuming because you will be reading a large amount of material. Once you start you might find that some literature is of little relevance to your study. This is something that many researchers and dissertation students go through and is often a necessary part of the process. It is better to read something that is not central to your dissertation than miss something that might be an important and relevant contribution to the field.
Make notes about the central themes and arguments of the book, chapter or article. These notes can then be incorporated into the finished version of your literature review. Try and get a sense of the theoretical perspective of the author, this will be of use when you organise and present your literature review. Also, emphasise the way in which the piece of literature you are reading seeks to set itself apart from other literature. Importantly, start to think critically about the piece you are reading; ask: what is this person trying to say and why? How is it different from the way others have dealt with this issue? This critical component is very important as it demonstrates that you are engaging with relevant literature in an appropriate manner and that you can discriminate between different perspectives and approaches that exist within your chosen field.
3. Organisation and presentation
Once you have generated a large number of notes around your reading you might start to feel overwhelmed by the literature. In terms of the organisation and presentation of your literature review, it is worth dividing your review into two main areas: general reading and literature that is of central importance. You will also need to further divide the literature into specific areas relevant to your study for e.g. theories and concepts; policy analysis; empirical studies and so-on. What follows are some general guidelines on how you might do this.
It will be clear that some of the reading you have done is of more relevance than others. It is important, however, that you do not discard the less relevant work; instead this can form the broad background of your discussion of the more relevant literature within your field. For example you may mention different authors that have dealt with a question related to your field but may not be central to it. Highlight these in broad terms, state how these works have impacted on your particular area. You need not go into great detail about these more general works, but by highlighting these works you are demonstrating your awareness of the scope and limits of your study and how it touches upon other areas of study.
Once you have discussed the range of literature that is only of general interest to your study, you can then go into more detail on the literature that more sharply focuses on the questions that are of interest to you. Devote more detail to these particular works as they are more important to your topic. Indeed they may highlight the gap in the literature that exists that you seek to fill; they may provide the basis on which you seek to build, or they might be works which require some critique from your particular perspective.
When you have divided your literature review into general works and works of central importance, you should also further divide the literature into sub-categories. By further dividing your literature in this way, you are adding more organisation into your literature review by providing specific sub-categories of relevant literature.
For example in the general works section of your literature review, you might want one sub-heading on the main theoretical debates, one on empirical studies and maybe one on policy. With reference to the more central literature, you could organise this more important reading in a similar way. For example, if relevant, you could have a section on competing theoretical perspectives; a section on the main findings of important empirical studies; a section on policy implementation and its impacts. See the table below.
Writing a Dissertation
The aim of the dissertation or thesis is to produce an original piece of research work on a clearly defined topic.
Usually a dissertation is the most substantial piece of independent work in the undergraduate programme, while a thesis is usually associated with master’s degrees, although these terms can be interchangeable and may vary between countries and universities.
A dissertation or thesis is likely to be the longest and most difficult piece of work a student has ever completed. It can, however, also be a very rewarding piece of work since, unlike essays and other assignments, the student is able to pick a topic of special interest and work on their own initiative.
Writing a dissertation requires a range of planning and research skills that will be of great value in your future career and within organisations.
The dissertation topic and question should be sufficiently focused that you can collect all the necessary data within a relatively short time-frame, usually about six weeks for undergraduate programmes.
You should also choose a topic that you already know something about so that you already have a frame of reference for your literature search and some understanding and interest in the theory behind your topic.
There are many ways to write a dissertation or thesis.
Most universities and colleges provide very specific guidance to their students about their preferred approach.
This page, and those that follow, are designed to give you some ideas about how you might carry out your literature review, and then write each of the various sections of your dissertation in the absence of, or in addition to, any specific guidance from your university.
Organising your Time
However organised you are, writing your dissertation is likely to be one of the most challenging tasks you have ever undertaken.
Like an academic paper for journal publication, dissertations generally follow a fairly standard structure. The following pages discuss each of these in turn, and give more detailed advice about how to prepare and write each one:
Particularly for master’s programmes, your university may ask for your thesis to be submitted in separate sections, rather than as a single document. One breakdown that is often seen is three-fold:
- Introduction and/or Research Proposal, which should set out the research question that you plan to explore and give some ideas about how you might go about it. If you are submitting it as a research proposal, it will be fairly sketchy as you won’t have had a chance to review the literature thoroughly, but it should contain at least some theoretical foundation, and a reasonable idea of why you want to study this issue;
- Literature Review and Methodology, which are often combined because what you plan to do should emerge from and complement the previous literature; and
- Results and Discussion, which should set out what you actually did, the results you obtained, and discuss these in the context of the literature.
You will probably have an overall word count for the total dissertation or thesis. If you are required to submit in sections, ensure that you have left yourself enough words for the Results and Discussion. It is easy to get carried away with the literature review.
As a general guide, use the marking scheme to show you the approximate split for the word count. For example, if the introduction is worth 20%, and each of the other two submissions 40%, for a total word count of 10,000 words, the introduction should be at most 2,000 words, and each of the other two around 4,000 words.
If you’re submitting your dissertation as a single piece of work, and not in separate submissions, you may find it easier not to write it in order.
It is often easier to start with the literature review and then write the methodology.
The introduction may be the last part you write, or you may wish to rewrite it once you’ve finished to reflect the flow of your arguments as they developed.
One of the best ways to write a dissertation is as you go along, especially the literature review.
As you read each reference, summarise it and group it by themes. DonвЂ™t forget to reference it as you go!
You should be used to referencing by the time you write your dissertation but if you need a refresher then see our page: Academic Referencing.
Dissertations and academic articles used always to be written in the third person, and in the passive voice; as an example, you might write ‘An experiment was carried out to testвЂ¦’
However, many journals have now moved away from that convention and request first person and active voice, which would require you to write ‘I carried out an experiment to testвЂ¦’
Check with your university about their requirements before you start to write.
If you cannot find any guidelines, then ask your supervisor and/or the person who will be marking your thesis about their preferences. Make sure that the voice and person are consistent throughout.
Whatever style is preferred, aim to keep your language simple and jargon-free. Use shorter, simpler words and phrases wherever possible. Short sentences are good as they are easier to follow. Any sentence that runs to more than three lines needs to be cut down or split.
Phrases to avoid include:
Remember the Golden Rule
K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid
The Role of your Academic Supervisor
The role of your supervisor is to supervise your work. It is not to do it for you, nor to tell you how to do it.
However, their academic reputation is bound up in the results of the students that they supervise so they have a vested interest in helping you to get the best possible marks. You should therefore not feel shy or embarrassed about asking them for help if you get into difficulties, or if you need some advice.
Academics tend to take a highly personal approach to supervision. Some will be prepared to spend a lot of time with you, talking about what you are planning to do by way of research and your emerging findings. Others will have very little contact with you, apart from being prepared to read a draft of your dissertation.
It’s worth spending a bit of time building up your relationship with your supervisor (have a look at our page on Building Rapport for help). It’s also worth discussing and clarifying with them exactly what they are prepared to do to support you, and in particular practical details such as:
- How often are they prepared to meet with you during your research?
- How quickly will they respond to emails asking for advice and/or guidance?
- How much time do they need to review drafts of work?
- How many drafts of your work are they prepared to read? University guidelines usually say ‘a first draft’ but many academics are prepared to read a preliminary draft to check that you are on the right track, and then a more polished version.
- Having reviewed a draft, will they send you comments by email, or would they prefer to meet to discuss it?
One final piece of advice about your supervisor: if you don’t get on, then change supervisor. But do so as early as possible. Nobody wants you or your supervisor to struggle with the relationship, but they won’t be very sympathetic if you’re asking for a change a month before your deadline.
Formatting and Templates
If your university has a required format for a dissertation, and particularly if they supply a template, then use it! Start your writing straight into the template, or format your work correctly from the start. There is very little worse than cutting and pasting your work frantically into a template 10 minutes before your submission deadline. Templates are designed to make your life easier, not harder.
You will also need to format the references in the university’s preferred style. It is easier to do this as you go along. If the format is MLA, APA or Chicago, you can use Google Scholar to format it for you: search for the article title, then click on ‘cite’. This will save you typing out all the names, and can also be used, with minor tweaks, for other formats. But beware: it’s not always right! If it looks odd, check the original source.
You’ll need to give yourself plenty of time to proof-read your work, to make sure that you haven’t made any stupid errors, and that it all flows correctly. This is likely to take longer than you think. You’ll also need to do this when you’re fresh, not last thing at night when you’re tired.
If possible, try to find a friend or fellow-student in the same position with whom you can swap dissertations for proof-reading. Fresh eyes are likely to spot errors much more effectively than those who already know what it should say.
The international language of academic publishing is English and many universities require their students to publish their dissertations in English. If your first language is not English, this is going to be a problem because your English will almost certainly not be up to the task. You have two choices about how you approach this:
- You find a native English speaker, perhaps a fellow student, who is prepared to read your thesis for you and help you improve the English (preferably for free, or at least for the price of not much more than a meal and a few drinks); or
- You pay an editor to do the work for you. This will not be cheap; the going rate for high quality academic language editing is about $7 per 250 words. You can find professional language editors via the websites of publishers of academic journals such as Emerald and Springer.
You will need to ensure that you build in sufficient time to allow someone else to read over your work. Nobody, not even if you are paying them, is going to want to stay up all night to edit your work because you left it too late. Many will also prefer not to work at weekends. Allow at least two weeks for professional language editing.
A Note on Plagiarism
DO NOT PLAGIARISE
If you are found to have plagiarised you will be heavily penalised and will probably lose your degree.
Ways to avoid being caught out inadvertently include:
- Never copy and paste from a journal article. Always summarise it in your own words, which also helps to make sure that you have understood it.
- If, for the sake of time, you want to copy and paste specific sentences which sum up the argument particularly well, always put them in quotation marks in your summary, with the source, so that you will remember that they are direct quotes and need to be acknowledged as such.
This page sets out general advice on issues connected with writing a dissertation, also known as a thesis.
The following pages set out in more detail how to approach each section of your dissertation, including the Literature Review, Methodology, Results and Discussion.
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How to write a dissertation
On this page
Your approach to one of the most important challenges of your academic career will determine the quality of your finished work – discover how to devise and stick to a work schedule
Devoting sufficient time to planning and structuring your written work while at university is important, but when it comes to that all-encompassing dissertation, it’s essential that you prepare well.
From settling on a topic and coming up with a title, to the moment that you hand it in, the process is guaranteed to set you on an emotional rollercoaster of excitement, self-doubt, panic and euphoria. See our tips on managing stress.
Irrespective of whether it’s your undergraduate, Masters or PhD dissertation you’re gearing up for, the following pointers should help to keep you on track.
Choose your research topic carefully
It’s vital that your research topic is something that you find engaging and meaningful -perhaps an issue that fits with your career aspirations, and is important to the wider academic community, explains Dr Alexandra Patel, learning development adviser at the University of Leicester’s Learning Institute.
‘Your dissertation is an opportunity to showcase your thoughts and ideas, investigate an area in greater depth and consolidate previous knowledge,’ adds Michelle Schneider, learning adviser at the University of Leeds. ‘Picking something you’re genuinely interested in will keep you motivated.’
If you’re struggling for ideas, you can research course materials, academic journals, newspapers and other media, to identify current issues that relate to your field and to find some inspiration for your dissertation subject.
Additionally, Alexandra recommends that you work with your supervisor to agree a clear focus or research question, benefitting from their understanding of the research area, appropriate methods, and what might be achievable within your time frame.
‘Consider why it is important to tackle the topic you have chosen,’ she says. Once you’ve summarised your findings, think about how they link back to your justification of why this is an important question or topic.
Check what’s required of you
Christie Pritchard, learning developer at Plymouth University, recommends that you familiarise yourself with your faculty’s ethics protocols, module handbooks and referencing style guides to prevent any silly, costly mistakes. Before you begin to plan, make sure you understand what’s expected of you. You should endeavour to find out:
- what academic writing looks like in your discipline
- the word count
- when and where you must submit your dissertation.
Alexandra advises students to ask questions of other dissertations or academic writing in their chosen discipline, including:
- how is a dissertation structured?
- what types of source are used?
- how are these sources used?
- what forms of analysis are perceived as appropriate?
Finally, Alexandra points out that you can consider developing a shared understanding of what a dissertation is, through discussion with your supervisor.
Have a clear goal and structure
Christie suggests that once you’ve settled on your topic, you’re then ready to write a dissertation proposal. By demonstrating how your research area is relevant, your introduction, literature review and methodology will become easier to tackle. ‘Your proposal outlines the purpose of your dissertation and how you intend to go about your research.’
Sticking closely to a plan will help you remain focused without getting too overambitious with your research, which increases your chances of developing a strong and coherent argument. Knowing where your ideas are headed will ensure that you remain on track and only relevant points are made.
If the direction does shift somewhat, there’s no problem with adjusting your plan – but your title, headings and content will have to be revised accordingly. Talking through your revised dissertation plan or structure with your supervisor can help you stay focused on the research, and determine if it’s logical.
As you consider what needs to be achieved by the submission deadline, Christie recommends that you factor in time for:
- reading and researching
- gathering and analysing data
- structuring and restructuring
- drafting and redrafting
- printing and binding.
This careful approach can be rewarded by the end result, suggests Alexandra, who also recommends Gantt charts as a useful tool for planning the research and writing process for some writers.
Write as you go
When you are ready to begin writing, aim for a suitable target, for example 1,000 words each week, as this can be both motivating and productive. ‘Can you use a meeting with your supervisor as a useful deadline?’ poses Alexandra.
Start writing straight away, and use the writing process as a tool to help you better understand the topic. Check that you’ve addressed everything you want to cover once a section is complete. Each should serve its own particular function, linking well with the rest of the content.
‘Your writing helps you to make better sense of the topic as you try to develop the narrative, and as you understand it more, your analysis, interpretation and emphasis will change. Editing can be the beginning, not the endpoint of your writing,’ says Alexandra.
You should frequently back up, make research notes and maintain a comprehensive list of your sources. ‘Keeping track of what you’ve been reading and where it came from will save you hours of work later on,’ says Christie. ‘It can be extremely difficult to remember where ideas came from, particularly when you have books piled high and folders bursting with journal articles.’
Continue to question
Alexandra’s colleague, Marta Ulanicka, also a learning development adviser at Leicester, stresses the importance of maintaining a questioning and critical mindset throughout the dissertation process – both in relation to your own work and findings, as well as those of others.
‘Remember to ask yourself how strongly you are convinced by a particular explanation or interpretation and why, and whether there are any potentially valid alternatives,’ Marta suggests.
You will also need to explain your reasoning to the reader. ‘As the author, you might think the justification for a particular point is obvious, but this might not be the case for someone coming across the concept for the first time. An assessor cannot give you the credit for forming a strong argument unless you provide evidence of how you reached a particular conclusion.’
As well as ensuring your bibliography contains plenty of references, make sure you’ve paid attention to the correct spelling of names and theories.
Don’t underestimate the editing stage
A thorough editing process is vital to ensuring that you produce a well-structured, coherent and polished piece of work. Leave yourself sufficient time to engage with your writing at a number of levels – from reassessing the logic of the whole piece, to proofreading, to checking that you have paid attention to aspects such as the correct spelling of names and theories and the required referencing format. ‘The art of editing‘ study guide from the University of Leicester suggests a five stage process and provides further guidance on what might be involved at each stage.
As well as ensuring your main argument is supported by relevant citations, make it clear to the reader that you are aware of the contributions of the most influential theories and research within your topic. This is because not doing so might make a writer appear ill-informed.
Enjoy the achievement
If you’ve used your time efficiently and adhered to a plan, even if things don’t go exactly how you envisaged, there’s no need to panic. Remember, you’ve chosen your dissertation topic after careful consideration, so ignore any irrational thoughts about possibly starting again from scratch.
‘Your dissertation is a chance to research, create knowledge and address an important issue within your discipline,’ says Dr Patel, so remain focused on your objective and you can be satisfied with your efforts.
Ultimately, your dissertation will become one of your greatest-ever achievements. ‘Completing your dissertation will be difficult at times, but make the most of it and you’ll look back with pride,’ adds Christie.
Writing a Dissertation:
The introduction to your dissertation or thesis may well be the last part that you complete, excepting perhaps the abstract. However, it should not be the last part that you think about.
You should write a draft of your introduction very early on, perhaps as early as when you submit your research proposal, to set out a broad outline of your ideas, why you want to study this area, and what you hope to explore and/or establish.
You can, and should, update your introduction several times as your ideas develop. Keeping the introduction in mind will help you to ensure that your research stays on track.
The introduction provides the rationale for your dissertation, thesis or other research project: what you are trying to answer and why it is important to do this research.
Your introduction should contain a clear statement of the research question and the aims of the research (closely related to the question).
It should also introduce and briefly review the literature on your topic to show what is already known and explain the theoretical framework.В If there are theoretical debates in the literature, then the introduction is a good place for the researcher to give his or her own perspective in conjunction with the literature review section of the dissertation.
The introduction should also indicate how your piece of research will contribute to the theoretical understanding of the topic.
Drawing on your Research Proposal
The introduction to your dissertation or thesis will probably draw heavily on your research proposal.
If you haven’t already written a research proposal see our page Writing a Research Proposal for some ideas.
The introduction needs to set the scene for the later work and give a broad idea of the arguments and/or research that preceded yours. It should give some idea of why you chose to study this area, giving a flavour of the literature, and what you hoped to find out.
DonвЂ™t include too many citations in your introduction: this is your summary of why you want to study this area, and what questions you hope to address. Any citations are only to set the context, and you should leave the bulk of the literature for a later section.
Unlike your research proposal, however, you have now completed the work. This means that your introduction can be much clearer about what exactly you chose to investigate and the precise scope of your work.
Remember, whenever you actually write it, that, for the reader, the introduction is the start of the journey through your work. Although you can give a flavour of the outcomes of your research, you should not include any detailed results or conclusions.
Some good ideas for making your introduction strong include:
- An interesting opening sentence that will hold the attention of your reader.
- Don’t try to say everything in the introduction, but do outline the broad thrust of your work and argument.
- Make sure that you don’t promise anything that can’t be delivered later.
- Keep the language straightforward. Although you should do this throughout, it is especially important for the introduction.
Your introduction is the readerвЂ™s вЂdoorвЂ™ into your thesis or dissertation. It therefore needs to make sense to the non-expert. Ask a friend to read it for you, and see if they can understand it easily.
At the end of the introduction, it is also usual to set out an outline of the rest of the dissertation.
This can be as simple as ‘Chapter 2 discusses my chosen methodology, Chapter 3 sets out my results, and Chapter 4 discusses the results and draws conclusions’.
However, if your thesis is ordered by themes, then a more complex outline may be necessary.
Drafting and Redrafting
As with any other piece of writing, redrafting and editing will improve your text.
This is especially important for the introduction because it needs to hold your reader’s attention and lead them into your research.
The best way to ensure that you can do this is to give yourself enough time to write a really good introduction, including several redrafts.
Do not view the introduction as a last minute job.
Writing a dissertation
This Study Guide addresses the task of writing a dissertation. It aims to help you to feel confident in the construction of this extended piece of writing, and to support you in its successful completion.
You may also find the following Study Guides helpful:
Sometimes writing is seen as an activity that happens after everything else:
“The research is going well, so the writing should be straightforward – I can leave it until later”.
“I know I’m not good at writing so I keep putting it off”.
“I know I’m good at writing so I can leave it to later”.
“I want to get everything sorted out in my mind before I start writing or I’ll just end up wasting my time re-writing”.
These four very different perspectives lead to the same potential problems:
The process of having to describe your study in detail, in a logical sequence of written words, will inevitably highlight where more thought is needed, and it may lead to new insight into connections, implications, rationale, relevance, and may lead to new ideas for further research.
Barras (1993:136) suggests that you ‘think of your report as part of your investigation, not as a duty to be undertaken when your work is otherwise complete’, and this Study Guide suggests that: writing is an integral part of the research process.
Getting on with the writing
The good news is that you have already started writing if you have written any of the following in relation to this study:
In each case the object of the writing was to communicate to yourself, your supervisors, or to others, something about your work. In writing your dissertation you will draw on some of this earlier writing to produce a longer and more comprehensive account.
Check out what is required
Before embarking on any substantial writing for your dissertation you will need to check the exact requirements regarding:
There are some conventions that guide the structuring of dissertations in different disciplines. You should check departmental and course regulations.
Below are two structures that are commonly used.
- Title page
- Contents page(s)
- Materials and methods or Literature review
- Results or Sources and methods
- Discussion or Findings
Each section or chapter has its own particular function
The title itself is an important opportunity to tell the potential reader what your research is about. You will need it to be succinct, specific, descriptive, and representative of the research you have done. There is likely to be a required format for the title page in your discipline, so you need to check what that is.
This may be one of the shortest sections of your thesis or dissertation, but it is worthwhile taking great care to write it well. Essentially, the Abstract is a succinct summary of the research. It should be able to stand alone in representing why and how you did what you did, and what the results and implications are. It is often only one page long, and there may be a word limit to adhere to. The Abstract is an important element of the thesis, and will become a document in its own right if the thesis is registered within any database. The examiners will therefore assess your Abstract both as part of your thesis, and as a potentially independent document.
It can be best to write the Abstract last, once you are sure what exactly you are summarising. Alternatively it can be useful to write the abstract earlier on, as an aid to identifying the crucial main thread of your research, its purpose, and its findings, which could then guide the structure of the dissertation.
Attending to the very restrictive word / space limit, while at the same including all the relevant material is quite a challenge. It might be useful to look at how others have managed. It is certainly an academic exercise, but perhaps not too different from the concise explanations of your research you may have had to give to relatives and neighbours over the last few years, in terms of its brevity, accessibility, and comprehensiveness.
This is your opportunity to mention individuals who have been particularly helpful. Reading the acknowledgements in other dissertations in your field will give you an idea of the ways in which different kinds of help have been appreciated and mentioned.
Contents, and figure and table lists
The contents pages will show up the structure of the dissertation. Any imbalance in space devoted to different sections of content will become apparent. This is a useful check on whether amalgamation of sections, or creation of further sections or sub-sections is needed.
Although this is the first piece of writing the reader comes to, it is often best to leave its preparation to last as, until then, you will not be absolutely sure what you are introducing. The introduction has two main roles:
The literature review, or context of the study
The purpose of this chapter is to show that you are aware of where your own piece of research fits into the overall context of research in your field. To do this you need to:
This can lead logically into a clear statement of the research question(s) or problem(s) you will be addressing.
In addition to the research context, there may be other relevant contexts to present for example:
It can be difficult to identify the best order for sections in this chapter because the rationale for your choice of specific research question can be complicated, and there may be several inter-linked reasons why the research is needed. It is worth taking time to develop a logical structure as this will help to convince examiners of the relevance of your research, and that you understand its relevance. It will also provide you with a framework to refer back to in your discussion chapter, when you reflect on the extent to which your research has achieved what it set out to do.
Chapter(s) describing methods, sources, material etc
In these chapters a straightforward description is required of how you conducted the research. If you used particular equipment, processes, or materials, you will need to be clear and precise in how you describe them. You must give enough detail for another researcher to replicate your study.
Results / Findings
You will need to check which style of reporting is preferred in your field. For example a scientific dissertation would probably have very clear separation between the results and the discussion of those results; whereas a social science dissertation might have an overall chapter called Findings, bringing the results and their discussion together.
Decisions about style of presentation may need to be made about, for example:
This is where you review your own research in relation to the wider context in which it is located. You can refer back to the rationale that you gave for your research in the literature review, and discuss what your own research has added in this context. It is important to show that you appreciate the limitations of your research, and how these may affect the validity or usefulness of your findings. Given the acknowledged limitations, you can report on the implications of your findings for theory, research, and practice.
This chapter tends to be much shorter than the Discussion. It is not a mere ‘summary’ of your research, but needs to be ‘conclusions’ as to the main points that have emerged and what they mean for your field.
This section needs to be highly structured, and needs to include all of your references in the required referencing style. As you edit and rewrite your dissertation you will probably gain and lose references that you had in earlier versions. It is important therefore to check that all the references in your reference list are actually referenced within the text; and that all the references that appear in the text appear also in the reference list.
You need to check whether or not the appendices count within the word limit for your dissertation. Items that can usefully go in the appendices are those that a reader would want to see, but which would take up too much space and disrupt the flow if placed within the main text. Again, make sure you reference the Appendices within the main text where necessary.
Designing your detailed structure
If your dissertation is well-structured, easy to follow, logical, and coherent, your examiners will probably enjoy reading it, and will be able to listen to your argument without the distraction of trying to make all the links themselves.
The only way to achieve a consistent argument throughout a piece of writing is by creating some kind of plan or map of what you want to say. It can be useful to think of the research question or topic going like a strong thread throughout the dissertation: linking all the elements of the study, and giving coherence to its reporting.
Moving from doing the research to writing a comprehensive account of it is not necessarily easy. You may feel that you know everything in your head but can’t see how you can put it into words in the most useful order. It can be helpful to break the task down into smaller, more easily accomplished elements. The process of producing your writing plan could go as follows.
Filling in the detail
It can be a good idea to put the word limit to the back of your mind at this point, and concentrate on getting everything recorded in a document. You can always edit upwards or downwards later as necessary.
Writing as you go along
It is likely, and advisable, that you will not wait until the end of your research before starting to write it up. You may be required to produce one or more chapters for assessment part way through your research. The process described above can be used for any individual chapter you are working on. It is important to be prepared to critique and revise your own work several times. Even the early chapters submitted for assessment, and passing that assessment, may need to be revised later on. This is not a failure, but a positive sign of increased experience and skill.
Developing an argument
An important aspect running through your dissertation will be your argument for:
You will refer to the work of others as you make your argument. This may involve critiquing the work of established leaders in the field. While it is important to be respectful in the way that you discuss others’ ideas and research, you are expected to engage directly, and even openly disagree with existing writing.
In Taylor’s (1989) book on writing in the arts and social sciences, he suggests that the following different approaches offer a range of academically legitimate ways to engage with published work.
(Adapted from Taylor 1989:67)
It is important that you are assertive about what you are arguing, but it is unlikely that, in a dissertation project, you will be able to be definitive in closing an established academic debate. You should be open about where the gaps are in your research, and cautious about over-stating what you have found. Aim to be modest but realistic in relating your own research to the broader context.
Improving the structure and content
Once you have the dissertation in draft form it becomes easier to see where you can improve it. To make it easier to read you can use clear signposting at the beginning of chapters, and write links between sections to show how they relate to each other. Another technique to improve academic writing style is to ensure that each individual paragraph justifies its inclusion. More ideas will be presented in the Study Guide The art of editing.
You may choose to review your draft from the standpoint of a dissertation examiner, which might involve preparing a list of questions that you want to see answered, then reading through your dissertation scribbling comments, suggestions, criticisms, and ideas in the margin. If you have a marking guide then apply it to your dissertation and see if there are aspects that you can improve.
While you do this, be aware of whether you need to increase the number of words, or decrease it to reach your target. As you read you can then cross through material that appears unnecessary, and mark points that could be expanded. This will then form the basis for your next, improved, draft.
When to stop
Just as it can be difficult to begin writing, it can also be difficult to know when to stop. You may begin to feel that your dissertation will never be good enough, and that you need to revise it again and again. It may be helpful to divert your attention for a while to the finishing off activities you need to attend to:
Coming back afresh to look critically at the main text may then enable you to complete it to your satisfaction. Remember the dissertation needs to demonstrate your ability to undertake and report research rather than to answer every question on a topic.
It is important to allow yourself enough time for the final checking and proof reading of the finished document.
Barrass R. (1979) Scientists must write. A guide to better writing for scientists, engineers and students. London:Chapman and Hall.
Taylor G. (1989) The Student’s Writing Guide for the Arts and Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.