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How to write a dissertation

Many degree courses include a final year dissertation. Stephanie Webb reveals what’s involved and how you should approach producing one.

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is a long research project that results in an extended written piece. It draws on and develops all the research, critical thinking, and academic writing skills you learn in the first two years of your degree. Your dissertation is the culmination of your studies and your pièce de resistance!

Is it not just a really long essay?

Undergraduate dissertations range from about 6,000 to 15,000 words in length, but they are much more than just an extended essay. Dissertations should be:

  • Unique

The dissertation is your chance to choose a subject area that especially interests you. Unlike most essay questions, the dissertation title is designed by you and not set by your tutor. This way, you produce something that is new and hasn’t been done before.

  • Independent

You are expected to work mainly on your own initiative. You will have a dissertation supervisor to advise you but they won’t make decisions for you. You are in charge of the process and it’s your responsibility to seek out help and to ask the right questions of your supervisor.

  • Original research

Often, a dissertation is about being out in the field doing your subject rather than just learning it. Most dissertations will involve getting your own data to analyse. This might include performing experiments, conducting interviews and observations, or working in archives.

  • In depth

One of the most challenging things about a dissertation is simply the scale of the project. Whatever topic you choose, you will be studying a narrow subject area but in great detail and for a long time. When it comes to planning and writing the dissertation, you will have a much bigger range of material to work with than you are used to.

  • A sustained argument

By analysing the data from your research you will come to conclusions and form an argument. This is developed in response to a central question of your choosing, also known as a thesis. The argument should be communicated throughout the whole dissertation and be placed in the context of relevant academic debates.

How do I …

  • Decide on a topic?

Start with a broad area that interests you. Maybe there’s something that you have particularly enjoyed learning about so far and would like to explore further. Or, is there something that you’ve always wished your course covered? Once you’ve got a rough topic, you can start to narrow it down. Start doing some early reading and follow up any points that particularly grab you. Look up the relevant references in footnotes and bibliographies and track those texts down too. You will be able to discuss topics that you’re considering with your supervisor, who will help you to find an exact title.  

  • Find readings?

A keyword search of your university’s library catalogue is a good place to start looking for secondary literature. When you go to get the books, look at what else is on the shelves around them that might also be relevant. Online databases can also help you unearth journal articles. You will probably be able to access these using your university log in details. If you’re struggling, ask your subject librarian for help. They will be able to help you get more out of your search terms and point you towards other resources.

  • Write it all up?

A word limit of 12,000 words might sound daunting but don’t panic! It’s less scary when you start to break it up into chapters. You will be able to discuss how to do this with your supervisor. Each chapter should address an individual issue or answer a certain sub question, and should have a clear argument of its own to help develop the dissertation’s overall argument. Remember, every point you make should contribute to your argument, and also needs to be backed up with evidence from your research.

  • Manage my time?

Your dissertation will be an ongoing project throughout your final year and you will have to juggle it with your other modules too. It’s a good idea to timetable in the equivalent of a day a week when you will regularly work on your dissertation. There will probably be times when other deadlines mean your dissertation goes on the backburner. Try to anticipate when these weeks will be and work out when you can make up the time before and after. 

When you first start your dissertation, the deadline will probably seem miles away. You can help yourself to focus by breaking the project up into smaller tasks such as initial reading, gathering data, writing a sample of text. Working backwards from your final submission date, set yourself interim deadlines for getting these tasks done.

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